Book Review: The Making of an Artist

I saw The Making of an Artist: Desire, Courage and Commitment by Kristin G. Congdon on Scribd and was immediately intrigued by the title. What does it take to make an artist? Is it really a matter of being born with talent or does it take desire, courage and commitment as it says in the title? Or is there something else needed in order to “be an artist”? She also promised to examine how an artist can best be taught, which is an interest I’ve developed as part of my inquiry into general creativity.

I’ll start right off by saying I was a little disappointed with the book, as it uses examples to justify conclusions. However, there are lots of interesting stories about artists and their life in this book, so some readers may find something they can identify with in it.

About the Author

Ms. Congdon has good qualifications for the subject matter. In the Introduction, she talks about her career as a scholar and as a teacher with a Ph.D in art education. According to Wikipedia, she is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Central Florida, a founding director of the Cultural Heritage Alliance, and has written and/or contributed to several books about art and artists. Her education was at the University of Oregon.

But does she investigate what it takes to make an artist? Does it only require desire, courage and commitment? And, if so, how should art teachers be addressing this?

Is Formal Art Education Necessary?

She dives right into the education questions with a chapter that discusses the need for formal education in art. Quotes and examples illustrate that wannabe artists educate themselves because they enjoy the process of learning, and generally approach their self-education from a wider variety of topics with processes developed from experience rather than using imposed academic rules or strictures to solve problems.

Numerous examples of such artists, both historical and contemporary, are given. In addition, Congdon talks about creativity that can be expressed from an inner place of “not knowing”. She shows that schools can help art students, but that most of their learning is done through personal experiences outside of the classroom. For example, art school can introduce a student to a variety of artists and works that the student may not have been exposed to otherwise, but they are still learning independently through their practice.

She then approaches the fact that today’s graduates struggle to get jobs while many artists who don’t have a formal education in art are highly successful. Congdon uses this argument to state that the failure of academia is due to their lack of focus on the personal characteristics that make an artist succeed, namely desire, courage and commitment, that independent learners develop on their own.

The remainder of the book addresses each of these qualities in turn by describing personal stories of artists who had such qualities and succeeded in making a name for themselves (albeit some of them did so posthumously). Their success qualifies the observed characteristic as an essential quality of the creative. In the chapter that examines the motivation of desire she concludes

…desire mimics breathing. Exhaling…produces artwork. But (having exhaled), they become empty; therefore they must inhale to be full again…The journey is never finalized – it only has movement.

How Personal Qualities Strengthen Artists

When addressing courage, she notes that “failure is a constant part of artists’ lives” and “successful artists learn from their failures, and experiencing failure does not deter them from creating.” It would have been helpful to first discuss some of the fears that artists need courage to face, rather than discussing the general courage needed to take risks and fail, but numerous examples are included within the the content on addictions and religions that provide specifics.

The chapter on commitment dives right into quotes from artists who believe that a strong work ethic produces more growth than inspiration. “Creativity and imagination alone are not going to get you there.” Congdon observes, and that “…attention and reflection…builds artistic skills.” She writes that an artist must learn from what they do and be able to apply that knowledge in innovative ways. She also points out that the insight needed for innovation is not obtained in the same way.

Creative work demands attentiveness, but innovative insights do not usually happen with intense focus. For eureka moments, a relaxed mind functions better; insight generally arrives when you stop seeking it.

This was the most interesting part of the book for me. A wonderful quote from Twyla Tharp particularly resonated with me:

Every…(experience) feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.

That quote expresses a feeling that I’ve grown into in this last year, the state of being open to whatever comes instead of preciously clutching to expectations that may never be met.

Recommendations for Academia

The final chapter of the book addresses recommendations for teaching art. Some conclusions discussed in regards to curriculum include needs such as
focusing on learning to be creative as opposed to learning how to make art that sells, while stressing a strong work ethic. She also recommends providing alternative activities that enhance creativity, including essential rest periods and deliberate practice methods that include setting goals, experimentation, and observing results (note that walking is an excellent activity that enhances creativity, as I wrote about in this post).

Additional points that she makes include:

  • Academia should recognize and emphasize that art comes from experience, particularly suffering experiences, therefore awareness of the artist’s internal and external environments is critical.
  • All artists are “more or less self-taught”, and would do better with flexible instruction that enables work on what interests them rather than producing rote product.
  • Teachers should encourage risk taking and allow students to fail, as well as teach students about the complexity of procrastination and the advantages of taking the time to formulate good ideas.

She concludes that desire, courage and commitment are not only characteristics of artists, but also traits that are learned by audiences viewing the artwork.

My Take

My conclusion is that the book is very well researched and has many good points and advice. However, the writing style that Congdon uses is a form similar to the scientific method. The first part of a chapter contains an observation with questions about that observation while the majority of the chapter contains examples taken from other works by researchers or observations from the art culture. The end of the chapter is typically a paragraph with her conclusions (when she has them).

This made it a dry read for me, as my eyes often glazed over from the sheer volume of quoted or paraphrased material included. But the subject was interesting enough to keep me going.

Overall, one can conclude from this book that a college education is not necessarily needed but could be helpful to artists who want exposure to a broad range of artistic exposure. Artists can find the same information without a college education if they enjoy learning, and will benefit more from an unstructured approach as long as they have the desire, courage and commitment to follow their creative muse. Structured courses aren’t going to address these basic personal qualities that make an artist successful.

I don’t think everyone will enjoy this book, but if you are interested in what drives creativity, The Making of an Artist provides a fascinating, in-depth review that includes hundreds of convincing examples of how desire, courage and commitment impact success.

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