The Laws of Nature

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland
Image to right: The Canon

Picking up where I left off in Chapter 5, "Finding Your Work," the authors turn their focus to our body of work. They note that our creative path is hardly smooth and continuous. We encounter bumps and even deep ravines that impede our progress. The authors call this the "Artist's Funk," which is characterized by feelings that (1) you've entirely run out of new ideas forever, (2) you've been following a worthless deadend path the whole time, or (3) (fortunately) neither. We all suffer disappointments from work that just doesn't turn out the way we imagined it should, but these "failures" are still part of the equation that help us produce the next work that "succeeds." Knowledge and experience aren't wasted.

Bayles and Orland suggest that when our work begins to suffer, it may be because we departed from a successful method or process to pursue another way of artmaking. Perhaps the way to regain that success is to go back to the old methods. On the other hand, the authors also recognize that this could lead to a bigger problem - conceptual inertia.

There's more. The tools we use to make art have evolved throughout history and, while they facilitate certain forms of expression, the also act as limiting agents. When particular tools and materials disappear, artistic possibilities are lost as well. And likewise when new tools appear new artistic possibilities arise.

So, we face a dilemma (actually, two dilemmas in my opinion). First, when should we stick with the tools and materials that we already know and when should we go out on a limb an experiment with something new? Second (in my opinion) there are so many tools presently available to artists that how can we possibly decide which to select?

But, there's a larger challenge we artists face. Most of the myriad of steps that go into making a piece (or a year's worth of pieces) go on below the level of conscious thought, engaging unarticulated beliefs and assumptions about what artmaking is. Yikes! It's not just what and how we make art, but why. Some of this is habit and becomes intuitive, and the rest of it is hard-learned lessons that remain at the conscious level.
It's probably not useful to spend lots of time considering all the whats, hows, and whys when we should concentrate on producing the art and gaining expertise (the when). But, if you're anything like me, you need to be somewhat deliberate in your choices in order to progress and rise to new challenges. Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods, so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear at the surface. And in truly happy moments those artistic gestures move beyond simple procedure, and acquire an inherent aesthetic all their own. They are canons.

Next time, we'll jump into Section II of this wonderful book. And, on Wednesday I have a very special treat for you before I go on holiday for a week.

What are your thoughts?


Elizabeth Seaver said...

I need to ponder on this before commenting, but it is interesting to contemplate. I appreciate your clear way of laying it all out.

Casey Klahn said...

Ahaah...personal canons. I thought this was going to be the canon of art (historic). Much more fascinating the way you put it.

What is my canon? Let me convene a Diet of Worms...mmm, munch, slurp. That's a theology and history joke. I am such a nerd.

This is a great question, and I think it will challenge me to think about my canon. It comes at the moment when I am cutting and axing the work in my current set. That could be good.

I feel that the tools issue is a very big one. Painters use the prehistoric tools of art (if you will), and therefore have the biggest challenge. How to be relevant as a painter?

Eva said...

There is a lot of "meat" for me in this section of the book.It hadn't occurred to me that my "Artist's Funk" may be due to changing my work schedule and materials and methods of painting.I have been in the studio, but I'm only experimenting and that's all I end up with experimental messes. The other dilemma is that I no longer have a "why" except for the fact that I don't want to quit completely, and (b) as silly as this may sound. I have tons of art supplies I need to make use of. I hate to dispose of them because I "may" need them :O)

hw (hallie) farber said...

I order too many supplies; if a tool disappears into the piles in my workshop/studio, I don't worry--I play with a different one.

I just unearthed a great book by NY Times art critic in my workshop--published in 1959 w/ 700 illustrations. I took a break from my painting and looked at all the pictures.

I don't think there's a cure for me but I don't think I've ever had "artist's funk."

Anonymous said...

Focus is important to making sound progress. I don't really understand this blog post Kathy- but I'll await further comments!

M said...

I am always in a funk when I finish a series. Right now it is more the feeling that I am floundering- I've run out of new ideas so my head tells me. Somewhere in Art and Fear is a line that says your new work is hidden in your old work or some such wording. While I was on vacation I spend a lot of time thinking about my past path and where I am now. I'm spending the next few days looking at photos of past work to find avenues I did not go down. I have several clues already and plan to try to connect them over the summer months. I'm thinking of it as exploring topic and process. Who knows what might come out the other end. I'm taking a positive approach and I hope I will not be in a new funk because I may depart from successful methods.

I am guilty of loving tools and new materials. Sometimes my work is only about the materials and having fun. That's when I feel like a fake. I am always aware of loving the process too much.

Unknown said...

Hi Elizabeth - I'll await your insights!! Thanks for reading.

Hi Casey - Like you, I'm in the process of creating my own canon and can't readily identify it now. As for tools - I'm happy with the prehistoric ones :-)

Hi Eva - you still have a lot to "say" and contribute to the dialogue that exists in the art world. I hope you'll continue!!

Hi Hallie - I always enjoy learning more about your unique relationship with art. It's liberating!

Hi Pam - there are so many subtopics in this part of the chapter that I probably should have treated them one at a time. Almost too much to chew on!

Hi Margaret - welcome back! I'm really looking forward to the next step you take in your artmaking. I know you take a lot of time to think things through and that careful consideration will lead to a well-developed concept.

Stan Kurth said...

...go on below the level of conscious thought... Yeah, this is what I'm talking about!

My mind and hands are my tools. I use them. I experiment with them.

Canons! We don't need no stinking canons! hahaha. I believe I know what the authors are writing about here, but my personal canon is a tough one to capture and perhaps I'm not sure I want to. If my work is important enough, someone will figure it out I'm sure. There's probably an I-Phone app that will do it.

-Don said...

I was all over the place as I read this today. That is until I ran into the word 'canons'. My rock-n-roll mind immediately went to 'cannons' firing and AC/DC singing, "For those about to rock, we salute you". At that point I was just fine. I'll just keep rockin' to my own drummer, exploring new avenues while having fun doing it my way.

To paraphrase AC/DC's song,

"Stand up and be counted
For what you are about to receive...
...We ain't no legend, ain't no cause
We're just living' for today."

Let me just say that it's not about the what and how for me, it's all about the why. I think I covered that a couple days ago with my quote from Buckcherry, but I 'll elaborate by saying the why for me is because I have to - it fills that hole in my psyche.

Now, about that week away... It's not allowed. I'll miss you and your words too much...


Unknown said...

Hi Stan - tooooo funny!! I agree with you, though - someone else can figure out my canon, too.

Hi Don - thank goodness for Rock and for great lyrics!!! I keep a tune going in my head all the time, and listen to music when I paint. Thanks for missing me already but I'll try to check in once in a while if I ever get near internet access.