As a writer, I’ve read many, many books about the writing process–from Stephen King’s On Writing to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Art comes with its own stable of inspirational texts. They’re not usually concerned with nuts-and-bolts tips and templates. Rather, by relating the personal experiences of the authors, they tend to provide inspiration or at least encouragement and a sense that you’re not alone in this often thankless process of unburdening your soul into your work.
One of the books that seems to crop up on artists’ to-read lists is David Bayles’ and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear. The cover copy claims it is “a book about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do…It is about finding your own work.” That was enough to catch my interest.
Bayles and Orland provide a decent sampling of helpful axioms, admonishments and observations. The main gist of most of them is that talent is not a requirement, that approval is not a necessity and that the actual purpose of art is the process of making the work–and by “work” they mean your own, unique, individualized, long-term artistic activity. Their points on perfectionism are well-taken: “To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary humanity…Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work.” I couldn’t agree more. All of the worthwhile insights in this book are contained in the first section, which deals with overcoming various fears about your own ability to be an artist, and about being appreciated (or not) by others.
It’s in the second part of the book–where the authors pontificate on the world outside the interior life of the artist–that their writing becomes chauvinistic, ill-conceived, or downright wrong. To list a few:
“People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous.” They write about authors who “discover early on that making detailed plot outlines is an exercise in futility.”
Yeah–and I can show you a slew of authors who are quite risky but who like to know where they’re going. If you’re writing a mystery novel, as I have, you kind of need to know little details like what was the crime and whodunit before you start typing. Edgar Allan Poe who was somewhat of a subversive, wrote a whole essay (“Philosophy of Composition”) about working from the end of a poem or story backwards. Alfred Hitchcock meticulously mapped every little shot on storyboards before he even started filming. He knew exactly where the actors would stand at every moment. You can hardly accuse Hitchcock of not being subversive, suggestive, or complicated.
“…[M]ost people see no reason to question their own beliefs, much less solicit yours. And why should they? The world we come into has already been observed and defined by others–usually quite appropriately.” I think their attitude about that would be quite different if they’d been born in the Third World. Or if they happened to be anybody other than white men at elite institutions.
“The security of a monthly paycheck mixes poorly with the risk-taking of artistic inquiry.” This is probably one of the stupidest things ever said about art-making. Financial security is what every artist not only wants but needs in order to spend more time creating and less time worrying about eating. I speak from experience. When I was writing paperbacks and had no health insurance and could barely pay the rent, I constantly longed to write whatever crap would sell in order to make more bucks. Financial insecurity is absolute death to artistic risk-taking.
Art and Fear proposes a singularly capitalist notion of the individual, atomized self, competing against everyone else. (Competition is natural, Bayles and Orland tell us). For them art is apolitical, about itself instead of a radical praxis, as Herbert Marcuse wrote in his far more relevant and subversive work The Aesthetic Dimension. They claim that we only have ourselves to fall back on. But this is not true. Art is and always has been sustained by the human community–whether it be on the societal level or right down to the family. There’s no need to expect those in power to favor the subversive [Which the authors understand: “[T]he American Revolution was not financed with matching Grants from the Crown.” We artists know enough to form our own communities of support, hope, and vision. Many of us do just that every day in the public school classrooms in which we teach.
In regards to teaching, the authors paint a very discouraging picture of the prospects for landing a position. This may still be true in academia. What they leave out completely is the option pursued by many artists–K-12 teaching. This is some measure of the distance between the authors of this book and the experiences of a great many would-be artists. These men are academics employed at places like Stanford. Strange then that they should show so much contempt for the academic discipline of art history, which they take great pains to mock and denigrate. Art making, they claim, has nothing to do with art viewing. You can learn more from your own work than from looking at other artists or thinking about them.
This attitude is what’s wrong with academic artists. When was the last time a Van Gogh emerged from Palo Alto’s little playground? Or from a fatuous art program where professors teach their students nothing about technique, preparing them not a bit for survival in the real world? As an artist and a teacher, I consistently draw inspiration from the work of others. We’re not islands. We don’t exist in creative vacuums. The muse needs fuel and we often draw that from the ones we admire who’ve gone before or are still plodding away.
Perhaps it is because neither Bayles nor Orland knows anything about drawing or painting, filmmaking or fiction writing. They’re photographers. Maybe their insights hold true for photography. But not the arts I know: drawing, writing, music. I don’t think they quite understand the other arts. And their solipsistic attitude about their own art-making ignores the fact that art has always been a conversation with the past, present, and the future. Manet couldn’t have painted Le dejeuner sur l’herbe without taking the poses from Raphael’s Judgment of Paris, who took one of the poses from Michelangelo’s Adam. We talk to each other, steal from each other, argue with each other, teach each other. That’s the artistic process.