Skip to main content

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?

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

On my 300th blog post

Crikey!

It's my 300th blog post. And I seem to remember that in my 200th blog post I said that I would start quoting from John Ruskin's "Praeterita", after which this blog was named. Well, better late then never, so quotation number 2 is below.

First, though, some thoughts on this blog and blogging in general. I started Praeterita at the end of last year after reading a book by an art-marketing guru called Alyson Stansfield that recommended it as a means for artists to publicise their work better. But from the start I thought it would be more interesting to talk in a discursive way about my wider interest in art, and artists, and the history of art. After a desultory beginning where I only posted once a week, my blogging habit has now grown to the point where I am posting sometimes twice a day, and more than 45 times per month (helped enormously by the Blogger feature that lets you save blog posts with a post-dated timestamp, so that you can put posts in the bank to …

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.


A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…