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
[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, 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.
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.
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.