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Book Report: Art and Fear

I read this book years ago, and I didn't realize how much it had influenced my thinking until I recently opened it to look up a quote to bolster my argument in a discussion, and found that I've lifted my own philosophy about talent and artistic training directly from the authors.

So, I re-read the book in full, and decided to write up a little book report and give them credit for their theory which I have been trumpeting as my own.

I don't agree with everything is the book, but it has some fabulous ideas that were very liberating to me at a time when I was terrified to make art.

"The prevailing view of artmaking today [is that] art rests fundamentally upon talent, and that talent is a gift randomly built into some people and not into others. In common parlance, either you have it, or you don't.... This view is fatalistic - and offers no useful encouragement to those who would make art.

"Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. The conventional wisdom here is that while "craft" can be taught, "art" remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable over the long run, from perseverance and hard work."

"... our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting our work done, are a source of strength as well."

"Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did."

"Your job is to learn to work on your work."

"Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue -- or more precisely, have learned how not to quit."

I have learned the hard way (and I am sure the authors have learned this too) that this philosophy can raise ire. But I do think their words might resonate deeply with many people who want to make art but for one reason or another feel they are not "real artists".

All we can do is come up with a philosophy that helps us keep making art. So if this philosophy resonates with you, read this book, and then go forth and make art.

Also, I'll be teaching a drawing workshop for art-makers of all stripes soon, so if you think the philosophy would be helpful to you in the classroom, come to San Francisco in late April - details coming soon!

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Reader Comments (9)

That book is a life-saver. It helped me enormously a few years ago, and I have a feeling that when I reread it now, different things will jump out at me.

"Even talent is rarely distinguishable over the long run, from perseverance and hard work."

The corollary to this is that in order to get anywhere with your art, you have to work very, very hard, regardless of talent. I think the reason this philosophy raises ire is that people aren't particularly keen on having to work until they are blue in the face. And of course, it removes privilege from the talented and says they have to do the same amount of work as everybody else.

A huge part of art is *skill* and the only way to gain it is to work a lot and cope with a lot of frustration along the way.

I am going to sound like a Soviet blowhard, but I notice that in North American schools - all kinds of schools, but especially art schools - hard work and tolerating difficulty while gaining skills is not accepted or encouraged. I don't mean that the entire continent is riddled with character defects. Rather, it's built right into the curriculum and the teaching methodology. A) The goals given to students are low, as are evaluation standards. B) Students are coddled, with an unhealthy premium on their feeling happy at all times.

In art colleges, skill deficits of alarming magnitude are simply ignored by the faculty, possibly because the faculty shares those deficits. And students come to class to "create Art" and make their mark on art history, when they should be coming to class to practice, learn, fall on their faces and skin their knees in a protective environment that accepts those states as givens.

In a lot of ways, painting and drawing reminds me of gymnastics and other complicated sports. No matter your talent, you have to do the drills, and the process of growing has tough aspects nobody gets to bypass.

"Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did."

I ran into this no more than 4 days ago! When I posted an image and called it a failure, people liked it and didn't understand why I rejected it. It was exactly for this reason - the gap between what I saw in my head and what wound up on canvas was HUGE.

The only cure, as far as I can tell, is dusting yourself off and trying again.

"In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your voice, which makes your work distinctive."

This jumped out at me, because from about 2002 to more or less now, I wasted a lot of time trying to make art that other people would accept.

I don't seem to click with my city's art clique. I tried approaching it by simply submitting my stuff, and I tried to schmooze my way into the scene by going to the right parties. The process was as repellent to me as it was to the art scene organism, which rejected me like a splinter.

I remember going down Queen West at night, looking into brightly lit gallery spaces and feeling like the little match girl, pressing my nose against the glass and wishing more than anything to be allowed in. (Look, I never said I was intelligent :D )

I wasted untold tons of canvas and paint trying to be all bold and free and gestural and textural, because Imitation Rauschenberg is what gets recognized as painting. I only recently realized that this sort of thing is foreign to every particle in my body, that I am a quiet, meditative artist with a temperament close to Vermeer's, and that anything else looks like a hideous Halloween costume on me.

