This is an updated account on how things are going years after having left art school, the effects it’s had on me, and my personal thoughts on attending. My views here aren’t wholly different than the few rants I’ve had on the subject in the past, but it’s one I believe I have to continue talking about to assist others in making the right decisions for themselves and their future path. (I should also mention that this is the viewpoint of an american in America.)
It’s become increasingly clear to me over the last year that out of my 25 years on this Earth, there’s only one decision I ever truly regret: and that was going to art school. Now, there’s a good chance that I may not be saying this had I attended a different school, but there’s no way to ever know, so what I’m really saying is “I regret going to the school I chose, not school in general.” I feel as though I was let down by my school. I held up my end of the bargain (some $80~$90K in tuition) and failed to get anything in return that they had promised me on my open house tour 5 years prior. “Substantial experience in the major of my choice, incredible networking both on a peer and professional level, a career I’d be passionate about!” After reviewing that checklist years later, those three boxes remain unticked. (1. My school had poor curriculum. 2. I am better friends with artists met online through DA and Tumblr than anyone I knew at my school. 3. Boston has limited opportunities.)
Now, obviously I know just throwing money at an institution wasn’t going to transform me into a powerhouse artist like an upgrade in a video game. But it’s not as though I didn’t put my work in and really try to come out with something to show for myself. My problem is that I feel as though all of that personal growth happened entirely outside of the classroom by my own curiosity, interest, and motivation. And I feel that my growing regret toward my experience there is more my fault than theirs: but only because hindsight is 20/20. I say to myself that I should have had the intuition to recognize all of the little red flags the school was presenting me with:
- Things like mandatory useless, distracting classes that had nothing to do with my major.
- Things like an atmosphere that was too sensitive toward criticism and rewarded bad habits through luke-warm “constructive compliments.” — Instructors have gotten fired in the past for being too hard (I say motivating) on students.
- Things like a course load that only had a fraction of a handful of classes that WERE relevant to my major, and even then instructed poorly with little direction.
- Things like giving me an expensive “internship” that was more something like a personal favor for a friend and had NOTHING to do with illustration.
- Things like recent previous-year grads now teaching classes with no more than 1 year of field experience.
- Things like no one else in my entire class (not even me) being pushed to give it their all and to prepare them for a future professional career in new and exciting media opportunities.
I tell myself I should have seen all of this and run, RUN for the hills, save my money, and go my own way, but… well, like I just said. Hindsight is always 20/20.
So, it’s a choice I now have to live with, probably for well over the next 15 years of my life. I have the equivalence of a mortgage with nothing to show for it, and it’s not a good feeling. It feels crushing, emotionally draining. As though it’s over my shoulder mocking me saying “I’M GOING TO IMPEDE YOU IN WHATEVER YOUR HOPES AND DREAMS WERE FOR LIFE. NYAHAH.” (That’s a bit dramatic and exaggerated, I know.) But it really goes to show you how ill-equipped many of us, (ourselves AND our parents,) were when it was time for us to go to college. You know — as we were always told by our parents — you HAVE to go to college. “It’s the ONLY way you’ll get anywhere today!” Alright, maybe if you’re going into business, medicine, or law, you wear your degree and high test scores on your sleeve. But … for art?
