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To Make Great Art You have to be Fearless

Sunday, 1. April 2012 23:29

One of the biggest problems for any artist is fear. Fear goes by a lot of names: self-doubt, insecurity, hesitancy, self-protection, risk-aversion, being realistic. And it has many consequences: we procrastinate, we revise rather than release, we decline to enter shows, we don’t send manuscripts to publishers, we refuse to consider marketing, and then we spend our time rationalizing why our work is not getting out there.

In its more severe forms this syndrome can result in the work never even getting done. After all, what is the point of making art if no one is going to see it, rather, what is the point of making art if we’re not going to show it to anyone? So digital images don’t get printed or even taken, stories don’t get written, that piece of sculpture in our heads never advances beyond the sketch stage, the movie exists only in a partial screenplay. The list goes on.

All of this is natural. We want to protect our art. It is, after all, ours, and we know it is fragile. It’s much easier to think this way than to admit the truth: we are fragile and we are so bound up to our work that we often can’t tell the difference. We must protect ourselves. And the two easiest methods of protecting ourselves is to show our work to a very limited set of viewers who will say nice things, or to not show our work to anyone at all. We can just look at it ourselves, or, sometimes, just think about what it would be like if we actually made it.

There are very few artists who have not experienced at least one form of this fear; some have experienced it in all its forms. It is what keeps visual artists entering the same local juried shows and not attempting regional or national opportunities; it is what prevents actors from fully realizing the characters they are trying to create; it is what stops the screenwriter from pitching his/her latest work to anyone other than the friend who wants to produce; it is what causes the composer to play his latest creation only for family and a few friends.

This is a very real, serious problem for a lot of artists. Fear, in one or more of its incarnations, has been the occasion for a number of articles, blog posts, and even books. Writers from Julia Cameron to Seth Godin have discussed it and have offered solutions. Just this past week two articles appeared online. One on Virtual Photography Studio is called “Is the ‘F’ Word Creeping Into Your Business and Personal Life?” which discusses the impact of fear on both your work and your life. The other is “Overcoming Doubt and Fear” on Empty Easel. In this article, Aniko Makay discusses her way of dealing with artistic doubts and fears.

If these articles or the authors mentioned don’t tell you what you need to know, there are plenty of others out there. Just google “overcoming fear” or “overcoming insecurity.” You might consider the following method; it may seem a bit simplistic upon first reading, but it can, in fact, help.

  • Name the risk. This sometimes is not as easy as it sounds.
  • Imagine the worst case scenario of taking the risk.
  • Decide if you can live with that.
  • Imagine the best case scenario of taking the risk.
  • Decide if you can live with that.
  • If you can live with both outcomes, you can live with anything in between. Take the risk.

Given the individual artist, some risks may not worth taking, but many are. We just need to recognize that. Often we get into a cycle of worrying about potential outcomes and not moving forward with our work. It’s an easy cycle to fall into. But taking risks is something that we have to learn to do. To make art we have to be fearless.




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Making Your Art Accessible Is Making a Mistake

Monday, 13. February 2012 0:01

The question of art accessibility is one of those topics that are always under discussion somewhere. It came up again recently in a piece on Empty Easel. In “If Art is a Language, How Well do you Communicate?Niki Hilsabeck says that artists who “want to resonate more with the buying public should learn the buyers’ ‘language’ and adjust their artwork accordingly.”

In other words, if your potential buyers don’t get your work, perhaps you should modify your work so that it expresses your intent in a way they can understand.  This would seem to reduce the artist to either a manufacturer of commodities on one hand or little more than a teacher on the other. And perhaps some artists are both of those things, but to say that an artist is no more than that is a gross oversimplification of the art experience.

Hilsabeck asserts that art is a conversation. I disagree; art is an expression, perhaps an assertion itself, and sometimes it starts conversations, but often the artist is not involved in those, nor should he/she be; that’s not his/her job.

