May 19, 2014

Art-School Advice: To Go or Not To Go?

Art-School Advice: To Go or Not To Go?

By Max Larkin

We’re sending along some free advice for aspiring artists from the ones who’ve made it. Whether to go to school, and for how long? If not, what do you do instead? It’s a topic discussed online, on stage and off, and continuously among the artists. Be sure to add your voice.

Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker art critic

Schjeldahl-portI’m one of those sixties college dropouts you hear about.

[As a teacher,] my aim is to help kids realize that they’re artists already, or that maybe they don’t really want to do it, which is more than fine. They’ve saved themselves a lot of grief, and they can get on with their lives.

I tell them that I’m not interested in educating their minds, I’m interested in sophisticating them, which is different. Sophistication is knowledge that’s acquired in the course of having a purpose. You know why you want the information at the moment that you put your hand on it. You’re not just storing it up for a rainy day.There’s nothing innately relevant or innately irrelevant to an artist. If their minds and spirits can’t put the stuff in order, then they’re not artists. Very often the flashiest, most seemingly talented person turns out to be not an artist at all, and some hopeless klutz ends up being Jackson Pollock.

Andrew Fish, painting

Andrew Fish, painter

I attended SVA but didn’t actually get my degree. Like many in a long tradition of dropping out, I was anxious to get to work. I was going into debt, working in art galleries and as an artist assistant, and making paintings in my own studio. I even organized a show for my work at a New York gallery. I was thinking that I was already doing the thing I went to art school to learn how to do. And why continue to go into debt?

What I didn’t take into consideration was how important the community was. It’s really hard to see the bigger picture when you’re 19 or 20 years old. And you have no idea how much your attitudes about things will change by the time you’re 40.

I fluctuate between being proud of my education (self-directed, experiential, and comprised of workshops, classes, and mentorships) and being defensive about my lack of official, institutional certification. But I’m still a painter and making some of the best paintings I’ve ever made, so maybe it doesn’t matter how I got here, just that I kept going.

Noah Bradley, environmental artist

I have a diploma from the best public art school in the nation. Prior to that I attended the best private art school in the nation. I’m not some flaky, disgruntled art graduate, either. I have a quite successful career, thankyouverymuch.

But I am saddened and ashamed at art schools and their blatant exploitation of students. Graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the realities of being professional artists and racked with obscene amounts of debt. By their own estimation, the cost of a four year education at RISD is $245,816. As way of comparison, the cost of a diploma from Harvard Law School is a mere $236,100.

Don’t do it. Don’t start your career with debilitating debt. Please. I beg you. Think long and hard whether you’re willing to pay student loan companies $3000 every single month for the next 10 years.

Gaga-portLady Gaga, pop musician

I dropped out of NYU, moved out of my parent’s house, got my own place, and survived on my own.

I would make demo tapes and send them around; then I would jump on my bike and pretend to be Lady Gaga’s manager. I’d make $300 at work and spend it all on Xeroxes to make posters. Lady Starlight and I would spin vinyl in my apartment, sewing our bikinis for the show and listening to David Bowie and the New York Dolls. We thought, “What could we do to make everybody so jealous?” We did it, and everybody was so jealous. And they still are.

If I have any advice to anybody, it’s to just do it yourself, and don’t waste time trying to get a favor.

Junot Diaz, novelist

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.

So what was the problem? Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs. That shit was too white.

Sometimes [people] say: You did an MFA. Did you ever think about dropping out? All the time.

Why didn’t you?

Another good question. I’m not sure I have a real answer. Answers yes but An Answer: no. Maybe it was immigrant shit. Maybe it was characterlogical—I was just a stubborn fuck. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t want to move back to my mother’s basement for anything. Maybe I just got lucky—I didn’t snap or fall into a deep depression or get completely demoralized.

Coco-Fusco-portCoco Fusco, performance artist

The promise of a life-changing learning experience is only as good as what you actually get and how that sizes up with what you need. It’s up to you to ask, ask, ask in advance: your teachers, your mentors, and other art students. Instead of getting into tense conversations with recruiters about financial aid once you’ve been admitted, find out before you apply if your school of choice is endowed with resources that allow it to provide adequate support.

Make sure to ask about hidden costs. You may be lured into paying for a lot more than your peers while getting a lot less. It’s up to you to find out what your money will buy.

