It was the end of my second year in film school; studying at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Myself and my classmates each produced a short 16mm film, which we were proudly screening for the rest of the class. Our teacher, a wonderful filmmaker named Manny Kirchheimer, was with us, keeping a watchful eye. At some point, after a student showed a short 5 minute film he created, Manny turned on the lights and asked him what was the film about. It was a very relevant question as none of us understood the series of images and vignettes contained in that piece of work. Though Manny’s tone was not offensive, the young student immediately went on the defense, and said that his film makes complete sense to him, and that being that its art, he owes no explanation to anyone. Manny, typically a quiet and polite person who seemed to be one to never lose his temper or utter angry words, looked at the student for a moment and then, very calmly, said (paraphrasing), “if you feel like masturbating, you are entitled to do so, but I see no reason for you to share it with us in public. You can use the bathroom.” Silence followed. Manny then addressed the rest of the class and explained that art is also about communication, and that if an artist fails to communicate with their audience, something serious goes amiss.
There are three lessons I took from that incident: 1. The obvious – artists should not live in their own world, disconnected from their audience (that is, if they want to have an audience.) 2. It is no disgrace to look at someone else’s art and feel puzzled, if not even a little scornful. If an artist fails to communicate anything to me, it is as much their fault as mine. This lesson served me well over the years when, on occasion, I would come upon a piece of “art,” smile, and in my head hear Manny’s voice, “masturbation.” It is also a reminder to myself, when working on my own art, not to excuse lack of clarity on my part with “I can do as I please being that it’s art” 3. One leaves an impression by doing something a little radical. I suspect that I remember this incident so well much because of Manny’s choice of a strong word, uncharacteristic of him.
Learned from: Manny Kirchheimer