Thursday, October 13, 2016

Art and Academic Education - Why Artists Should Study

Education is one of the best sources for inspiration and innovation.

Last week I've published a video explaining the Typological Model of Narrative Situations by Franz Karl Stanzel, one of the most important theories in narratology and part of the basics in literary studies. At least, this is the case for Germany.

Well, in that video I mentioned something my senseis at university would have hated me for: I said that knowing this model is important for both readers and authors, since it helps us to understand literature better as well as to write our own prose. The "problem" with this statement is that literary studies are about analyzing texts and not about giving guidance how to write them. And yet ... One of the reasons why I've studied literature is that I wanted to learn the depths of this art genre in order to improve my own writing.

As far as I'm concerned, in the US you can actually study creative writing. In Germany you can't. Over here you can "only" become a highly educated scholar who has spent years researching great masterpieces of literature and their historical and cultural contexts. Yet I don't believe I've missed anything. In fact, I believe that studying literature helped me more that studying creative writing would have.

Learning by Analyzing

When learning any art the best thing you can possibly do is to learn from the masters. And the best way to learn from the masters is to analyze their artworks: How did they achieve a certain effect? What do they do to convey emotions? How do they structure their artworks? And so on ...

The great thing about actual academic research is that as a student you are taught how to use your tools. You can analyze artworks without any academic knowledge, of course, but I doubt such analyses would be as deep as academic ones.

When I was still in school I did analyze literature I liked on my own. And from my today's standpoint I'd say I did it pretty well for my age. I wrote many fanfiction reviews back then and some authors even said I analyzed their stories deeper than even they could have done it. So when I went to university I was already pretty experienced and - without any false modesty - I was one of the best in my year. But I still had much to learn, I discovered, as there is so much more about literary analysis than one is taught in school.

Back in school I was taught that there is a first-person narrator, a third-person narrator and an omniscient narrator. At university I've learned that every narrator is a first-person narrator. If I don't use the word "I" when telling a story it doesn't mean I'm not an "I" who judges subjectively, doesn't know everything and may even be a liar. This realization alone opened countless new ways to understand texts I had believed to know everything about. And this is only one example for how studying literature has changed my way to read texts.

Learning by Broadening Your Horizons

Another great thing about academic study is that it forces you to spend a lot of time with your respective art genre. If you study visual arts you find yourself looking at paintings. A lot. If you study music you listen to music. A lot. If you study literature you have to read. A lot.

Of course, it's not like you can't do it on your own at home, but - firstly - at home lurks laziness, and - secondly and more importantly - university broadens your horizons. At home it's very likely you'll only view, listen to or read what you know and like. At university, however, you won't have another choice than sometimes deal with artworks that aren't exactly your taste at first glance, but later you'll learn how to appreciate or even love them.

Moreover, the German academic education is meant to prevent students from becoming "Fachidiots" - i.e. specialists who don't know anything beyond their own field. So being a student of Slavic literature I also found myself making presentations on William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe and The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen. And going even further, I also had some seminars in which I've learned some basics about movie theory. Einsensteins's Montage of Attractions and the Kuleshov effect - I've learned about them while studying literature. Even gaming ... I actually had the chance to dive a little into game studies!

Every time my horizons were broadened I got new, fresh ideas. What do writers from other cultures write about and why? What are the differences? The similarities? What am I influenced by and what can I learn from others? And ... Can the Kuleshev effect be used in prose as well? Can you make a work of literature interactive?

In other words: Education is one of the best sources for inspiration and innovation. See also my post on originality.

"Real" Academic Education vs. Creative Writing Courses & Co.

Would I have learned all that by studying creative writing? I honestly don't know, as I don’t have it in my experience. And creative writing courses are certainly all very different. So if I see a constructive issue with creative writing it would be that I feel writing is often reduced to being a mere craft: "Oh, you want to write a suspenseful and emotional scene? Follow these steps and it'll turn out great!"

It's a false promise. Whether it turns out great or not depends solely on the author and not the steps he's following. Is it any use if you know the handicraft side of your art but don't have an in-depth understanding of its history, cultural contexts and relationship with other art genres? The result of mere handicraft writing might still turn out a bestseller, but will it be actually good from an aesthetical point of view?

I'm not saying creative writing courses are bad. I really don't know. I'm just quite sceptical about the idea. Above all, studying literature has taught me to question everything other people say, including the way they understand literary artworks. It has taught me that there is no truth, no right or wrong interpretation, and that the possibilities have no limits. It has taught me to think and analyze independently, as I was encouraged to criticize the old masters as well as prominent thinkers and to look for new ways of seeing things.

Learning the handicraft side of an art genre is important. As a matter of fact, drawing books and tutorials have helped me a lot to improve my drawing skills. This is why creative writing courses - and courses for other art genres - do have a very good right to exist. But I have the impression that there are many people out there who think that joining a course will make them a great writer, artist or musician. The truth is: A course alone won't do it. If you want to get better at your art genre you have to dive deeper into it. You have to learn about it everything you can. Because this is passion.

Now what about you? Did you study? How much time do you spend learning about your art genre? Did you make any experiences with courses? Share them in the comments!

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