All that jazz
Keeping up with the Jameses

Disagreeing with Kapka Kassabova (and thanks to Ian Rankin)

On Twitter, @beathhigh, otherwise known as Ian Rankin, has just tweeted a quote from the poet Kapka Kassabova on writing courses: All you can teach is the craft, not the art. Twenty minutes in, and it's been re-tweeted by two people I follow - an agent and a writer - and goodness knows how many others who I don't. So maybe I'm a lone voice in saying that although I like her poetry very much, I don't think she's entirely right. Or rather, I don't think it's as simple as that, though what I do think isn't that complicated: it only took me one more 140-character tweet: True. Though you can also teach ways of helping the art to happen if it's there and it's going to.

The quickest trip to the V&A will show you that there's no clear dividing line between craft and art, and yet we know which is which when we see it. And it seems to me that creative work becomes art when the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts: when an artefact has an effect on the viewer/listener/reader which goes beyond simply appreciating a job well and thoughtfully done.

But what puts the work over that dividing line that we can't see? I do think it's something about the individuality of the artist, expressing something that no one else can quite express, and in no other voice: both medium and message are to some extent unique to that individual. Yes, as Raymond Tallis put it recently on Radio 3, most humans are shaped by experience and trauma, and have a drive to express their shape. But their expression doesn't usually emerge as real art, whereas, says Tallis,

there's something about artists, who turn their individual wound into something which connects with the universal wound, which is the wound of being born as a creature who's going to die, as a creature who possesses life, a life, full of incomplete meanings.

Rose Tremain said in reply, "It's having the medium in which you can make something of those experiences, which is the essential step", and it's obvious that a course can help you with your medium. It can't make your sow's-ear talent for words into a silken literary purse, (though you might well end up with a very nice pigskin one) but it can teach you to handle paint, perspective, pirouettes or point-of-view. And a course can help you with an essential part of the process of making art: mining your own individuality to find meanings, whether by teaching free-writing, or providing a safe space for strange things to emerge into.

What no course can teach, if you don't have it in you, is an individuality which speaks what others need to have said to them and for them. This, arguably, is a large part of any real talent, as I was exploring in The Full House and the Real Thing. What makes a work art, and greater and greater art, is that somehow the artist can root their work in their own wounds and half-completed meanings, but is also master enough of the medium to move beyond themself, to bring us comfort for our own wounds and complete the meanings for us.

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