Fear is the Dark Passenger of Art

A mixed media installation by Mariah Fox - Fear and Art - Pyragraph
“Dawn’s Highway: I am Stranger.” Mixed media with light installation. © 2007 Mariah Fox.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

Fear and art should probably never share the same sentence (and definitely not an exhibition). But they do.

Unfortunately, like salt and pepper, black and white, and coffee with cream, fear and art are real. Too often, they are just as entwined as two old squabbling, unsuitable marriage partners. Fear can even be equated with the devil for some artists. Art can squash fear triumphantly when a compliment or nod is paid. Fear can quell art’s magnificence when the artist feels injured or poorly critiqued. In so many ways, art and fear are a concoction for confusion, a chemical reaction that simply spoils creativity’s natural flow.

It brings to mind Dexter, whose original author, Jeff Lindsay, named the murderous entity “Dark Passenger.” I personally have my own Dark Passenger, it is ever-present and rides my shoulder each day. For me, it’s a struggle, knowing “DP” is near…. Sometimes, before I’m aware, it’s already latched on and I am whirling in fearful artist negativity of one sort or another.

Certainly fear is an unwelcome tradition to carry around with us, but it’s a conflict commonly felt among artists. It’s interesting to consider also that humans are attracted to fear, proven by the avid interest popular culture takes in horror and suspense entertainment. Many artists have been driven to self-inflicted numbness, even death, to escape fears that overtook them in creative careers. Society finds these tragic plights eerily, even overtly magnetic. Special sympathies and tributes are made, helping to maintain the artist mystique.

Mariah Fox's Club 27 "Lit" show - Fear and Art - Pyragraph
“27 Club 2011 ( 2 + 7 = 9 )” Candles with mixed media. © 2011 Mariah Fox.

Another common haunt for fear and art is the classroom.

As a teacher, I’ve seen fear in art students of all ages who lock up when drawing or making. They are afraid it’ll be no good, or won’t come out like they imagined it. Often, they give up.

We can all relate to this. In high school, I can remember sitting somewhat anxiously in English Lit when it was time to analyze Shakespeare, and Elizabethan culture. There is a book series called No Fear Shakespeare for dealing with just that sense of unease! (I brought it out when I spotted fear recently in my advanced graphic design class; I had just challenged the students to read acts from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and graphically interpret motifs in the story.)

Teachers must face fear of all kinds daily, especially those in higher education. These art professors are required to produce their own successful, resonating art while educating and inspiring capable students, so that they can support themselves after graduating college with an art degree.

So if fear and art are toxic, historic partners, what is a natural-born artist to do?

First off, know that they always ride near you, together, like two old characters in the Wild West. They’re not afraid to use their weapons, and they’ll cancel each other right out (taking you down with them) in a heartbeat. They take turns leading, dominating, receding. Just like an old Spaghetti Western on cable, fear and art will cycle their roles over and over, off into the sunset, infinitely.

Matches "Lit" - Fear and Art - Pyragraph
Promotional matchbooks for Mariah’s show.

Get used to it.

In response, artists can maintain a custom emotional arsenal to combat fear in its every guise.

Figure out where your own unique fears live, what they sound like, and practice silencing them.

To do this, I recommend doing your best to maintain a tough shell when it’s needed, nurture your confidence, have positive, meditative thoughts at the ready always, and special time carved out to recharge your creative battery. That way, when fear of any magnitude arrives, you’ll recognize it, and healthily kick it straight to the curb, where it belongs.

Photos by Mariah Fox.

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