art and fear

“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.” 
—David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Today I want to talk about a little book I’ve had for several years that always lifts me up. 

Art and Fear is a humble book of philosophy about artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland, first published in 1993. When I read the book at 22, and in revisiting small chunks over the years, I focused mostly on the stuff about academia and the stuff about careers: the parts for artists just starting out. It was inspiring to me as a young person, newly released from school, who wanted to be a writer but needed to get a job-job. Art and Fear tells you the truth, which is that if you want to make art, you don’t need a certain education or career. But you do need to do it

Rereading in full at 30, I felt a new connection to the later sections of the book, which are more about an artist’s “own” work, and how to keep doing it once you’ve started. Below I pulled some quotes and made some notes.

“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.”

“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.”

Bayles and Orland bring each of their topics back to art as a learning process: learning and relearning how to make your work. Art not as a representation of your “self,” or an impressive execution of great “ideas,” but as a process by which you learn how to make what you need to make. 

This is a significant reframing. Since this book was written, art has become ever more aligned with “content”: the object to sell, to post, to use to build a brand or audience. Art is usually secondary to the artist’s public persona. The persona is what most “fans” engage with—not the work itself. 

The problem with this is that it centers the viewing-art perspective. Orland and Bayles’ assertion that viewing art is different at its core from making art may not be intuitive to the modern person. On social media, artists often feel obligated to cater to their audience’s desires, sometimes to an extreme degree. The audience has never been more entwined with the artist’s everyday life. It can be hard to remember that this imperative shouldn’t be obvious. Making art is almost entirely at odds with being a good parasocial icon. Inevitably, the artist will want to do something the fans don’t like. 

“The unconsidered gesture, the repeated phrasing, the automatic selection, the characteristic reaction to subject matter and materials—these are the very things we refer to as style. Lots of people, artists included, consider this a virtue. Viewed closely, however, style is not a virtue, it is an inevitability—the inescapable result of doing anything more than a few times.”

“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.”

I put these two quotes together because, combined, they form a question: How do you live your life in such a way as to do something more than a few times?

I love this slight shift in meaning. Bringing “style” down to earth, the reality and tangibility of movements. Style is simply the result of repeated movements. The repetition is what matters.

What kinds of practices are “just plain useful”? Free writing in a notebook, or a document to dump words in when you feel blank or frenetic. A diary. A notes app or a pocket notebook for stray thoughts. An exercise routine to prevent low moods. Reading all the time. Maybe an occasional blog, to practice articulating something. (Although I have to be honest—when I reread my last three posts, I wasn't satisfied with any of them.)

“[T]hose who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue—or more precisely, have learned how not to quit.”

“Today, more than it was however many years ago, art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. . . . You have to find your work all over again all the time, and to do that you have to give yourself maneuvering room on many fronts—mental, physical, temporal.” 

The noisy intensity of our society bleeds into our “maneuvering room.” Mental, physical, temporal. A common feeling is one of constraint: people feel constrained by their endless tasks, their money, their regimented schedules. There isn’t much maneuvering room. Learning how-not-to-quit is subtly different from learning how-to-continue.

But a flip could also be interesting. Art requires this sense of spaciousness, but art also gives you spaciousness—when you let it. Because spaciousness is necessary for making art, if you prioritize art, you also prioritize spaciousness. And then you get that experience: the temporal shift.

Here’s an example. When I allocate a block of time on a Saturday morning to writing, 9 a.m. to noon, I’ve prioritized art. But I get something more in return. In a cafe or at my desk during that block, time moves differently. It moves more slowly, I exist more quietly. The feeling becomes more accessible the more you repeat the habit. So not only have I done some work, I’ve also given myself a temporal reset. I gave myself an internal state that frees me (however briefly) from the rushing feeling of time. 

This goes back to an idea about creativity and time I had a while ago, which I’ll leave here for future reference: creativity has to do with autonomous engagement, outside commodification, that affects the perception of time.

“In routine artistic work, new work doesn’t make the old work false—it makes it more artificial[.] 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.”

It’s kind of a brutal mindfuck to feel so differently about a project once it’s done. When the work eclipsed your whole world not so long ago, it’s a shock to find it lacking in essential ways. Putting everything you have into a work makes it feel total, like it somehow encompasses everything. The work requires doing “your best”—but “best” is fluid, and never as good as you hope it will be. 

When I’m embarrassed by my old work (all the time), Art and Fear helps. If the work feels artificial, then I learned what I needed to learn, and I should move along. Doing a project is a process of learning how to let it go. Bayles and Orland remind us that flaws are not optional in an artwork, because flaws are not optional in being human.

“[W]hat we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association.” 

I just really like this line. 

Tags: art, learning, practice, habits, creativity

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