The idea of self-expression is ingrained deeply in contemporary artmaking – it’s normative to the point of being understood as defining privilege of, but also as core expectation towards artists: to express the personal, so that the group (society) can grasp something universal. This represents an emotional challenge that artists need to face, and ultimately solve: to foster the personal and to make visible their individuality, in a society that tends to reward whatever is predefined, established, normative and uniform.
As the authors of “Art & Fear” highlight, survival evolutionarily required us to be part of a group (“Nature places a simple constraint on those who leave the flock to go their own way: they get eaten.”, p68): to be cast out of a group meant death: no food, no protection, no warmth. To have an opinion, to be a self, always risks opposing the group’s opinion(s) – it risks being cast out of the group. Evolutionarily, having a personal opinion risks death. In some societies, this is still true today. At the same time it’s essential to have an opinion, and to become visible; our works need to be seen to spark resonance, to find collectors.
Self-expression can be scarier than dying, because it is an actuality that you can experience every day.
The evolutionary fear of death (by being cast out of a group) might feel very distant: most of us will not die because of our artmaking. The fear of other people’s opinions is real though; one could argue that visibility might create more stress and anxiety than the abstract idea of death. Becoming visible for what you create is an actual reality that you can face every time you show your work to a friend, exhibit, or simply post about it on social media. This is a weird conundrum: that the normative aspect of artmaking, the artist’s self-expression, is admired by society – but can represent the artist’s deepest fears and challenge: self-expression can be scarier than dying, because it is an actuality that you can experience every day.
The way through is to embrace experimentation – to experiment with self-expression, and investigate which aspects of creation resonate within you – and how: what do specific materials, physical dimensions, aesthetics and semantics mean to you, and to experience your humanity within this experimentation. Not to expect yourself to succeed, but to know and accept that you’ll fail. Over time, this will let you become more courageous, and less precious – which will make you free. This way, your artmaking becomes another tool towards conscious freedom. First for yourself, then for the peers that experience it – then for the world.
Why is artmaking challenging? Because it requires you to confront not just yourself, but also deep evolutionary fears that arise as consequence of becoming an individual.