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.

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…

Artist-Writer-Artist: Gerard Woodward

I am extremely pleased that poet and author Gerard Woodward agreed to be interviewed for this series. Gerard and my wife, Patty, were colleagues for a short while at the end of 2008, when Patty taught for one semester at Bath Spa University, where Gerard is a faculty member in the Creative Writing program. Gerard spent the spring semester of 2011 in Chicago on a reciprocal visit. Gerard has published poetry, short-stories, and novels. "Householder", his 1991 collection of poetry, won the Somerset Maugham Award in the UK, and his novel "I'll Go to bed at Noon" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Of his most recent novel, "Nourishment", The Daily Telegraph reviewer wrote: "It is a novel to be savoured, and Woodward is a novelist to be treasured." It turns out that in addition to his success as a writer, Gerard started his adult life in art college, and still draws and paints when he can. So here, from a writer's point of view…