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In some inevitable moments, every artist, writer, or creator of any form will find themselves staring at an empty canvas, page, or desktop, hitting a complete creative block. You either lack inspiration for what to do next or feel that being an artist, period, is impossible—society doesn’t value it enough! How can you go on? In such moments, stepping away from the ennui of the studio and reading a book can be the best way to escape your own head. These books present a tiny canon for getting out of a rut, particularly for visual art but also applicable to any field.
1. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler
Artist biographies are usually published long after the artist has passed away, looking retrospectively at their life and work and figuring out how the two interconnect. But the journalist and writer Lawrence Weschler wrote his book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees on the artist Robert Irwin in the midst of Irwin’s career, actively observing and reporting on his activities. The result is a book that’s not just about how Irwin moved forward in his practice, from paintings on canvas to immersive installation of light and space, but what it takes to be a practicing contemporary artist. Irwin has navigated every problem, from obstinate dealers to planting a garden at the Getty Museum. “Irwin’s minimalist passion arises in a spirit of zestful affirmation of human possibility,” Weschler writes.
2. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment by Paper Monument
Art school isn’t for everyone—it’s expensive, exclusive, and takes years to get through. But art assignments might be. The intermittent art magazine Paper Monument, led by the artist and professor Dushko Petrovich, published a book collecting art assignments from the likes of John Baldessari, William Pope.L, Chris Kraus, and Amy Sillman. Flipping it open is an easy way to give yourself something to do in the way of a specific task or project. Here’s Mira Schor’s assignment: “I give you my permission to fail for one week, or maybe less: I give you the order to experiment for just two hours, take two hours out of your life to do what you think is a bad work, to do something out of your habits or comfort zone, without fear of judgment.” (The assignments are also collected on a website.)
3. What It Is by Lynda Barry
Lynda Barry combines visual art and writing in a way that few people have accomplished. Her books are not just comics but collages, memoirs, and philosophical texts. “What It Is” is an examination of her creative subconscious, confronting the core questions of what it means for her to make comics: How do objects summon memories? What do real images feel like? There’s a mystery to making art that often lays beyond words, but Barry feels her way toward answers. She finds that taking a walk sometimes helps.
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4. In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
A short text can change the way you think about everything, turning your perspective upside-down or inside-out. That’s how reading this essay by the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki makes me feel. Tanizaki wrote the piece in 1933 as part of his job as a general cultural commentator for newspapers and magazines; it was first published as a book in English in the 1970s. But it feels relevant for any decade. Tanizaki describes the aesthetics of western modernity — industrial machinery, porcelain, and electric lights — clashing with the more traditional, softer style of Japanese antiquity. Tanizaki gently asks us to look at our surroundings differently, focusing on ambiguous darkness instead of bright light. “The beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows — it has nothing else,” he writes.
5. Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt
Brian Eno is an artist and composer, but he also helps other musicians solve their problems as a producer for the likes of Devo, Talking Heads, and Paul Simon. In 1975, Eno worked with the British artist and multimedia pioneer Peter Schmidt to create “Oblique Strategies”, a deck of cards each emblazoned with a vague, challenging creative demand. The lines evoke the playful absurdity of Fluxus and the chance-driven composition of John Cage; they instruct users to “Work at a different speed”, ”Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events”, or “Emphasize repetitions.” If you can’t decide how to proceed with a project, just draw a card and follow it as best you can.
6. Octavia E. Butler’s notes to self
As a Black, female writer who wrote primarily science fiction novels, Octavia E. Butler faced plenty of obstacles to success and her stature as a pioneer of Afro-Futurism. But every time I feel remotely stuck, I remember the motivational notes to herself that she wrote on the back of notebooks and on spare slips of paper. They were affirmations that became prophetic: “My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication,” she wrote. “My books will be read by millions of people! So be it! See to it!” Other notes were about the work of writing itself: “Strike always — in all ways, at all times — always for intensity.” Butler explained her career and work further in the book of interviews, Conversations With Octavia Butler.
7. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
“Wabi-Sabi” is a Japanese term for the aesthetic appreciation of the handmade and rough hewn, seeking something more uneven than a perfectly manufactured object. The value is often epitomized in a cup made for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony: instead of spun on a wheel or stamped by a machine, the tea bowls are lumpy and misshapen, sometimes literally covered in its creator’s fingerprints. Wabi-Sabi’s message is that perfection, or overworking, can often be the enemy of art — trying too hard can be a problem. The designer Leonard Koren wrote this introduction to the idea in 1994, with words distributed with elegant sparseness across its pages — both text and artistic object. One of the first explanations of Wabi-Sabi in English can be found in “The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura.
8. The Gift by Lewis Hyde
For most artists, the actual working life of art does not fit well into a market economy,” Lewis Hyde writes in his classic guide to creative practice in the modern world. The central problem is that art isn’t a perfect commodity for the capitalist marketplace; it works better as something given freely — a gift. “That art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — that work is received by us as a gift is received.” To read “The Gift” is to feel comforted that someone else understands the fundamental conflict between creativity and commodification. As Hyde writes: “The more we allow such commodity art to define and control our gifts, the less gifted we will become, as individuals and as a society.”