The War of Art

December 10, 2011

I’m working on a grant application.  It doesn’t matter what it’s for, the process is the same: I agonize over work samples with a critical eye, and I battle insecurity as I attempt to articulate what I make and why.

Yesterday I was looking through video footage of my performance piece I Like You, which was produced last June.  Re-watching the work brought me right back to the stress of making it-- the stress of working with crunched time, of coordinating rehearsal schedules and space, of trying to think creatively, but being so anxiety-ridden that it felt almost impossible.  In fact, making that piece completely burned me out.  It was after this burn out that I started this blog to remember what I enjoyed doing outside of art-making, because it appeared that I didn’t know how to make performance in a way that wasn’t completely self-defeating.  You know, without becoming a total anxiety-ridden insomniac that’s battling a constant fear of failure while working on a piece, and without the steep and depressing crash that comes at the end of it all when I realize that hardly anyone saw it, that I’m- once again- in debt over it, and that now...despite the stress...I miss it.

I mean, doesn’t that sound like FUN?!?!  Doesn’t that sound sustainable?  Not really.

I know I’m not the only one who exists artistically in these ups and downs, because I’ve talked to dozens of others.  They are actors, musicians, writers, directors, and choreographers.  They are artists who get trapped in the world of comparison, who get bitter about casting and reviews.  Like me, they get worked up over audience sizes, the money they don’t get paid and the grants the missed out on, and the jobs they hold to support their artistic habit.

A lot of people tell me that these feelings and thoughts are just what go along with being an artist.  I hear the word “passionate” a lot, and words about artists being more prone to drastic emotional ups and downs, and lots of insistence that this is what makes artists good at making art.  And I want to call bullshit on this.  Because, I don’t think that this should be part of what it takes to make good art.  I don’t think that artists are doing anyone a favor by cultivating a style of living that leaves them bitter, jealous, depressed, and anxious.  It feels unnecessary; it feels a bit bipolar.  It eventually leaves us looking at our art like an abusive significant other, when we really have no one to blame but ourselves.

Last week Jen Scott told me about Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, and it’s follow-up book, Do The Work.  I just finished The War of Art, and I have to admit that it pretty much blew my mind and perfectly articulated why I have been unable to make artistic work in a sustainable manner.  And everyone should read it: it’s short, sweet, and applicable to any and all artistic pursuits and entrepreneurial ventures.  And, yes, it does look (and sound) a little self-help-y.  And, he might reference angels at a couple of points.  But, fuck it- maybe we could use some help.

Pressfield offers up a new framework for working as a creative person.  And, he starts with the thing that prevents us from making art in the first place: resistance.  The book starts with saying that to accomplish anything, we must fight resistance.  He most clearly defines resistance as self-sabotage; it is the part of ourselves that gets in our own way, seeks to rationalize our actions, and allows us to over-think our decisions.  Resistance prevents us all from doing the work that we want to do.

So, how do we combat resistance and do the work?

Pressfield writes about combating resistance by thinking like a professional.  He points out that we all know how to think like professionals, because we hold/have held jobs.  He says that a professional...

:: shows up everyday.

:: stays on the job all day.

:: works for money, not for fun.

:: doesn’t over-identify with their work.

:: is prepared to receive praise or blame at work.

What The War of Art then insists goes against what I’ve been taught about being an artist; he says that too much love [for your art] is a bad thing.  He advocates for adopting the attitude of a person who works for money.  And, I think this is pretty brilliant.  I think that when our art is the thing that we love the most and over-identify with, that we can’t find any perspective outside of it.  Suddenly, if the artistic career is going really well, WE are doing really well.  And, if it’s not, suddenly we’re suffering.  That’s a really scary thing considering that a great deal of the artists success is completely out of his or her hands.  All the artist can do is show up and do the work-- every single day.

The goal that The War of Art encourages us to work towards is not some kind of victory.  It isn’t a grant, a producer, a book deal, or a role at the Guthrie, although those things might happen along the way.  The goal is to handle yourself to the best of your abilities- to keep working regardless of fear, without over-thinking and with or without praise.  The goal is to stop thinking hierarchically- to stop thinking in terms of comparing ourselves to the artists around us, and to just do our own work for the work’s sake, rather than attempting to validate ourselves and our artistic calling.  And, that is really, really hard.  In fact, it feels almost impossible.

But I like it.  Because, it means committing myself to finding a sense of identity outside of being an artist, while I continue to make the work that I think is important.  And, it sets up a system of thinking that encourages me to support the work of others without being threatened and resentful of it.  It provides room for creative anxiety and pressure to dissipate, because I know that despite the fact that I will inevitably make shitty work alongside the good work, that I will keep making work regardless.

Obviously, it's really hard to perfect a mindset like this.  And, I think that it’s worth noting that looking at my work samples still made my hyperventilate with insecurity, even after reading the book.  Because, it's hard to get out of my own way.

What do you think?  Are you an artist who has found a sustainable way of working?  Do you think this book is full of shit?  Discuss.

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