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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Psychology of Why Fan Art Is So Delightful

I fell for Among Us, the multiplayer social deduction game, hard and fast. While I hadn’t played any video games in over 10 years, now I was playing semiweekly and making fan art for the very first time. First it was a creepy theme song, then motivational posters, then Peep dioramas. I had gone from fan to fan artist in a blink of an eye.

What was going on? Why had I felt the need to make art in someone’s world, just as many others have done before me? Talking with experts in the field and other Among Us fan artists revealed that fan art has a lot of benefits for its creators, and even for other fans.

But what exactly is fan art? In a phone interview, fanthropologist Meredith Levine describes fan art as “visual art made by someone about their object of fandom for themselves or for other fans.” Or even the object of fandom themselves. An object of fandom is anything that one can be a fan of, Levine says.

Many people may be familiar with commercial fan art, seen in artist alleys at comic book or other conventions. Others might have seen work on websites like DeviantArt or Tumblr. But fandoms are more than movie or book franchises. An object of fandom can include sports, brands, people, artists, and much more, Levine says.

Fan art is part of a spectrum of fan creation. There’s also fan fiction, which is writing within a world of fandom, or cosplay, which is dressing up as part of an imagined world of a fandom. 

Building Skills by Having Fun

Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist and professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on fandoms, says it’s important to remember that not every fan makes fan art. But for folks who have that intense engagement with a fandom, tend to get inspired by it, and “want to interact with it in a different way,” Zubernis says, “you want to somehow make yourself part of the world that you have become engaged with.”

Some creators want to expand on the fandom itself through their fan art. For example, YouTuber 3D Print Guy, who created an animated horror trilogy of Among Us, had grown up with science fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Thing, and he decided he wanted to bring that same energy to the world of Among Us. In a phone interview, he explains that while he worked on the trilogy, he was surprised at how many stories could be told just on the Skeld, a spaceship map that is the smallest in the game, and arguably the most popular.

Fan art can also be a vehicle for honing or developing one's craft. Levine explains that fan art allows people to “practice skills within a known universe. There are people who really want to get at the medium they are using, and the object of fandom makes it a better vehicle for personal growth in a skill.”

3D Print Guy says part of the motivation to make the videos was to learn those new skills with each video he creates. With his trilogy, he discovered he had to make more filmmaking decisions than he had in the past, such as using music that would impact the mood of the animation. And when it’s time to make more fan videos and other projects, he says, he’ll use those same skills in future videos.

Seeing Ourselves in New Worlds

Not only do fan artists tell new stories and learn new skills through their work (or more often, play), fan art can be a vehicle for exploring your own identity. In a research study with young fan artists worldwide, generally aged 14 to 24, Marjorie Cohee Manifold, professor of arts education and curriculum studies at Indiana University, reported that 70 percent of participants “described being drawn as fans to specific characters in narratives of popular culture because they saw desirable traits in the characters that they wished to possess or emulate.” In short, during a formative period of their lives, these people were drawn to worlds or characters that had characteristics they wanted to have in their own lives.

But that process of exploring your identity doesn’t have to be just for people in their teens and early twenties. Anyone can use fan art as a way to explore themselves. Depending on the fandom, there’s a lot of gender-bending and racial-bending, as well as “shipping”—the practice of imaging relationships between characters that may not have existed in the original canon—in fan art.

Levine cites the example of Black Hermione, based on character descriptions of her unruly hair, freckles, and teeth, long before the casting of a Black actress in the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. With Black Hermione and other examples of race- and gender-bending allowing fans to see themselves in their favorite worlds, and indeed as some of those worlds’ banner characters, more people are developing “ways to imagine worlds in more gender- and race-reflective ways,” Levine says.

Finding Joy in Creation

Making fan art can also be meditative. Zubernis explains that some people get into a flow state through art, and it helps them get a sense of control in the world. Creating in this way helps people focus on the here and now, instead of worrying about the past or future, she says, and that can make people feel good.

On a similar note, fan art can help both fans and artists come to terms with difficult material or story elements that are problematic or hard for fans to accept. Zubernis cites fans who are still healing from the ending of the television show Supernatural (no spoilers here) and have mediated that hurt through fan art in the months since the show’s end. “It helps us go places we don't want to go,” Zubernis says, because we can go there in a safe way.

There’s also joy in creation, Zubernis explains. Since fan art is often personal or shared within a community, the rules aren’t the same as they would be for someone creating works for a job or for commercial purposes. Fan artists can do literally anything they imagine. To borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, fan art can spark joy, Zubernis says.

Liz Strauss, a freelance artist and creator, explains that creating Among Us statues was a great way of getting out of her own head, especially with all of the downtime during the Covid-19 lockdown. While making these Among Us sculptures for herself and her friends as gifts, she found that joy and freedom. She explained that she didn’t have to worry about fulfilling commissions, as she does with her freelance work; she can create for the joy of creating.

Community Is Key

For many fan artists, community is a key part of the appeal. Fan communities can provide support and even mentorship of fan artists, Zubernis explains. These community members help encourage new fan artists as well as help them improve their skills. “Being with like-minded people feels very validating, whatever you are trying to express in your fan art,” Zubernis says. While mentorship may not be the reason people participate, “the community itself becomes the reason to stay with the community,” she says. It feels good to be part of a group.

In that study of young fan artists, Manifold found in her interviews that 89 percent of interviewees wanted to create a distinct style that would get them recognized and applauded by the fandom and other fan artists.

3D Print Guy notes that while he creates fan videos to learn new skills, “it feels nice for people to see your art and appreciate it.” In fact, he had only intended to make one video for Among Us, but the video was so popular—friends who didn’t know his handle sent it to him—he decided to make two more videos to round out the story.

The Dark Side of Fan Art

While there are many benefits to making fan art, some artists might feel some residual shame about their work. While publicly expressing your fandom has become much more mainstream, some people have misconceptions about fan art, thinking it’s just pornography or “not real art.” Levine says that makes some creators reluctant to share the fact that they make fan art.

Others may be concerned about issues of copyright, since some media and entertainment franchises are more litigious than others. Issues of copyright and fair use are unfortunately not well defined, and they often err on the side of the copyright holder, rarely the artist, who more often will avoid a potential legal battle with a large company than stand behind their art. Zubernis points out that the benefits of fan art can outweigh these negative feelings, however.

Ultimately, fan art is a healthy way to express one’s self and find inspiration to think about new worlds, skills, or new versions of self through the love of a fandom. After all, it’s a lot of fun to make. I’ll keep painting my Peeps or making merit badges as a way to celebrate my love of Among Us.

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