about art school - 5 things

5 things you should know about before going to art school.

Bright eyed, full of purpose, your grade 12 art teacher looks at one of your paintings and said ‘hey have you thought about applying for art school? , your work is really good”. Impressed, the seed is planted and you dutifully apply.

Or you’re in your late 20s and making art is what you always wanted to do but you never had the chance, until now.

Or you just got divorced or your husband died and you need to find yourself now that you’re a matronly 50 something and broke and you know getting a professional degree is just too damned hard or could give you 15 years of higher than average wages and set you up for retirement.

So you apply to your local university that has an attractive degree program and sit through an interview and show your portfolio and you get accepted. You start thinking in the next year you will be painting bluer than Picasso, creating vistas better than Dali, making vast swirling vortexes of Turner and learning to carve white marble. These thoughts manifest themselves in your dreams. The romance of art school hits you full force, you’re excited, and you’re pumped, ready to go …. Until you set foot in the art building.

5. You won’t learn anything.

Most degree programs are structured around facts and skill uptake. At Law school you learn the law, whether its common law or legislation; intermingled through this is application of laws to facts found in court cases and you also will learn legal history, ethics and research skills. Medical school prepares you to be a doctor; diagnosis, biology, chemistry, physiology and practice.  Nursing is the same except the focus is on care after the diagnosis and implementing what the doctor may have decided or the skills needed to run a hospital. For better or worse the same goes for most other courses in a University.

Except Art school.

Art schools main focus is teaching you nothing at all except vague notions of being creative. All practical technique is usually jettisoned in favour of trying things out. The lecturers will never give you clear instructions on what is to be achieved. The expectation is sometimes that you should already know how to do things and the school is just there to facilitate your output.

Or it’s that the lecturer doesn’t actually know how to do anything themselves. More than likely it’s the latter. Your lecturer is probably in their late 50s, grew up in the 60s and went to art school in the 1970s. They thought the moldy old art school teaching was boring.All that technique practicing, standing at an easel painting and stripping canvases, only allowed to draw statues not real people, having to learn methods...

’that’s boring man’, we wanted to paint like Rothko’ they cried, gestural abstraction is where it’s at, man. Oh and that I like to smoke lots and lots of pot and I’m super lazy’ 

So they didn’t learn anything, and cannot for the life of them demonstrate a technique. Here they are in the twilight of their careers unable to teach anything and hide behind a vague world of pompous buzzwords and half-assed post-modern theories of art.

4. Art assessments are entirely subjective.

The interesting thing about university is it is a great leveler. Whether it’s the poor kid who goes on to  get his Phd in Medical Engineering and gets rich, or the rich kid who finds out the hard way that the spoon fed approach to education he received from his private school is of no use when you’re faced with individual research and application tasks.
At a University you are mostly assessed in a completely anonymous way. Exams are filled by their student number not their name. Lecturers mark tests and exams on the basis of the answers provided. Simple. Essays are handed in a uniform format with criteria that you are marked against. With a bit of experience most students can grade their own and their fellow students work. By the final year you should be able to work out a question, research and pretty much know what grade you will get. Work hard and you will be rewarded. Hand in a pile of crap that answers the question, you get a pass mark, get your degree, go to the bar and have a chuckle about that rubbish final paper that got you over the line. 

At Art school something else happens entirely. You produce some paintings sculpture or photography and display it, along with the your ‘journals’ and ‘research’. Your lecturer who has been with you intimately all year following your progress assesses it against unknown criteria. Why is it unknown? Because, there are no standards to attain. The only way you could objectively compare students work is for all of them to do the same thing. Whether it is work in the same style, e.g. baroque Spanish style portrait painting or in subject matter such as a still life with roses and some fish on a table. But in a contemporary art school this does not happen. You essentially are taught to do what you feel like, or you do what the lecturer likes. In my case it was vaguely defined gestural abstraction, so I ended up doing comic books and portraits. 
Because you know, it’s art school. 
For essays and research you can pretty much just make it up. Mix up the iconography of Star Wars, the inherent sexism of Picasso, the meaningful correlation between coca cola and the communist flag  and add in some buzz words such as ‘the post-modern language of signs’ and hey presto 3,500 words of unreadable nonsense and a master’s degree awaits. Or you get a computer program to write it for you, either will do.

3. Bias

As I said above you are intimately ‘taught’ by your lecturer. Art schools and departments are usually small, underfunded and forgotten about in the scheme of a large university. If people drop out they get replaced by the next kid dreaming of living in Paris and becoming another Picasso or killing themselves in New York like Rothko. Because everything at art school is deliberately vague. You will find that you have to scheme to get good marks. This usually means imitating whatever style your teacher does.
Every class is the same. When you lecturer is not really into teaching anything and talks of 'situations', 'positions', 'tactics' ….. etc… and thinks abstract art can be ‘read’ and they will then say anything to inform their vague position. In this situation the class will invariably end up making vague abstract art. Abstract art is hard to pin down, it often requires very little actual technique or application and it looks like it could hang on a corporate boardroom wall so it’s a win win situation as far as criticism is concerned. So if you don’t want to paint or draw like that or want to make meaningful picturesque art you will be marked down and criticised. And vice versa. 

