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Art School vs Life School

Some people need a formal validation to confirm the caliber of an artist despite the quality of art in front of their faces.  No matter what the situation is, whether it is a career day presentation, a workshop, an artist talk, a press interview, an art sale or – at the very beginning of my career- every time, I talked to a gallery owner or director, everybody always asks the same question: “Where did you go to school?”, “What art school did you graduate from?”, or a variation of it.

Nothing wrong with the question itself. Sometimes, it is a simple fact-finding question as during an interview related to your life or genuine curiosity. But most of the time, it is not. 

Artist at work

I admit that I have always been a bit baffled by the importance of this question because I did not go to an art school. I have a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Havana, Cuba. It was a more useful degree in Cuba, a Spanish speaking country, than in The United States. But it was an irrelevant endeavor in me becoming an artist.

I honed my artistic skills during college though. I painted for 2-4 hours surrounded by a transient group of young artists around 4 nights a week for five years at a collective studio on top of the student hall. There were several art instructors during this five-year period who shared their experiences and craft with us. It was not a formal teaching environment but teaching nonetheless as they were creating their artwork in the same space with us. Our instructor’s main role was to supervise us so that we did not burn down the studio and to keep under control our often heated “constructive” critique sessions. We painted and painted and painted and learned from each other’s styles, mistakes, tricks, experiments, opinions and ideas. We also had a lot of fun and drank a lot. We were in college after all.

Most of the young people, who I shared the space with, faded away every few months and focused on something else. Some of them had amazing artistic skills, but lacked discipline, drive or interest. The core group that painted the most and came back most nights became artists despite what they were studying in college and to the chagrin of their parents.

A few years ago, I was helping one of my private students to prepare his portfolio to apply to a $35,000-a-year art school. He had been drawing and painting at my studio since he was 11 years old. His portfolio was solid. He was good enough to get some grants, which he needed because his family did not have that kind of money. He was not going to art college to become an art teacher or to pursue a career in academia, which I think are great uses of an art degree. His dream was to become a professional artist like me. As I helped him putting his portfolio together, the math and the irony of this situation hit me.

First, I never went to college to learn art skills. But I am not a self-taught artist either. I have been taught and helped by many artists in formal and informal ways. I did refine my skills during my college years though. However, the where and when it had happened were irrelevant. The important part has always been the time, perseverance that I have devoted to do develop my skills and being surrounded by a supportive group of like-minded people. Secondly, college education in Cuba is free. I graduated with no debt which allowed me to keep on devoting time to pursue an artistic career while I bartended and worked odd jobs to pay my bills. Finally, I have been able to make a living as a professional artist because of my entrepreneur spirit, not because I possess extraordinary artistic skills superior to my peers.

I sat down with my student and his mother and explained my epiphany. If he truly wanted to become an artist, all he needed was time, discipline, a supportive creative environment, minimal debt and become business savvy. All of which could be accomplished by investing way less money per year renting him a studio space in one of the art studio buildings in town instead. In exchange, he would develop a body of work to sell at regional summer art shows until his artwork was strong enough to be presented at more sophisticated venues. Finally, he should take several marketing and business courses at the local community college to learn how to support himself as a professional artist.

Unfortunately, the conversation did not go as I expected. The illogical weight of the four-year college education in the mind of most American parents and students as the only way to achieve success in life superweeds any logical argument. He just graduated from art school. Despite grants, he graduated with an $60,000 debt. He is a better painter indeed, very technically accomplished, four years have passed after all. Still, he has no clue how he is going to support himself using his art skills. He is a smart young man and he will figure it out. I will always be here to help him and support him. But the time and effort to pay his student debt and the new financial responsibilities to start his adult life will make his journey to become an independent professional artist more difficult and longer than what it could have been.

In many fields, college is important. Due to the accumulation of knowledge and technological and scientific advances, the core knowledge in many fields such as engineering, medical, cybernetics, economics, physics, mathematics, chemistry etc. are faster and more efficiently learned in a college environment. College is not that important as the best and most efficient way to acquire art skills. There have been few technological jumps in the art world. Most of them make it easier to create art: i.e. from the typewriter to the keyboard and so on. In order to find our artistic voices and create new ways of expressions, artists try to break with past styles, and ignore proven classical techniques. Furthermore, all the theory and art history courses in the world will not make up for your lack of technical skills. Knowing more art history does not make you a better painter, nor better pianist. It makes you a better art historian. Dissecting old literary classics does not make you a better writer, just more knowledgeable on the topics.

Putting the price of a bachelor’s art degree ($50,000 – $120,000) aside, art school has certain advantages regarding the acquisition of artistic knowledge. Art courses can keep you focused on the completion of art projects and perfecting your skills by demanding specific results. If you lack the drive or guidance to learn about art history or keep yourself informed with current art movements on your own, following a set syllabus can be helpful for you. Formal art instruction can smooth and save time learning the right way to achieve a style, a creative method, avoiding a lot of mistakes and speculation about the meaning and intentions of previous artifacts and artists. You will not learn from your mistakes as much, experiment less and will conceive fewer original ideas but your paintings will be technically great. This is not a bad thing in many cases though.

Many young art students become amazing artists precisely because the drive and the focus required to complete the four-year program. It can jump start their artistic curiosity, awaken their creative spirit and the new environment can be a source of self-discovery. Many other amazing graduates are already accomplished artists by the time that they set foot in the campus and finding guidance and surrounding themselves by other creative types is all they need to improve as artists. Still the great majority of art college graduates lack the business acumen to launch and support their artistic careers, rendering their bachelor’s degree a pretty useless financial burden.

The pro-college camp always says that despite the price tag, college is a great life experience. It is true, but it is a limited and sheltered one. I could argue that a 6-month backpacking trip abroad or around the country cost much less and it would be full of first hand invaluable cultural and human experiences to pump up your creative juices for a lifetime. Regarding the acquisition of art skills, whether art school is your route or not, the fact still is that a painter only gets better while painting, the performer only gets better while performing and the writer only gets better while writing. There are many ways, methods and techniques to learn and improve your skills. You can learn and find guidance in formal and informal settings. The place and the price tag do not guarantee quality or success. It is time, sweat, discipline, curiosity and life experiences what will make you a great artist.

If art school is your route, go for it. You should major or minor in business though. Not as a fallback option but as an equally important skill to become a successful professional artist. 

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