Asking questions can be enlightening and dangerous. The small questions—what should I do today? (Which is of course only meaningful if you actually have a choice and as such is a privileged question to ask…) What should I—make, draw, paint, write—next? hinge on the larger questions why and how? For me, especially after completing a big project and before starting the next as yet intangible and at times seemingly impossible thing, this demanding and unsettling question of why always arises like a gate at a castle door. (Once I’m fully engaged in a project and the project takes on a driving life force of it’s own, the question fades away to a faint echo…but in between, it becomes a grinding dissonant shriek that demands attention.)
Why make another drawing? Why paint another painting? Why write another story? Aren’t there enough drawings, paintings, stories in the world? Just walk into any bookstore and ask yourself if there’s a shortage of books on their shelves…
Now our current culture seems to think the motivation to “express yourself” is a valid and just answer to the question of why, but to me, there’s always been a hollow ring to it. It’s works on the assumption that people really care about what you have to say. Which isn’t really true. And then there’s the justification given that the purpose of making art is to change the world, to help improve the lives of others. And I’m sorry, but I have to say that rings equally false (to me) in its suggestion of grand self-importance.
Which leaves the conundrum, if not to “express myself” or save the world, why spend the vast amount of time, this large proportion of my days, doing it? This writing stories, incessantly trying to make something out of nothing? And if it actually doesn’t matter, if there’s actually no good reason, then why is it so bloody hard, excruciatingly hard, not to? (John Barth hit this pretty much on the nose saying, “It’s Scheherazade’s terror: the terror that comes from the literal or metaphorical equating of telling stories with living, with life itself. I understand that metaphor to the marrow of my bones.”)
I have talked about this quite a bit in the past and found some pretty good answers given in a blog post from November 2013, The Landscape of Questioning and yet these questions continue to come up for me. Per my usual method of waiting out the storm of questions, I‘ve been busying myself weaving brightly colored sari ribbon, reading poems and spending time journaling—a combination of writing, sketching, doodling, making lists. And spending time with a couple of “study guides”…
A couple weeks ago, after touring the Keith Haring show at the DeYoung Museum (who in his short life did make art to both express himself and to change the world and was highly and prolifically successful at both…) I stopped in the bookstore and a small book on one of the tables all but jumped into my hand. ART AND FEAR Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I opened it up, started reading and was astounded to the point of tears at how uncannily it spoke to the questions and issues that I’ve been struggling with. I bought it, brought it home and it’s since become a kind of map, a guide on some ways to forge new paths in the landscape of making. They start out talking about the nature of the problem~
And as much as your family and friends are kind and supportive, as much as they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world: learning to make your work is not their problem.
Yes, it’s this uncertainty that niggles at me. But maybe that’s part of the reason, the answer, too? Then there’s this:
Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork…Your job is to learn to work on your work…you learn how to make you work by making your work…
So it seems perhaps the answer to why and how lives somewhere in the work itself? And accepting the uncertainty, learning to straddle it and get on with doing the work, writing the stories, drawing the drawings, painting that canvas is at least part of the remedy to the malaise.
I like Kurt Vonnegut's advice~
More answers/solutions/remedies are presented with humor, whimsy and wit in another map/guide I’ve been using—Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, the best get-over-your-self and-your-stupid-inhabitations-and-hang-ups guide I’ve ever come across. But enough on the topic for this week. Maybe I’ll delve into the weird and wonderful world of Lynda Barry next time…
Take Good Care,