Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Integrated Artist

I was recently talking to a friend who is an aspiring screenwriter.  He was complaining about taking an art history class.  Apparently pictorial arts are not his thing (his loss) and he thought it was irrelevant.  I think this is a terrible attitude.  An artist must be consummate, bringing an artist's curiosity to everything.  No knowledge or life experience is entirely irrelevant.  A filmmaker must primarily draw influence from past media, especially motion picture media, schooling, other interests and intellectual pursuits and personal life experiences.  Much current media takes too much from past media and not the other areas.  An artist must have that bohemian mindset and an interest in everything.

To an artist, all knowledge and experience are relevant.  Why?  Because art involves anything and everything.  This is most especially evident in matters of content, but it can also be true in matters of form because form is a matter of expression and meaning.  Plus, to make a comparison with film, we experience our world visually and aurally, and even when dealing with abstract concepts, usually find ways to tie them into the empirical universe.  The sciences are to some degree not like this.  To some extent, the sciences have the luxury of boxing in necessary knowledge and cutting off irrelevancies.  For an artist, there is certainly still a hierarchy, but nearly nothing, perhaps nothing at all, is entirely irrelevant.  It has been said that great art is born from observation: of people, of nature, of little moments.  Everything is waiting to be integrated into artist's work, not to mention, a certain intellectual curiosity is healthy in anyone.

A liberal arts education, the primary education of young people in America, to me, is built around the idea of teaching someone one hundred things so that ten (or twenty or whatever incomplete number) of those things will be relevant.  We never know what that ten percent is and it's different for each person, otherwise we would just teach the ten percent.  It's certainly possible to be bad stewards of our time and learning, but the question, "When am I going to use this?" is often ignorant.  It's often a dumb question to ask and the lack of an immediate answer does not mean there isn't an answer.  It's shortsighted laziness.  Think of the math student who unexpectedly grows up to be a scientist or a businessman.  In my case, think of the person who might not see the value of grammar because your own language is intuitive, but later wishes he understood grammar better when trying to learn a foreign language.  Lastly, it ignores the sheer joy of learning and removes the opportunity to like new things.

As a filmmaker, albeit a relatively unknown one at the moment, I have four main influences on my work.  I imagine the case is similar for most filmmakers.  These four influences are pre-existent works, film making education, other pursuits and personal life experiences.  It's a little-known fact that most famous contemporary filmmakers are themselves film buffs.  I would imagine there are very few people in Hollywood without some sense of the history of the medium.  Virtually all film schools teach film history courses and try to expose students to canonical works.  It's important to see all the different ways of doing things and to gauge what you and others respond to.  Seeing the work of others spurs the mind.  We all started out as viewers and some have moved on to be content creators.

Education is also of importance in film.  There has always been and probably always will be the debate over whether film school is worthwhile.  Does it spur the imagination or does it teach stale formulas that creators slavishly follow?  I suppose it has the potential to do both.  I think it very evidently serves a function on the technical side, where competencies must be learned and are not particularly intuitive.  Not everyone has the opportunity to jump right into meaningful on-set experience.  Artistically, I also believe it is helpful, but it should be taken with a grain of salt.  School can't make you creative or a great artist.  The best thing film school can do from an artistic standpoint is give someone a base and teach them what the conventions of the medium are.  A knowledge base is something to build off of, not mindlessly copy.

The third element is other pursuits, usually intellectual pursuits.  As a human being, I seek the truth and I try to read a lot.  I read on a number of topics.  I find it enriches me as a person.  As I mentioned before, I'm pretty selective, but I'm not constantly playing the gatekeeper for a closed mind.  Among other things, I have read a lot of film theory which has inspired this blog.  Movies have to be about something.  The medium is only a tool for saying usually unrelated things.  Do painters paint pictures of people painting pictures?  Sometimes, but usually there is some sort of other content.

Lastly, I derive ideas from my personal experiences.  As a human being, I don't just live with my head in a media universe.  I have all sorts of relationships in my life and I try to engage in the universal values that everyone needs.  Real life pulls us away from the levels of abstraction necessarily found in art and right to the heart of our being.  The observations formed on this level have so much more immediacy.  Movies are supposed to be about life, so if content creators are living their lives vicariously through a screen, their own work can only be further distanced from an audience.

This brings us to one of the major problems of contemporary media.  It is too unbalanced toward influence number one.  Movies are increasingly less about real life and its fundamental values and are more about other movies.  Movies are reduced to meaninglessly name-checking pop culture trivia to an audience that just enjoys "getting it."  I suppose this is the consequence of having a generation of Americans raised by screens.  It is also a consequence of the internet and the new niche markets it has spawned.  You don't have to worry as much about alienating mainstream audiences with "geeky" moments.

A true artist has that bohemian spirit and is ready to find joy and truth in all things.  He brings the inspiration of living to his creative work, thus making the world a better place for those who come into contact with it.  This can not be achieved with a closed mind.

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