The Art of Uncertainty


Whenever a friend expresses doubt about moving forward with an art project, I tell them that the artist’s job is to feel that doubt and move forward anyway. It is our willingness to deal with uncertainty that makes us contributing members of society. Our job is to feel afraid that what we want to make is stupid or embarrassing and keep going anyway. That is hard work, and somebody has to do it. If we are sure that people are going to like what we make then we are probably doing something wrong—unless it’s a birthday card for our best friend, and then we should feel pretty confident that they’re gonna love it.

It’s easy for me to say all that when I’m talking to a friend who I’ve seen make excellent work in the past. I don’t have to deal with the fear, because I can look away during the process and just wait for the amazing art to come out at the end. But personally, when I feel that sense of uncertainty, a lot of the time I cave. I either quit what I’m working on, or I feel more excited about making something I think will go over well, because it looks like something I’ve seen/made before.

So this weekend I challenged myself to make something just for myself. The rules were that I wasn’t allowed to think, edit, or quit. I just had to draw exactly what came out, and then cut it out. I’ve spent so much time holding myself back and trying to plan out my art so that it will fit into the world—more specifically, my world. I want the art I make to match my personality. I try to be a nice, smart, comforting person, so I want the art I make to be those things too. When I draw without editing I feel like what I make is kind of weird. Maybe perverse. Repetitive. Crass.

But it felt so good, just to be in that space. Just to follow my rules and tell the judgements that came up, negative (“This is stupid! I still draw the same things I drew when I was 15. I was so depressed then. I don’t want to be depressed!”) and positive (“Maybe it’s not stupid, maybe I’ll show it to people and everyone will love it and I’ll get a gallery show because I let myself be freeeee!”) that they just didn’t matter. They were all judgements and so I wasn’t supposed to listen to them.

Part of me wants to say that letting myself make something without listening to my own judgements was giving myself a gift, but I think that oversimplifies it. Allowing/forcing oneself to make things without knowing how they’ll turn out, without listening to fear, is not simply a selfish pursuit. Art is a mirror. The lack of self-judgement comes out in the work, and when people see it, that openness is mirrored back to them. When I hear music that is really raw and strange and daring, when I read a book that is unabashedly honest, when I see art that is decidedly “uncool,” I feel happy. I feel like the world is more forgiving and has more of a place for me. I think we all have the capacity to contribute more of that forgiveness and freedom to the world. It’s funny how painful it can feel to do it.