Book Review: Art & Fear

Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

David Bayles and Ted Orland

The Image Continuum Press, 1993

122 pages

I found this book by chance as I was scrolling through titles in my inter-library loan portal. It’s a quick, intimate read, written by artists for other artists. While primarily concerned with the visual arts, the book frequently references the artmaking processes for music and dance as well. The authors consider “creativity” a dirty word, which is an interesting position to take, particularly in comparison to the climate of creativity-commerce that I’m becoming aware of as I surface from grad school. There are a number of witty one-liners scattered throughout the read, and some sentences so true and well-crafted I needed to stop and write them into my sketchbook.

The book is divided into two parts: Part One concerns the internal monologues that accompany the artmaking process for the artists themselves, whereas Part Two concerns the external dialogues that artists exist in orbit of society, academia, and semantics. Personally, I found Part One to be the most engaging, consisting of short meditations on topics such as imagination, uncertainty, perfection, annihilation, expectations, and the difference between acceptance and approval. Upfront, I will be focusing more on the content of Part One, as that was where most of the impact of the book originated for me.

Bayles and Orland open their introduction with the assertion that “[m]aking art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar.” The first chapter, The Nature of the Problem, outlines what questions Bayles and Orland are wrestling with: “How does art get done? Why, often, does it not get done? And what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start?” (1) They start by saying outright that while talent is a thing that exists, it’s not actually all that important to making art, and the value placed upon its presence or absence confers a type of fatalism to the process that prevents many from even attempting it. In a world that perpetuates the simple binary of “you either have it or you don’t”, many people either assume they don’t, or walk away from the process at the first sign they might not. (2-3)

In the first two sections of Part One, Bayles and Orland outline a few assumptions that they feel undergird the artistic process:

  1. Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. (3)
  2. Art is made by ordinary people: “It’s difficult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots.” (4)
  3. Making art and viewing art are different at their core. I found a resonant piece of tough-love here: “The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision. In fact, there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential […] learning to make your work is not [anyone else’s] problem.” (4-5)
  4. Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment: “What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals a more contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium. […] “Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! It seems far healthier to side-step that vicious spiral…” (7)
  5. Those who make art are the ones who have learned not to quit making art when life provides circumstances and fears that make it appealing to do so. (9-13)
  6. Everything an artist does is “flavoured with uncertainty. […] And tolerance for uncertainty is the pre-requisite for succeeding.” (19-21)

The third and fourth sections of Part One deal with the fears artists have, which Bayles and Orland say fall into two categories: fears about ourselves, and fears about our reception by others, offering that “…fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.” (23) I have found this to be very true, particularly as I return to artmaking after a fairly long hiatus. Covering the subjects of pretending, talent, perfection, annihilation, magic, and expectations, in the third section Bayles and Orland offer sympathy for the shared preoccupations many artists have with these concerns while also reinforcing that the only way to make your art is to attempt to move beyond them by investing in, and trusting, the process of making your art. (36)

The fourth section is concerned with addressing the artist’s fears about others, particularly about being understood, accepted, and approved of. As Bayles and Orland see it, “[t]he difference between acceptance and approval is subtle, but distinct. Acceptance means having your work counted as the real thing; approval means having people like it.” (45) This statement was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me and I suspect that I’ve been subtly conflating these terms without realizing how much it frustrated me that I couldn’t articulate a distinction. Thank gods for other writers. They go on to say, “[b]oth acceptance and approval are, quite plainly, audience-related issues”, and that “courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts—namely, whether or not your are making progress on your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.” (46-47) This has been a very important realization for me! As an artist, I experience and explore the process of making art: it is something I am familiar with and find value in. However, it is a fairly private and singular experience (read: sometimes really bloody lonely), as only I can have it. This is part of why I am so interested in the processes that other artists and creatives experience—I want to know what they’re putting together mentally and emotionally and how that comes out (or doesn’t) in the art. For me, art is more about the process than the product and I forget that this isn’t true for most audiences.

The fifth section discusses the processes every artist goes through trying to find their work’s style and substance in relation to all of the other art and influences that infuse their lives. One of the key points Bayles and Orland make is that the process of making art is incredibly situational: everything that is informing the world of the artist is also informing the work they are producing, which has ramifications for the artist’s process and also for the audience’s reception (54). One of the better passages I’ve read on the differences between the embodiment, referencing, and appropriation of meaning is found here: “Today, indeed, you can find urban white artists—people who could not reliably tell a coyote from a german shepherd at a hundred feet—casually incorporating the figure of Coyote the Trickster into their work. A premise common to all such efforts is that power can be borrowed across space and time. It cannot. There’s a difference between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced.” (55) This reminds me of a conversation Patti and I were having about naming pets after figures such as Loki.

