Book Review: "Ways of Being: Advice for Artists by Artists" by James Cahill

Updated on September 1, 2019
AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

4 stars for Ways of Being: Advice for Artists by Artists

What's it About?

If you fancy gaining a whistle-stop overview of the contemporary art world from the point of view of practicing artists, this amusing book is for you.

A collection of quotations taken from numerous interviews with some of the biggest names in today's art scene, the book's subject matter begins by reviewing childhood interests in art. Contributing artists share their varied art school experiences, good and not so good, and then discuss their lives after graduating from art school and the practicalities of trying to develop a career.

Subject matter progresses onto the value of networking, how to approach galleries and feelings about first exhibitions, and then moves onto advice on developing and maintaining creative focus and a reliable (or unreliable!) fiscal income.

There is a scattering of historical quotations from Pliny the Elder, Leonardo da Vinci and a few others, but the greater majority of quotes derive from contemporary sources.

About the Author

Not to be confused with the snooker player (b. 1995) or the other James Cahill (1926-2014) who wrote many books on Chinese art, this James Cahill's writings have been published in various magazines including the London Review of Books, The Burlington Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement and Apollo, among others.

In 2017, Cahill completed his PhD looking at the link between contemporary and classical art.

He has curated exhibitions at the Museum of classical Archaeology in Cambridge, England, and at King's College in London.

He is the author of two books about the artist Maggi Hambling, and The Art Game: Artists' Trump Cards.

What's to Like?

Ways of Being: Advice for Artists by Artists is a light read which I found fun to dip into. Its chapters are split into specific stages of an artist's life, from childhood discoveries of an attraction to painting and drawing and the first indications of latent talent.

Contributors' descriptions of their art school experiences interested me in particular, along with the clear acknowledgement that many ex-art students cease to make any art after graduation. What, then, is art school for? This too is a topic of debate within this book.

The contributors' efforts to gradually generate a career is a subject covered at considerable length, with people sharing their early struggles to build a customer-friendly reputation and a distinctive artistic voice.

All too many prospective customers want lovely art for next to nothing, but artists have bills to pay too. It is an open secret that most creative people have to hold down a conventional job in order to keep a roof over their heads and eat, just like everyone else. Some contributors had experienced far more commercial success than others.

The book tackles questions such as why do people create art, what drives them on in the face of indifference or harsh opinions from critics and buyers, how do they cope with the challenges of their own evolving relationship with their own art, and how do they view their current situation. How do they keep on painting? How do they feel about their legacy?

The book certainly offers an array of engaging insights into the lives and private minds of present-day fine art painters and visual artists. As an artist myself, I found this an enjoyable and entertaining read.

What's Not to Like?

There are only 18 women contributors but 59 men, an imbalance which is unacceptable considering the large number of well-known and successful women artists currently working.

The artists included in this book all seem to have followed the traditional route through art schools to gallery representation and onto exhibitions. That's fine, but this is not the only way into art - and there are many artists who follow very different routes, such as artist-led independent galleries, participating in open studio tours, marketing via YouTube audiences, or art society exhibitions, for example.

The book's design is like an address book, with semi-circular cut-outs indicating different sections. The design makes its contents look more extensive than they actually are. Some selected quotes appear in large text filling whole pages, when they've already appeared in the general text. There are also quite a number of pages with not much on them.

Also, the binding is very stiff while the text runs close to the central margin, making the spine prone to cracking as I read through the book. This, however, is not the fault of the author.

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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray


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    • Khadija kubra profile image

      Nimi Khan 

      13 months ago from Pakistan



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