Reflecting on the path of an art major at Colby

Every student majoring in an art at Colby will experience a similar trajectory. Whether it’s painting, photography, theater, dance, cinema, music, writing, or any other artistic skill, our classes follow the same path: first we learn the art through others, then we make it ourselves, then we question everything.

The first part takes place throughout the first 18 years of life leading up to Colby, then in extracurriculars and entry-level courses here. We learn the art of choreography through dance studios, we learn to read music at band practice, we learn how to watch films at our Friday night slumber parties. This is where we develop a passion for it, where we begin to think “I want to make something like that someday.” Every filmmaker has the one movie that switched their brain out of the audience mode and into the artistic one (and some of us try not to admit that it was a cliche, artsy film our parents dragged us to).

The next phase takes up the majority of class time at Colby: learning how to create said art. In cinema, we learn how to break down a film and define why its cinematography is appealing or why its structure works, understanding how those techniques can be emulated. Likewise, in creative writing, we learn to identify craft tools and workshop our peers’ writing while fixing the flaws in our own. In painting and photography, we learn to critique famous pieces of art and apply that criticism to the beginnings of our own artistic styles. In theater, we learn how to act like our famous actors while developing a unique voice and stage presence.

These 200- and 300- level classes allow student artists to be creative in their crafts and find their own places within the larger context of art history.

While those taking classes in the second step may feel like they’ve mastered their craft, the third segment of the art major presents something much more challenging. In come the theory classes. Film theory flipped my entire world around: instead of requiring us to just analyze and make films, we were asked, “what is film?” Is a PowerPoint presentation a film? Does it take movement or sound to make something a film? Avant-garde films incorporate things like found footage, begging the question: what can be labeled as cinema and what can’t?

In music theory classes, students take apart the components of music such as the dynamics and rhythms in order to dissect compositions and challenge the idea of music. Performers break down audience expectation and challenge the aesthetic and narrative pleasures associated with theater. Students in the Spring Dance Concert performed postmodern dances which incorporated spoken word, humor and bodily actions that wouldn’t often be associated with dance. This left the audience with the question: “does this count as a dance? What makes this artistic? What is dance?”

The Art department offers color theory and surrealism classes which consider things like the Dada movement, the most famous way the world has encountered these bigger questions. What is art if Duchamp can take a urinal and label it as art? What isn’t art? What is the difference between student work and paintings and regular objects, and what guarantees something the label of art? Why do we create art?

These questions are something every creative person asks themselves once they’ve mastered their craft. This is the third step in being good at an art because it demands that artists find their own purpose in their pursuits. And the thing about the third step is that you’re not truly supposed to find an answer to these questions, you’re just supposed to ponder them.

Art that is effective is art that questions itself, that begs its audience to think, that demonstrates the artist’s internal struggles and poses these questions to the audience as well.

After an artist has honed their craft, found their voice, and defined the purpose behind their art, they are able to form a piece of work that challenges their entire field. The Big Lebowski and Pulp Fiction accomplish this cinematically by challenging genre and convention in cinema, establishing their directors as people who know a lot about cinematic history and wish to bring that to the table. Self-reflective fiction pieces,  actors breaking the fourth wall, and meta-paintings make lasting impacts by posing big questions.

It is certainly not easy to “master” an art. I will strive my whole life to make beautiful films and never feel truly accomplished while my peers struggle to create that perfect painting or perform the most flawless solo. But being good at brush strokes and ballet twirls is only half the battle of the artist: at the core of art lies the question, “why do we do this?”

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