(Put this here as there doesn’t seem to be a section for Week 9 Readings. Sorry Winter’s Bone folks!)
Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager
Eye of the Story
February 28, 2016
Uncertainly, Dear (Art & Fear)
It’s a strange work of irony that my favorite film of the quarter, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, is arguably among the most nebulous and evasive of this program’s viewings (at least in its presentation), and that at the same time my favorite book of the quarter, David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear, is arguably among the most straightforward and unornamented of our readings. Rather than a continuous narrative or collection of introspective essays, Art and Fear is, in format and intended function, exactly what it says on the back cover: “An Artist’s Survival Guide.” Admirably, the language and tone employed by the co-authors, as well as their stance on the subject matter of artmaking, is demystifying and matter-of-fact, deftly evading the pitfalls of condescending quasi-philosophical quackery that consigns so many paperbacks to the Barnes & Noble self-help aisle; the awakening of my inner dolphin-spirit will have to wait. While the guide’s use of humor will not likely send many spilling out of their chairs in fits of lung-collapsing laughter, they are frequent and wry enough to impart some texture to the work as a whole without overstaying their welcome or feeling shoehorned-in for their own sake; they always seem to have something to do with the subject matter pertinent to any given section. If Art & Fear didn’t feel like such an appropriate capstone to the collected readings of this program, I’d have to bear it some resentment for coming along so late with advice and meditations that I really could have used earlier on in the quarter.
Bayles and Orland’s handy guide observes and explores a litany of obstacles on the path to creating a work of art, pointing out a number of hooks and snags that seem obvious to us only after reading about them but which, in the practice of artmaking, we’re all too prone to walking into. “What if we can’t finish it? What if we chose the wrong format and wasted all this time? What if no one understands, or attempts to understand? What if they compare us to so-and-so? You know, we might as well just give up.”
The second chapter, which bears the book’s own name, ends with a section on page 19 entitled “Uncertainty”. The section details a number of struggles from a number of people in the course of creating something, from Uelsmann to Tolstoy to Lincoln, all of them wrestling with doubts about their work, whether it be their ability to properly handle it, the response that work would invoke upon the raising of the proverbial curtain, or any number of little, conspiring fears. This theme of doubt, of uncertainty, is ever-present in some form or other throughout Art & Fear, as it in many ways serves as the foundation for so many of those looming threats of failure that, for many, hang so heavy over the artmaking process as to put an stop to it. The uncertainty of your own artistic qualifications gives rise to the fear that you’re merely “pretending” to do art. The uncertainty of whether or not your work will be accepted as art by party X, Y, or Z invites the fear that it will be unceremoniously brushed off as quaint or the work of some hack. And so forth.
It would seem at this point that uncertainty is a menace to artists the world over, and your masterpiece can only be created in its complete absence. Not so, says Art & Fear, for the same section of the text that introduces the pitfalls of uncertainty also insists upon its inexorable necessity to the creation of art. The co-authors liken it to starting a sentence without knowing exactly how it will end, asserting that while such a tactic is not advisable for public speakers, it is an excellent practice for artists, as it allows art to happen in an organic, real way that, in turn, makes a piece more believable than if it had been planned out in intricate detail. On that same page, 20 to be exact, Art & Fear spoke almost directly to me by pointing out the futility of making detailed plot outlines in writing stories, a practice I’ve held to for many years. Though I’m well aware that every artist has their methods and that if that method should produce a result then it is not invalidated, part of me always felt tethered by those plans. But I made them out of a fear that I could not write without them, born from the uncertainty of my writing abilities.
Central as it is to many of an artist’s fears, uncertainty conceals itself behind most of the following sections throughout the book like a puppet master cycling through its many marionettes. Uncertainty itself returns for a final bow in the last paragraph of the book, on page 119, where the authors end Art & Fear by illustrating a dilemma faced by all artists: will you put all you have into your work and face the ambiguity of its outcome, or will you hedge your bets and pull your artistic punches, thereby assuring a hollow, unsatisfying work? “[C]uriously,” write the authors, “uncertainty is the comforting choice” (Bayles and Orland 119).
In a broader sense, when are you ever creating something with absolute certainty of what the finished product will be? If you empty the contents of a brand new box of LEGOs onto the floor, which comes with detailed instructions, is there complete certainty that the fruits of your hard work will be indistinguishable from the vibrant fantasy depicted on the packaging? What if the packing machines in that factory in Denmark made some sort of error and slipped a flat, smooth, red circle-y piece in where a tall, wide, beige rectangle-y piece should have been? What then, LEGOmaniac, what then? You make art, that’s what! You write a terse letter of complaint to LEGO quality assurance, then you make art.
Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Cruz, CA & Eugene, OR: Image Continuum, 2015. Print.