It’s What YOU Make of it

Lets just say that sometime in the recent past, I saw a really, really terrible senior show at my school. Just terrible. And these were seniors. People who had, presumably, been here for four or so years honing their craft, diligently listening to professors and peer criticisms and suggestions. I was baffled. How could this be all they have to show? This is their “cream of the crop?” And it dawned on me that some people are just completely and utterly unwilling to learn. Militantly resistant, even. Unfortunately, I see this all too often in the weird world of BFA pursuers.

One often overlooked quality that makes a creative degree uniquely challenging is in how lofty its value can be. Being on the cusp of graduating myself with a BFA, I’m tempted to compare the act of pursuing this degree to say, deciding to backpack through Europe for a few years, to “find myself.” Now, I’m not saying this in a derisive way, but only to make the point that the value of this thing that an art degree is is not just contingent on showing up and doing what needs to be done, acquiring easily defined skills in the process to list on some resume- but in “what I make of it,” as cliche as that sounds. Just as someone could trudge through Europe with a closed-minded attitude and end up wasting four years, someone could similarly trudge through art school for the same amount of time, emerging no more capable of producing even decent artwork than when they arrived.

Basically, the biggest demand in the successful acquisition of an art degree is in being internally motivated- motivated to learn less fun and more academic things like perspective, anatomy,  replicating objects and the human figure from life (NOT PHOTOGRAPHS OMG,) and in delving into mediums and subjects unfamiliar to you. In order to succeed as an artist, you have to be motivated enough to learn the stuff you don’t like, because ultimately, at least some of that stuff is gonna make executing the stuff you do like to make a whole lot easier (or even just slightly more possible.) In fact, what you like making may be kind of boring, actually, because it’s 1. stuff you feel comfortable doing for a reason, and 2. stuff you’re making with very little art historical context/life experience behind it. For instance, I used to really hate still life. Thought it was dumb, because all I’d been exposed to were weird, dark, Renaissance-era paintings of fruit and dead chickens:

1REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn-943857

Sorry, but I’ve always found paintings like this to be super tacky. But then I was exposed to Wayne Thiebaud, and all was right with the world:

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My point obviously being: I changed. As a result of going to school, allowing myself to be exposed to new things, I changed a really myopic view (more like bias) of mine for the better. And I’ve made a myriad of other positive changes as well. I’ve become a much better figure painter/drawer, not without struggle, mind you. I somehow learned to like watercolor. And I’m really proud to say that I feel that I’ve successfully befriended all of the studio professors I’ve had. And some students just don’t seem willing to do that. They go to every critique as if ready for battle. They see any honest attempts at criticism as personal attacks, undoubtedly feeding into their own self-constructed persecution narrative. “They just don’t understand my ART!” They’ll think. I had a classmate in a figure painting class once express frustration during a critique that he was “sick of being objective!” i.e. he was sick of being expected to paint what he actually saw in real life. He wanted to paint these crazy fantastical scenes and put in fairy girls or whatever. But you know what makes painting a kick-ass fairy nymph a whole lot easier? knowing how to paint an actual human girl accurately first. And he clearly was not there yet.  I see so many people like this- students who want to skip squares one, two, and three all the way to four. These are people who take some sort of weird pride in resisting internal change. Like they’re some rebel defying the evil institution and professors encouraging such things as personal growth and artistic development. They somehow have twisted their own immaturity into an achievement.

Look, we’ve all had slumps. The thing with relying so much on being internally motivated to better yourself and your craft is that it can be draining. And sometimes I find myself closing off to criticism that I really need to hear. But the thing is, I eventually reflect, and realize I should listen to that advice, and I move on. And my work gets better in the process, adding value to my education.  Unfortunately, some make the mistake of letting that “slump” last all of four years, ending up  not only wasting the time of their classmates, professors, and loved ones, but their own. At least they’ll likely have some sizable student loan debt to keep them company.

Yes, Art Literacy is Essential

Lately my art-related thoughts have started to dwell on some pessimistic observations of how we value art education here in the US of A. I observe talented and dedicated friends/mentors struggle to keep art programs alive in our schools, only to, more often than not, be faced with apathetic administrations and lack of resources and marketing. In high school, it was pretty obvious that the art program wasn’t seen as an essential part of the curriculum. Art class is just where kids go to fingerpaint or whatever, right? That’s the impression that I left with, and it’s actually quite frightening, having some serious ramifications to the quality of our culture.

For instance, I think that it’s ridiculous that someone could basically go through all tiers of our education system, acquiring a degree (or degrees), and therefore be considered an educated person, while not knowing a Monet from a Manet.

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I dunno, brah, they look the same to me.

So many complete their education with the whole “art” thing still eluding them. A comparable oversight would be someone whose literary education stopped at Hop on Pop. We’re taught how to analyze fine works of literature in school- not only that, but how to appreciate them. How to notice subtleties in mood, recognize thematic elements, and literary devices. If your favorite book is above the elementary school reading level, then the only reason you can appreciate that work is because you were taught how to do so. I’m sure if your education on literature had stopped at Dr. Seuss, then you hearing your friends fawn over the latest great American novel would sound alienating and embarrassing to you. You’d probably become defensive and insecure, calling those people pretentious or claim that they couldn’t earnestly enjoy such a, to you, esoteric work. Sound familiar? this is how most people view the art world. Because they were abandoned in the Dr. Seuss level of Art understanding. And that needs to stop.

When people aren’t educated on how to look at artworks critically, something really crazy also happens: our culture becomes really stale. If one never looks at, say, the history of painting, or writing, or music, or whatever, as a discipline, then there’s the tendency to start treading really familiar ground, all while asserting a false sense of originality. As a result, we start noticing that all the popular songs sound the same. Sub-par Artwork that doesn’t really further the discipline sells like crazy among uneducated buyers. And, for the vastly uneducated public, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad, unoriginal creative works clogging up the channels and justifying their sense that art really is a load of unapproachable BS.

So, please, donate to your local arts programs/centers. Volunteer to teach workshops if you can. Don’t vote for legislation that slashes through art programs. We all get the culture we deserve, and if we continue to treat art programs in our education system as disposable, be ready to be completely underwhelmed, or even annoyed, by any future music you listen to, movies you see, buildings you live in, or 2-d surfaces you look at.