Gripes against Art School

I have no desire to feed the ‘starving artist’ cliché, and I do actually think it’s a myth – with social media providing the ability to network on a global scale, plus online outlets making it easy to self-publicize, it would be wrong to suggest that artists still sit in a darkened room painting tears onto handmade canvases (was that ever true?) . However, I’m also not ignorant of the fact that times are really tough. The economy is on its way back up, but not for the arts. There have been so many drastic cuts, drops in the number of visitors to national galleries, university fees sky rocketing as well as the impending closure of fantastic arts charities and organisations, like IdeasTap, that it would be wrong to accuse young and struggling creative’s as simply being ‘melodramatic’.

I’m not feeling in a particularly positive or uplifting mood, and so am lacking the advice necessary to spur the defeat of these intense and stifling angers. As ever, my writing is a likely reflection of my feelings toward my own practice and as such, may paint the picture that I’m feeling a little blue. But also as ever, there is truth in what I write or else I would not write it. If you think of me as being melodramatic and whiney, I will forgive you if you stop reading, and ask that you remember all the positive things I have shared with you on this blog.

I think it’s important that everyone has a vent every now and then, so this is mine.

My main gripe that leads to all others is that Universities commit gross misconduct when ‘teaching’ their students who are paying thousands of pounds to ‘learn’.

There is no business involved in the process of graduating as an artist and as such, young and emerging talent is squashed when released into the real and difficult world. Facing a lack of support from all corners – society, government, public, peers, themselves – it is not hard to see why so many creative souls give in to their fears and give up on nurturing their creative talent.

Even for those with a little more grit and tenacity, the story is (still) often the same. Who would choose a path where battling against rejection, self-doubt and financial sacrifice requires as much strength as making good work? It is unfair to think that people must continue to just ‘get on with it’, to pick themselves up and brush themselves off. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who seem indestructible to these kinds of blows, but there are others who are knocked so hard or so often that they fall into a state of self-deprecation, where leaving behind what they love seems so much better than the life they have chosen.

If I’m being honest, there are plenty of times I have come close to turning my back on art for want of an easier life.

But that phrase is a funny thing, and I don’t think I can call it ‘an easier life’, can I? Why is that?

Pursuing a full time career in a more traditional role, even if enjoyable on a part-time basis, leads to intense feelings of guilt and unhappiness, as though I have ‘given in to the man’ and chosen a material life over what makes me happy.

(Did I learn that somewhere?)

Equally, spending time painting or reading or drawing or writing, whilst others are slaving their guts out at work – you know, doing a real job – racks me with guilt and the unsettling feeling that I have made a huge mistake. How can I possibly justify taking this much time ‘off’ from ‘a real job’ to fulfill what is – without bringing in much of an income – just a hobby?

The problem with sustaining a creative life by working a day job is that you end up doing both jobs by halves. The solution might be to pick a day job that is so completely miserable and miles from how you wish to spend your time, that you genuinely don’t care about doing it well, and as such it consumes less energy; you get in and you get out and you get paid, and with that money you make good art. But who wants to live like that? It seems to me that if 99% of your time is spent doing something that is not what you love, you are lucky if you find something that inspires you to do a good job. If you do find that something, shouldn’t you hang on to it?

Will it ever fulfill you in the way that making art does? Can you do both? Is there a choice to be made?

Every day artists, performers, actors and musicians face uncertainty and sacrifice. Questions like ‘what if I’m not good enough’, ‘someone else is doing it better than me, so why bother?’ and ‘is this a job or a hobby?’ are a constant focus in the minds of those who are trying to forge a creative path in life. I think it is hugely underestimated just how much energy is required to fight these thoughts whilst making good work, marketing yourself as a product or business and doing a good job at the thing you are actually employed to do.

How can Universities demand thousands in fees that must eventually be repaid, if they do not equip their students, or clients, with the knowledge required to pay them back in a realistic way?

Would there be so much guilt around working a day job if it was introduced as being a likely necessity in order to live as an artist, whilst still studying? Would there be disappointment or fear involved in gaining a great job, if this was demonstrated as being a good use of an art degree whilst gaining said degree?

There are plenty of articles floating around the Internet – which I happen to agree with – that suggest employers value art degrees because of the intuitive workers they create, equipped with a multitude of transferable skills and the ability to self-analyse.

