Art & Fear: 17 years on

Book Review by Claire Parrish

‘Fear is about yourself. We have met the enemy, and he is us‘ (Pogo, 1970) 

Seventeen years after it was first published, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking has now sold over 180,000 copies. Considering that artists David Bayles and Ted Orland published it under their own steam in 1991, and the book’s sales have since grown by word of mouth advertising alone, it has earned its reputation for being a useful, underground classic.

That art-making can induce fear might be hard for some people to wear. Fear when jumping out of plane at altitude = more than likely. Fear getting a life-changing illness = certainly. But really, making art? For many of us, however, it is familiar territory. Hang-ups about being creative can reach way back into childhood: parents can unwittingly stymie their child’s imagination, and research now shows that teachers generally dislike their more creative students (however much they insist to the contrary). Labels like ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ quickly trip us up when the going gets tough. Trying to make art outside college, in a world where our work might be rarely seen, commented on, or encouraged: navigating the making of art within our ‘I’ culture, where art has become an expression of self: ergo, making flawed art = you are a flawed person. Tracking this perilous trajectory, when you make no art at all, you are no person at all. No surprise then, that for some of us, making art can feel fraught, dangerous, and too revealing. Doubt-ridden and fearful, we watch as our paints gather dust.

Art & Fear:  a precis 
Its a pithy, though comforting read, written by artists, and gets straight down to what can hinder our development as artists, and why. They give you no exercises, plans or solutions. If you want a ‘how to’ book, look elsewhere. We get to see our behaviours and reactions observed from a new and more helpful angle. It’s refreshingly absent of psycho-babble or opaque art-speak. The book is brief, an easily digestible 122 pages, and offers many opportunities for deeper contemplation. Best to get hold of your own copy, and not lend it out, as it won’t be coming back.

Decide for yourself:  quotes from the book 
‘This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio … trying to do the work you need to do’
‘Making art is chancy, it doesn’t mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential and pervasive companion to your desire to make art, and tolerance of uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding’
‘Art provides uncomfortable feedback on the gap between what you want and how things actually are’
‘The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.’
‘The seeds of your next artwork lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece, the mistakes are guides, valuable, reliable’
‘To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process.’
‘Fears about yourself prevent you doing your best work, and fear about your reception from others prevent you from doing your own work’
‘Someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around’

Claire Parrish


Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
Authors: David Bayles, Ted Orland
Publisher: Image Continuum Press
ISBN-13: 978-0961454739