Hilsabeck’s rationale seems to be that since art is communication, anything you can do to aid that communication is a good thing. It’s a concept I have trouble with. Much of what art is about, much of the very complicated way that art communicates is tied up with how the work communicates. Good art is multi-layered and complex, and out of the reach for some people. Because of the interconnectedness of form and content, modifying how an artwork speaks to its audience must, in turn, modify what is communicated. So in trying to make your art more accessible, you can’t help but change your message as well.

You have to decide whether having another sale is worth changing what you are saying. It’s very much like politics: you can get the support you want if you will change your message to be what those supporters want to hear. The real question is: is what they want to hear what you want to say?

To put this whole argument into perspective, think for a minute about Jackson Pollock trying to make his mature work more accessible. It becomes completely different work. I, for one, am very glad that he did not attempt to make it easy for us.

So what is the artist to do? There is a natural desire to sell your work; at the same time you need to say what you need to say in the way you need to say it. The process is far more complex that the mere need to communicate. You don’t need to modify what you are doing; you need to connect with those who get what you do. There is really no “public” that you have to appease; rather there are people who, if they knew your work, would like it, and perhaps purchase it. The marketing part of your job is to connect with them, or facilitate their discovering you. You need to, in the terminology of Seth Godin, find your tribe.

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Making Art is Not for the Timid

Sunday, 31. July 2011 23:59

Susan Holland, writing on Empty Easel advises artists to make paintings with “for sure” statements, not “sort of” paintings. By that she means paintings that “make a clear, unambiguous statement.”  What she says about painting applies to all arts, whether it is photography, acting, directing, dance, sculpture, or writing.

“But I love ambiguity,” you say. I do too. But the ambiguity that we love is in the material, not in the presentation of the material. So ideally we would present subject matter that is ambiguous rather than presenting subject matter in an ambiguous, wishy-washy manner. In the latter case, we would be, in the words of Holland, presenting work that “just doesn’t ‘pop.’” It may be “benign,” but it won’t “really say anything.” This is certainly not a situation we want to be in as artists.

If you are painting, or photographing, or directing, or acting, or writing a situation that is ambiguous, say so, and say so with conviction; hit the audience in the face with the ambiguity. Do not piddle around with it; that will only make it confusing for your audience. In fact, the ambiguity of the situation may be lost because of your inability to present it in a clear and robust manner.

In terms of presentation, the opposite of clear is not ambiguous, but timid. This is seen in almost every art, but it is particularly evident in acting. Many beginning actors do not understand the necessity of making firm choices, so their work tends to be tentative, lacking conviction, and not very interesting to watch. Once an actor makes a choice about his character and that character’s motivations and characteristics, his/her work immediately becomes more interesting, more watchable. Acting is not an art for the timid; actually, no art is an art for the timid if it is to be interesting, thought-provoking, or beautiful.

In my own work, whether it be stage work or photography, the work that really delivers, and thus the work that appeals most is work that is clear and clean—work that makes not only an unambiguous statement, but a strong statement. The impact of the work is stronger; the work is more interesting to the viewer; the meaning of the work is more available to the audience. It’s better work.

And if you look at the work of respected artists, you will find that in every case the work makes a definite statement, a strong statement. You may disagree with what a particular artist is saying, but there is no question that he/she is saying something definitive. The subject matter may be ambiguous, but it is presented clearly, boldly, even provocatively.

The question then is how do you do that? How do you move your work from “sort of” to definite, strong, meaningful? My first suggestion is the one that I give actors: make a choice. Don’t let your work wander around and sort of suggest something; make a choice and stick with it. You may have to change it if it doesn’t work, but making a choice will give you direction and lead you to do stronger, clearer, cleaner work.

Holland suggests that you look at your work with a critical eye and edit. Both of these things are necessary, but you have to be able to be able to separate yourself from your work in order to see it critically. In Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self, Don Hahn says that you have to “become completely detached, so that you can criticize and edit your own work.”

Additionally, Holland offers a list of concrete suggestions that an artist could use to make his/her paintings better. With a little imagination, you could modify her list to apply to almost any art.

So as you create, make strong choices, separate yourself and be critical of your own work, edit. Make strong definitive statements. You may be a shy person; many artists are, but you cannot let that carry over to your work. Making art—of any kind—is not for the timid.

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