There is something about creativity that makes people nervous. It sometimes can be quite intimidating to face a blank canvass, piece of paper, word processor, sketch pad, or weapon of choice. The pressure mounts as yours and others’ expectations for what will come out of your efforts, your personal expression, your intellect, takes a seat beside you, looking at you impatiently.
This book addresses that and many other fears artists, and I would add designers, have to deal with in the course of their productive existence. This book is brilliant at that. In a little under 120 pages the authors take you down a philosophical-psychological tour of what it really feels to be someone who has chosen to make art/design for a living.
After the first and second chapters, I felt so understood by the authors that it felt impossible to let go of the book. In almost axiomatic fashion, they state a powerful reality: an artist must imagine the possible. By this they mean that artists can produce numerous ideas and versions of ideas constantly, and often do so paying the price of not focusing on the present work, on the task at hand. Imagine the possible is almost a commandment, ordering the artist/designer to ground himself in the reality that he must execute, work, do, not limit herself to thinking and ideating. I agree that it is a great gift to be able to frequently develop ideas and conceptually scale them to amazing proportions, but this gift can also lead to what I like to call a “post-it” surplus, where you find yourself surrounded by post-its containing amazing ideas but often they never get to be nurtured because there are too many to care for. And where they are not nurtured, they fade away and after a while one discards them for being a senseless phrase on a yellow piece of sticky paper. Or maybe you nurture an idea that seems brilliant but in the midst of your excitement you fail to asses the feasibility of this grand idea, which then makes you feel like you failed, calling upon you the ultimate artist fear: maybe I’m not supposed to be doing this. Imagine the possible. What can you execute?
“Art & Fear” also is powerful at bringing up systematic questions about the academic world, artists’ careers, and cultural notions about what it means to be an artist or making a living by making art. My main insight from reading the systematic problems surrounding artistic education is that there needs to be better advice for students who wish to pursue and are pursuing an artistic career, advice that goes beyond the default (and accurate) warning that the artist is, statistically speaking, doomed to not make a lot of money, or comfortable living. For example, couldn’t art students be provided with mandatory clases in their curriculum that reinforce analytical skills, “left-brained” processes, and other tools that could be transferable in combination with their artistic talent. Or, should we not advise a potential art student that maybe going to college is not the best education for price available for artists? After all, with university becoming more and more costly, why are we selling “education” to artists who — again, statistically speaking — will probably have a very difficult time paying for it. The authors in a way make a call to action to readers, asking them to reimagine art education for the new world. In my opinion, I felt that university education has to become more tailored to balance students’ ambitions and the realities of the world economy and the jobs markets that operate within them (i.e., what is the balance between education that provides lifelong value but is very costly as opposed to training-based education that provides tangible short term value at a fairer price). The task, because of its economic, cultural, and global implications, seems insurmountable.
Perhaps what I enjoyed the most was how this book made me think more about a question that had been crawling around my head for a while: what is the relationship between art and design? Is there a difference, are they mutually exclusive, or are they two words that often describe the same thing at different degrees of a continuum. Though I haven’t gotten to a conclusion yet, I’ve thought about a few aspects worth mentioning:
- It seems to me that designers solve problems that are tangible, pressing, and currently existing, whereas artists ask questions that seemingly have no place in our lives or are about intangible realities that nonetheless are felt, and attempt to find answers to these abstract problems. The designer is practical and has processes that are quick to solve immediate pressing questions, whereas the artist is practical in a big picture way, proposing new questions by reading the world’s ideas and problems and executing on that sensitivity, to create new worlds that can be visited by others. To give dramatic examples, Mozart and Picasso did not solve existing problems, yet somehow managed to powerfully shape the human culture for centuries (in the case of Picasso decades).
- Art thinking in business - This is an issue that I have been gnawing on a lot and so far have only have observed that artists could bring richness and depth of thought when a business is defining or redefining its identity, its soul. And while design firms currently do this through identity and brand design, I wonder if a an artistic approach could help a brand have more insight on its potential impact in the world. Even though this sounds abstract (because it is ha!), it also has tangible economic value (I think) in that business, aside from being profitable and sustainable, have a stronger chance of succeeding when there is a core spirit that drives it. When this is the case, it has a way of reaching to customers/clients in a direct way, through ideas. I believe this is a more powerful connection than the one achieved by having good products and a great marketing system. The challenge of applying art thinking in business would entail the difficulty of incorporating such thinking at different times in organizations, as well as maintaining structure and reason while applying it, which seems pretty incompatible with the artistic way of thinking (broadly speaking) — “art is not about control.”
- Design and art are neither mutually exclusive nor inclusive. The roles may change fluidly, and as a result, the work/product as well. There is no need to label or to expressly distinguish one from the other. Rather, I see art and design was water and ice, both beautiful, essential, with different defining traits, but ultimately the same chemical composition.
I could go on for long on the countless number of ideas and insights I got from “Art & Fear”, but since it’s a book that touches the reader personally, I encourage you to explore what it means and insights it brings to you, and what questions you can come up with. Off the top of my head, I can cite the following:
- Imagine the possible.
- The comforting choice is to give your work your best shot and risk that it will not make you happy, or not give it your best shot and guarantee that it will not make you happy. Uncertainty is the comforting choice in art/design.
- Don’t think, DO.
What will you feel when exploring the fears of artmaking?