Monday, July 12, 2010

The War Of Art

Today, I’m going to share a secret weapon in my arsenal.  It’s a little book I stumbled upon a few years ago.  Steven Pressfield published it in 2002. 
     You might be familiar with a couple of his other books.  He wrote Gates of Fire, the story of 300 Spartans holding off hundreds of thousands of Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae.  
He is also the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, a classic account of the warrior/hero try to finding his true path.  As different as these two books might seem, they actually have a lot in common.  And he’s applied the same theme to a small little tome called the WAR of ART. The subtitle is Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.  This is where we come in.
     Pressfield wrote this book primarily for writers, but his advice applies equally to any artist.  The title may sound a little “self-help-ish” and sterile, but I promise you it is worth the read.  From the Foreword to the last page of the book, it was written to motivate and inspire artists.  If you’re just sitting there and intimidated by a blank piece of paper or an empty canvas, and you just can’t get over the hump, this is the book for you.  
A good portion of the book is written about our arch nemesis:  RESISTANCE.  At the opening of the book, he has a short and simple page titled What I Know:  “There’s a secret that real writers (artists) know that wannabe writers (artists) don’t, and the secret is this:  It’s not the writing (painting) part that’s hard.  What’s hard is sitting down to write (paint).  What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”
 The next section of the book he tells us what resistance is in all its forms and in all its nasty qualities.  Basically he tells us what to look for: “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable.  Resistance aims to kill.  Its target is the epicenter of our being:  our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us.  Resistance means business.  When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”
     What I find most helpful with this book is that it moves the artist who wants to be a professional into thinking like a professional.  Pressfield sees himself as a pro, and that’s how he wants you to envision yourself.
     In a chapter titled Professionals and Amateurs he says, “Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait.  They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro.
     The moment an artist turns pro is as epochal as the birth of his first child.  With one stroke, everything changes.  I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.”
     Pressfield wants you to find your passion and be a professional.  As you can tell by the following topics, he knows his stuff and the issues we artists confront in getting off center:  Starting, Get Moving, No More Waiting, Ego, Fear, Moving Beyond Resistance, The Muses (which in my opinion is a substitute word for God).  I think he’s playing to a large audience and wants to keep a single term for the Creative Force.  But he makes it quite clear that you better incorporate your God into what you’re doing.
     He wraps up the book with what I thought was a clever manner.  It’s called the definition of a hack.  This is where he pushes us to be a professional for more reasons that the monetary benefit.  This is when you find your passion.
     “… A hack is a writer (artist) who second-guesses his audience.  When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart.  He asks what the market is looking for.
     The hack condescends to his audience.  He thinks he’s superior to them.  The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing (painting) what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting.  He’s afraid it won’t sell.  So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.”
     If you recognize yourself in any part of this post, then go buy this book.  There is a link to it under “My Favorites”.  Mine looks like it’s been through a war.  It’s dog-eared, highlighted and underlined.  I read it over and over.  It keeps me focused on what’s important and where I’m going.
     Pressfield wrote this book for you.  He wants you to succeed and so do I.

  All content © Mark Kohler Studio.


  1. I am going to order this book, maybe get a copy for my daughter too. (She's a writer.)

    The comments about being "too" influenced by the market are interesting. I think finding your passion and finding your market must be a balance though. (This is coming from me, someone who has never sold a painting...)

    When I was in Hawaii a few years ago I met an artist, Robert Gonzalez Tabora, who appears to be quite successful - he has too galleries which mainly feature his paintings and I bought a glicee for $1,500 - his originals are a lot more. He has a definite style and landscape subjects that he recomposes -- a mountain, an ocean wave and either moonlight or sunlight streaking through. I asked him how he decided to paint what he paints. (He is the grandson of a famous painter and at least one cousin is a figure painter.) He said that when he started out he didn't paint these kinds of pictures. He painted something else. But no one ever bought any. He tried a mountain-wave-moonlight painting and he sold one right away. He painted some more, and sold them too.

    I don't know if this guy paints cowboys or nudes or abstractions on his own time, but he found his market with Hawaiin landscapes and he seems to enjoy painting them. (I also bought a book of his work which has a few hundred landscapes, so he is definitely prolific.)

    I admire people like him and like you Mark, you have done the same thing I think. You both found the convergence of your passions and your markets, and then you have focused on that sweet spot for as long as it might last.

    At least, that is what I think.

  2. I get your point on subject vs. sales. At some point you have to figure out how to make a living. Maybe the guy who painted the ocean waves was actually more passionate about that than his first subject. The truth is, it's hard to stick to a subject that you're not passionate about. Keep up the good fight!

  3. This is my favorite post so far.