Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Art Education

I've been asked quite a few times by high schoolers and other young people about an art education.  I see the idea in their eyes that they want to be artists when they grow up, and want to know the best way to go about it.  High school students ask if they should go to college and get a Bachelor's in Art.  College students ask if they should get a Masters degree.  And sometimes they've turned to me for advice.

Well, really, it all depends on what you want to do.

Now, I'm a firm believer in a college education.  I've got a degree in engineering, an MBA, and a degree in Fine Art.  The first got me a career in the Navy, the second advanced that career, and the third got me going in art.  College degrees are wonderful things.  You learn a lot about yourself, you get exposed to things you'd never see otherwise, and if you're lucky, you learn to write a bit better.  But I'll also be the first to tell you that, if you want to be a full-time working artist, a college degree may not be the way to go.

Why is that?  Well, for one, a college education is getting ridiculously expensive.  Most students these days graduate with varying amounts of student debt.  It's not uncommon for somebody to have a diploma in one hand and a bill for $50,000 in the other.  That might be workable if you were going into a high-paying career field like law or engineering.  Art is NOT that career field.  Most artists don't even break even with their art sales.  I certainly don't, and I've had my professional studio for 13 years now.  You can't have a studio, some sort of housing, food, and transportation, while at the same time paying off a student loan, especially if your studio has a negative income.  (There's this pesky thing called "arithmetic" that keeps getting in the way ...)  On the positive side, going to college for an art education will give you new skills and open your eyes to different things.  On the negative side, you'll pay for it.  A lot.

Going for a Masters degree in Art compounds things: more skills, a piece of paper at the end, and a lot more bills.  Granted, if you want to teach art at the college level (this includes community colleges), you have to have a Masters.  If you're looking to be a working artist, you don't need a degree at all.

Let me mention two examples.  One artist friend of mine got her BFA about the same time that I did.  She went on to get an MFA and then moved to New York to be an artist.  She has one piece in the National Portrait Gallery, student loans that she will never be able to repay, and cannot afford to work as an artist anymore.  Another artist friend of mine has never had a class at all.  Not one.  She got started in art by accident, taught herself how to paint, and raised three kids as a single mom on her income from art sales.  She's had some extremely lean years, particularly during the downturn after 2008, and still has lots of concerns over money, but she's still a full-time working artist.  And she's turned out to be pretty damn good at what she does.

Another thing to consider: a great many, if not most, people change their careers after college.  An engineer may become a manager (a very different thing), a teacher may become a consultant, or a soldier may become a medical transcriptionist.  Artists are no different.  Of all those who graduated from UNC Asheville's art program about the time I did, maybe three are still actively doing art.

Okay, so cost is my first and largest issue regarding a college education.  A second issue is, what kind of education is best for you?  In my experience, art is generally taught in one of two basic forms.  In high-prestige art schools, the focus is on art, while just enough other courses (English, history, and math, for example) are added in to meet accreditation requirements.  In other schools, like a typical public university, it's a liberal-arts curriculum with enough art courses to give you a major.  These are two fundamentally different approaches.  One approach teaches you how to make high-quality Art but doesn't give you much exposure to the broader world.  The other gives you exposure to the broader world but the quality of the Art is lower.

Think of it as writing.  For a writer, the two key aspects are having something important to say, along with the technical skills to say it well.  An art-focused curriculum will give you the technical skills while paying scant attention to the message.  A liberal-arts-focused curriculum will give you exposure to the infinite number of messages that need to be addressed, while giving you a very basic set of technical skills.

I saw the results first-hand many years ago.  I visited one of the premier art schools in the country about the time that they had their annual student show.  I was blown away by their skills.  Their sophomores could put paint on canvas better than the seniors at my school (UNC Asheville).  The troubling thing was, they had nothing to say.  They were all trying to make the most esoteric pieces of ART they could, but there was no "there" there.  At UNC Asheville, my fellow students poured their hearts into the work.  They explored some really deep subjects in great depth.  The resulting work was sometimes crudely executed but had a power to it that could knock you back on your heels.

As you can tell, I put more emphasis on the content of a piece of art than on the technical skills that put it together.  That's my bias.  Deal with it.

There's one more aspect to address.  I have found that technical skills can always be learned.  I'm still learning new stuff all the time.  Having a message, though, comes from your own experiences in life.
So, going back to the original questions, is a Bachelor's degree in art worth it?  Depends.  I'd say the typical high-school grad needs to get some life experiences and figure out what they want to do, both in their life and in their art.  College may be the right place, but that's an expensive route.  Another might be to join the military for a few years.  Get some exposure to the larger world and have a military-sponsored program to attend college when you get out.  The danger there is that you might not ever come back to it.  If that happens, though, then the danger was always that you'd never follow through on an art career anyway, right?  Or you might just take off for a couple of years and work somewhere, or bounce around the country or the world, seeing and doing new things, before going off to school.  The point here: find your message.  Find what drives you.  Then work on the technical skills.

There are lots of ways to learn how to do the kind of art you want to do.  My artist friend, above, never had a lesson or a workshop.  She looked at books, did stuff similar to artists she liked, talked to other artists, and gradually became a really impressive painter in her own right.  I've done workshops, both in-person and online, and have learned a helluva lot from each one.  I still find new artists that do impressive things and then try to copy them.  The copies give me a greater understanding of how they work and also an understanding of how I can improve my own work.  My technical skills today are far beyond what they were when I finished my BFA program.

So think long and hard about going to college to study art.  The real question is: what do you really want to do?  I mean, really?

1 comment:

shea holliman said...

Great article. This one should be in a major newspaper or blog.