What do you learn in art schools
An art school in China
When I was 4 years old, I was in a public kindergarten in a small industrial city. In my first art class, we were told to draw ‘my home’. I draw something like this: a house with a pointy roof and my family – in fact, it was my grandparents and me, rather than my parents. Obviously, my art skills are not that high. I showed it to my art teacher, and she asked: ‘Does your home have colorful windows like this?’ I said: ‘No.’ She asked me to go back to my desk and draw again. This has my first ‘shock’ with art and it was the only thing I could remember in kindergarten.
15 years later, I entered one of the best dramatic art academies in China, majored in film and tv production. My professor told everyone: ‘You love dramatic arts, that’s why you are here to study. But nowadays to make a tv series, you can earn at most 15% margin. To run any other business like a supermarket, you could easily get this much. Stop dreaming and idealizing art!’ The year we graduated, he opened a supermarket in front of the school.
Asian Art wasn’t fine
After I went to the University of Sydney, studying at the faculty of art history. I took a course called ‘Curating Asian Art’. I was given some reading materials. In one document I saw back 100 years ago, Asian art was not classified as ‘fine art’. Instead, it was together with natural art, like if monkeys had painted them. I was told that if you are not white, back then you were considered less than an animal. I knew this bias existed. But I don’t know when this will end. Even today, the Chinese art market rises to be the second largest market, we are still not ‘fine’ enough.
Through my art education, I learned a few things. First of all, as soon as you show people your artwork, you will be judged against their expectations. If you are willing to get the recognition, you must be willing to bend. I was four years old when I learned that. Secondly, working in art is not daydreaming. You must be willing to do the maths, professionalize yourself and fit into a team. Lastly, your art career is determined around the moment you were born. Some people start off high, some others start off low. You will probably spend all your life fighting to be someone different from when you were born ‘into’.
Is Art School Worth it?
Being a working artist
According to ‘Artists Report Back’, a report done by BFAMFAPHD’s (pdf) in 2014, 90% of art school graduates in the U.S. can’t make their primary living from art. In other words, only 10% of art graduates can make a living from art. Art graduates only occupy 16% of all working artists. This means going to art school is going to probably, most likely, ‘ruins’ your chance to become a fine art professional.
Before art school, I’d like to think that you get at least a 50-50 chance to become a professional artist. After 4 or 5 years of full-time study and a huge student loan, we are looking at a 10% chance? For any professional training, this is a complete failure. Imagine if only 1 in 10 medical students who graduated from medical school could become doctors, or let’s say only 1 in 6 doctors went to med school… we have a serious problem!
New York Times “the paradox of art as work”
The art of cheating death
In financial terms, going to art school is not a smart investment, which you can even say ‘it’s a waste of money’. But I challenge you to think about life and death, money is just a number. There are only two things inevitable in life: death and taxes. You can be creative with your accounting, but you can’t cheat death. At this moment in human history, we are still all going to die.
Contributes to a longer life
So the next question is, how can we live longer and better? We can do certain things to improve our odds. After genetics, war, road accidents… the factors we can not control, here is a factor we can control: education. Yes, that’s right. In an article by New Scientist, it suggested that education contributes to a longer life by doing two things:
- making permanent changes in a person’s brain that improve cognitive abilities,
- helping us to make better lifestyle choices that lead to longer lives.
Worth the time, but the money?
I would like to think that higher education, including going to art school would prolong our lives. How much longer? We don’t know. Maybe it’s a year or a decade. If I tell you going to art school for 4 years will make you live 4 years longer, would you go? If you think it is not only a waste of money but also a waste of time, this at least compensates the time you lost. Personally, I think it’s definitely worth the time. Now is it worth really worth it?
No objective reason
I think going to art school is like going under knives. It’s a very personal choice. Many people I know went through plastic surgery. I thought it was a waste of money. But one girl told me that her 15,000 dollar boob job was worth the money and she felt so confident after having gone under the knives. It was a dream come true for her. Is it a waste of money? It is totally subjective in many ways. I spent over 14 years in universities and got 5 degrees. Is it worth the money? Is it a waste of money? It’s my money, I paid for my education, and I decide if it is worth it.
