Imagine an art style so popular that it is unavoidable on the internet, the gateway drug for many millennials entering the art world, a business artists thrive in – and also an art style that has dominated for hundreds of years. Then imagine this art style was completely ignored by art galleries and critics.
Fan art is something all millennials are familiar with; it is one of modern art’s most accessible and popular mediums. It largely consists of depictions of characters from popular culture, ranging from pencil doodles on Tumblr to professional artists selling their prints and merchandise for sky-high prices. What makes this art style so different is that originality isn’t important. Plagiarism is a word that means little in this genre – recreating other people’s characters is the essential ingredient.
Of course, this is why it is an art style that is disregarded by both the art community and society at large. Originality is prized in art – famous modern artwork is revered almost more for its individuality than creative skill. The kind of works that many people scorn for a seeming lack of technical skill – think ab- stract artists such as Jackson Pollock – would not be as famous as they are were we not a culture obsessed with originality. In 2016, independent artist Tuesday Bassen accusing Zara of plagiarising her designs on Twitter made international news. The line between plagiarism and fan art is a blurry one; copyright holders have the sole right to distribute works based on an original creation, meaning fan art can be considered illegal. However, largely due to fan art not being considered popular or monetised enough to cause any detriment to the original creators, lawsuits are rare.
Yet has originality ever been important in art? Step into a traditional art gallery and you will see dozens of paintings of biblical scenes and Greek mythology from across the centuries. If fan art is the depiction of char- acters from popular culture, these paintings and sculptures must t into this category regardless of religious belief. When Graham Norton chose to discuss fan art on his show in 2013, he didn’t choose to mock Botticelli’s 15th century “Map of Hell”, a portrayal of hell as described in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but instead showed the BBC Sherlock actors fan art of their characters, mocking both the artists and the work itself. Yet the only crucial difference between these two works is the producer. While Sandro Botticelli was a professionally commissioned artist, those producing Sherlock fan art are often teenagers commissioned by other teenagers. Both art serves the same purpose: they depict characters and settings from a popular story. Popular art has never truly been about originality, rather about creative interpretations of characters the audience will recognise and enjoy.
While fan art may not be original, it is certainly influential today. Portraying Hermione Granger as a person of colour in Harry Potter fan art surged in popularity online, to the point where JK Rowling herself supported the design. This even led to the casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the West End theatre production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It is a case in which life imitates art: the widespread popularity of fan-made art directly influenced the original media that had inspired them. Fan art is a way in which an audience can express what they love but also what they wish to change; Hermione Granger will certainly not be the only character affected by online interpretation. Fan art is not a modern invention, but it is changing the way an audience can interact with media.
Fan art is, and always has been, an artistic genre. While professional artists drawing inspiration from stories is considered highbrow, amateur artists drawing inspiration from stories is considered vapid. It is a hypocrisy that cannot last: as modern artists continue to nd a greater audience online than in art galleries, fan art is being taken more and more seriously by original creators like JK Rowling. When the teenagers uploading sketches on Tumblr start making careers on Etsy, you know it’s time to pay attention.