The remainder of the fifth section is comprised of a lengthy discussion of the artistic process as it becomes canon; that is, the larger body of work that is an artist’s entire oeuvre. This section delves a bit more deeply into how artists determine what processes and rituals impact their ability to make art, asking us to question if we are really aware of our artmaking methods enough to know how to make incremental changes that might make our work even better: Do we know why we listen to specific music when we are working? Does the room need to be a particular temperature, and if so, is that for your concentration or for how it affects your supplies? How do you know when your paper is ready to take your paint? (59) I imagine that most of us can’t give detailed answers to these kinds of questions, but know it when we see it. Bayles and Orland present a pretty compelling case for how understanding these minutia will help us figure out what we can change or replicate to make the art we feel is the most successful. Once we understand the way we make art, we can tailor everything from when we create, to where, to our posture, to our materials in service of our goals. These habits and rituals can provide structure to our working time, and even spur the process when we are in the doldrums.

Part Two changes gears from the personal to the wider social concerns that come along with artmaking. Ranging from finding the time to actually make art, to navigating complex systems of galleries, exhibition, publication, etc., to balancing breaking boundaries with not being censored or labelled too subversive, there are a number of issues that artists must deal with which Bayles and Orland refer to as “ordinary problems”. (65) This is not to say that they are in any way less important, but to designate them as different from the personal concerns that Bayles and Orland initially took up. In the section on “Common Ground”, the authors write one of my favourite passages in the book: “Most of what we inherit is so clearly correct it goes unseen. It fits the world seamlessly. It is the world. But despite its richness and variability, the well-defined world we inherit doesn’t quite fit each one of us, individually. Most of us spend most of our time in other people’s worlds—working at predetermined jobs, relaxing to pre-packaged entertainment—and no matter how benign this ready-made world may be, there will always be times when something is missing or doesn’t quite ring true. And so you make your place in the world by making part of it—by contributing some new part to the set. And surely one of the more astonishing rewards of artmaking comes when people make time to visit the world you have created. Some, indeed, may even purchase a piece of your world to carry back and adopt as their own. Each new piece of your art enlarges our reality. The world is not yet done.” (69)

The world is not yet done. What a thought.

From there, Bayles and Orland move on to discuss the benefits and liabilities of competition with other artists, and learning how to balance making art with navigating the various sub-industries that comprise an artist’s network, particularly finding how to fund what you want to do without having to compromise too much. Section seven is a fairly extensive examination into the value of a Fine Arts education and some of the politics that go into shaping the individual and market desire for, or resistance against, it.

The final sections of the book explore “conceptual worlds” such as the generation of ideas, development of technique, and a brief discussion of the author’s views on the distinction between art and craft. There are a few pages on the intersection of art and science that were interesting, and I wish they had been developed into a longer essay of their own. In the section on “Self-Reference”, Bayles and Orland write: “It may be only a passing feature of our times that validating the sense of who-you-are is held up as the major source of the need to make art. What gets lost in that interpretation is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world […] As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.” (108) This puts me in mind of all of the really interesting protest art I’ve been noticing over the past year. I love the idea of art as something you do about and for the world.

Bayles and Orland conclude their work by reminding the reader that “[a]nswers are reassuring, but when you’re onto something really useful, it will probably take the form of a question.” (113) It is important to remember that what kinds of answers a person gets depends almost completely on the kinds of questions they are asking and what around them shapes the form of the answers that are available. They encourage us to ask interesting questions and work patiently to uncover their answers. My favourite question in the text is asked here: “How do you describe the [reader to place words here] that changes when craft swells into art?” I appreciated the nod to the fuzzy, hard to describe thing that it seems all artists know intimately but cannot pin down clearly. Bayles and Orland also speak of how necessary it is for artists to recognize and accept the constants in their lives, as once established, they are unlikely to change and will therefore impact the work. By acknowledging the constants, they argue, artists are able to produce authentic, convincing art that focuses on things that artists genuinely care about, and this is perhaps the goal par excellence.

All told, this book was a very swift and easy read and I think it’s worth reading in its entirety. Given its age, I am not sure it will be all that easy to find in print for purchase, but I will admit I haven’t looked as I was able to borrow a copy from the library. I think that it is as relevant now as it was when it came out twenty-plus years ago, and perhaps even more so. I would like to see an updated version with commentary from the authors on whether and/or how the advancement in digital media creation and sharing affects their thoughts.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations and thank you! This ended up much longer than I was anticipating.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Robin Clark says:

    Great little book. Articulate and brilliant review.
    Thank you.


    1. Thank you, Robin! I’m pretty green when it comes to writing book reports, and really appreciate your feedback.


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