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Book Review: “The War of Art”

I’ve been a fan of Steven Pressfield’s nov­els for some time. I first read his Gates of Fire, a nov­el­iza­tion of the Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae in ancient Greece. The topic was recently pop­u­lar­ized in the movie “300,” which I liked well enough. The movie makes no attempt to present an accu­rate ver­sion of his­tor­i­cal events, while Pressfield’s mag­nif­i­cent novel—now required read­ing at West Point—is a gritty account based closely on what is known of actual events.

While Gates of Fire is (in my opin­ion) his best novel, I can strongly rec­om­mend this other accounts of peo­ple and events in the ancient Greek world, includ­ing Tides of War and The Last of the Amazons.

The War of Art is a non­fic­tion book about the inner strug­gle to real­ize a dream. It’s a con­den­sa­tion of what Press­field learned about how to make art. In his case, that art is writ­ing, but it’s equally applic­a­ble to mak­ing visual art.

The focus of the book is on over­com­ing Resis­tance. Resis­tance is what stops you from pur­su­ing your art.

Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still small voice is pip­ing up. telling you as it has ten thou­sand times, the call­ing that is yours and your alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to tak­ing action on it than you were yes­ter­day or will be tomor­row. You think Resis­tance isn’t real? Resis­tance will bury you.

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eigh­teen he took his inher­i­tance, seven hun­dred kro­nen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Acad­emy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Archi­tec­ture. Ever see one of his paint­ings? Nei­ther have I. Resis­tance beat him. Call it over­state­ment but I’ll say it any­way: it was eas­ier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

Press­field describes Resis­tance in all of its insid­i­ous forms. Then he talks about how to over­come it, as he has over­come it in the process of becom­ing a suc­cess­ful writer. The way to over­come Resis­tance is to become a pro­fes­sional. Not a pro­fes­sional in the sense of some­one who works for a liv­ing, but in the sense of a per­son who does the work he knows he must do, no mat­ter what.

A PROFESSIONAL ACTS IN THE FACE OF FEAR

The ama­teur believes he must first over­come his fear; then he can do his work. The pro­fes­sional knows that fear can never be over­come. He knows there is no such thing as a fear­less war­rior or a dread-free artist.

What Henry Fonda does, after puk­ing into the toi­let in his dress­ing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He’s still ter­ri­fied but he forces him­self for­ward in spite of his ter­ror. He knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.

The book is struc­tured into lit­tle one or two page sec­tions (the quote above is all of one of them). Each sec­tion gives bru­tally hon­est advice about the real­ity of push­ing your­self to focus on your art, ignore obsta­cles, and get the work done. It’s a lit­tle melo­dra­matic in places, but that’s really what’s needed to make the points he needs to make.

I’ve been strug­gling with resis­tance over the last year; my out­put has gone down sig­nif­i­cantly. I have excuses for that: busy job, a very active two-year old, the need to spend qual­ity time with my wife. But Resis­tance is a lot of why I have spent a lot of evenings not paint­ing. This book isn’t going to cure that, but it puts the prob­lem in per­spec­tive and points me in the direc­tion I need to go. For that I am grateful.

I strongly rec­om­mend this book to any­one strug­gling to make art and find­ing that it’s hard to make your­self do the work.

Posted in art books.

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4 Responses

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  1. katarzyna says

    David, Thanks for that. I’ve enjoyed the quotes and although there is some­thing irri­tat­ing in the writer’s style (that easy, friendly ‘wis­dom’ of those books from the pop­u­lar psy­chol­ogy shelf: ‘Dis­cover your­self” or ‘Make your life anew’ etc. — but I don’t need to tell you this…) I would be inter­ested in read­ing more of him. Mak­ing art is like ‘the war of the worlds’, and that’s cru­elly true — some­times you feel it would be eas­ier — to start the new world war than to face your blank can­vas honestly…

  2. David says

    Katarzyna,

    I think his style is cer­tainly some­thing you tend to love or hate. I’m rather fond of the blunt­ness, myself.

  3. Boyd Nyberg says

    David, thanks for the very inter­st­ing site with insights! Your body of work and the top­ics dis­cussed are indeed what I need to expand and grow. This is a type of cat­a­lyst for art work­ers and those seek­ing per­haps a voice of one who is trav­el­ling down that very long road…..sincere thanks again, my stu­dents like your work as well for its clar­ity and keen use of color value…..

  4. David says

    Thanks, Boyd. Where do you teach?



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