The Laws of Nature

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Art & Fear

Time to begin a new book: Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Several of you have read this book and enthusiastically recommended it, so I'm looking forward to our lively discussions over the next few weeks!

Diving right in, chapter 1 is entitled "The Nature of the Problem" and begins with the sentence: Making art is difficult. How true. In reality, it seems like most of what I imagine remains unresolved in my paintings. Lots of stops and starts, uncertainty, and technical errors pave the path of my career in art. So, the authors pose a number of questions:

How does art get done?
Why, often, does it not get done?
What is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start?

Bayles and Orland point out that these problems are more relevant to artists today that to our predecessors because contemporary art isn't very well defined (our recent discussions dealt with that subject). Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward. (p. 2)

Geez, I'll hang up my brushes now! Maybe I should read on and look for motivation...

Indeed! A solution is offered. The authors offer up some basic assumptions about human nature that place the power of making art in the hands of the artist. Here's the list:

Assumption 1: Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. The contrary notion is that artists possess a form of "genius" or "talent" that sets them apart from all non-artists. The authors feel that art can be taught and that hard work and perseverance are key to success.

Assumption 2: Art is made by ordinary people. Our flaws and weaknesses enhance our ability to create art because we've learned to overcome obstacles.

Assumption 3: Making art and viewing art are different at their core. Making art is all about "process" for the artist. Viewers are concerned only with the finished product. This is why artmaking is a lonely and often thankless occupation. The majority of our time is spent creating work that is met with indifference by the rest of the world. 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. Therefore, even failed paintings are important. I think that the most profound comment stated here is: The best you can do is make art you care about - and lots of it! That statement alone is enough incentive to keep me in the studio. That, and the admonition to persevere until our "ship comes in."

Assumption 4: Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment. This is a great perspective to adopt. The cave painters (as far as we know) had no art critics or scholars to answer to. They just did their own thing. Pre-Renaissance thinking treated art as craft. Today, the term "artist" has an entirely different connotation mostly due to post-Renaissance theorists and more recent art critics and experts. We have been defined. But, shouldn't we artists be in control of our own identity? Shouldn't we follow our own path?

Taken altogether, these four assumptions deal with our individual identity as artist - the one we formulate and choose to adopt. I've always felt that self-declaration as "artist" is key to being one. Of course, one must acquire technical skills, but without this important acknowledgement and adherence to a personal vision, skills don't mean anything.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I still believe that some artists possess an innate gift of talent that is outside the realm of ordinary people. I do believe that ordinary people (like myself) make art- that with desire and perseverance- skill can be learned and cultivated. And I wholeheartedly agree Kathy- that embracing the title of "Artist" is an essential first step.
The sentence that resonates with me is: "The best you can do is make art you care about - and lots of it!"
The other thought I get from your blog is that making art takes energy, desire, thought, time, dedication.
A great post Kathy! Thanks!

Stan Kurth said...

I like the last sentence in this chapter: One of those paths is yours.

Indeed it is!

Celeste Bergin said...

I had to laugh once, watching a Neil Boyle painting dvd. He said as sort of an aside: "well, we are in a funny business, working so hard on things no one really needs". On the other hand..I can't imagine a world without art....and someone has to own it.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - I do believe that some people are born with a certain innate ability to more readily express themselves in art, but I also believe that all people can be trained to produce art whether or not they're born with that ability. Nice to have you back again!

Hi Stan - yes, that was a great sentence. Thanks for adding it!

Hi Celeste - indeed, a world without art and art patrons would be pathetic!

Elizabeth Seaver said...

I do think that there are artists whose work has the potential to be genius, but it is persistence in the face of discouraging comments, failed attempts to create, limited time and funds, etc., that keep artists on the road to success. (I'm not even sure that I believe that some people have genius and others do not.) If you do not paint, you will not get to your destination. "Genius" doesn't get you anywhere by itself. And lack of this "genius" does not in itself mean that an artist will not be successful.

This book is making lots of sense to me so far. I look forward to more of the posts. Thanks, Katharine!

Angela said...

I think art takes a certain type of 'genius' does having the mind-muscle connection to being an athlete or that ability to see the beauty of mathmatics and use it to solve the questions of the universe...

...but I think the seeds of that genius, probably for all of these things and many, many more, lies within most people. It's just a matter of what's calling to you to be expressed and in some people it's easier to let loose than in others.

I'm thrilled that we're finally doing a book I have read and enjoyed! WooHoo!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I think having a need to create art makes your life difficult (and, occasionally, rewarding). Maybe there's a loose screw someplace.

I look forward to this new book.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

I have found that there are people with profound talent/genius that have no interest/drive to make art and there are people that have tremendous interest/drive but not much talent. Then there are the ones that have both but no business sense and the ones that have neither but lots of business sense. There is a lot of work out there that comes from this last category. LOL!
Judging by students, I would rather teach someone with 99% interest and drive and 1% talent than someone with 99% talent and 1% drive and interest.

Eva said...

More than "Genius" I think some are blessed with more energy than others.To produce tons of art in order to arrive at what one considers success (and that to me is a subject to debate),it requires drive and energy continuously. Although I have made my living as an artist, my prayer has always been give me more energy so I can stay in my studio, work and produce every day. To this day I still struggle with it.

Mark Sheeky said...

Perhaps those who want to make art are proving that they are extraordinary? I don't believe in talent; everything is learned. Making art is hard?!!! Try being a chef or a police officer or a doctor. I think artist is a very easy job!

Another through provoking post Kathy!

Unknown said...

Hi Elizabeth - well said! Genius without application is useless.

Hi Hallie - in that case, many of my screws have fallen out, rolled across the floor, and dropped out of sight behind the baseboard!

Hi Tonya - I agree!! I'd rather teach motivated students than gifted non-motivated ones.

Hi Eva - I can identify with that! The older I get the harder it is to muster up enough energy each day.

Hi Mark - I think the hardest job of all is being a mother ;-)

hw (hallie) farber said...

Kathy, you have no loose screws; however, they rattle around in my head--probably the reason I can't tell one song from another.

Dan Kent said...

Well, some of what I have to say this time is at my blog and I link to this post. Except for the following: I love the concept that you do not have to have exceptional talent or be a genius to paint. Period. Neither do you have to be "inspired". This means you don't have to give up before you start. And you don't have to believe in artist's block. You just have to do and do and do and do. And be you.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Hallie.

Hi Dan - yes!! It's all in the "doing."

Casey Klahn said...

I'll come in late. I think that the existence of the word genius goes a long way in proving that there may be such a thing. The definition has changed, and there are some funny ideas about it. I just finished reading up on Geo. Custer, who I didn't realize actually had great military genius. Look where that got him.

Self identifying as an artist. It is essential if you are going to model your life around art. No great illumination there. I am fascinated by the Abstract Expressionists who called themselves "painters" instead of artists. I have a strong urge that way, too. Everyone today is an artist, you know.

I don't quite get the fear part in the study = which is why I will be very interested to hear what you and everyone has to say on this.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - I guess that "genius" can be used for good or bad. Custer is a good example. Of course, even geniuses don't get it right every time! I can understand the "fear" component from my early days of painting. There's an intimidation before one builds technical skills and confidence that maybe one isn't "good enough" to become an artist. Like you, I have no fear these days but I used to!