And most of New Art is equally foreign to me as well. New Art is what I call the artistic tradition of "anything is art", that emerged in the later half of the 20th century, and revolves around using anything OTHER than canvas, paint and pencil to create things that can only loosely be called images.

One student in my drawing class submitted New Art as his final project. He put a drum over a speaker, and sprinkled pigment on the top. When he turned on the speaker, the vibration made the pigment jump about. That was the artwork.

Look, I am not passing judgement so much as saying, I don't get this artistic tradition and don't belong to it. The tradition I consider mine and want to give continued life and evolution to is Western painting, from Giotto to Bosch to Boticelli to Breughel to Rembrandt etc.

It took YEARS to actually grow the spine to acknowledge this need and act on it. I urge all artists everywhere to spare themselves the waste and read that sentence in Art and Fear more carefully :-D

January 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

I agree Saptula that some of the attachment to the idea of talent is about avoiding work, but on the other hand my own education at RISD was a TON of work - and yet the idea of talent still was everywhere. (The freshman year at RISD is actually ranked as the most "work" of all American colleges for freshman year. Not sure how that compares to other countries, though :)

I do think part of the issue is work on CRAFT. Craft has a bad name in the fine art world.

Also, I know even realists who work very hard on their craft who don't agree that art is mostly practice and hard work, people who believe there are some people with talent and some people without it. So that doesn't cover all of it either.

Of course, being an artist is probably a combination of hard work and talent, the problem being talent is hard to define, impossible to measure and completely subjective.

Evaluating talent seems to have a lot more to do with the judge than the judged. And evaluating one's OWN talent is a quagmire.

I also had the "pressed against the glass" feeling for many years. I thought I had to be someone different to be a real artist - I thought my art had to be way more cool, ironic, and expressive than I am. I made some very bad attempts at trying to make cool/ironic/gloomy/expressionistic paintings and then promptly gave up painting for most of my 20's.

Community has a lot to do with it. Community I think is very important for an artist, it's very hard to work alone. Some people manage to soldier on when everyone tells them what they do is worthless, but many people don't.

January 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

In addition to my own milieu of fine art, I've also been part of the gymnastics scene when I was a child (hence my comparison), and now I get to see the ballet/dance world from the inside as I watch my kid sister, who seems to be as serious a dance artist as I am an art artist.

Talent certainly comes up a lot as teachers evaluate students and it's something that is readily apparent. I understand talent as a facility for learning particular skills. Some kids have to be told again and again to correct some form problem, and they just don't *get* it, even though they try. For them, to make a particular learning leap takes a lot more time, effort and repetition from the instructor. Other kids get it almost immediately, and they also self-correct a lot more because they are practically sponging information the whole time they are in class.

I certainly believe that there is such a thing as talent, and I think it's this teachability. I was very easy to teach languages and drawing. I was and remain nearly impossible to educate in math and music.

But! The huge but is that I am also *unwilling* to learn math and music. And the reason is that talent simply speeds up learning. The crucial part is that the learning *still has to take place*, and will not if the student does not put in the focus, effort, frustration tolerance and constant evaluation of success/failure.

When I say "work" I mean "work at acquiring skill." There was a lot of emphasis on producing at my art college - not just on volume but a kind of "make it count, make Aht" emphasis, where there was no room for simply training and gaining proficiency. The very idea of skill was taboo. Students were definitely not open to the idea of having to do anything resembling drills - how unglamorous, and my, are you suggesting that I am not already a fully formed master of my chosen medium? Are you so retrograde as to make qualitative judgements about technique? LOSER?

I don't blame them for this attitude entirely, because the teachers and the curriculum insisted on cultivating it. I remember arguing for about 20 minutes with my figure drawing teacher. I kept asking him to spend some time on structural anatomy, and he kept trying to convince me that it was not necessary to know anatomy in order to portray the human form, and that I needed to loosen up and be more expressive and try to really SAY something with my drawings. He was pretty typical in this approach. The whole school was soaked in it.

