Historical Expertise

Art & Fear & Columbus

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, Art & Fear. Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Bayles and Orland contains a lot of useful information for professors and teachers and anybody trying to encourage others to think and express themselves creatively.[1] The book does a nice job bringing the process of making art out of the realm of divine inspiration and into the realm of human labor. The authors emphasize the importance of habits and of just producing work, often lots of work. They offer a few pragmatic suggestions.

Art & Fear is good, except when it invokes the specter of Columbus.

So far so good. Then, regrettably, on page 57 they veer off into a largely unhelpful and factually inaccurate aside on “conceptual inertia.” Here they invoke Columbus and his claim/demonstration that the earth was round:

When Columbus returned from the New World and proclaimed the earth was round, almost everyone else went right on believing the earth was flat. Then they died — and the next generation grew up believing the world was round.

No. Almost nobody believed the earth was flat, long before Columbus returned from the New World and nobody went on believing the earth was anything but a sphere after he did return. And sure, Bayles and Orland’s book is now nearly three decades old, but even back in the dark ages before the internet it was easy to learn of this myth (see, e.g., J.B. Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and modern historians published in 1991).

I realize facts are not particularly artistic, but you still have an obligation to get them right.

  1. Bayles and Orland hate the word creativity (and, I suspect, its relatives “creative” and “creatively”), which they call “the dreaded C-word.” Other than an entry in the table of contents, they never even write out the word, choosing instead to write “CREA**VITY.” I suppose they are trying to demystify “art” and the process of making “art,” which I applaud. I don’t, however, share their aversion to the word. In fact, I rather like the word and think we should encourage more creativity. But that’s a topic for a different post.  ↩