I wrote this years ago for people thinking about going to art college but I never posted it anywhere. I feared I might lose teaching opportunities.
Thinking of applying to art college?
Art College is a conversation. Don’t Pay for it unless you are sure that its the one you want, and that you can’t get it for less elsewhere.
I have spent too much of my life in art colleges in one capacity or another. My father taught fine art, so even as a child, I was familiar with the exotic smells of resin, linseed oil, screen wash. I attended three colleges and have taught fleetingly in several. I have sat in on the selections and interviews (degree and Post Grad levels) at least four times.
Although art schools are by no means, all the same, I believed in them, I knew them to be a force for good in the world, and good for the people that attended. The people I have admired, people who have enriched my life immeasurably are far too numerous to list. They are not all artists, but overwhelmingly they are the product, or by-product, of art schools. Many are from the golden era of British art schools, (those decades between the Coldstream Report of 1961 and the introduction of student debt).
My aim in life has been to be among these interesting people, and their successors, to be friends with them, to participate and contribute to the cultural wealth. I believed that Art College was my natural home.
But so much has changed, too much for me to go into here, and I have changed too. I am shocked to realise that my loyalty is not with Art College, but with the spirit of art college as it was, a spirit that needs to find a life outside of these institutions, if it hasn’t already, because inside, more often than not, it gasps for air, like a sad fish at the surface struggling to breathe through the algae of commerce, bureaucracy, sophistry and public relations. It is as if the institution is now too insecure to support the creative life of the student. A change of water is overdue.
So, should you really be considering Art College?
Here are some questions, I am sure there are others which haven’t occurred to me:
Can you name six artists that currently interest you more readily than your six favourite bands?
If you are reading this and it’s after 1 pm, have you attended to your work today, your sketchbooks, some daily part of your process?
Can you give a half-decent and meaningful answer to this question: Why did modern art happen?
Can you really afford it?
Have you been offered a place at one of the very best colleges?
If you cannot answer yes to the above questions, I suggest that you are not ready to be spending tens of thousands of pounds on a specialist training and education. If you can answer yes to all of these, then I admit, you have grounds for thinking it’s a good idea. However, another question then arises; why now? If you can afford college fees, then you can easily afford the space and the materials to get on with it yourself (resourcefulness is among the highest virtues in any of the arts).
You will need:
Some friends like yourself, you also need to meet artists. ( I might be able to introduce you to some).
Technical information; get books, go on courses, use the internet, it’s cheaper.
To trust yourself and invest time in yourself.
To pay attention to everything, see a lot of art and learn to be slower, and slower still, in forming opinions.
To be willing to go up a few blind alleys, make failures, (nothing is wasted)
To be persistent and to be determined and to be compulsive about drawing/making.
If you can’t do these then perhaps you have no business going to college to study art anyway.
I can’t count the number of times when I have been talking to a student and it became clear that their interest in the subject was too slight to warrant their investment in time and money.
The head of the art department at a large provincial college once told me that his department was forced for financial reasons to accept weaker, less motivated students, and he admitted privately that they shouldn’t be there.
My advice to those students would be to leave, or better still; don’t apply in the first place. My advice to the stronger more motivated students is also; leave unless you are really getting enough from being there.
Surviving outside of college will demand more discipline and offer more freedom. Both of these challenges are worth rising to, that is, if you are serious about being an artist.
The greatest obstacles to becoming an artist are emotional. You will feel exposed, you will risk looking silly, you will feel discouraged, not good enough. If you expect these to be addressed at art college, if this is what you think you are paying for, you will be bitterly disappointed. Sort this out before you go, otherwise, there is a high risk it will be an expensive waste of time. If you get far enough into this process, you might just discover that you don’t need to go at all. Art colleges have no monopoly on free thought or creativity.
Indeed they can do much to inhibit it. The conversations in Art Colleges are often frustrating. Many once hopeful artists have ended up teaching in provincial colleges, they seldom show their work, if indeed they still make any. Knowing they are lucky to be there, and feeling a little fraudulent, they might indulge in some impenetrable artspeak, just so that everyone feels they are involved in something important and difficult. You may not understand a word, it might make you feel stupid and it is generally inhibiting. You may learn to speak it yourself and feel this is some sort of passport into the art-world. It isn’t, but I suppose it just might help you one day land a teaching job if you can keep up with current buzz words (from my day I remember a lot of “intertextuality” and “performativity”).
I was lucky to attend excellent colleges where unnecessary gobbledygook was minimal and the best teachers spoke versions of plain English. I was also lucky enough to be among the last to be awarded a full grant. I have also spent time in some rather joyless colleges, where the atmosphere was that of a miniature pretend-art-world, like a perpetual dress-rehearsal for some dreaded event which never actually happens.
Seminars focused on student work can be unsatisfactory and emotionally awkward affairs. The talkative people do the talking. There will be much walking on eggshells and defensiveness. If and when people enjoy your work, it can be almost as inhibiting as when they don’t, it can feel like an invitation to repeat yourself.
I remember seeing a situation comedy in which a man answers the telephone with the words, “Hello, how may we appear to help you?”. Lecturers will seem supportive to you, you’ll be paying their salaries, but they are unlikely to be sure enough of themselves to get very excited about anything. They are professionals and as such masters of appearing even-handed and helpful.
Your workspace will be severely limited and you might be demoralised by the fact that most of the time, most of the students will be absent because they need to earn money or they just can’t face being in the building. The most useful college experience will be that of putting on an exhibition at the end of the course, and if you decide not to go to college, then you must find some equivalent way of showing your work at suitable intervals to people most likely to be interested. You may lose a bit of money on this, but nothing like the cost of college fees.
Whether you are inside or outside of an art college, it’s all about doing what you can do, with what you have, in the time available.
By the way, don’t even think about doing a combined course or a foundation course that you top up with one year to get a BA. As harsh as this sounds, they seem to be designed with built-in low expectations, and to be attractive to less focused students and to keep teachers employed. I don’t believe much good can come from them. If you can show me a bunch of flourishing artists who have sprung from any of them (or “emerged” if you prefer) then let me know and I will retract my statement. Really I will.
If I publish this I will probably lose friends. I fear I may have just burned a couple of bridges, which partly explains why one doesn’t hear it too often. Well, the truth hurts, and though I feel better for writing it, I will certainly remove this long before I apply for any more teaching jobs.
Four things are worth remembering:
1. If you make interesting work, no one will care if you did or didn’t go to college.
2. Having a large debt won’t help you be an artist, it will probably inhibit you.
3. To most employers, a BA in Fine Art is much the same as not having a qualification.
4. Art college is not like the real world, many of those who flourish at college don’t get on outside, and vice versa.
The art world is designed to intimidate you, many people end up going to art college because they think they will come away with a magic key, a key which will make sense of it all and let you join in. I will give you the key now for free, right here: The key is this: The key does not exist, its just up to you not to be intimidated.
If you have read this and you still want to go to art college, then please, please take my last pieces of advice: Be greedy, be open, take everything you can, suck the life out of it, don’t explain, don’t apologise, do a lot, have no truck with the mealy mouthed.
Remember nothing will happen by virtue of you simply being there. You must make it happen.
Do not get into meaningless disputes about which course you should be on, which equipment you should have access to. “I am a photography student and I needed to use the ceramics department but they wouldn’t let me”, or, “I wanted to make puppets but the sculpture department wouldn’t support me,” These and other conflicts are deeply uninteresting excuses and a waste of time.
Don’t moan, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.