The Failings of Art School

Art school does a lot right but it also leaves a lot to be desired

This is potentially a controversial topic but it’s something that art students whisper to each other when they find out that the other studied art. “Did it destroy you?” or something to that effect is asked in a hushed tone. And the universal answer seems to be yes.

Art school is a funny beast. When I was in high school I had three potential study options: medicine, journalism or art. I of course went with the least practical one. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect so 17-year-old me who only painted and drew hyper-realistic portraits naively packed up her life and moved to Cape Town.

When I say it was a baptism by fire it really was. I won’t talk about my experiences personally because that’s too subjective. But I know a lot of my classmates felt and still feel the same and know when I meet someone who studied art, be it at the same institution as me or somewhere else, the reaction is almost always the same. They did not prepare us to be artists.

I’ll say that again. They did not prepare us to be artists. 

Maybe it was ego getting in the way and not wanting to breed competition on behalf of the lecturers (I don’t think this is the case for all but definitely some) or perhaps it’s willful ignorance about updating the curriculum. The world has changed drastically and you can no longer just rely on a benefactor or working with a gallery. Or, as one lecturer so glibly told us “pick the gallery you want to work with and sleep with the owner”. I’m still not sure if that was a joke.

For me, there were three main failings. The first was they failed to instil a sense of confidence. The general style of teaching seems to be to put you down. “The art world is not a kind place, you need to get used to harsh criticism”. And to be fair they’re not wrong-art critics in my opinion as a special breed of nasty (sorry if you are one but please be a bit nicer goodness me!) But when you’re trying to help (on the whole) young people develop and grow telling them they’re rubbish all the time doesn’t really make them believe they can do anything. I received one compliment in my 4 years. “You’re ok at painting”. I then swiftly removed myself to go cry in the bathroom at this great act of kindness. 

My class was incredibly talented across the board. I have no shame in saying that. There were artists in my graduating class with untold levels of skill who, after graduating, haven’t touched their medium since. Some have and are now successful artists which makes my heart so happy to see. But I’d say 10% of that graduating class have anything to do with art now and that is a great loss to the industry.

The main failing though, and one I’m increasingly more frustrated about, is the complete lack of any kind of business or entrepreneurial training. Now I did graduate 11 years ago (a terrifying thought) but I’d be willing to bet my right arm that’s not changed. (I did a little bit of research before writing this and it seems there’s one art school that has a business module. One).

As an artist, you are essentially a one-man business. Even if you’re signed by a gallery you still need to have an understanding of contracts and IP. There was nothing. We were taught nothing.
I’ve spent the last 11 years teaching myself how to be a business owner. And even now I’m still learning. Case and point I recently had to try to work out what to do if someone wants to use your art on a product label. I had no clue. There are royalties, there are commercial use fees. There were no whispers of these kinds of seemingly practical things when you study though.

You don’t only produce the products, you also photograph, edit, run the website, do all the marketing, do all communication, write your own contracts (most of the time-I insist on contracts but lots of places are very chilled about this, please protect yourselves), create all advertising, package and transport, accounting, run social media pages, all other admin including the things like taxes…the list goes on. You’re every department of your business. And not one of these elements was taught to us. Without even fundamental understanding of all these things, you’re just setting people up for failure. These are all things I’ve had to teach myself around other jobs before deciding to take the plunge to make art full-time.

Another thing that was brought up in discussion with other artists was the fact that you don’t really get taught any skills. Which sounds bonkers to say but it’s true looking back! The emphasis is almost solely on concept. Now I’ll be honest I loved that but in hindsight, very little teaching happened. We were more given projects that became self-studies in that medium. The one that stands out isn’t even a project but in your final year you have to make a catalogue to reflect your work. This is done in Indesign. We were told this and shown the computers. That was an interesting 2 weeks of trying to work out how the hell to make a print-appropriate book with no guidance (this was also before the age of Youtube tutorials). We all did a lot of crying in those computer labs.

So while it did teach me to expand my way of thinking art school did not in fact teach me to be an artist in any way, which feels sad to me.

I know this reads as art school slander-and to be fair it kind of is. If I could do it again would I? I genuinely don’t know. I don’t feel like you only go to art school to expand how you see the world. You also go to art school because you want to work in the arts, and as it is now you’re just not taught how to.