Sunday Night Journal — May 15, 2011
Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Originally published by Capra Press, 1994; current edition Image Continuum, 2010.
One thing that annoys me about my writing is that it’s so self-centered. It’s not just that I write about myself a lot, it’s also that even when I write about something else—politics, literature, music—I don’t seem to be able to get very far from my own subjective reactions. That’s justifiable to a great extent, especially when writing about art, but I’d like to have enough knowledge to be able to say, in many of those cases, not just I think but I know: to be able to make the case for my views on something more solid and comprehensive than my own small store of knowledge and limitless store of opinion.
This piece is even worse, like the memoir to which I am trying to force myself to return: not just self-centered but possibly even narcissistic, a bit of introspection about my writing. I don’t mean “writing” in the sense of the finished work, but in the sense of the activity, the actual labor of writing. I wouldn’t think it worth communicating to anyone else except that it’s occasioned by the book named above, and the book is worth writing about.
I’m greatly indebted to Jesse Canterbury for introducing me to it. I think it’s going to be a useful catalyst for me, and perhaps it will be useful to anyone else engaged in any work which can be called art in the broadest sense: that is, the creation of something which you yourself design and construct. It could include the work which is normally separated from Art and referred to as Craft. It could even include the task facing a software developer working at night and on weekends on a project of his own.
This book is about...trying to do the work you need to do.... It is about finding your own work.
More specifically, it is about the ways in which fear prevents you from doing the work you need to do. The need referred to is internal: if it’s external, such as the need to produce an income, there are other incentives at work. The book is divided into two sections, and for me it’s Part I which is by far the most useful, focusing on the artist’s interior struggles: “Fears About Yourself,” “Fears About Others,” “Finding Your Work.” The writers are visual artists, and Part II deals more with problems specific to that medium: galleries, critics, the academy, etc. (I have thus far deliberately avoided learning anything about their work, because I didn’t want my opinion of it to affect my opinion of the book.)
I should say right off that the authors are relatively free of the mistakes and cant of what Eric Gill called “art nonsense.” They are quite aware that the situation of art in the modern world is historically anomalous and really a little sick:
Throughout most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art.
This resembles Gill’s famous formulation: “The artist is not a special sort of man, but every man is a special sort of artist.” The authors go on to say that
In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed.
This I don’t think is true. I think it much more likely that art arrived with consciousness and is a product of consciousness. But that’s only an aside to the book’s main argument.
ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED. The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so.
This is important. The idea that art is a sort of visitation from outside forces (or inner genius) is deeply destructive, contributing to the idea that the artist is Not Like Other People, a special and higher creation, which is bad for both art and artists. It’s especially bad for the vast majority of artists who do not possess the vanishingly rare genius of a Mozart or a Bach. And even they had to work very hard. (It is true that bursts of inspiration do sometimes come, seemingly from elsewhere, but they must be nurtured and the material so delivered must be developed further.)
In truth, if there is any useful distinction between “craft” and “art,” it’s in the fact that a work of craft generally has some purpose other than itself, while a work of art is its own end. Even that distinction is blurry in the cases of Mozart and Bach. This bad idea also reinforces the pernicious view of the artist as a sort of seer or prophet or shaman, qualitatively different from the rest of us. He may in fact be somewhat more perceptive, sometimes (not very often) even a somewhat deeper thinker, but what’s far more important is his ability to convert his perception into some external form which communicates that perception to others. This in turn is purely a matter of skill. And skill in turn is a matter of natural gift—talent—plus work.
The belief that one must be a special kind of person, a freak of nature, to be an artist is terribly destructive to anyone who wants to make art but is not a natural genius. It has been destructive to me. Throughout my twenties, as I tried to make literary art, I looked constantly in myself for that natural genius, that power that Keats referred to when he said that “poetry ought to come as easily as leaves to a tree, or not at all.” (I’m pretty sure I don’t have that wording exactly right, but that’s the idea.)
It was a dark day for me when I read those words. The occasional line, maybe several lines at a time, did indeed come to me as leaves to a tree, but a complete poem never did. Anything I wrote which was worth reading was the product of an initial idea—call it an inspiration if you like—a happy combination of words and thought or emotion which had to be extended and completed with a lot of work, work which I did not and still do not find pleasant. Having done it is pleasant; doing it is not. This quotation, which the authors use to introduce one of their chapters, describes me:
Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.
The remark is from someone named Stephen DeStaebler, whose name I do not recognize, as I suspect most who read this will not (I learn from Wikipedia that he’s a sculptor). But we all recognize Keats’ name. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Keats was a real artist, and Stephen DeStaebler is not. But that’s the wrong conclusion. The one we ought to draw, if any, is that Keats had greater natural gifts, and moreover that his personal circumstances and industry enabled him to exercise those gifts (for, despite what he said about those leaves, the progression of his work and the quantity of it could not have been achieved without much labor).
The next step from there, for anyone who is not a Keats or a Mozart, is to convince oneself fully that it does not matter. It does not matter that Keats had greater natural gifts than you or I, and it does not matter if he produced better work than you or I. What matters for us is that we do the work we are capable of doing. The writers of this book are not (apparently) religious, so this is me talking, not them: the combination of interest and aptitude that make a person capable of doing art (of any kind, at any level of quality, for the distinction between good art and bad art is not something intrinsic that is found in one and not in the other, but only a difference in skill) is a gift from God, and one to whom it is given is obligated to exercise it. Not at any cost—this is another part of the pernicious myth of the Artist—one is not justified in neglecting the natural virtues and obligations of life for the sake of art any more than for the sake of power.
For years my entire sense of self-worth depended on my belief that I was an Artist—not just someone with a certain knack for words, but a Great Man in the making, with a Great Vision, and that I could hope eventually to produce Great Work, work that would put me on the level of Yeats and Eliot and all the others whom I all but worshiped. If it sounds like my wish to be an Artist—no, a Great Artist—was stronger than my wish to produce any art, well, it was.
One crippling effect of this was that I constantly compared myself to the greats, and my work to theirs. I could not write the first line of a poem or a story without asking myself whether it would someday be ranked with “April is the cruellest month” or “Call me Ishmael.”
The belief that “real” art possesses some indefinable magic ingredient puts pressure on you to prove your work contains the same. Wrong, very wrong. Asking your work to prove anything only invites doom.
Especially if you fear that you are Nothing, and you are asking the work to prove that you are Something, and even more especially if your real urgency is to prove it to other people rather than to yourself, because it is their approval that you really seek.
The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over—and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.
I was pleased to read this, because it provides me with an explanation other than laziness and distraction for the fact that after an occasionally promising start in my twenties, I did very little writing for many years, sometimes none at all for years on end. And what I did do was like this blog, fragmented short pieces, mostly of transitory interest. I seemed unable to do more, and once again found myself looking pretty bad, in my own eyes, in comparison to the great artists whom I had once hoped to join. I started a few big projects but was unable to sustain them, except for one which I forced through to the end, knowing that it was not what it should have been and might have been if I’d been able to give it more attention.
One of the things I’ve learned from this book is to recognize that I could not do my work in the circumstances in which I lived—a demanding job unrelated to my interests, and responsibility for a family. I do not resent those circumstances; I chose them. But for me they were not compatible with sustained literary work. It doesn’t matter that John Gresham, for instance, wrote at least one lengthy best-seller by getting up early in the morning and working for a while before spending the day at his law practice, because I am not he, and his work is not mine, and what worked for him does not work for me. There is a great sense of liberation in accepting this.
By happy chance I’ve been reading, along with this book, a collection of interviews with Ingmar Bergman. It provides a fascinating counterpart to Art and Fear, because it deals frequently with Bergman’s work habits and the sources of his inspiration. I’ll probably have more to say about it, but I was delighted to learn that he operated on a strict routine, especially when he was writing a screenplay. As far as possible he wrote at a certain time and for a certain length of time every day, in the same place, and was quite emphatic to his interviewers that it was this routine that supported his creativity.
And of course I’ve also learned from Art and Fear how great a role fear, in the various aspects described in the book, has played in my inability to make the best use even of the opportunities that I did have. To recognize this is to be at least half-armed against it, and ready to carry on in spite of it. And in any case most of them no longer have the power over me that they did forty years ago. If good sense did not cure me of the hope that I would be the T.S. Eliot of my generation, time did. I don’t know that I have anything very important to contribute to the world, but I do have my own particular vision, and my own pictures to paint, and whether they are, in the end, good enough to merit the attention of others is not nearly as important to me as it once was. The only thing I’m responsible for is doing the work as well as I can. I think I’m finally, at the age of 62, ready to get started.