But aside from an old receipt, I found something else: understanding and enlightenment. Yes, lovely college professors wherever you might be, I finally read the book!
The beauty of this book is that it’s not just for visual artists. It’s also for musicians, writers and anyone who wants to (or has already) dedicated their life to artmaking. Thus, reading this book at this moment of my life couldn’t have been more timely. I’ve replaced the blank canvas for a blank page and my dirty brush for my handy dandy laptop. But the struggle to succeed in art, the self-doubt and the dry spells are still there—the same jewels that are present in all art forms. Isn’t that nice?
Interestingly, all these problems boil down to the same source: FEAR, our biggest enemy. Fear of failing grants us excuses not to write and/or sabotage our own work. This dreadful emotion can manifest itself in a variety of ways:
1. Being too busy
By mentioning a list of all the activities we must get done every day, we prove that we really have no time to write. But honestly, if we really wanted to do it, we would find the time. (After all, we have done it in the past, right?) But writing means making choices and doing so can lead to failing, which we must avoid at all costs (or so we think).
We set our work aside and find distractions from the blank page. This can take the form of activities as varied as the artists themselves: internet browsing, computer games, television, sports, visiting with friends, and a big etcetera. Of course, at the end of the day we “punish” ourselves for our distraction by calling ourselves lazy or unmotivated. Soon enough, we get so used to the distractions that the novel we were going to write one day becomes a permanent resident in the back of our minds.
Irritation ranges from being frustrated with the materials (if you’re a visual artist) to discontent with the quality of writing we see in bookshelves to the heartbreaking process of publication, and everything in between. Anger can sometimes propel artists to create. But at other times it can bring us to a halt (who can concentrate when all you want to do is punch the computer screen?)
4. Questioning our talent
Another common habit is to put ourselves down. (It’s better than letting others do it.) We have a tendency to look at the finished work of others and determine that our own work will never get there, so we assume they must have something we don’t (aka, innate talent). Even worse, we fear we might be “pretending” to make art whereas the others are “the real thing.” According to Bayles and Orland, the idea that “extraordinary people make art” is a myth. (And I agree with them.) Not every artist, musician or writer is a genius (Mozart is an obvious exception) yet art gets made all the time. Books get published, paintings get sold and buildings get made. Pondering about our own talent or lack-thereof is frankly an unproductive exercise and one that will inevitably lead to uncertainty and self-doubt.
One of the things we struggle with as creators is having to reconcile our initial vision of our work with the actual execution. Very often the final version of our piece is different from what we had originally envisioned (which can sometimes be a wonderful thing). But many times we can only look at its flaws and how it didn’t live up to our expectations. Worse yet, when we’re ready to start a new project, we hesitate to do it because we don’t want to “mess it up.” Like Ansel Adams said:
“To require perfection is to invite paralysis.” (Pg. 30)
As artists, we must come to terms with the fact that our imperfection is “necessary” to produce our artwork.
“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.” (Pg. 31)
The only way to come close to this coveted “perfection” is to produce more work. The book mentions a case where a ceramics class was divided in two groups. One was supposed to work all semester in achieving “quantity,” the second group had to come up with ONE piece of “quality” to get an A. At the end of the semester, the group who achieved quantity produced better quality than the second group, who had been theorizing about perfection the entire semester.
Creating art requires making decisions (and the more decisions you make, the less choices you’ll have). We might start with what materials to use (if you’re a visual artist) or what POV, genre and length would better serve your novel, to other important considerations such as theme, plot and characters (or subject matter for artists). There is an infinite number of decisions that will shape your piece and make it a reality. But this uncertainty can also lead you to inaction.
Sometimes we can’t imagine that successful artists may have experienced our same doubts, but even that apparently perfect piece was at some point a struggle for its maker. Art & Fear mentions that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace eight times and continued proofreading at the printing press.
“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.” (pg. 19)
Competition proves positive when it propels us to do our best work, but it can also be devastating if we constantly get the feeling that we lose in comparison to others (be it our peers or established professionals).
According to the book, we should ideally compete with ourselves but not by determining which is our best piece of work, but by understanding the differences and similarities of each one. This understanding will lead us to create an extended body of work where all our pieces (even the “crappy” ones) play a part.
8. Fears about others
How will your work be perceived? Will people understand it? Will they consider it “art” and if so, will they like it?
Many artists need public approval to value their work or themselves, but this is a slippery slope if we consider how subjective taste can be. Like Bayles and Orland say, giving the audience this much power can be dangerous. Artists may find themselves trying to please everyone or compromising their vision of their work in order to “fit.” But not being true to ourselves may lead to unhappiness. Like the book suggests, in the history of art the audience didn’t always “get” what the artist was trying to say. Sometimes it took a whole new generation to grasp new concepts and appreciate them.
In conclusion, understanding that our fears are normal and identifying the particular source of our inaction can help us fight it and move forward. Remember that:
“Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again—and art is all about starting again.” (pg. 10)
I’ll leave you with this final thought:
“You have a choice between giving your work the best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot—and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy.” (pg. 118)
Do you see yourself in any of these behaviors? How do you overcome your fear of failure?