Guest Post: Thoughts on devotional art and the Western canon

Jul 30, 2021
By Grimchild

Numen Arts is interested in writings on art, iconography, color, and aesthetic, from any writers participating in polytheist traditions. If you have a blog post or essay you would like to feature on the Numen Arts blog, please reach out.

Below is a blog post by Grimchild, a heathen and witch from England.

Icon art representing Frīg, by myself. 

Recently I have been creating more art than I have in years – a fair amount of it devotional or as iconography for Gods. I feel like I’ve finally cracked (or started to crack) digital art and stylisation in a way that I’m actually happy with what I create. Anyway I have some pretentious art thoughts that I wanted to lay out, hence: a blog.

When I first set out to make this icon art for Frīg, I knew that I wanted to take a highly stylised direction. This was pretty new for me – my art qualification focused almost entirely on realism, often photo-realism, and while I’ve dabbled in semi-realistic cartoons, I have most experience in that style, and I still have the urge to be as detailed and realistic as possible. However I had been inspired by the highly stylised and abstract art of Selguiros, Wōdgār and Lo, and wanted to take my devotional art in this direction. I think this was a really good idea for a couple of reasons.

I am personally disenchanted with the idea of creating art depicting Gods in human form, realistic or cartoon. There are folks who make good art in this vein, but when I have tried I am beyond unsatisfied with the results. There are two main reasons why and they both tie in to my feelings about art and how I was taught to make art and how we frequently talk about art more broadly. I will take them in turn.

1: Representation, or, who gets to look like the Gods?

Below is my last attempt at depicting a God as human, a piece of art representing Sib. I drew Her as of slim-medium build, feminine, pretty, with light skin that with blonde hair reads as a tanned white woman. These are all choices, they are not bad choices, but they are choices I made. Except that I do not recall experiencing them as such.

Art of Sib, by myself.

It’s hardly news that our society privileges men, white people, able-bodied people, thin people, endosex and straight and cis people, etc. That affects both who we perceive as the “default human”, the type of person we automatically picture in the absence of other information, and who is depicted how in art.

The white-male-dominated art canon loves to depict objectified, sexualised women, mostly white. This isn’t just an issue from the era of Degas and Modigliani and Picasso. Learning to draw in a more cartoon, stylised manner, I read countless tutorials that lay down rules for how to draw women to a specific, male-gaze standard of beauty: round faces with big eyes, no lines, petite noses, a thin body with an insane bust:hip:waist ratio, and of course young. Male characters can be of different sizes, different ages, have different face shapes, whereas female characters must all fit the same, generically pretty template. I should point out also the ubiquity of resources teaching artists only how to draw thin bodies, and white faces.

These aspects of art matter. Especially in a religious context like that of heathenry – struggling with racism, sexism, and the rest, due to the history of the religion. How we depict the Gods sends powerful messages, whether we are conscious of this or not.

I am sick of portrayals of Goddesses that fit that mould of characterlessly beautiful, passively posing for the male gaze. I am sick of portrayals that lionise bullshit societal beauty standards as divine. I am sick of portrayals that uphold whiteness as the image of the divine.

And I am also tired of even trying to portray the ultimate, infinite, primordial power and majesty and glory of the Gods via a human form. We may picture Them as human-looking, because that is how we are used to relating to People, but They are not. Art I believe attempts – or at least I attempt with my art – to depict something that is fundamentally true and real, whether that is how a scene looks, or how an experience feels, or something else. And I do not believe I can do this by depicting a God as a person, at least not in a portrait of a person. 

Icon art representing Sib, by myself. 

Sib is not a young blonde woman. She is frith, hospitality, the joy and responsibility of welcoming guests to your table. She is the sacred duty of making peace between rivals. She is the bounty and strength and potential of the freshly-tilled soil. She is the truth that we all rely on agriculture and the harvest and the earth for our lives. She is the eternal beauty of the golden hour before sunset. I believe I am far closer to conveying this in my more abstracted icon above, than with my well-intentioned previous attempt. 

2: Realism, or, what are you really trying to show?

As I mentioned above, all of my art training and most of my art practice has been in realism and semi-realism. I would like to say at the outset that I have nothing against these styles, still use them sometimes, and respect the skill and work that goes into them.

However, I have serious beef with art training and culture that only or primarily values these styles. On social media (reddit particularly is bad for this) you can easily find folks whose analysis of art only extends as far as “the closer it comes to looking like a photograph, the better”. This I think is fundamentally untrue – stylised art, abstract art, highly painterly art, “crude” art, all are of equal value to photorealism and the like. These approaches simply have different aims.

As I said before, art is an attempt to show or express something true. That can be a person’s recognisable likeness. It could be an emotion. It could be how it feels to look at a sunset. It could be a political idea. For many of these things, a realistic painting may not be at all the best way to convey what the artist wants to convey.

In religious art, devotional art, the purpose of our art may be best served by use of stylised figures rather than realistic ones, the better to deal with the symbolic, the mythic, the Other. For instance: faces. Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, and for most of us the human face is the pattern we are most optimised to recognise and distinguish between, starting from infancy. This is why drawing a realistic face is so difficult, because we find it so easy to notice flaws and changes, even if we cannot identify what those details are. A highly stylised face tells the viewer (the devotee) that this is a face, without distracting the brain with extra details or creating an Uncanny Valley almost-but-not-quite-human-like effect. So one can more easily concentrate on the overall message and symbolism of the piece.

In my high school art class, I was taught that there was no art worth studying or emulating before the Renaissance. Mediaeval and earlier artists, with their lack of accurate perspective, flat and stylised human faces, and so on, were simply ignorant, unskilled, bad artists. Leaving aside the Eurocentrism of this for a second, I think this is a truly pernicious argument. I think it is ridiculous to condemn the art of our Ancestors as bad and somehow “wrong” because it is not realistic. These artists were not failing at realism, they were not attempting realism. They were creating stylised art, frequently religious, that conveyed what it wanted to convey.

This idea that art styles which appear “simple” and “not realistic” are straightforwardly bad and unskilled not only devalues much historical art, it also devalues traditional art styles from many cultures outside the West. Abstract paintings by Aboriginal Australian artists, for instance, or hyper-colourful Mexican folk art, or the myriad other styles of traditional and folk art across the globe, are not operating within this narrow Eurocentric paradigm. That they may not achieve the realism of an Old Masters painting does not equate to them requiring less skill, or carrying less rich of a meaning.

(This applies also to media and artistic techniques such as fibre arts which have been excluded from the category of Art or “fine art” due to being primarily created by women.)

Part of the meaning of art created in traditional styles, or inspired by such styles, could be an assertion of the value of that cultural heritage, of respect and love for the Ancestors who made similar art. Or at least, this is part of the subjective meaning I derive as an appreciator of art, and part of my intention as an artist.

I have felt a supercharging of my artistic inspiration (or whatever the opposite of art block is) when looking at ancient art such as cave art, petroglyphs, and the like, and considering how these aesthetics and styles and approaches could work in my own art. And appreciating and being inspired by the creations of other polytheist artists like Lo or Ptahmassu who draw on artistic traditions beyond the Western “canon”. I still have much to learn about the history, techniques, symbolism, and so on of ancient and non-Western art forms, but pursuing this is something I feel so drawn to do.

Ultimately, one of the key parts of growing into and deepening my understanding of my polytheism is challenging and unpacking the biases of the Western overculture I grew up in. And the same is true for growing into and deepening my love of creating art.

Icon art representing Wōden, by myself.