Annotation: Art & Fear

From what I understand, Art & Fear is an often recommended book at Vermont College. After reading it, I can fully understand why — it is succinct, realistic, and to the point. Instead of dancing around the concept of art, it views it as a very real part of people’s lives, and a valid profession to pursue, and deals directly with the concerns and fears that keep people from actually doing what they WANT to do. If more books about the creative process in bookstores were this straightforward, I think we would see a lot more people pursuing jobs they would actually be happy in.

We all make excuses from time to time. We all procrastinate some of the time (some more than others), and we all occasionally have trouble starting new projects, no matter how much we love what we’d be doing if we only STARTED it. What I found particularly useful about Art & Fear is that it points this fact out and tells us to get over it. This is not new information by any means, but it is still useful to have it reinforced in a written fashion. Regardless of whether or not their opinion should actually be listened to, our society places weight and value to published opinions, so it is very worthwhile to have what SHOULD BE (but often isn’t) common sense collected and placed in a written form.

One of the central points of the book is to destroy the illusion that art is a heroic or romantic endeavor. I absolutely agree: the image of the starving artist is not something that should be idealized — no one wants to be poor and wondering how they’ll pay the rent next month, and the people who try to effect that image generally have trust funds backing them up. It completely misses the point of WHY the genuinely “starving artists” came up with X, Y, or Z great piece of art: hunger is a POWERFUL motivation to actually get work done. Instead of sitting around talking about the nature of art, they were busy creating it, because that’s the only way the bills will get paid.

Another central topic of the book is to stop worrying so much about other people’s opinion of your art, and to just do it for yourself. I both agree and disagree about this. A commission can still be art: if not, we should be discrediting most of the most famous artworks throughout history, as the majority were commissioned works. In those circumstances, yes, I can understand taking into account the opinions of the commissioner. As far as making works for yourself: opinions should be listened to, but not necessarily obeyed. They are, after all, opinions, not orders. Just because someone (or even many people) don’t like something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve exactly the function you intended. I suppose in the grander scheme, if you aren’t comfortable enough to make your own decisions over what opinions have merit to YOUR intentions and which don’t, then it’s better to just ignore them all.

One of the things that I find interesting about Art & Fear is that they explicitly avoid discussing creativity. They address it only long enough to say that they will not be discussing it, and had been assiduously avoiding even using the word for most of the book. Frankly, I think this really helped them keep their focus in the book, as well as keeping it more real and pragmatic rather than abstract and theoretical. Discussing creativity definitely has its place, but upon inspection, that place is not not in a discussion about making art. It’s a bit like talking to an aerospace engineer about the dreams of going into space that motivated them to get into the field: it’s certainly rewarding, but doesn’t do much for the task at hand.

I found myself identifying with a lot of what was said in the book. I am extremely critical of my own work, overly so, and allow myself to become paralyzed not just by the fear of other people not liking my work, but also the fear that they WOULD like my work. I am in many ways more scared of succeeding than I am of failure. With failure, I can console myself by saying I gave it my best shot, but that I’m just not very good at it (or optimistically, good at it yet). With success, however, I feel burdened with a form of responsibility, the expectation from others (and myself) that since I succeeded once, I should be able to continue to succeed. I am in turn deathly afraid of creating art as a profession, for fear that others might have to rely on my abilities. It has been said that a perfectly good way to destroy a hobby is to make it a profession, and I think part of what is behind that statement is that there is the additional burden of responsibility of others relying on your work that hinders your enjoyment of it.

Both overall and broken down to its particulars, I think this was a well written and extremely valuable book to read. I would heartily recommend it to anyone exploring any sort of artistic endeavor. It is the best kind of self-help book: the kind that tells you to get out of your own way and just DO it. There’s no hokey magical method to suddenly make fantastic, wonderful art, and the sooner we accept that, the better.

Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear. Santa Cruz: The Image Continuum, 1993.