Why Art School (may or may not) Suck!


Actually, I guess that’s not really fair because as a writer, I never actually went to art school because I was stuck in “writer’s school” which I’m pretty certain sucks.

What I’m really talking about is any type of  so-called “art school” whether it’s music school, design school, fine art school, or your plain old useless Liberal Arts degree (of which I am all too familiar).  While I’m certainly not the first person to question the value of attending a traditional art school, I still can’t help but wonder if attending an art school or a liberal arts program really is the best way to become a better artist, musician, or writer? 

A simple question

I suppose the basic question behind this article is this:

Does the learning and training that you receive from these types of arts programs really help you become a better artist/writer/musician, or is the time (and money) you spend on them better used for getting the experience of actually doing your art?

Let me back up for a moment

Before all of you begin to accuse me of unnecessarily corrupting the minds of our youth and somehow suggesting that school isn’t cool, I want you to know that I have always been a supporter of higher education.  As both a former high-school teacher as well as someone who has invested literally thousands of dollars and hours to obtain a liberal arts education, I am the poster boy for racking up hefty student loans on a couple of degrees I barely use.

Don’t get the wrong idea, I’m certainly not suggesting that going to college or art school is a bad thing.  Getting yourself an education is a good thing, and I truly believe that anyone who has the opportunity to attend college should consider going . . . if really you need to.

How to open a Philosophy Store 101

Those of you who were a liberal arts major will probably already be familiar with this old joke.  For the rest of you, the story goes that one day a student told his parents that he wanted to major in philosophy in college.  His parents, who were paying for his education, asked him if he was planning on opening a “philosophy store” after he graduated.  The moral of the story, of course, is that liberal arts majors such as philosophy, art history, creative writing, and yes English Literature — often do not lead to jobs in the real world, unless that job includes steaming milk at Starbucks or sorting books at Barnes & Noble.  The irony here, of course, (and we English majors love our “irony”) is that you don’t actually need a college degree to get any of these jobs.

I’m a living cliché just like the rest of these guys. I’m the guy who keeps dropping out and changing his major just because he’s afraid he really sucks at everything. ~Bardo (Art School Confidential)

Let’s think about this for a moment. If you want to become a doctor, you go to medical school.  If you want to become a pharmacist, you go to pharmacy school.  On the other hand, if you want to become a writer, you simply tell everyone that you’re a writer.  If you want to become an painter, you buy some paint and tell everyone you are a painter.  If you want to become a musician. . . .you get the point.  When it comes down to it, there aren’t any real degrees or licenses to become an “artist”.  Sure we can enroll in art school and wear a lot of black clothes, but essentially all you have to do to become an artist is to have the guts to call yourself an “artist” (and eventually break the bad news to your parents).  That’s it!

Yes, you will also eventually need the skills to back it up, but how exactly we best develop these skills is what we’re going to talk about.

Knowledge vs. Experience

So how do we really become better artists?

Is it through knowledge of technique, reading books, taking classes, training under a mentor, or do we learn best through the experience of trial and error.  I’m not about to speak on behalf of everyone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us would be far better off saving our tuition money and spending that time working solely on our art. Does this mean that we have nothing to learn from others? Of course not.  I’m just think that we should consider designing our own curriculum, and not allowing others to decide what we need to know.

You see, I had this problem. . .

I used to have this bad habit of wanting to know everything that I would possibly need to know before starting a new writing project. So for example if I was going to write a story that was set in a park, I would become obsessed with finding out, not only about what kind of animals lived in that particular park; but also what type of flowers, trees, and rocks could be found there as well.

Now did I really need to know all of this before I could write this story? Probably not, but what I initially justified as being an exercise in literary accuracy, turned out to be little more than an excuse to put off writing for another day (or ten).  You see instead of actually writing anything, I was busying myself with research.  Why? Because as a teacher, that’s exactly what I had been trained to do.  I had been taught to research the hell out of a subject and then methodically break it up into smaller digestible chunks for the students. So what would happen is that I would spend vast amounts of time preparing to write, and very little time actually writing.

I was simply following the plan. . . their plan.

Stumbling upon enlightenment

Okay, the word “enlightenment” is probably a little strong, but after years of continually doing things the “stupid way” I finally discovered something that was incredibly liberating and changed my entire working process.  It was simply this. . .

Learn what you need to know, when you need to know it.

Stupidly simple I know, but what it made me do was give up this obsession with trying to know everything I might possibly need to know before I got started. Now, my goal is to start a project and then figure out what I need to know as I go along.  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing an article or setting up a website, I make it a point to learn as I go. Now do I make a lot of mistakes along the way? Absolutely, but I also make it a point to learn from these mistakes and (hopefully) not repeat them.

The interesting thing is that I discovered that none of these mistakes, that I could have potentially avoided, were all that bad.  Instead of busying myself playing useless “what-if” games in my head, I made it a point to simply find out what I need to know to get started and then go from there.

What does any of this have to do with Art School?

At it’s essence, art school/design school/photography programs/music departments/and liberal arts colleges are all in the business of preparing you to create your art.  Yes, of course you are writing and painting and playing and designing and snapping pictures as you go along, but this is not really your art.  In other words, you are still following their curriculum, their program, and their path—not yours.  The only way you will be able to discover you own path, however, is when you have given yourself the freedom to choose as well as the freedom to fail.

Now it’s your turn. . .

All right, I’ve said my piece and now I would like for you to finish this post.

I would like to hear from those of you who have attended some type of formal art/music/writing/liberal arts program.

  • What was your experience like, and given what you know now, would you go back and do it again?
  • What do you think is the most valuable thing you learned during your time there?
  • Looking back now, what is the one thing you wished they would have taught you more about in school?
  • Finally, if you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you say to this person who was just starting out?

Let’s hear it!

Image courtesy of Aaron Murphy

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book “Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work” is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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