Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making
A book by David Bayles and Ted Orland
I read this book in the hope that it would help me relax as a creator of art and it indeed did so. There were a lot of nice thoughts in favour of continuing one’s artistic pursuits without fears of competition or self-doubt. I’ve decided to share a lot of its text with the readers of my blog in the hope that it helps them as well. These thoughts are certainly worthy of revisiting so that’s another reason for committing them to my blog–to hold onto them and reread them.
Part I. The Nature of the Problem.
The sane human being is satisfied that the best he / she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both.
The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about — and lots of it!
Part II. Art and Fear
Virtually all artists encounter such moments. Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring and generally healthy part of the artmaking cycle.
After all, in making art you bring your highest skills to bear upon the materials and ideas you most care about. Art is a high calling — fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others — indeed as anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot. What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. Each step in the artmaking process puts that issue to the test.
Vision & Execution
Vision, Uncertainty, and Knowledge of Materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.
Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.
Part III. Fears about Yourself.
In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work. Both families surface in many forms, some of which you may find all too familiar.
Fear that you are not a real artist causes you to undervalue your work.
The increasing prevalence of reflexive art — art that looks inward, taking itself as its subject — may to some degree simply illustrate attempts by artists to turn this obstacle to their advantage.
You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.
Talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster, but without a sense of direction or a goal to strive for, it won’t count for much. The world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts, sometimes conspicuously flashy gifts, yet never produce anything. And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented.
Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment. So when you ask, “Then why doesn’t it come easily for me?”, the answer is probably, “Because making art is hard!” What you end up caring about is what you do, not whether the doing came hard or easy.
If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism…) will be flawed. Why? Because you’re a human being, and only human beings, warts and all, make art. Without warts it is not clear what you would be, but clearly you wouldn’t be one of us.
Adams was right: to require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.
To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done.
For you, the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides — valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides — to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.
But the important point here is not that you have — or don’t have — what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period.
Unreal expectations are easy to come by, both from emotional needs and from the hope or memory of periods of wonder. Unfortunately, expectations based on illusion lead almost always to disillusionment.
Conversely, expectations based on the work itself are the most useful tool the artist possesses. What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work. There is no other such book, and it is yours alone. It functions this way for no one else. Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how they got there. Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace. The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly — without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.
Part IV. Fears about Others
With commercial art this issue is often less troublesome since approval from the client is primary, and other rewards appropriately secondary. But for most art there is no client, and in making it you lay bare a truth you perhaps never anticipated: that by your very contact with what you love, you have exposed yourself to the world. How could you not take criticism of that work personally?
What is sometimes needed is simply an insulating period, a gap of pure time between the making of your art, and the time when you share it with outsiders.
Such respites also, perhaps, allow the finished work time to find its rightful place in the artist’s heart and mind — in short, a chance to be understood better by the maker. Then when the time comes for others to judge the work, their reaction (whatever it may be) is less threatening.
the real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art.
The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process. Audience comes later. The only pure communication is between you and your work.
Finding your Work
The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it — or withhold from it. In the outside world there maybe no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction.
If, indeed, for any given time only a certain sort of work resonates with life, then that is the work you need to be doing in that moment. If you try to do some other work, you will miss your moment.
Simply put, certain tools make certain results possible.
Working within the self-imposed discipline of a particular form eases the prospect of having to reinvent yourself with each new piece.
For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art, and any device that carries the first brushstroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value. Only the maker (and then only with time) has a chance of knowing how important small conventions and rituals are in the practice of staying at work. The private details of artmaking are utterly uninteresting to audiences (and frequently to teachers), perhaps because they’re almost never visible — or even knowable — from examining the finished work.
The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful.
Once you have found the work you are meant to do, the particulars of any single piece don’t matter all that much.
A view into the Outside World
To see far is one thing: going there is another. — Brancusi
And so you make your place in the world by making part of it — by contributing some new part to the set. And surely one of the more astonishing rewards of artmaking comes when people make time to visit the world you have created. Some, indeed, may even purchase a piece of your world to carry back and adopt as their own. Each new piece of your art enlarges our reality. The world is not yet done.
It seems harmless enough to observe here that having an MFA (or even a knowledge of modern art) should hardly be a prerequisite to making art. After all, art appeared long before Art Departments, long before anyone began classifying or collecting artists’ works.
The Academic World
When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?” — Howard Ikemoto
… art has the dubious distinction of being one profession in which you routinely earn more by teaching it than by doing it.)
If you teach, you know that you gain as much from the interchange as do your students. The classroom studio, after all, gives you
Teaching is part of the process of being an artist.
The chances are (statistically speaking) that if you’re an artist, you’re also a student.
Ideas & Technique
But while mastering technique is difficult and time-consuming, it’s still inherently easier to reach an already defined goal — a “right answer” — than to give form to a new idea.
Simply put, art that deals with ideas is more interesting than art that deals with technique.
In essence, art lies embedded in the conceptual leap between pieces, not in the pieces themselves. And simply put, there’s a greater conceptual jump from one work of art to the next than from one work of craft to the next. The net result is that art is less polished — but more innovative — than craft.
A work of craft is typically made to fit a specific template, sometimes a painstakingly difficult template requiring years of hands-on apprenticeship to master.
Yet curiously, the progression of most artists’ work over time is a progression from art toward craft. In the same manner that imagination gives way to execution as any single work builds toward completion, an artist’s major discoveries usually come early on, and a lifetime is then allotted to fill out and refine those discoveries. As the Zen proverb suggests, for the beginner there are many paths, for the advanced, few.
The difference between art and craft lies not in the tools you hold in your hands, but in the mental set that guides them. For the artisan, craft is an end in itself. For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision. Craft is the visible edge of art.
In routine artistic growth, new work doesn’t make the old work false — it makes it more artificial, more an act of artifice. Older work is ofttimes an embarrassment to the artist because it feels like it was made by a younger, more naive person — one who was ignorant of the pretension and striving in the work. Earlier work often feels, curiously, both too labored and too simple. This is normal. New work is supposed to replace old work. If it does so by making the old work inadequate, insufficient and incomplete — well, that’s life. (Frank Lloyd Wright advised young architects to plant ivy all around their early buildings, suggesting that in time it would grow to cover their “youthful indiscretions.”)
All this suggests a useful working approach to making art: notice the objects you notice. (e.g. Read that sentence again.) Or put another way: make objects that talk — and then listen to them.
Once developed, art habits are deep-seated, reliable, helpful, and convenient. Moreover, habits are stylistically important.
Making art depends upon noticing things — things about yourself, your methods, your subject matter. Sooner or later, for instance, every visual artist notices the relationship of the line to the picture’s edge.
Viewed over a span of years, changes in one’s art often reveal a curious pattern, swinging irregularly between long periods of quiet refinement, and occasional leaps of runaway change.
Artists come together in the clear knowledge that when all is said and done, they will return to their studio and practice their art alone. Period. That simple truth may be the deepest bond we share.
The only work really worth doing — the only work you can do convincingly — is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life.
Today, more than it was however many years ago, art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward.
Like many other perfectly good theories, that one didn’t work. In the end the work got done the way such things always get done — by carving out solo time for the project and nibbling away at it one sentence at a time, one idea at a time.