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)?
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.