* 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!
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.