1️⃣ Sentence Synopsis
This book explores the underlying fears—about oneself, and about others—that keep artists of all types from producing their best work (or, indeed, any work at all).
I picked this book up at Black Cat Books in Corpus Christi on a family road trip earlier this year. Since I don’t technically need any more books, I usually enter independent shops with the belief that the exact right book will find its way into my hands and it’s my “duty” to support the bookstore by buying it. I picked up and put this book down three times. Then, with my kids pulling on my sleeves to leave the shop, I finally bought it. It’s quite abstract in its tone, peppered with blunt wisdom about the travails of making art, but does offer an incisive discussion on the core fears in any creative expression.
🔑 Key Takeaways
- Becoming an artist requires self-acceptance (and this is what makes art personal), and in following your voice, you create a style (this is what makes your art distinct).
- “Artist” – a person who creates as a means of self-expression alone rather than creating “useful” objects that are also beautiful – is a relatively new concept in the world.
- Fears about artmaking fall into two categories: fears about yourself (which prevent you from doing your best work), and fears about your reception by others (which prevent you from doing your own work).
- The real underlying fear is annihilation. Like Scheherazade, there is a need to make art as a means of staving off non-existence.
- Ideas can be reused for “a thousand variations” – one of the best secrets of artmaking is iteration which can supply “the framework for a whole body of work” rather than just a single piece of it.
- Stick to routines that work for you. If you find yourself stuck, it may mean you unnecessarily altered some part of your process that was already working well.
💯 Strong Lines
- On vision vs. reality: “Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed. And so questions arise: how does art get done? Why, often, does it not get done? And what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start?”
- On the dangers of making art: “Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.”
- On the constraints of time and place: “The art you can experience may have originated 1000 miles away, or 1000 years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.”
- On routines: “A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.”
- On the ingredients for generative energy: “In healthy times you’ve only paused to distinguish between internal drive, sense of craft, the pressure of a deadline or the charm of a new idea – they all serve as sources of energy in the pieces you make.”
- On the difference between art and craft: “The accomplishments of Antonio Stradivari and his fellow craftsman points up one real difference between art and craft: with craft, perfection is possible. In that sense, the Western definition of craft closely matches the eastern definition of art. In eastern cultures, art that faithfully carries forward the tradition of an elder master is honored; in the west it is put down as derivative.”
- On the great work of your life: “Your growth as the artist is a growth toward fully realizable works – works that become real in full illumination of all that you know. Including all you know about yourself.”
- On the continuous line of human expression: “The message across time from the painted bison and the carved ivory seal speaks not of the differences between the makers of art and ourselves, but the similarities. Today the similarities lay hidden beneath urban complexity – audience, critics, economics, trivia – in a self-conscious world. Only in those moments when we are truly working on our own work do we recover the fundamental connection we share with all makers of art.”
🧠 Brain Tickles
- How artists embolden one another across space and time: “what we really gain from artmaking of others is courage-by-association.” And:
- The duty of the art teacher is to model an artistic life; not only to instruct on content but to give a glimpse of how an artful life is lived.
- Avoidance of the word “Creativity” (which does not appear in the book at all).
- This quote, by Pablo Picasso: “Computers are useless – all they can give you are answers.”
🍎 Ideas & Excerpts for Teaching and Learning
Bayles and Orland caution against the pitfalls of balancing a life of teaching with a life of art, writing that it is, “hard to imagine placing a full-time teaching career a top a full-time art making career without something going awry in the process….The danger is real (and the examples many) that an artist who teaches will eventually dwindle away to something much less: a teacher who formerly made art.”
There is one beautiful passage in this book that I believe relates to learning as much as it does to art:
Artistically and otherwise, the world will come into has already been observed and defined by others – thoroughly, redundantly, comprehensively, and usually quite appropriately. Human race has spent several millennia developing a huge and robust set of observations about the world, informed as varied as language, art and religion. Those observations and turn it with stood many – enormously many –tests. We stand heir to and unstatably large set of meanings. Most of what we inherit is so clearly correct it goes unseen. It fits the world seamlessly. It is the world. But despite its richness and variability, the well defined world we inherit doesn’t quite fit each one of us, individually. Most of us spend most of our time in other people’s worlds – working at predetermined jobs, relaxing to pre-packaged entertainment – and no matter how benign this ready-made world may be, there will always be times when something is missing or doesn’t quite ring true. And so you make your place in the world by making part of it – by contributing some new part to the set.