TMM: Self-taught

SELF-TAUGHThaving knowledge or skills acquired by one’s own efforts without formal instruction

Mark Twain famously remarked that he never let schooling interfere with his education. But what did he mean by that?

In my humble opinion, especially when it comes to artists, it’s more important to be a student rather than a follower. To learn to think for yourself, to separate what is useful from what is not. This, in itself, is an art.

The self-taught artist is not someone who discards the status quo in its entirety, but someone who understands the importance of his own contribution. He aspires to add something new, different from what those before him did. And this requires that he learn from those before him.

The idea that you have your own style and that you don’t want to learn about other artists in your field, because it’s going to negatively influence your work, is a childish way of admitting you are too insecure to be proven wrong. And stubborn enough to not want to learn from those who are better than you.

All great artists admired first. They had heroes. They aspired to become like those people. In time, they became their own heroes. They discovered their own way of doing things.

Think of it this way: you are travelling down a path. You are eager to find your own way, to explore places no one else has ever been before. But if you don’t follow the path until you know it’s safe to venture away from it, then you’ll just aimlessly wander.

Another explanation: what if you want to write a great novel? But you’re illiterate? How could you go about doing that? What if you can barely write?

Wouldn’t it make sense to read what others define as a “great novel”? To get an idea of what makes  a novel great. You know, how others went about accomplishing such a task.

Of course, you do this thing long enough and you’ll find your own way of writing a great novel.

You can’t build a house without a foundation. Also, you can’t build it without bricks and mortar.

Where do artists get stuck then?

It’s this bizarre balancing act, like most worthwhile things in life are: you have to learn to think for yourself; to know the rules and then decide which ones to break. Not as an act of rebellion, but as a way of creating yourself.

Ultimately, in life and art, this is what makes the difference between people: some want to figure out who they are, and they’ll gladly let others tell them who they are, while others know that they are free to create themselves in any way they like.

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4 thoughts on “TMM: Self-taught

  1. You know it’s an interesting question and debate. Generally I think you have to learn the basic rules so you can break them, although it’s debatable if school will give you the foundation you need for this, and varies by where and when you attend school. Although being self taught you will be the one deciding what you learn and then what rules to break. To note, as a daughter of a visual artist, I grew up drawing and painting but rebelled for writing instead, taking after my dad who was a frustrated writer because of circumstances/limited opportunities and just the way life turned out for him. My mum went to art school in the late 1950’s and graduated in 1960. It was unusual for women to go to college then, especially to art school — from her descriptions it was set up as a technical/vocational school program — they had to take 4 classes to get one grade. About half way through they were reaccredited and reclassified and went from the Massachusetts School of Art to the Massachusetts College of Art. To note, my mum dislikes now when I say she had a technical vocational art education. The number of painting majors was limited because they had such a large class, one of my mum’s friends was not admitted and had to stay in the design program. My grandfather’s chief complaint was the idea of getting a job — he wanted my mother to be enrolled in the education program so she could teach art and make a living. And I think he had a practical point but my mom didn’t think the education program was that great — she felt the painting program was overall a better education. Although, years later she had to double back and get a teaching certificate and she did end up teaching art to make a living. My mum also worked in commercial art out of college for a bit at the phone company that was between graduate school and marrying my dad. There is one story from her art/school and college days, when she finally got into the advanced painting class one/of the three sections and no one was doing anything and the professor was like: “open the tubes and paint.” Contrast this with my education at a small private university. I originally went to study journalism, which I found again to be very technical/vocational. Because it was under “communications” or “comm” in the same college of liberal arts I was able to switch my major to English/writing and keep a communications minor, working on shows with the student TV program/which was part of the Comm. Dept. The Comm. professors also stressed internships which the English Dept. did not. Over at the English Dept./writing program, I had interesting writing professors, one was in the process of a book coming out and stressed character motivation: “why did that character light a cigarette, push the table,” etc. Her class was often painful especially for the non-writing majors taking it as an elective. We had two/2 law students somehow, and she red-penned them aloud in workshop/class all the time. When her review came out in the NY Times it wasn’t good, and my friend made copies and gave them out to all the writing majors. But I did also study with two working writers/novelists who were part timers. When you went to see them their advice was limited sort of along the lines of: “You are good at dialogue. Really good keep that up and do more of that. Transitions are a bit rocky and need work. You need to figure that out.” That was about it/or what you got. Again to note, my small university is not so small anymore thirty years later, the Communications Dept. is now part of a separate school so what I did — giving myself a hybrid education — I’m not sure it is possible now. Also with the large cost of education now, at least in the U.S. perhaps being self taught is more cost effective as well.

  2. Reblogged this on John Barleycorn and commented:
    I was in management for many years and trained many employees and young managers. In many cases the apprentices who worked their way up the ranks were the best at management.
    That being said a few of my teachers in school were excellent mentors also.

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