So yes, people were more than willing to stay up nights and so forth, but people were definitely not willing to say, "at this point, I suck at painting in several important ways, and I need to do 25 more still lifes, plus a lot of advice on specific aspects of painting, in order to overcome my current set of technical weaknesses."


"Community has a lot to do with it. Community I think is very important for an artist, it's very hard to work alone."

I agree a billion percent. The development of a figurative/realist movement in North America (and the atelier system) is incredibly important, because without it many artists like me would be withering. There is also an egg-each-other-on factor - something about a positive kind of professional jealousy where achievements of fellow artists spur others on to trying harder than they would have otherwise.

January 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

Hi-- RISD freshman applicant here =),

Just wanted to pop in to say thanks so much for voicing what you did (and what you're doing here). It's very much appreciated! I'm terribly inspired. Consider said book checked out immediately!

This was all just what I needed, :D


January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Hi Elizabeth, I sure hope you read my post on "What I wish I learned in art school"

Good luck with your RISD application. If you are applying for art school because you like to draw, please email me for some advice :)

January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri


I hadn't read it, but thank you for the link! A terrific post. Much of what you said resonsated with me. I'll be sure to begin research on ateliers for the future...

And thanks for the well wishes! I do love drawing, but I had planned on attending RISD because I don't know precisely what I want to do with my career and thought a sampling of university disciplines might help.

I'll try to email if any lingering questions come to mind! (tho I'm not sure they will; you guys seemed to have covered all the bases.)

Thanks again!

January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Good luck Elizabeth! RISD is a very fun and exciting place. Take advantage of the facilities and do what it takes to muscle your way into a wide range of classes both at RISD and Brown to expose yourself to a wide variety of experiences. I think if you go in with your eyes wide open and are driven to explore as much as possible you will start to form an idea of what you want to do.

Just be aware that if your parents are not in a position to pay cash for the tuition, you and your parents could easily be in debt for 10 years following graduation - that's hundreds of dollars a month on top of living expenses. That's a hardship if you graduate without any marketable/employable skills. So be proactive, and make sure you know what you are getting into, taking on that kind of debt.

I'm excited for you, I'm just telling you what I wish I had understood before I went. That said, I was thrilled and honored to get into RISD, and I loved my time there, and I had fantastic and inspiring teachers.

January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Spatula I like your transference of talent to "teachability". I too am not very teachable when it comes to math, so I understand I was certainly more "teachable" when it came to art, and you could call that talent. I like "teachability" better though, because it acknowledges the huge amount of work required to build on that initial inclination.

I was saved from the kind of frustrating argument you had with your teacher about anatomy because I majored in Illustration. We were definitely taught basic structural anatomy without apology. But I had enough Painting Major friends to witness what went on there, and how there was no room for the study of traditional skills if they had wanted to.

I have no problem with people honestly following their calling and creating whatever they are driven to do - even if it was making "pigment dance on a drum" (although I wouldn't have been able to stay in the room for that particular crit).

I just resent it that people who actually wanted to study realism for fine art were laughed out of the park. Wyeth is being mourned this week with a true outpouring, and he showed amazing fortitude (and success) in the face of severe "art world" criticism. But how many others with potentially equal ability and vision were not able to stand against the prevailing winds?

I do think now it's changing. I don't think it was the culture of our art schools, I think it was the culture of the 20th century. I read an art historian quote recently that said "Art movements don't HAVE to change at the turn of the centuries, but they often do". (Wish I could cite it.)

I feel lucky to be making paintings in this era.

I'm also excited for this era for women artists.

January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Wow Sadie!!! You really are going to teach! Hip, hip, hurray!!! You will be an excellent teacher. Thanks for the reminder on Art and Fear. I agree 100% and I know this is something you truly believe as we have had several conversations along these lines and you have inspired me every time. I miss you in class!

January 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJanell James
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