Making Art

A few soundbites from the mesmerizing book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  If you consider yourself an artist—any kind of artist—you must read this book.  [Any bold print is my addition.]

Artmaking involves skills that can be learned.  The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods.  Not so.  In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.  Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others.  Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did.  In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible.  To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork.  To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.  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.

Your materials are, in fact, one of the few elements of artmaking you can reasonably hope to control.  As for everything else—well, conditions are never perfect, sufficient knowledge rarely at hand, key evidence always missing, and support notoriously fickle.  All that you do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty—uncertainty about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right, about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about whether you’ll ever be satisfied with anything you make.  Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year: some hundred-odd pieces—all but about ten of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting.  Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, rewrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press.  William Kennedy gamely admitted that he re-wrote his own novel Legs eight times, and that “seven times it came out no good.  Six times it was especially no good.  The seventh time out it was pretty good, thought it was way too long.  My son was six years old by then and so was my novel and they were both about the same height.”

It is, in short, the normal state of affairs.  The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse….

Control, apparently, is not the answer.  People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous.  What’s really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way.  Simply put, making art is chancy—it doesn’t mix well with predictability.  Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art.  And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

The world displays perfect neutrality on whether we achieve any outward manifestation of our inner desires.  But not art.  Art is exquisitely responsive.  Nowhere is feedback so absolute as in the making of art.  The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it—or withhold from it.  In the outside world there may be no reaction to what we do; in our artwork there is nothing but reaction.

The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness.  Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace.  When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring hands in its pockets.  But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.

Recently, out of pleasure alone, an accomplished visual artist took up dance.  Never before experiencing an artform so purely physical, she threw herself into it.  Her involvement became intense: more classes, more practice, more commitment, longer hours.  She excelled. Then one day several months into it, her instructor asked her to consider joining a performing troupe.  She froze.  Her dancing fell apart.  She became stiff and self-conscious.  She got serious, or serious in a different way.  She didn’t feel she was good enough, and her dancing promptly was not good enough.  She got frustrated and depressed enough that she had to quit for a few weeks to sort things out.  More recently, back to work on new but shaky ground, she’s having to teach herself to enjoy working hard for others at the art she previously enjoyed passionately for herself.

In the ideal—that is to say, real—artist, fears not only continue to exist, they exist side by side with the desires that complement them, perhaps drive them, certainly feed them.  Naive passion, which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacles, becomes—with courage—informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.

Writer Henry James once proposed three questions you could productively put to an artist’s work.  The first two were disarmingly straightforward: What was the artist trying to achieve?  Did he/she succeed?  The third’s a zinger: Was it worth doing?

Those first two questions alone are worth the price of admission.  They address art at a level that can be tested directly against real-world values and experience; they commit you to accepting the perspective of the maker into your own understanding of the work.  In short, they ask you to respond to the work itself, without first pushing it through some aesthetic filter labeled Behaviorism, Feminism, Postmodernism or Whateverism.

But it’s that third question–-Was it worth doing?—that truly opens the universe.  What is worth doing?  Are some artistic problems inherently more interesting than others?  More relevant?  More meaningful?  More difficult?  More provocative?  Every contemporary artist dances with such questions as these.

To make art is to sing with the human voice.  To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have.  Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art & fear.   Sometimes to see your work’s rightful place you have to walk to the edge of the precipice and search the deep chasms.  You have to see that the universe is not formless and dark throughout, but awaits simply the revealing light of your own mind.  Your art does not arrive miraculously from the darkness, but is made uneventfully in the light.

What veteran artists know about each other is that they have engaged the issues that matter to them.  What veteran artists share in common is that they have learned how to get on with their work.  Simply put, artists learn how to proceed, or they don’t.  The individual recipe any artist finds for proceeding belongs to that artist alone—it’s non-transferable and of little use to others.  It won’t help you to know exactly what Van Gogh needed to gain or lose in order to get on with his work.  What is worth recognizing is that Van Gogh needed to gain or lose at all, that his work was no more or less inevitable than yours, and that he—like you—had only himself to fall back on.

Really, you’d be able to gobble the whole book up in an evening.  It’s short and sweet and chockfull of wisdom.

[Post image: Musée d’Orsay, 2007]

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