Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wladimir Kaminer

While I'm working I often listen to audio books in the studio. People ask me if I don't find listening to the text distracting, but in fact, exactly the opposite is true. That part of my brain that isn't occupied with painting wanders and distracts me when I don't give it something to do. Listening to a novel or nonfiction book keeps me on track and doesn't interfere at all with the part of my brain that's concerned with visual issues. This year I've listened to a lot of interesting stuff, but one of my favorites has been the essays of Wladimir Kaminer, a native Russian who immigrated to Germany in 1990.

Kaminer writes in German although he only started learning the language when he came here from his native Moscow. The big bonus for me is that he reads his own essays, which mostly deal with his existence as a Russian living in Berlin, with a fabulous Russian accent. He rarely addresses the language issue specifically but made an exception in an essay I listened to this past week, Deutsch für Anfänger (=German for Beginners.) I appreciated his insights not only about German, which he compares to Legobausteine, but also about the relationship between language mastery and writing in general. Essentially, he sees language as a tool, a hammer that he uses to whack his essays into shape. That his mastery of German is incomplete seems to be a non-issue for him. He goes on to say that, for a writer that has something to say, less than perfect language skills shouldn't be a problem.

Kaminer's comments about language are a welcome affirmation of my own view of the significance of technical proficiency in the visual arts. Many of my students at Utah State University focus most of their effort on learning how to paint, whereas I believe the more important question is, why are they painting? Or to put it another way, what do they have to say? I'm sure Wladimir Kaminer works hard at his language skills and is probably still improving, but in the meantime, he's writing. His essays are humorous, insightful and informative. What some might have seen as a weakness, i.e. his quirky Deutschkenntnis, he has made into his greatest asset.

When I'm back in the classroom in a few months I'm glad that I'll have some experiences from my sabbatical I'll be able to share with my students. When they ask me for "tips" on how to make a shiny object look "realistic," I'll read aloud to them from Deutsch für Anfänger. That should work well, right? I doubt if Kaminer is available in English yet, but maybe I could use his works to get my foot in the door as a translator. While I consider my career options in post-financial-crisis Utah, you can enjoy Wladimir Kaminer's view of Barak Obama, courtesy of YouTube.

No comments: