It has been an atrocious year for the arts. For artists, it has been the worst not just because of logistic inconveniences and failed opportunities, but also – or frankly, especially – because of the sudden loss of hope. Questions and questioning has been brutal. Some of us have asked ourselves if things will ever go back to normal. Others, if the institutions our art world was built on will survive. And the worst question: “what is the meaning and the significance of what I do? Does it matter at all?” So now that the light at the end of the tunnel is almost visible, here is something to use our remaining time on before the grand reopen and help find that meaning to start again. Here are 5 books that can be guides in finding one’s way across the rocks.
Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland came out years ago, but it is still one of the most recommended books for artists. It is not about professional development, how to put oneself out there or working with a gallery, but the most underestimated obstacle there is: the fears and anxieties within the loneliness of the studio. Or even before getting there. For photographers, where the act of photographing has become deceptively easy, these anxieties can be especially pernicious. It’s like bumping into the question: Am I adding anything at all to the constant flow of images? This book helps with that and is especially useful in debunking some of the untouchable myths of art: the romantic concepts of creativity, talent and the magic of the creative process that have been part of the social history of what we call the art world but in reality are so dangerous for artists themselves. So art making becomes just a practice like everything else we do in everyday life, without the need to wait for an inspiration. This book is highly recommended for its enlightening perspective on these entrenched ideas.
The second on the list is a book related to photography, but it’s actually universally applicable to any artist working in any medium. Aperture as a publisher and Sasha Wolf as an editor invited 40 photographers to respond to questions on their creative process. For example: how do you get to the discovery of the concept of your project? How do you start it, how do you proceed and how do you figure out where to stop with a series? Following forty artists working in photography and picking ideas from their practice or their method in finding solutions to creative problems is a godsend, if only because it gives you the feeling that there are many valid ways to make art.
Slow processes have become really popular in the last few years – there is slow food, slow tourism, show fashion and so many other social movements opposing the conversion of certain acts into mass production that follows the logic of late capitalism. Slow looking, on the other hand, is very similar to those, but it also includes so much more. It started out as an educational technique for developing the eye as well as attention as a skill for professionals who have nothing to do with the arts, like doctors or FBI investigators. Yes, just as writing or speaking persuasively are crucial for certain (most?) professions today, the ability to see is a fundamental skill to develop as well. Unfortunately, it has not been getting much attention in education nor in professional training. Shari Tishman is the one who developed the technique and, most importantly, she based it on art, as her courses are held in museums, even though their goals have nothing to do with art necessarily. For an artist, this skill is crucial not just for the skill to look and observe the world, but also to analyze one’s own works and so dig deep in one’s creative practice.
This book is also related to photography, but it has no photographs nor instructions about taking photos. It’s a compendium of essays about the experiences of photographic artists who tell the stories of NOT taking certain pictures. The usefulness of the book, especially for photographers, consists in focusing not on how-tos, or even concepts, but on the process of capture as well as the idea behind one’s own photographic process. Those of us who are going through a moment of creative block in relation to our artistic work can see our fears and hesitation reflected in these essays and can perhaps take inspiration, warnings or empathy. The photographers whose essays can be read here range from Mary Ellen Mark to Kelli Connell, so they are not dealing exclusively with the capture but include the sensibility of what happens after or before in the construction of a photo.
And finally, this book which, even if published for the first time some 10 years ago, is still a revelation and one of the most important ones for me – and for the historic moment in which we live. Matthew Crawford is currently considered almost like a prophet, due to the importance of his book for digital culture where physicality becomes irrelevant, but also for the role of physical work in today’s economy. The book came out in the distant 2009, so it’s a contemporary to Nicholas Carr’s article Is Google Making us Stupid? Even though initially the book seemed to have nothing to do with Carr’s work, today their connection is obvious. For artists, the book is important for other reasons: It demonstrates the relationship between craft and the work of the hands to thinking and conceptuality. This connection reinvents (especially for photographers) the importance of physicality, tactility and the hand in photographic art.
Are you familiar with any of these books? I’d love to hear your opinion on them and if they have been useful to you. Or you perhaps have another suggestion for a book to add to the list?
Best wishes for a wonderful 2021 and an inspired path ahead!