Art & Fear

Astoundingly brilliant (and blessedly short). Easily the keenest insight into making art that I’ve ever read. One continuous aahhaaa.

-- KK  

Art & Fear:Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
David Bayles & Ted Orland
2001, 122 pages
$11, The Image Continuum

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

This book is about making art. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people – essentially (statistically speaking) there aren’t any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once-a-century or so, good art gets made all the time. Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar.

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Art is made by ordinary people. Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art. It’s difficult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots. The flawless creature wouldn’t need to make art.

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Making art and viewing art are different at their core. 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. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product; the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be
entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.

*

The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.

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Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment. Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium. Even the separation of art from craft is largely a post-Renaissance concept, and more recent still is the notion that art transcends what you do, and represents what you are.
In the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of orthodox religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies. “Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! It seems far healthier to sidestep that vicious spiral by accepting many paths to successful artmaking – from reclusive to flamboyant, intuitive to intellectual, folk art to fine art. One of those paths is yours.

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Those who would make art might begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them: most who began, quit. To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles. Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

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The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse. Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious; you may never get to the end of the sentence at all – or having gotten there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it�s an excellent idea in making art.

*

Talent, in common parlance, is “what comes easily.” So sooner or later, inevitably, you reach a point where the work doesn’t come easily, and – Aha!, it’s just as you feared! Wrong. By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work. There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have -and probably no worry more common. This is true even among artists of considerable accomplishment.

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A brief digression in which the authors attempt to answer (or deflect) an objection:
Q: Aren’t you ignoring the fact that people differ radically in their abilities?
A: No.
Q: But if people differ, and each of them were to make their best work, would not the more gifted make better work, and the less gifted, less?
A: Yes. And wouldn’t that be a nice planet to live on?

*

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

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Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism) will be flawed.

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What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece.

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Filmmaker Lou Stouten tells the painfully unapocryphal story about hand-carrying his first film (produced while he was still a student) to the famed teacher and film theorist Slavko Vorkapitch. The teacher watched the entire film in silence, and as the viewing ended rose and left the room without uttering a word. Stouten, more than a bit shaken, ran out after him and asked, “But what did you think of my film?” Replied Vorkapitch, “What film?”

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.