Blog Archives

Pearls from artists * # 20

"The Magical Other," soft pastel on sandpaper, 1993, 48" x 38"

“The Magical Other,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 1993, 48″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

If, indeed, for any given time only  a certain sort of work resonates with life, then that is the work you need to be doing in that moment.  If you try to do some other work, you will miss your moment.  Indeed, our own work is so inextricably tied to time and place that we cannot recapture even our own aesthetic ground of past times.  Try, if you can, to reoccupy your own aesthetic space of a few years back, or even a few months.  There is no way.  You can only plunge ahead, even when that carries with it the bittersweet realization that you have already done your best work. 

This heightened self-consciousness was rarely an issue in earlier times when it seemed self-evident that the artist (and everyone else, for that matter) had roots deeply intertwining their culture.  Meanings and distinctions embodied within artworks were part of the fabric of everyday life, and the distance from art issues to all other issues was small.  The whole population counted as audience when artists’ work encompassed everything from icons for the Church to utensils for the home.  In the Greek amphitheater twenty-two hundred years ago, the plays of Euripides were performed as contemporary theater before an audience of fourteen thousand.  Not so today.

Today art issues  have for the most part become solely the concern of artists, divorced from – and ignored by – the larger community.  Today artists often back away from engaging the times and places of their life, choosing instead the largely intellectual challenge of engaging the times and places of Art.  But it’s an artificial construct that begins and ends at the gallery door.  Apart from the readership of Artforum, remarkably few people lose sleep trying to incorporate gender-neutral biomorphic deconstructivism into their personal lives.  As Adam Gopnik remarked in The New Yorker, “Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art.”

David Bayles & Ted Orland,  Art & Fear:  Observations on the Perils (and Rewards)of Artmaking

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 18

West Village

West Village

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Those who would make art might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them:  most who began, quit.  It’s a genuine tragedy.  Worse yet, it’s an unnecessary tragedy.  After all, artists who continue and artists who quit share an immense field of common emotional ground.  (Viewed from the outside, in fact, they’re indistinguishable).  We’re all subject to a familiar and universal progression of human troubles – troubles we routinely survive, but which are (oddly enough) routinely fatal to the art-making process.  To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles.  Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

But curiously, while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit.  Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail.  And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work – for the place their work belongs.

Virtually all artists encounter such moments.  Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring, and generally healthy part of the art-making cycle.  It happens all the time:  you focus on some new idea in your work, you try it out, run with it for awhile, reach a point of diminishing returns, and eventually decide it’s not worth pursuing further.  Writers even have a phrase for it – “the pen has run dry” – but all media have their equivalents.  In the normal artistic cycle this just tells you that you’ve come full circle, back to that point where you need to begin cultivating the next new idea.  But in artistic death it marks the last thing that happens:  you play out an idea, it stops working, you put the brush down… and thirty years later you confide to someone over coffee that, well, yes, you had wanted to paint when you were much younger.  Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping.  The latter happens all the time.  Quitting happens once.  Quitting means not starting again – and art is all about starting again.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 11

Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.  It just seems to come with the territory.  But for some reason – self defense, perhaps – artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.

Romantic, but wrong.  The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision.In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work.  The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.  One of the basic and difficult lessons  every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.  X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by over-painting the still wet canvas.  The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished  art.  The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it!

The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.  Of course once you’re famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece.  But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally.  Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being.  They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours – and this is something to be genuinely thankful for.  Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world:  learning to make your work is not their problem.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome. 

Pearls from artists* # 4

At work on "False Friends"; photo by Diana Feit

At work on “False Friends”; photo by Diana Feit

*  an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Given a small kernel of reality and any measure of optimism, nebulous expectations whisper to you that the work will soar, that it will become easy, that it will make itself. And verily, now and then the sky opens and the work does make itself.  Unreal expectations are easy to come by, both from emotional needs and from the hope or memory of periods of wonder.  Unfortunately, expectations based on illusion lead almost always to disillusionment.

Conversely,  expectations based on the work itself are the most useful tool the artist possesses.  What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece.  The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials.  The place to learn about your execution is in your execution.  The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love.  Put simply, your work is your guide:  a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work.  There is no other  such book, and it is yours alone.  It functions this way for no one else.  Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how you got there.  Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace.

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work.  To see them, you need only look at the work clearly – without judgment, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes.  Without emotional expectations.  Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.  Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.  

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome.

%d bloggers like this: