Response to Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
By. David Bayles and Ted Orland
John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971,
lithograph, 22-7/16 x 30-1/16 inches (The Museum of Modern Art), images © John Baldessari
As I read through Art & Fear, I found myself nodding my head over and over again in agreement. Yes, I do that…yes, that too. I make work that doesn’t feel like my own. I leave things unfinished; I repeat myself. I have things in my mind that seem more real than the finished work. I let the pressure of others restrict what I make in fear of creating something awful. The entire time I was wondering if the authors were living inside my head. Bayles and Orland mention many, if not all, of the inner struggles that artists go through and it’s reassuring to have them so eloquently articulated and to know that these are common feelings of others.
One pressure I connected with the most, something I think about on almost a daily basis, was the fear of quitting or the fear of having a lack of motivation and inspiration after graduating from school. No longer will I have assignments given to me each week forcing me to create work, especially at such a fast turn around. The thing is I don’t think I will have trouble thinking of ideas or the motivation to start a project, I am constantly brainstorming and wishing I had more time outside of class and assignments to do what I want, but I think my problem will be finishing the projects. I really liked the advice the authors gave about making friends with others who make art. It will be really important to share my work in progress with other creatives and I am fortunate enough to have already networked a solid group of talented and artistic friends.
Still, the doubts persist. Is my work any good? Do I really have anything to say? Even if I do, does anyone care? Is my work my own, is it authentic? I was reassured by the assertion that “Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding” (21). Well, I have plenty of uncertainty, so theoretically I should do just fine…
Worrying about one’s lack of talent, harboring impossible expectations of perfection, fearing dry spells, or wondering why your work doesn’t just magically create itself are obviously self-defeating, but the trick is figuring out how to overcome these traps. It’s a matter of doing anything you can to keep the creative mind engaged. The expectations put on us by the outside world are numerous and contradictory: We must make art that’s original, yet familiar. We must produce work that’s challenging, yet understandable within the context of what’s been done before. In an academic environment, these expectations carry the added burden of trying to win the acceptance of one’s professors and classmates. In my own experience, this can be a two-edged sword: sometimes the feedback is helpful, but at other times it just works to force me to subvert my own vision. Over the last year I can proudly say I’ve loosened up a lot about my work. I am a lot more experimental and interested in trying new mediums and techniques. “The only pure communication is between you and your work” (47).
Seeking approval from others seems to be a basic human need, experienced by everyone at some level. Maybe there are some artists who don’t care at all what others think about their work, but I could never honestly say I’m one of them. I have never been one that has been all that comfortable showing my work to others for fear of disapproval or ridicule. I started to develop an interest in photography during my junior year of high school and I didn’t know anyone else in the town I lived in who was a photographer except for the man who took my high school’s yearbook portraits. I created a flickr account under a different name and it was there that I found the support and the encouragement to apply to art school.
My favorite quote in the book helps me to understand that even the mediocre or just plain bad work does hold some kernels of knowledge for the future: “The undeniable fact is that your art is not some residue left after you subtract all the things you haven’t done — it is the full payoff for all the things you have done” (56).
The message this book offers is that despite all of our fears and misgivings, the important thing is just to keep producing work. Not only does the work itself offer valuable understanding and insight for future endeavors, but the practice of doing the work helps us to develop habits and rituals that will keep us working and going forward. We develop a certain vocabulary of marks, colors, and working methods that are used in a subconscious way, “engaging unarticulated beliefs and assumptions about what artmaking is” (59). After some unspecified length of time spent in our practice, we begin to choose certain materials, adjust our environment, and proceed to work in a particular way without even thinking about it. These things give the artist the confidence to keep going, even when fear and uncertainty intrude. They are “canons,” and they are part of the life of the artist.
“In 1970 John Baldessari burnt everything he ever made…John printed text on canvas and called it art. He also took photographs with intentionally bad compositions and titled it Wrong”.