Jerry Saltz, critic

I think it’s great for young artists to go to grad school if they’ve got the time, inclination, and money — whether it’s Mom and Dad’s money or a trust fund. Artists seem to thrive during these two years of enforced art-making, staying up very late and learning things with each other long after the professors have gone home for the night. But I’ve also witnessed — and may have been responsible for — a lot of bullshit. Iffy artist-teachers wield enormous artistic and intellectual influence over students, favors are doled out in power cliques.

All this may be the same as it ever was. What’s different now is that MFA programs are exorbitantly priced luxury items. At the top-shelf East Coast schools like Yale, RISD, SVA, and Columbia, the two-year cost can top $100,000. This doesn’t include room, board, materials, etc. Add all that in, and you’re hovering near a quarter-million dollars. No matter how wonderful the M.F.A. experience, that’s straight-up highway robbery.

I believe that many of the less-expensive, non-marquee schools now have parity with — and are sometimes better than — the sexy top tier. Trust me; I’ve taught at them all. And should be fired.

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  • Ferdinand Bardamu

    I went back to school for a BFA in painting in my mid-thirties, motivated, in part, by regret that I didn’t pursue art the first time around (I ended up with a B.A. in English Lit.). The experience of art school was an invaluable one for the most part. Being back in school at that age, I was very clear about why I was there and took full advantage of what my professors and my fellow students had to offer. It is rare, I think, to find an equivalent of what a good art school can offer, i.e., an intense environment where you are continually pushed by your professors and your fellow students to stretch and evolve artistically. That being said, I recall a professor telling our class one day that statistically those who go on for an M.F.A. and are still seriously pursuing an art career five years later was just 5%! Quite a sobering statistic. Be that as it may, I completed my degree and entered the art world as an aspiring artist, having some measure of success early on with shows and sales, but I absolutely detested the business side of the art world, a world, it seemed, that was diametrically opposed to the world of art-making. I hated the pretentiousness, the egos, the networking, the power trips, etc. In the end, though, it was the financial demands of having kids that made a career in art impractical and impossible.

    As for going to art school today, who but the very rich can really afford to put down $250,000 for a BFA or $100,000 for an MFA? For those who can’t, I think it’s pure insanity to rack up that amount of debt for a degree that may or may not result in a successful career. It’s certainly a bigger crap-shoot than a law or engineering degree. That being said, at the very least, I would suggest looking for a less-expensive school.

  • Max Larkin

    Ferdinand, there’s a lot of ambivalence in your comment. Why do you think your BFA experience was invaluable, provided that it wasn’t lucrative and there were lots of drawbacks? It’s certainly something I would do if I didn’t have a kid and I was one of the ‘very rich’!

    • Ferdinand Bardamu

      As I tried to point out, what was invaluable about my experience was having the rare opportunity to make art 24/7 in a supportive and challenging atmosphere surrounded on all sides by others equally passionate about acquiring the essential skills necessary to make really good art. If you’re fortunate, your professors will continually challenge you to not only improve on what you already do well, but maybe more importantly, push you into new, unexplored territory. For example, realism came relatively easy to me but instead of being praised for this, I was pushed to explore and make abstract art. Whatever was undeveloped, or deemed a weakness… this was where you were encouraged to live and grow.

      Moreover, you learn as much from your peers as you do from your professors! You feed off of each other and critique each other’s work. It’s an intense, immersive environment that is difficult to find out in the real world. And it’s a rare opportunity that only lasts a very short time. If you’re truly hungry, you take full advantage of every moment.

      So, I have no regrets, or ambivalence, about my BFA (a project, I like to say, of self-transformation). I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. And I say this even as I find myself unable to make a full-time career as an artist. What I’m ambivalent about, if anything, is the disparity between the making of art and the selling of art; these two worlds are light years apart from one another.

      • Potter

        Of all the advice above, this one resonates with me. I am thinking too that the art school has been around for centuries in various forms probably back to ancient Egypt: from the Gothic monasteries to the workshops of the Renaissance masters to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts ( since 1600’s) the Art Students League in NYC. And that’s only talking about western art. Maybe I am extending the definition of an art school, but I don’t think so. It happens that in modern times we have university art departments. The teaching varies I am sure. Artists (real) are not necessarily good teachers either. I don’t think one can go to school to become an artist either. You find that out. That happens or doesn’t after. Like studying music, or any of the liberal arts, what you experience and learn never leaves.

        But we are talking about costs and debt. And so I feel so fortunate and at the same time sad and angry that I was able to get this education for free and now it cannot be done.