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The History of a Medium: Waste of Time?

Is it the case that an artist just creates in a vacuum, with no knowledge of the art that came before? Is it really true that it's better just to make your work, whether it be fiction, film, or painting, and not "spoil" or "taint" yourself by getting bogged down in the work of the past? Should you, when you go to college to study any of those arts, be prepared to consider the history of your chosen medium in an analytical way, or should you just learn how to hold a brush, focus a camera, and write a scene, and not bother with all that old stuff?

Still from Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni," 1953

It's an argument that is pertinent to the Film and Video Department of Columbia College Chicago at the moment, which as part of its academic prioritization process is facing the elimination of its Cinema Studies from the curriculum. Department Chair Bruce Sheridan, who I mentioned in my last blog post about the superb film/live orchestra event last week, has just published a lengthy reply to a Tweet from eminent film critic Roger Ebert in which Sheridan defends the role that Cinema Studies plays in the Film and Video curriculum. You can read that article here. Much of the article is taken up by correcting an assumption that Ebert made about CS being a major at Columbia, when it isn't--though as Sheridan points out, this is a mistake that was actually made in the Blueprint Prioritization report.

The general point remains, though: what is the value of a historiological and epistemological approach to a medium? For any serious artist, I think that answer has to be: it is invaluable. Yes, an overly-academic approach can stifle creativity, but that is entirely in the hands of the individual teacher. The approach itself is sound: to discover what came before you, to find your own place in the continuum of artistic creation. If that sometimes makes us uncomfortable--if, for example, you discover that Fellini's camera movements are something that just blow your own thinking apart--then that, in my opinion, can only be a good thing.

Pablo Picasso, 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," 1907

When I was at art college, I was there as a returning student ("mature student," as they say in the UK). I remember starting to talk about Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" with one of my highly talented peers. And then I found out that she had never heard of this painting at all, never even seen it. When I pointed out that it was probably the foundational work of art of the entire twentieth century, she said: "I'm only concerned with my own stuff and what I'm doing now."

I ask you: is that a good thing?

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