My question is WHY isn’t this idea introduced and reinforced whilst studying?

In my experience, lecturers and seniors embed in the minds of their naïve and willing students that art is the only way to find happiness; that you wouldn’t have chosen to study art if you wanted to be a writer, a lawyer or an advertiser; that art is your one sole purpose on the planet that you must dedicate your LIFE to.

That doesn’t seem realistic. What if, by studying art, an individual realised their inner creativity that led them to become a great copywriter, advertiser, or publisher? If they listened to their Fine Art tutors (and note I also think there is a BIG difference in the approach to employment between Fine Art lecturers and Art and Design lecturers, the latter happily encouraging employment in all sorts of areas) they might take up a job as a copywriter and resent every second of the fact that they enjoy it, because their quest for artistic meaning is yet to be found, or their exercising of mediocre painterly talents is no longer priority. Why is the story different for English students? Creative Writing graduates do not enter into the working world with the fierce understanding that the only way to be successful is to be a creative writer, do they?

Academic establishments might equip students – the tenacious, gritty, competent ones – with great skills that make them highly employable, but what use is that when instilled in their minds and hearts is the idea that they are failing if they are not one thousand percent committed to their art? When ‘commercial’ and ‘traditional’ become bad words, how do they feel good about themselves for generating income by securing employment? Will the guilt disappear?

I’m not saying it’s all down to Universities. If an individual feels a pull toward a thing, or guilt because they have neglected that thing more than they might wish to, then it is because that thing was made for them to enjoy and pursue. However, by focusing solely on one ‘good’ outcome of an art degree – which is to continue making work whatever might happen in your life, and to refrain from treating anything else with the same devote attention that you give to your art – does not give graduates a fair shot at, or realistic understanding of, life.

In my opinion, setting out from the start that part-time (or even full-time) employment might be required for a while whilst establishing yourself as an artist, that employers value art degrees, that there is a wide range of career opportunities available to you, and that actually, if you find something that isn’t directly linked to art, but that fulfills the creative desires within you, then that is not such a bad thing, would help art graduates recognise a good thing when they had it.

I will always strive to involve art in my life in some way or another, and if I did turn my back I think it would find me again, but at some point there must come a realisation that I am not letting myself down by pursuing something else that I am good at. Often I wish I had never gone through three years of learning the opposite.

2 Comments on Gripes against Art School

  1. aahh Becca, this popped up just as I was trawling through job/training opportunities and (having worked for a year in a school) discovering that where I studied for my degree, Fine Art graduates appear unqualified to apply for any teacher training!
    It gets no easier (especially on the guilt front) when you throw familiy responsibilities into the mix either, so get out there and try everything out now! – But I do think, and I’ve learned lately, that worthwhile work is a great reward in whatever form and you’ll always bring with you the creative skills you’ve learned. You of course have nothing at all to be guilty about and have plenty of time to find your comfortable place in the world. (All those who taught you were supporting their own practice with teaching, remember!) Good luck with wherever you head cxx

  2. Becca, This is an interesting, and fearless, piece, and I congratulate you on writing your obviously well thought out and passionate beliefs. There is little here that I can argue against, and your point about the inadequacy of those lecturers who fail to relate their teaching to the real world is well made. However, there is one question that should be asked of all students applying for a place on an arts course, and that is, ‘Why, in a world full of galleries, homes, corporate headquarters and attics that are already stuffed to the gills with art, do you want to add to that stock of art?’ This question should also be asked periodically throughout the course. It concentrates the mind on a student’s personal mission, and can also be a reality check, offering the chance to assess what exactly it is that they have to offer that the world is waiting for and will be willing to pay big bucks for. The fact is that in a contemporary society that is increasingly hostile towards the arts, and increasingly reluctant to fund them, the personal mission of any creative person (and I include writers, of course) is increasingly threatened. Only the strongest, and perhaps the most fortunate, will survive, and there will be many disappointed creative people discarded along the way. This may seem negative, but I honestly believe it is realistic. I care passionately about the arts, and their role in promoting and celebrating a fairer and better society in which creative skill and communication is accorded real worth, with real rewards. Equally, I know that the political and social system in the UK (as in other parts of the world) is stacking the odds against the arts. But the struggle must continue, and your honest and hard piece offers a call to arms that all students and young artists would do well to heed and consider.

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