Art Students Are Doing It for Themselves

Forgive the bastardization of the Eurythmics. But following on the USC art student walkout a few years ago, students at the Glasgow School of Art are demanding tuition refunds due to poor facilities and lack of resources.

It’s understandable the school would have a hard time after two major fires. But students taking control of their education is a good thing, too. While whether to go to art school at all is a personal decision that needs weighing and specific goals to make the most of, students still guide a lot of their path themselves, and a say in the programs is vital, as are realistic promises from institutions.

More the Thing About Art School

I try to think about how I’m constructing this blog, and the scheme I have for its posts, whenever possible. I wonder if it’s part of a search for something new beyond the massive undertaking going back to school was eight years ago, when I determined to finally finish the biggest thing I’d left undone.

After that push and effort, after all was said and done and I could at last tick off the box [metaphorically] labeled “Bachelors Degree,” I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was Wile E. Coyote in the middle of the air, having run straight off the edge of the cliff. But I wasn’t dropping.

It occurred to me today that an extremely valuable aspect of art school—again, as of school in general—is the forced exposure to things and ideas you’d never have found on your own in such a compact span of time. This might be a thing worth paying for, albeit not necessarily worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and the commensurate stress of the debt burden.

It’s as easy to get stuck in an aesthetic bubble as a political one, staying focused on the narrow band of favorites you’ve treasured over several years of loving and experiencing art of whatever form. But at school, if you have teachers of any worth, you have a myriad of unknowns thrown at you, and you not only have to experience their work, but also to understand it, analyze it, and put it into some kind of context.

This is important to do as an artist for the rest of your days. You’ll gain insight and depth, even if you don’t like some or most of the stuff, if you take it in broadly.

The Thing About Art School

It works. It’s probably faster. But it’s not much materially you couldn’t learn on your own with the help of some books and instructional videos.

But art school, like many degrees, leads to a network of fellow artists. If you’re lucky, a few want to be curators—or publishers—and they like your work. I don’t regret at all the time I spent inside mine. But it should never be a reason not to start doing your thing, nor a reason to disparage where you are. School will almost always have the advantage in keeping your disciplined and on a path, even if that drifts and veers, sometimes along the way.

Lots of artists have done the academic thing, and lots have figured out their own way outside it. What matters is keeping it up, moving forward.

Turning to Circles

The most valuable thing about an MFA—master of fine arts, just in case you’re reading this as a non-initiate/academic know-it-all—for most grads isn’t the time spent feverishly creating a cohesive body of work that is the culmination of your knowledge and insight and skill so far. It’s the network of fellow artists and future curators around you while you do it. That may be worth a few tens of thousands if you’re a genius and getting recognized for it. But for the rest of us, feeling like most trips to the canvas, computer, pad, or instrument is a baffling slog where even you don’t understand what it all means and where it’s going, it’s about the connections.

We need each other. But it isn’t just the social imperative, we help each other accomplish things in the world, sometimes without even meaning to. Most of the jobs I’ve fallen into over the years have been through knowing someone who already works there, or is close to someone else who does. Your work gets seen or heard more often because you’ve made connections with someone who has a space to show or who knows you and what you do. It’s important and fruitful to cultivate your friendships and contacts like a garden. (Resisting the urge here to write some piffle about weeding—let’s focus on the affirmative.)

Go for the scholarships, if you’re into the school schema. I certainly am by nature. But it isn’t the only path, and the lessons we can learn from what surrounds the art school paradigm can apply to us whether we get into Yale or not.

Meet enough people and show them what you do and something bigger will happen. It’s like a math postulate. Never mind that sometimes the thing is small. There’s still an element of luck in the universe, no denying. It’s just that it’s a lot easier to roll the dice when you’re at the table with some fellow gamers who’ve brought bags of them.

On Sheeple

Apologies if the title is triggering. There are a plethora of media exhorting us all to think for ourselves, and avoid following the group. But group behavior, while responsible for no small amount of chaos and destruction, can also be good. Individualism, taken to similar extremes, can be bad.

There’s a growing viral thread on Twitter about a 7th grader leading classmates in an ongoing spontaneous practical joke. Read the link for details, I won’t rehash it here. Because, of course, lazy. But some of the comments to the thread express worry that kids are engaging in dangerous groupthink and herd-following, and should be corrected, taught critical thinking, admonished. Because who knows where it could go horribly wrong in different circumstances? Getting caught up in endless permutations of alternate realities doesn’t engage what did happen. It’s just speculation and anxiety for imaginary slippery slopes. And, in fact, the incident is an example of kids rebelling against certain rigid aspects of their schooling. They are avoiding just going along with what they’re told. Irony?

On the other side of things are 9/11 Truthers, The Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, any number of lone shooters, climate change deniers, and more. “Doing one’s own research” can be as negative as mindlessly following the group. I just don’t think I see that in this instance. Spontaneous group behavior can be filled with support and fellowship and drive for change, as exhibited in the Women’s March earlier this year. Context matters. Process matters. Groups aren’t necessarily mindless, sometimes they work together to do good. Or just to be funny.

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