Books

The Fear of Making Art

by Patrick Neal on June 11, 2012

When Amazon recommends literary selections I might be interested in, I usually do a quick scan of the offerings, decide I can’t afford to splurge on assorted art books and delete the email. But once in a while something catches my eye. Not too long ago, among the artist bios, museum catalogues and critical anthologies, I noticed what looked like a slim, little volume with a title so provocative, weird and unsettling, I needed to know more.

Art & Fear is the result of a collaboration between friends and fellow artists David Bayles and Ted Orland. The book, which reflects on the nature of the art-making process, came out of a series of conversations the two had while working as teachers, writers and photographers. Written over eight years, it seamlessly interweaves the voices of both authors, who kept coming back to the same dark question regarding the vocation of the artist: “Why did so many who start quit?”

Art & Fear is a fascinating read, as it goes into detail to try and answer the question, in the process broaching a subject rarely raised except in private conversations. The book is divided into two sections that could loosely be labeled private/internal and public/external pressures confronting artists. For mature artists who have been slogging away for years, Art & Fear offers great validation and encouragement. It’s also apparently no small secret: written in 1994 and reprinted 15 times, most recently in 2005, the book is a best seller among small-press titles.

The authors point to two contemporary realities that can be alienating to artists. First, there is no larger sociological impetus grounding the efforts of artists the way religion or class systems have in the past. In a secular, capitalistic society that emphasizes individual profit, artists have to find their own reasons to stay in the game of making art. Similarly, the insular quality of much of today’s art, which for the most part references and recycles art itself, disconnects artists from the larger fabric of life. Indeed, the question arises as to who is calling the shots: are artists desperately scrambling to fit into the agendas of curators and critics at the expense of creating the work that is closest to their own hearts (i.e. the work they want to make)?

” … the insular quality of much of today’s art, which for the most part references and recycles art itself, disconnects artists from the larger fabric of life.”

As teachers, the two men observe that graduation from art school is when the first death traps appear. In school, time is spent on learning craft, art history and contemporary trends, with the occasional class touching on critical issues. In the rarefied world of academia, a symbiotic relationship forms wherein a student’s tuition money pays for a teacher’s tenure, ensuring that the acolyte will never be deemed anything less than promising. There is little time left over to figure out the nuts and bolts of how to actually survive and mature as a working artist. The assumption seems to be that time, coupled with the stresses of the artist’s life, will separate the wheat from the chaff. The years after graduation are precarious for young artists, as they enter a society that doesn’t value a degree in art or see making art as a legitimate profession, therefore offering no monetary compensation. Witness Bill Maher on his show Real Time, recently lamenting the number of students getting “bullshit degrees” and equating a fine arts degree with a career in entertainment: “Everyone wants to be on stage, no one wants to be in the audience.” Meanwhile, the first student loan bills start arriving in the mail. By the time MFA grads realize there aren’t enough college teaching jobs to go around, they may have already invested time and money in the College Art Association, to no avail.

Art & Fear also addresses issues that mature artists have to confront over the long haul while coexisting with the institutionalized art world — a world where, if your project isn’t acknowledged by the hipper quarters of the art press or Chelsea, it simply didn’t happen, despite the fact that most artists don’t have galleries or much time to shmooze. In New York magazine’s April issue on How to Make It in the Art World,” the wisest words are spoken by the artist Alex Katz when he says, “  … for a painter it takes longer. You don’t really get it together until [the age of ] 35 or 45.”

Artists Bayles and Orland repeatedly emphasize that making art is different from thinking and writing about art and that “to the critic art is a noun, to the artist, art is a verb.” Albeit much contemporary art shuffles between word, thought and practice, Bayles and Orland underscore the often intensely personal and physical reality of studio practice. This relationship to outside players underscores a crucial distinction: the context of artwork situated in the public domain vs. the solo process of making art. When it comes to the art world, artists have to work at engineering the kinds of relationships they are most comfortable with, but in the end, they are alone in an existential struggle with their chosen medium, striving to propel their work forward. And what artists really learn from their peers isn’t theoretical; it’s the trading of anecdotes, practical advice and information, war stories, techniques and recipes, as well as the unspoken support that helps them feel less alone.

The authors ultimately insist on a pragmatic, organic approach to art making: stay away from perfectionism and preconceived ideas but work every day, letting ideas generate out of the successes and failures of each successive piece. They point out that if you’re not making art for yourself, if your studio practices are not inextricably tied to your own identity, the results won’t be pretty. A trap almost always springs as soon as an artist is untrue to herself, looking away from her own work and relying too heavily on an outside audience. Ultimately Bayles and Orland suggest that despite the lonesome time spent in the studio, the drive to make something may, in fact, be a yearning to connect to a larger humanity, a completion by way of something bigger than the individual.

David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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  • punktoad

    For a more philosophical look at the artist’s practice also see Ted Orland’s “The View From The Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way In An Uncertain World”

  • http://www.facebook.com/kirby.i.andersen Kirby Ian Andersen

    thanks for drawing attention to this book. i wonder — has it been revised over the years? as in, the phenomena of the speculatorcollector hovering around and buying out student thesis shows from prestige schools, and those effects…

    • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.neal.37 Patrick Neal

      The last printing was in 2005 under the authors own imprint, Image Continuum Press. As punktoad mentions, Orland went on to write “The View From the Studio Door” which I’m eager to read, and understand is more philosophical and less journalistic (so probably doesn’t touch on speculator collectors.) Bayles went in a different direction writing “Notes on a Shared Landscape-Making Sense of the American West.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathan.sharratt Nathan Sharratt

    I was given this as a gift over a decade ago when I was about to head to Pratt to begin my art career. I’ve since given many copies to creative friends. I heart this book. Which reminds me I need to read it again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=172009562 facebook-172009562

    This is a great book and I’m so happy to see it getting more attention! I graduated with a BFA in photography two years ago and this book pinpointed and answered a lot of questions and anxieties. It’s real value is in how honest and concrete it is, putting abstract thoughts most of us grapple with when making work into concise clear points. Check out some of my favorite highlights in my post about it here: http://www.knocktwiceblog.com/2011/12/05/art-fear-book/

    Every artist should read this book!

    -Eugen S.

  • frederickwoodruff

    I like the notion of this book and it’s nice to know that it continues to be reprinted. Though it’s too bad the cover is so awful. (It deserves much better). Maybe this was deliberate to up the ‘fear factor’?

  • http://www.meadmclean.com Mead McLean

    I remember reading this book back in 2003. It should be on every art student’s book shelf right next to “Why Art Cannot Be Taught” and “Art/Work”. I also don’t remember it being full of practical information, hence the necessity of “Art/Work”. I’ll have to give it a re-read.

  • Christopher Reiger

    “Art & Fear” is something of a classic, and a book I return to every four or five years. I’m indebted to one of my undergraduate professors, Mark Iwinski (http://www.markiwinski.com/), for introducing me to it.

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