Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

A friend of mine recommended David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking to me some time ago, and it’s only recently that I’ve finally gotten around to actually buying a copy and reading past the first chapter, rather than doing my usual (reading the first chapter in the bookstore and saying to myself, “I really should pick this up one of these days”). Let me skip ahead to the end of the review, and say that if you’re the kind of person in the habit of talking yourself out of your craft rather than through it, this is a book that belongs on your shelf (provided, of course, you read it first).

Having started off the review ass-backwards, let’s now take up how, exactly, I’ve come to that conclusion.

The book’s thesis is laid out pretty well by the simple declarative that opens the book: “Making art is difficult.”* It goes on, in its first section, to lay out a series of fears that we internalize (the adequacy of our vision and execution, the limits of our talent, our expectations for ourselves) and those we project onto others (the kind of reception we expect from them). And that’s just what we have to deal with before the art’s made; if we clear that hurdle, another one awaits right after in the form of what actually happens when (to paraphrase Brian Eno) you set your art free from your excuses and unleash it on the world. There are forces that, if they don’t intentionally work against the artist, certainly don’t do much to work in his or her favor, either, whether you’re dealing with the whims of popular taste and the marketplace, capricious critics, hard economic times, or any number of other bugaboos.

Thankfully, the book isn’t just a litany of complaints and problems; there are solutions here, if you’re inclined to seek them out and use them. Not least of these is seeking out the support of other artists. If you’ve studied the arts in an academic setting, you may find that any support you may have enjoyed within those walls vanishes like steam from a bathroom mirror once you’ve graduated; if your studies have been largely self-directed, on the other hand, you may not have even had that degree of support. In either case, individuals with whom to collaborate and commiserate can be a vital factor in your continued success.

I realize that I’ve elided and oversimplified the heck out of this book, but that’s alright; this review’s hardly intended as a supplement, much less a substitute. Having summed up so much so far, I’ll do it some more: The remedy could be summed up succinctly as, “You’re worried. I get it. Now cut that out, and get to work.” It could be summed up somewhat better as the authors do at the book’s closing:

In the end, it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Letting uncertainty be your motivation can seem a bit perverse, but when the alternative is the certainty of demotivation and defeat, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. The book as a whole, and that last bit in particular, is a great reminder and motivator during those times when you need one… and from time to time, I think we all do.

*Incidentally, I’m going to put my usual prejudice against calling it “art” to one side for a bit. There’ll be time enough to address that later, and I intend to.

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