Although going to art school won’t promise you a good career, would you do it for other reasons? Intellectual curiosity? Social mobility? Or just for a slight chance that you might be the 10% who can make a living from art? Is art school a waste of money? The answer is yours.
What art schools won’t teach you
Of course, you might think this one is no brainer. I don’t just mean art schools should teach you how to start your own art venture, it could be too much to ask. But the fact they might not even teach you how to stay safe in business. For example, recently in China, a famous performing artist ruined her career due to illegal tax evasion. Having received art school education, she was obviously not equipped to run such a multi-billion dollar business.
I talked to many artists who graduated from art school and found that they had no clue about tax rates and how to file their personal income taxes. Some artists I know are practicing as freelance illegally due to local law. Basic business practices have been missing in art education. Do they teach that in business school, hell yeah! Accounting 1, Accounting 2. We are also taught how to be creative with accounting.
#2: IPR law
When I was doing undergrad majored in film production, we spent at least half of the time studying IPR. It doesn’t make us lawyers or specialists but at least we know the ground rules of law practice and we can be safe. I talked to many artists who are not sure how IPR works and how to protect their own IPR. It’s a pity art schools don’t teach IPR.
-Steven Henry Madoff
“Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century)”
You might have this impression that artists are loners. They are because at school no one taught them how to work with other artists in a team. One artist friend of mine, who is also an art school graduate, told me: ‘We all come to this world alone and we all die alone.’ I was like: ‘No, you came with your twin brother.’ He had a twin brother! But he felt alone. What I try to say is, regardless if you are in a team, you can think teamwork or think ‘alone’, it’s a perspective.
When we think about artists at art school, we think about these young men and women stay late at night, drink smoke and consume their health. It’s not all true. Now picture a military academy, you will have a totally different image. As a young adult, living alone for the first time away from family, sometimes even living abroad, it’s hard to think about self-control and discipline. It’s not what the school will teach you.
Again, not all art schools are the same. The art school I went to taught me IPR law and teamwork, perhaps some business as well. But most of the things you will learn in life won’t be taught at school. You need to seek and acquire the skills you consider important.
Art school dropout?
If the reason of you dropping out of school is simply because you fear that your academic performance does not reach their expectations, don’t drop out until you are kicked out. You should at least try to meet your professors’ expectations so that you have a chance to graduate. Don’t be a quitter. If you can achieve this, you will be more confident.
The art school dropout (Interview with Sway) YouTube
#2 It’s too easy
If the reason being ‘art school is a waste of my time, I’m better than this’, then you can just close your eyes and pass all the exams with flying colors, why bother dropping out? You can always teach yourself something (that art schools don’t teach you, in the video, I have mentioned), or just have a good time take things easy for the 4 years. In the end, you are getting a piece of paper, even if you feel that you are not taught much. This paper can open many doors for you.
#3 Financial difficulties
When you face some kind of financial difficulties while at art school, I think it’s time to sit down and do your maths. Don’t continue something you can not pay for. You can resume your study anytime in the future. Also, there are plenty of other programs out there cheaper or free.
Continue the road you started
In the story we mentioned earlier, the art student dropped out of art school and became a self-taught concept artist. However, despite working very hard, he only got only a part-time contract while all candidates got a full-time contract. The reason? He is the only one without a degree. You should not drop out of the art school of your choice unless you could not pay for it. Just continue the road you had chosen, in no time you will be out of it and on your way to something better.
Artschool / unsupportive parents
#1: Train your dragons
Did you see the movie how to train your dragons? Train your family like that. If you are still at an early stage of negotiation, make sure you prep them ahead of time, make them realize becoming an artist is not just a rush of blood to your head.
#2: Make a plan
Becoming an artist is like starting your business, you need a business plan or a career plan. When you have done your research, you can convince the stakeholders a lot easier.
You can get verbal approval of someone who is already established in art, so you can deliver a sense of ‘security’. Just get them to say:’ She will do great!’ or ‘He has what it takes to become a successful artist.’ It will bring assurance to those who are worried for you.
#4: Be Liable
Imagine if one day you become parents, your kid tells you that he is going to make an experiment then call you to clean up the mess, would you agree? You need to be liable for what you do and whatever trouble you might get into, you have your own safety net. That’s when you can make a decision on your own if you can take care of the consequences.