I enjoy reading books about the craft of writing, reading a half-dozen or so in any given year. At the urging of an author friend, I recently picked up David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, originally published in 1985.
More philosophy than practical how-to, the book explores the obvious and more insidious ways fear gets in the way of an artist’s work—everything from hampering the artist’s ability to promote finished pieces to preventing the work from even getting started. The book is deliberately broad in scope: Bayles and Orland draw from all sorts of disciplines for their examples. We hear about painters, singers, novelists, dancers, sculptors, and more.
I listened to the audio version; I wouldn’t say the narration elevated the reading experience, but it was perfectly serviceable. Mostly I listened and nodded along, but occasionally the authors would say something that sent me rushing for my pen.
That’s exactly what happened when the authors discussed how to evaluate a work of art, no matter the discipline. I’m fascinated by the question, which has always prompted lively conversation around here. I constantly refer to this post about W. H. Auden’s five possible verdicts for an adult reader, and one of our most popular Book School sessions is called “How to Review Anything.”
Bayles and Orland shared a simple framework from Henry James. I haven’t read The Art of Fiction (yet), and wasn’t familiar with his three questions to evaluate an artist’s work, which are:
- What was the artist trying to achieve?
- Did he or she succeed?
- Was it worth doing?
The first questions are objective; they don’t involve personal taste at all. You don’t need to like a work to identify what the artist was trying to achieve, and if they succeeded.
Ah, but the third question: this is the one that “opens the universe,” the authors say—because it invites you to respond to the work, to assign a value to it, to weigh its worth.
On What Should I Read Next, I’m often pointing out the difference between whether a book was well-written and whether it’s to your taste. The second question is easy to answer; the first, much harder. Perhaps these three questions will give you another way to think about how to assess the quality of a book—or a painting, sculpture, or Netflix show.
How do YOU evaluate art? What questions do you ask yourself? How do you decide whether a book—or any work of art—is “good”?