Is art school necessary? This question has come up in my mind off and on over the past two years while I have been attending art school. El Camino is a wonderful school and has a fantastic art program, so there is nothing to disparage about the curriculum. However, I have run into a snag since I have been told that, despite what I was told by counselors during my first semester, I will not be receiving my AA in June due to the fact that they are not going to give me credit for one of the general education classes I had previously. So I have a decision to make – whether I want to extend my stay and take one more (non-art) class just to get the degree in art, or just be satisfied with the Bachelor’s degree I already have in English and all the wonderful art classes I have taken since.
Of course I was very angry at first – especially since I had done my due diligence ahead of time in hopes of preventing something like this. But bureaucracy is what it is. However, the whole thing has led me to dig deeper and really ponder what it means to have a degree in art and if it is really necessary.
I guess the first thing to do is to define necessary. Is it something that cannot be done without? The answer of course is, no. We cannot do without food, water, and shelter. Degrees of any kind are never necessary in that sense. So, to be more specific, does one have to have a degree to become a successful fine artist? Well, again, we would have to define successful. Do we mean successful in terms of critical acclaim, wealth, personal satisfaction, the ability to live solely from art? This is a very personal decision and every artist must define “success” for herself.
I define success in terms of feeling competent, having my work generate interest from those who can buy it, having a depth and a psychology to my art that is intriguing, being able to work with ideas and concepts that are meaningful to me and helpful to others, and being able to sell pieces regularly. For me, all of these things define success in art.
So, back to my original question. Is art school necessary to become a successful artist as I have defined success here? Definitely yes…but after a certain point, definitely no! I say yes for the following reasons. First and foremost it teaches us how to use the materials, how to compose our pieces, and how to create our art in a purposeful way instead of relying on luck and chance. It teaches us to deal with comparisons and competition from other students. It helps us deal with criticism, deadlines, self-doubt, and general time management. And it helps us learn to work with higher artistic concepts in a safe environment.
Now for what art school does not always teach: how to be unique and come up with your own way of doing art, how to really discover your own point of view beyond trial and error, how to conduct your life as a self-employed artist in a way that is professional and profitable, how to come up with your own ideas for bodies of work without repeating yourself, how to nurture your creativity so that you do not burn out or resort to gimmicks, how to persevere in the face of repeated failure and rejection, how to market and sell your work without galleries, how to manage your finances when you have unpredictable income.
I am sure there are both positive and negative aspects of art school that I have failed to mention, but you get the point. Art school shortens the learning curve and teaches you how to do good work. It teaches you to be detached from your work and accept criticism and it shows you that there are lots of talented people out there who want the same things you do.
But it won’t teach you life skills. It won’t make you unique or great. And it won’t tell you how to deal with some very important things, like business, professionalism and perseverance. In fact, perseverance may be the most import component of all. Once you have found your passion, never give up, no matter how long it takes you to reach success in your own eyes. If you have to do other work as well to support yourself, so be it, but never forget who you are. You are an artist first. Every thing else second. You have the privilege to be able to skillfully communicate in the form of beautiful pictures. That is an amazing gift and responsibility and it takes hard work to maximize. Graduating from art school does not give you the right to be called an artist. Only the tears, heartache, and struggle that come from being one hundred percent sold out to this crazy Art stuff give us the right and privilege to call ourselves artists. If this is your calling, DO IT – school or no school.
Now go follow your bliss…
Attached are some things I’m working on lately…