In Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland ask of artists, ‘Why do so many who start, quit?’, pitching their enquiry at visual artists, but also at writers, actors – anyone whose creative pursuits might cause them any doubt.
Pinpointing fear as the main reason we stand in our own way as artists, the first half of this book is pretty useful. Drawing on the documented experience of a broad range of artists throughout history (creating something of a ‘suggested reading’ mountain), the first half of the book provides insight into the idea that all the things you fear, and which can stop you from making art, are necessary. Your self-doubt, your anxiety, your fear of unoriginality, your particular world-view: all essential. Artistic fear takes many different forms, but at its root, it’s all fear.
These ideas are not groundbreaking, but it is nice to have it all researched and put together in one place – it’s kind of like a series of Brain Pickings articles on artistic process, plus some real talk, bound between covers.
The second half of the book tries to put these fears into the context of the world, and identify real-world barriers (i.e., external things that, unlike your fear, aren’t necessary or so easily harnessed for good) to your artmaking. Unfortunately this half of the book reads more like a list of vendettas: Bayles & Orland aren’t very keen on academia, or critics. Where the first half of the book winds up to kick some ass, what follows doesn’t satisfactorily deliver on that promise. Instead, it gives the impression that Bayles and Orland don’t have much to offer by way of solutions. It’s disappointing that the book didn’t narrow its scope to recognition and acknowledgement of the fears tied up in artmaking, because in my reading, that would have been enough.
The last chapter brings the book full-circle and this left me feeling energised; it’s a call-to-arms and insistence that only you can make your art, even if you’re fearful.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the ways that Bayles and Orland call bullshit on ‘the struggle’, without denying its existence altogether. As the authors observe, ‘We live in a world where the ready-made observations about artmaking are typically useless, frequently fatalistic’. They don’t romanticise the difficulties of artmaking, and the fears that they tackle are approached pragmatically, as real, solid blocks to artistic career success.
Overall, not mind-blowing, but worth a look, even if you only skim-read the second half and check back in to the final chapter.