David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
From an early age, most people make art. Children love to draw, sing, tell stories, and stage theatrical sketches. Yet at some point, nearly all of us stop. We all have unique reasons for this surrender: lack of mentorship, bad experiences with critics, the need to focus on “useful” skills. But every expressed reason boils down to one deterrent: fear.
Ted Orland and David Bayles teach photography at the University of California. As such, they’ve encountered every excuse aspiring artists use to justify not making art. Harsh criticism, especially from parents and teachers, often breeds a fear of making mistakes or being wrong. Lack of moral support after graduation leaves even accomplished artists feeling listless and alone. Hunger narrows the artists’ horizons. You name it, they've heard it.
The difference between successful career artists, and disappointed ex-artists, our authors insist, is how they approach this fear. Working artists have this fear, even learn from it, but don’t let it determine them. “When you act out of fear,” our authors write, “your fears come true.” Instead, they approach fear as an opportunity to continue improving, to grow as artists, and to create work that makes important conceptual leaps between pieces.
Yes, this sounds like a bromide. We all heard something similar in high school, and we’ve seen comparable fine-sounding axioms on motivational posters in workplaces worldwide. Bayles and Orland distinguish themselves from the mass of self-help books and creativity boosters (they pointedly eschew the word “creativity”) by focusing on how they, and artists they know and work with, translate these bromides into actions and outcomes.
|David Bayles (left) and Ted Orland|
The authors approach multiple aspects of artmaking with an eye toward keeping us engaged, even when the process seems overwhelming. Lack of goals, for instance, often impedes artistry: without an exhibition, pending sale, or letter grade, it’s difficult to create intrinsic motivations. That’s perhaps why so many artists stop creating after finishing school. They discuss the creation of meaningful goals to maintain momentum through down periods.
They also discuss education’s discouraging impacts. Though schooling is necessary for most people, its effects can often, inarguably, be discouraging for actual art. This includes both students, whose artistic expression gets subordinated to “skillz drillz,” and teachers, whose energy often goes into teaching rather than creating new art. The process of striking a balance isn’t easy or obvious, but our authors show ways it happens, and why.
Worst of all, of course, is fear of making mistakes. They write, “You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes,” and I feel pangs of recognition. In childhood, our parents enthused wildly about us making something, anything; somewhere, though, adults around us became focused on identifying our mistakes. And not screwing up became more important than the act of creation.
No wonder so many of us stop creating… or bury our creations in a closet somewhere. Yet the importance of human imperfection remains a thread throughout this book. Without flaws, we have nowhere to go to make the next conceptual leap into further art. Just as important, without flaws, our audiences have no dissonance to resolve internally, and therefore little relationship with the art. Imprefection isn’t just inevitable, it’s desirable.
Even the simple recognition that we don’t have to face these fears alone provides motivation to keep creating. Many artists (including me) stop creating new art because we feel we’re alone, or because the rejection slips seemingly isolate us from others. The process of art is truly contradictory: we’re engaged in forms of self-expression, but cannot create strictly for ourselves. Our authors’ anecdotes reconnect us to our audiences, and to our peers.
As photographers, the authors draw the most references from photography. They probably cite Ansel Adams more than any other artist, talking about ways he bucked critics, maintained his vision, and stood fast against discouragement. However, our authors draw generously from other genres, citing Frank Lloyd Wright, Ezra Pound, and countless other artists from across the spectrum. This process really applies to all artists, not just one category.
I admit, this fear plagues me too. The fear that everyone will recognize me as a hack, or that the business aspect of art will overwhelm the creation aspect, or that I’ll drown in rejection slips and vanish, unnoticed. Therefore I read this book again every few years, to remind myself I needn’t face these fears alone. Art can be a discouraging calling. We must remind ourselves that this discouragement isn’t a barrier, it’s part of the art.