It’s amazing how art colleges will never tell you that the BFA/MFA degree you’re working toward means shit in real life. Well it’s not that surprising, really. Why would you disprove your entire offered product in one sentence? Still, I’m sure you’ve started to hear this more and more just as I have: people who hire you for art related jobs don’t care in the slightest what your degree is, what your grades were, whether you had honors, etc. They want to see the work. If the work in your portfolio looks like it’s good enough to be used as legal tender, you’ll go places even having never stepped foot in a college classroom. “But!” you say, “I want to go to college to learn discipline, work ethic, and be exposed to group-based peer-reviews!” — All right! That’s fine! You just don’t have to go to a huge expensive 4-year University/Institute to get that! Know where you CAN get that for a fraction of the time and cost, but with way more substance? Workshops. Trade-specific schoolsthat hone-in on exactly what it is you want to develop. You’ll get more experience in places like these in 1 year than you will in 4 years elsewhere, and get a serious ass-kicking to boot. You’ll never receive a degree from these schools or programs, and they’re fine with telling you that. What they will tell you is that what you will walk away with is something more important: skills and knowledge. Wish I paid more attention to things like these before I put all my chips on University. (By the way, if the school name has “Institute” or “University” in the name, you will be expected to take high-school level general education classes such as science, math, and history along with your art classes. DOESN’T THAT SOUND LIKE FUN AND A TOTAL APPROPRIATE USE OF YOUR TIME?!?!? At a college/university you usually attend a class once or twice a week for an average of 3 hours each session IF the instructor didn’t randomly decide to cancel the class that day for no reason. At a specialized school, some as if it’s a full time job — one class, 5 times a week for over 6 hours a day. Now which sounds better?)
Crazy advice time:
I can’t stress enough to anyone currently in high school to do your research — ALL THE RESEARCH — you possibly can on whatever school you’re even remotely thinking of attending. It is SO easy at that age to just make a decision and roll with it without thinking twice about it. Make sure you have a direction you want to take with your art, like a career be it self or corporately employed. Time spent in school floating around not knowing what you want to do is time that could have been spent more wisely — because remember, classes don’t start the moment you figure out a plan. If you take until your final year to establish a career goal, that’s three prior years you lost in school that could have been more appropriately allocated. No refunds, no free do-overs. And your college will NOT likely encourage you to make up your mind before advancing. College is NOT a requirement the year after you graduate high school. If you need time to figure things out, take it and don’t feel ashamed of “taking some time for yourself.” — your future self could seriously thank you.
Research the school to its fine print. Look at every course path for your major. Ask for printouts of class sign-up sheets. Make sure the classes being offered are in the majority for what interests you. Make sure the teachers are reputable. Read public reviews for the school and even individual classes if you can find any. Find someone who has attended that school and ask their opinion, even briefly, on what it was like there. Do NOT settle. Constantly be aware of your surroundings in your classes, question whether or not the instruction you’re receiving is satisfying your needs and standards, whether what you’re getting is worth the money you’re shelling out. If you start to see red flags in a particular class, see if the class is offered by another, more qualified teacher. Most colleges offer 2 weeks at the start of a semester to switch classes, don’t take this grace period lightly. If you see red flags being set off in every class, this may be a sign that the school itself is a problem and evaluation is required IMMEDIATELY. If upon further inspection you find that you made the wrong choice to attend this school, you may still have the opportunity to leave and get a tuition refund. Worse comes to worse if you ride out the year, you’ll have only one bad year instead of four. Take additional time to figure out what you want to do.
And lastly, know it IS possible to be a successful professional artist all on your own. If you take it upon yourself to be a badass indvidual, keeping inspired with a strong work ethic, you WILL do what you’ve always dreamed of doing in time, and for little to no cost comparatively. (Or, go to college for something COMPLETELY different to art and do art full time off to the side anyway. It’s doable.) I’m not trying to instill doubt or fear if you’re planning on going to school — or indeed if you’re even IN school right now. I’m not trying to tell you NOT to go. All I’m doing is trying to encourage people think more about the choices they’re making, and know that they carry more weight than you might think years down the line.
Anyway, in the end, I have to live with this path I’ve made. I’m not stopping, no. It’s tough right now but I can get through it. It bothers me that I COULD have made better choices in the past. You learn from your past mistakes. I learned from this one. It’s just unfortunate that this is a mistake you don’t necessarily get to repeat again in your lifetime, so it seems squandered. Thus, I offer these learned lessons to you.
While I do want people to take my advice and experience seriously, I don’t claim this to be the best advice for everyone. This is mostly me getting this pent-up rage off my chest. Take from this what you will. Current art school students and grads, your mileage will have varied from mine.