Art and Risk
29, November 2012 § 3 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever. – Philip Adams
The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become. – W. E. B. Du Bois
Stephen Nachmanovitch relates in his book, “Free Play”, that the Buddhists list five great fears. They are the fear of loss of life, the fear of loss of livelihood, the fear of loss of reputation, the fear of unusual states of mind, and the fear of public speaking. It is the last which seems significant to the arts. If making art were a completely private endeavor we could all be as reckless as we pleased, try out wild ideas and fumble and fail if necessary as we learned. But the presence of the invisible critic leaning over our shoulder is a specter who haunts our work, the intimidating public eye. It sometimes prevents us from taking risks which might benefit our work.
I recently read in a New York Review of Books that Faulkner once criticized Hemingway for lacking courage as a writer. Quoting the article, Faulkner said that Hemingway “…had always been too careful, never taking risks beyond what he knew he could do.” Hemingway was an outdoors man, a hunter, a deep sea fisherman, a war correspondent. Faulkner on the other hand was a school dropout, a postmaster, a clerk. The article, penned by E.L. Doctorow, concludes with these remarks, “that Hemingway was technically undaring… in thrall to the romance of the self, he never tapped the human psyche to the depth of raw existence, or written of characters not defined by the familiar constructs of social reality.” Hemingway was seemingly willing to risk life and limb but Faulkner dared to confront human passions at “eye level” as Doctorow puts it. It is obvious who Doctorow admires most.
Art taps into a sense of risk and bravado without necessarily reflecting outwardly into our daily actions and habits. I see this contradiction in some students occasionally, those with quiet exteriors that hide surprising strength and daring. Public failure steers many others away from taking risks, the probability of catastrophe looming too large and near. What do we have to fear? Perhaps the other four possibilities on Nachmanovitch’s list… loss of life, livelihood, reputation, and finding ourselves in unusual states of mind. But perhaps mostly we fear that we were fooling ourselves all along into believing that we had some special gift for artistic expression. We fear exposure.
Peter Abbs wrote that art allows one to “ratchet up one’s life to the level of high adventure”. So how do we dare? By not settling for the familiar. By not repeating our successes endlessly. By trying out a new material, a new medium. By not believing too religiously either our critics or our admirers. Perhaps by avoiding a new difficult 21st century problem…instant gratification and shallow success. Taking a few risks is gratifying whether we win or lose.
The refusal to rest content—the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions—is what distinguishes artists from entertainers and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all. – John Updike
It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who—at the best—knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who—at the worst—at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt