Antifragility and Art Making

Mith 1, a work dating back to my first years in New York City in the 1970s.

Note: A few weeks ago I gave a guest lecture for the MFA students at Long Island University Post. At the time I referred to my remarks as a “shop talk:” gathering with fellow tradespeople to share some work wisdom. Art making can resemble a kind of guild after all, one that adheres to the Roberta Smith credo for what matters most: “Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

So for all the makers who read Slow Muse, I hope there is something that resonates in these words.

I have been making art for almost 50 years. You’d think that would quality me as something of an expert.

But I would never call myself an expert. And given the unregulated and indefinable nature of art making, I don’t think there really are any. 

While art is referred to as a business, the reality is that we are laboring in a manner that does not fit into the capitalist formula. Art making is a disruptor. Here all of us are, working really hard. But our primary goal is not to make money. Yeah, it’s really nice when some bucks show up. But we are driven by a need to make things, and that upends the logic of the free market. Art making is upside down, unpredictable, rule-free.

As wild and wooly as it is, each of us seems to find what we need to know to get our work done. I like William Gibson’s phrase: every artist has to create her own “personal micro-culture.” I have made one of those. So have you.

Putting the whole idea of expertise aside, I am a fellow laborer who has just been at it for a long time. I resist the notion of giving advice (the Buddhists insist that you have to be asked three times before you tell someone what you really think) and I would certainly never go for something calling itself “truth” (an idea that most 21st century citizens now find meaningless.) So this is a shop talk, designed to be shared with a bunch of practitioners who have come together to share their best tools and workarounds. Find what fits and let the rest go.

A few years ago I ran into Seth Price’s very prankish book, Fuck Seth Price. He’s a trickster, an artist and a keen observer of life. In the book he divides artists into four groups based on what he calls motivations or “enthusiasms.” At first I thought it was just some lighthearted fun, but then I found it was actually quite useful in dealing with other artists. Because, as you know, we come in all shapes and sizes.

Price’s four enthusiasms:

  1. Freedom.  A determination to do it your own way, have no boss and no rules. Price’s exemplar: Duchamp.
  2. Craft. A powerful love of making things. Some artists are downright compulsive, and some hire whole teams to build their art works. Example: Rauschenberg.
  3. Money. Art is a commodity like any other. But it has unbounded value. That unbounded value is driven by desire and greed. And as we know, desire and greed are limitless and irrational. So money in the art world is crazy and makes no sense. A lot of these artists, says Price, end up resembling the collectors themselves. Example: Warhol.
  4. The Scene. Until Covid hit, the art world was a great, glamorous international party. If that’s your beat says Price you probably aren’t going to make great art, but you’ll have an enormous amount of fun.

These are not hard and fast categories of course. In fact many of us might see that we have a little of each one. But the fact that we are talking together suggests that your primary enthusiasms are similar to mine: a love of freedom, and a love of making.

So what are artists like us looking for?

How about this:

Unencumbered creativity, with space, time and support

(“support” being social, emotional, financial, spiritual, all of the above)

Or even more epigrammatic:

Flow, with resources

So how do you get to that?

Let’s start with that desire for unencumbered creativity, for flow. I have been trying to parse what this is and how it works for as long as I have been making art. I’ve probably read 100 books about it, and it is a constant topic in my writings. But with all that effort I still remains intuitive, indefinable and elusive.

Creativity isn’t just a topic of interest for artists. Every year corporations spend millions trying to increase the innovation and creative thinking in their ranks. (Can we point to the absurdity of corporations that build structured, constrained environments spending lots of money to try to teach their employees to not be structured and constrained?)

But for artists, creative thinking is not just a skill set added to the resume of a project manager. For us, it is our life. Coming up with a way of doing our work—one that is custom designed for our personal micro culture—that is our job.

Some artists can describe their creative process with a great deal of precision and exactitude. Every micro decision can be identified. (That is definitely not me.) But I think most artists agree there is no one way to do this, that art making has no methodological orthodoxy.

How does it work for you? The writer Isabel Allende starts every one of her novels on January 8 and lights a candle each morning until the book is done. A right-handed artist I know only paints with her left. She puts it this way: “My right is the hand of intention, my left is the hand of revelation.”

What is my process? This is as close as I can get in one sentence: Quiet the mind and just be present. Once I am there I can then trust the process, let go of knowing, welcome mistakes, allow unexpected connections to happen, be at ease with uncertainty. That’s flow for me.

It was pointed out to me some time ago that my creative practice is actually quite similar to the mystic’s search for transcendence. I may be more comfortable with a mystical orientation than other artists even though I do not follow a religious path. I do feel closely aligned with the words of the Buddhist poet Jane Hirshfield:

The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.

There is no one way. That’s part of the magic.

I have a friend who is a talented artist but is wired very differently than me. Referring back to Price’s four enthusiasms, he is drawn to the last two—the energy of the art scene, and making money. He says things to me like, “Art is about having fun!” and “Find out who you are and then it’s easy.” And the truth is he IS having fun, and he does seem to do things without a lot of effort. He’s found his path, and it works for him.

Seeing clearly who you are. That matters. I often think about the “tough love” words of sculptor Petah Coyne. Paraphrased, she put it this way: “Everyone has their own work to do. If you try to copy someone else’s work, the inauthenticity will be obvious. Now if you are lucky, the market will like what you do and people will buy your art. If you are not lucky, it doesn’t happen like that and it’s a struggle. But that doesn’t change the work you are called to do.”

That may sound brutally fatalistic. But being who you are is essential, as is knowing your own authenticity and embracing it.

A rich, rewarding, authentic creative life. That is what we all want. But in our world, creativity is, as the saying goes, “essential but not sufficient.” Creativity alone cannot provide you with a sustainable life as an artist. Wishing doesn’t make it so, unfortunately.

When I studied art, my education focused on mastering specific techniques and learning the language of art—its history, the key players, the “isms.” At the age of 21 I moved from California to New York City and began living life as a full time artist.

It quickly became clear to me there were skills I needed, ones I was never taught or even advised to acquire. But these ancillary skills were every bit as necessary as knowing how to mix colors and use a printing press.

The skills I knew I needed were not art-focused. They were things like:

  • Show up, again and again and again
  • Be deeply self resourced
  • Refuse to compare myself with others
  • Eliminate failure from my vocabulary
  • Approach everything as a test
  • Do not rely on external approval
  • Meet rejection with stoic detachment
  • Be curious about other fields of study
  • Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome
  • Be the best advocate for my own work
  • Stay sovereign and be authentic in every situation

That was my list, and I added to it over time. Had I known a term that is now popular, I would have latched onto it back then: antifragile.

Coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragility, this concept has been successfully applied to many fields and was not designed to just describe artists. But I think you’ll agree it is a good fit for us from this overview of Taleb’s idea:

Antifragility is a property that increases in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. It embodies a love of adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Antifragility is beyond resilience (the ability to recover from failure) or robustness (the ability to resist failure.) The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

Antifragility is a good term for the “personality armature” our creativity needs in order to thrive. It has nothing to do with the actual act of making art or with the richness of our imaginal life. From where I sit, antifragile is what makes it possible to live a sustainable life as an artist.

What it means for you may be different than what it means to me. My antifragility comes from honing those ancillary skills. It’s about being strengthened and not broken by what has happened in my life. It is the personality armature that actually protects the part of me that needs to stay soft and receptive.

Being antifragile does not mean you have to be one of those bombastic self promoters (we all know a few) who are insufferable to be around. Self confidence that is truly antifragile can only exist when it is coupled with humility—that ability to be teachable, open, willing to change. Confidence operates on a spectrum after all: There is the pathological, delusional, conceited arrogance is at one end (Trump) and sniveling self-pity at the other. The antifragile “sweet spot” is right in the middle, where you can hold confidence and humility in a healthy balance.

Getting these elements aligned makes it possible to then look beyond the small world of our work and our own life, to consider the larger concerns of why art making actually matters.

To that end I will share a quote from the ever wise sage John Cage. (This is from a fabulous account of his life written by art historian Kay Larsen: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists):

I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs. I felt that if he did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, his work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.

And one more time with a necessary shift in pronouns:

I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs. I felt that if she did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, her work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.

15 Replies to “Antifragility and Art Making”

  1. “Quiet the mind and just be present.”
    Yes.

    1. Thank you Josie. It’s simple but powerful.

  2. Deborah, this is beautiful & wise. True, you’re not giving any advice. But the best students will copy sentences from this and keep them in their studio.

    1. I am so honored by that response Michael. Thank you.

  3. Wonderful Deborah! I’ve shared it with my painting students, with love and gratitude.

    1. Suzanne, thank you so much for your words. I am heartened to know we think about these things in a similar way. All the best always.

  4. Such a wonderful pulling together of words describing what we artists do and need to do for ourselves. Thank you for this, I will reread it often!

    1. Thank you so much. Your resonance as an accomplished artist means a lot.

  5. this resonates in any and all of the fields i play in… shared it (of course) on fb and with my beloved.
    thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for those encouraging words. I do know we are on similar wavelengths…

  6. Letty Mederos says: Reply

    I absolutely love your blog, and have been following it for the last 6-7 years. I look forward to it like a prayer, as it often includes a nugget or two that I read as profoundly and poignantly religious/ spiritual — meaning to me, touched by grace. So I was delighted and fascinated by your statement that you don’t follow a religious path. How refreshing to arrive at such depth without religion… and probably through another deepening process of art making. Thank you!

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Letty, I am so touched by your words. When words–or a painting–connect with another person, I take that as a rare gift. Thank you for being a cotraveler with me on this amazing, unexpected journey we find ourselves taking.

      Art making is a spiritual practice for me. I don’t know how else to describe what it is for me. I was raised by devout Mormons, with ancestors who sacrificed everything for their religious faith. Even though that path is not mine, I have great respect for anyone who puts the spiritual dimension first and foremost.

      Thank you again for your heartfelt message. It means so much to me. I hope you will continue to be in touch.

  7. Letty Mederos says: Reply

    Thank you for that wonderful response.
    Your art somehow translates into words filled with a deep spark, and deep calls onto deep. I look forward to refreshing the blog every Saturday hoping for a new entry.

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Letty, that’s a challenge, getting back to writing once a week. I am very tempted to make that commitment again…Thank you so much for the suggestion.

  8. “Flow, with resources”…yes. Not too different from Woolf’s a room of her own, and money. I will be sharing this post. Many thanks.

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