WARNING – DANGER
Self-taught artists should not read on, because they could learn something from someone else and lose their self-taughtness!
Again and again I stumble on “self-taught” artists. The term lets me trim every time I read it, so I took a closer look at it to understand why it’s being used and whether it’s a helpful term that artists should use.
The “self-taught” aura
The label “self-taught” is used by people with the highest artistic abilities, and also people who are in doubt whether they are even artists or not.
“Self-taught” seems to be a brand in itself, something special that deserves recognition. It suggests freedom and autonomy. And we all love being independent, right? Who likes to take help of any kind or is dependent on someone?
It’s also cool to teach yourself something. I am sitting in a windowless room that is completely empty. Only a chair, a table and X.
X is quite unknown to me so far. I’ve heard of it before, I know it exists, but I’ve never dealt with it. I do not know how it works, but then I examined it and understood its function, behaviors, limitations and possibilities. Without outside help. Insane.
I am typing….
“I am a self-taught artist. Look what I’ve done.”
(Roaring applause comes from somewhere.)
How can the term “self-taught” be defined?
If we are looking for a definition for a self-taught artist or an autodidact, we usually find something like this:
Self-taught is a person who has appropriated their knowledge without the help of a teacher or participation in a lesson.
The distinction between self-taught or not is therefore to be made to the feature “without the help of a teacher” or “participation in a lesson”.
Someone is self-trained when not taught by someone else (teacher, classmates, parents or similar)
when not participating in a formalized way of learning (university, school, study group, prepared lessons and presentation).
Without diving too deep into the definitions, I think we could fairly quickly agree that this definition roughly describes what we can expect from a self-trained person:
Someone teaches himself something.
Where do we find autodidacts?
It is noticeable that in some areas the term “self-taught” does not even appear. I have never read in any profile that a judge is self-taught (I think I’ve never even been on the profile of a judge). Self-trained neurosurgeons are also relatively rare, I think.
This is due to the fact that many countries attach importance to working with a certain degree of professionalism, knowledge and skill in particularly sensitive occupational fields. Regulations must be respected and procedures must be known in order to minimize the risks to other people which emanate from self-taught doctors and officials.
The majority of self-taught individuals are therefore often found in areas where less stringent regulations are imposed on education. Politicians, journalists, artists and so on.
There are professional groups who are almost always self-trained in a certain area of their job. It is all researchers and developers who, no matter whether in biology, law, mathematics or art, are moving into areas that no one has studied so far. There is no knowledge that can be learned in advance. It can only be found for the first time by progressing through trial and error. Only then will knowledge become teachable.
Why it is not practical to find out for yourself what is already known
Our ancestors and fellow human beings have created a level of knowledge that we can use as a springboard to learn new skills. We already have this level of knowledge, it does not need to be re-created by us.
With the help of already existing grammar, words and characters, we learn to communicate with other people or to capture thoughts. We do not have to develop a new language because the language we have works pretty well for that.
It would be neither efficient nor effective if everyone had their own language, because it would run counter to the purpose for which language was originally developed. If we were to pursue the same purpose (communication with others) in our own language, we would have to ensure that other people speak our language as well. Except for fantasy authors, this makes no sense and would take forever to do so. Therefore, we use the existing language and are able to concentrate on something else.
Therefore, learning something for yourself without using the resources available is not practical. It makes much more sense to learn the existing level of knowledge for our own area of interest, to question it and develop it further. Let’s not start from scratch again and again.
Why we are all self-taught
I am aware that most people who call themselves “self-taught” do not even think about the definition of the term, nor do they mean that they are 100% self-taught.
Nearly no one who has taught himself to paint, does seriously claim he has never seen, read or heard about painting (how does he know that paint and brush are used in painting?).
I think the term is used to distinguish from anyone who has chosen a traditional form of learning (mentor, studio, university or similar).
This, however, expresses a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the learning process. Listening or watching allows us to gather information, but not automatically to learn or better skills.
I have not met anyone who has become fitter by looking at someone lifting weights. Also, you can not learn to paint by peering over the master’s shoulder. You can learn something about the process (information), but you can not learn to do the process (skill). Everyone learns by doing something for themselves.
But the way of obtaining information is different. Those who choose a traditional form of education increase their access to certain resources (library, teachers, classmates) and reduce the organizational effort (timetable, workspace, material) for a short period of time in their careers.
All these things can be compensated through the internet, books, videos. But neither the university nor the self-studies make you a better artist. Only the time commitment and the work done make this possible.
In this regard, we are all self-taught. Some more, some less, but we all are.
Why it does not matter if you are self-trained or not
In the field of art, I rarely see that really professional artists use the term, but often beginners do. If we assume that this is statistically correct, what could be the reason why professionals do not emphasize their education too much, while for beginners it is often the USP?
Beginners often miss something that professional and successful artists have developed over the course of their career: They have something remarkable.
A professional does not need to refer to the highly honored university he went to, nor to his excellent grades, which he received years ago. Also, he does not need to emphasize that he has acquired most of his skills on his own.
He will be able to show his work and explain what is remarkable about it. Be it the quality of execution, the materials, the subject, the context, the point of view or anything else worth commenting on.
Few people are interested in the education or non-education of the artist, they care about the work.
And that’s what counts.
So don’t call yourself “self-taught”, we all are.
Find what’s remarkable about you.
Some small requests at the end:
1. If you classify yourself as a self-taught artist, and you have a remarkable story about your learning process, then please share your story. We can learn a lot from it.
2. If you classify yourself as a self-taught artist, and you have gained new knowledge that can help us others, then please teach us. We need every good teacher.