The same goes for art history and art theory courses. University is supposed to challenge your biases. It is not supposed to reinforce them. So you go to art history class and find that yes, men are putting down women left right and centre. Men suck, they get rich and famous at the expense of women. 

Post modern art theory is reduced to simply the ‘other’, so all contemporary art will be by women, lesbians, homosexuals and ‘radical’ artists all jockeying for political positions. The actual work rarely gets a mention. If you object and perhaps explore the hardness of everyone’s lives pre 1940 and perhaps suggest that because of living conditions, women might not have survived having children , or disease that knocked out people randomly and it was pretty difficult for anyone, male or female, to rise to the top of their chosen field. You will be ignored or worse given a good mark in the hope you go away and don’t get invited onto honours programs or post grad courses.

2. Everything taught really is a load of old dogs bollocks.

There is something about weird about art teaching. You listen to the lectures, read the journals and books and you feel that you are missing something. You walk out of your tutorial and think what was the point of that? It’s like reading Scientology and wondering why you haven’t developed telekinesis. You really want to put you hand up and say Han Solo style ‘you can type this shit George, but you can’t speak it’. 

Mostly art theory is wrapped up in politics, and those politics are basically slightly left leaning politically correct politics from France. Art isn’t about the work or its quality, construction, meaning or visual pleasure or skill to make the work; It’s about getting across a political point. And often the work, art work that is supposed to be axiom of ‘a picture is worth a 1000 words’ is exhibited with an overly verbose essay alongside the work trying to explain it. Art is reduced to the understanding that the viewer brings their own prejudices to the work in front of them and that informs the picture. The artist cannot use visual language to inform the audience. So the moral is ‘don’t bother’.

As it turns out all that ‘research’ is nonsense.

In 1996  Alan Sokal, a  physics professor at New York University wrote an article 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" for the cultural studies journal Social Text. Unfortunately for the prestigious journal he made it all up. He gave his article a POMO feel, and pushed every required button by using the style and conventions of poorly written 'post modern' sociology and arts texts. The point of this exercise was to show up the new academic establishment for what they are, a bunch of gibberish spouting, illogical, jerks who hide behind a facade of big words and jargon to make themselves look important. He has also written some fantastic books exploring this same theme. 

Like Scientology but for people with Arts degrees.

You will often hear the refrain from these people about criticism of their work, with things like ' well you don't expect to understand everything written by a theoretical physicist from first reading do you?' Well yes, but I expect I could read a physics article and at least follow its logic, body of text and result. While I couldn't possibly understand the maths or equations. I should be able to understand what its on about. Physicists don't use big words and obscure theorem for kicks.They use it because they have to. Luckily for us there are other scientists who will check  the papers and produce new work supporting or disproving the papers. In the Art world there is mostly a strained silence.

Academic Art criticism and theory is mostly a void. Art theorists should essentially admit that the Emperor has no clothes. 

1. You won’t get a job

 'Now I don't have any particular wisdom to impart to you people, except to say this, these four words - don't have unrealistic expectations. If you want to make money, better drop out right now, go to banking school, or website school - anywhere but art school. And remember, only 1 out of 100 of you will ever make a living as an artist.' Professor Sandiford in Art School Confidential 

It's a cliche to make jokes about the lack of employment for art schools grads. But its true. I had the Dean of my art school on the first day pretty much said the same as the quote above. He then moaned about 'easel painting'. I really should have listened to my little voice telling me...'GTFO now!'. 

As a practicing artist you are essentially a self employed salesman and manufacturer. There is nothing magical about it. You try and make a unique product in an oversupplied marketplace. Your university will list on their  marketing brochures all the jobs you might be able to get. The reality is its either wishful thinking or totally wrong. They always list film and advertising. Hate to tell you this, but film and advertising businesses get their workers from film schools and Marketing/Business schools. Sad but true. You could always become a teacher...if you get another degree. Can you handle doing a real degree after making it up for three years? or can you handle imparting no skills on another generation of poor souls? Government arts councils write reports on jobs and wages all the time. They get to hire consultants who are economists and produce lovely reports on artists earning on average $12,000 a year for their work and supplementing it from other sources (e.g MacDonalds) 

I'm not saying you shouldn't go to Art school. But here's some tips that might help.
  • Combine your degree  with a professional degree like Law, Business, Medicine or Health.
  • Be realistic when you look at schools. Demand from them exactly what you will be learning and what they teach. If they teach crap, go find a better school. You need them more than they need you.
  • Use the time to research what you need to know. You will never get a chance again to spend three years to learn photo realist painting techniques. Teach yourself using the schools space and resources. 
  • If its not going well ( as in its a pile of shit) do another degree that pays and use the money you saved to set up your studio, buy some books on art, and join local groups like life drawing classes and adult education.
  • Go to art galleries and museums. Lots of them all the time. Take notes and photographs. Think about what you saw. Even if you don't learn anything you will have a great time because art galleries are awesome.
  • Don't be afraid to say you can't stand someones art. If its crap, boring, obtuse nonsense. It probably is.


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