Rachel Rushing

art school

I love all things self-reflective. I love people taking time to appreciate where they’ve been and how it’s brought them to where they are.

Over the past few so-longs, however, more and more articles have been popping up with the same theme: What I Didn’t Learn From Art School. I don’t necessarily have a problem with what these dynamos have written, but the general attitude of “Here’s everything I didn’t learn there.” comes across to me more as “Here’s everything those people failed at.” and seems to short-change an education. I get defensive, in part, because I not only ‘wasted’ 5 years of cash and hard work, I’ve gone back for another 3 (so when I say ‘short-change an education’ I mean my education). Education is something I take personally and though these authors have great insights into the non-ed or post-ed life of getting-to-know-how, I’d like to take a few minutes to share my own thoughts on what art school has contributed to me.

First, a caveat:

Taking up someone else’s time, knowledge, hard work, and resources costs usually costs a lot of green-backs.

This is a double-edged meat-grinder, of course. Education costs are preposterous in America, with students accumulating more debt than they’ll likely be able to work off in their foreseeably jobless future. I’m not happy about it and I don’t know anyone who likes to bathe in a tub of their own student loan bills. However, I think something in our consumerist, ON SALE THIS WEEK ONLY, “gas is 2 cents cheaper 4 miles west of here”, “daily dollar deals” culture has convinced us that we should be able to get a good deal on everything, and a good deal usually means close to free. This seems to be especially true of things that are slightly more intangible, or at least true of things more complex than our experience has given us understanding for (i.e. handmade goods, quality craftsmanship, or expertise beyond wikipedia). If you want to go to an art school, or any school, where you get to pick the brains of multiple experts with years of personal experience making, thinking, tooling, and persevering through everything the world will throw at you, they’d like to get paid for it.

So what exactly did I learn?

To be good at something takes hours and hours and hours and hours of work, and if I spend all those hours by myself, I’ll go insane.

I wanted to go to graduate school for two and a half reasons. Firstly (in no particular order), I’d like to teach. Teaching (the little experience I have) has been an inspiration to me. I get excited about sharing what I love with other people and I get even more excited when they get excited too. Second, I wanted to challenge myself and surround myself with other people who will challenge me, too. I wanted to be challenged to be better. I wanted to be around a group of people who have the same foundational passion as I do, who are willing to tell me that I can do better or I’m not doing it right or I don’t make sense or they don’t like what I’m doing. If I live my life hearing only praise and admiration (or more likely, disinterest) then it wouldn’t take long before I’d get complacent in my work, a big head, and a chip on my shoulder. I love it when people disagree about art and get mad and defensive because that means, in the words of David Rodwin, “… they actually give a shit. It means art matters.” No one can disagree with me if I stay shut away in my apartment. I’ll have more money, but crappy work and a bad attitude.

Personal responsibility isn’t something you can learn in a text-book or from an expert.

Personal responsibility is something you have to be awful at as you miss paying bills or taxes or traffic tickets until you get sick of your own immaturity. You’ll underestimate how much work it takes to do what you do and when you get that concept, you’ll either quit before you’ve gotten started or you’ll get your act together and do what needs to be done. You’ll pay your bills, you’ll figure out how to balance taking on meaningful work that pays crap (or nothing) and taking on work that will pay for your phone. You’ll stumble your way through putting together a professional contract with your clients so that when they decide to back out of a project half-way through, you’ve at least gotten a 50% deposit. You’ll remember to rent the equipment and space you need on time, once you’ve gotten turned down for showing up the day-of and everything has been rented and then you had to be that guy who has to reschedule his clients for his own mistakes.

Networking is a stupid word.

Networking is a word people use when they want something from people, be that information, contacts, gallery shows, resources, whatever. I can’t prove this because I’m still pretty fresh (and plenty of people would probably call me naive), but I have a theory that if you are genuine, excited about what you do, and responsible, people will want to know you, talk to you, and maybe even work with you. Everyone has to promote themselves (no one can be interested in something they’ve never been introduced to), but acting like other people have bumped into your life so you can use them for who they know seems a bit foolish to me.

Critiques have taught me how to listen and look.

Assuming I took 26 undergraduate studio courses (which is how many were listed on my undergrad curriculum) with an average of 5 critiques per class and an average of 3 hours devoted to each critique, that’s almost 400 hours of looking and listening to what people have to say about art, mine and theirs. In that time I learned (and I’m still learning) how to look at a thing I have no connection with and totally commit my brainpower into understanding someone else’s motivations, decisions, desires, ambitions, successes and failures. You can be an ass and a good artist, but you can’t be an ass and really appreciate someone else’s work. That takes empathy earned by shutting up and listening/looking at someone else’s view of the world.

Defending your decisions can make you very articulate.

I would say a lot of people go through their lives saying whatever they want. This tends to cause derision and strife, thanks in large part to miscommunication and a lack of accountability. If, in a critique, I don’t communicate what I mean, I’m held accountable. There is a group of people surrounding me, waiting to understand, but saying whatever I want instead of whatever I mean usually makes them more confused. I’m not communicating what I intend, I’m communicating what they think I intend. This is also expanded to the visual pieces I’m presenting. Everything communicates something. The decisions I made along the way to producing this photograph or print or painting culminate into something meaningful. If I made decisions flippantly then my work communicates that I don’t care about what it communicates, that my work doesn’t matter to me, and that it shouldn’t matter to whoever sees it. Being an artist is, by nature, an act of accountability.

I am not original, but I can be sincere.

Art history does two things very well- 1, it shows me who already had that idea and did it better than I ever could, and 2, it reassures me that there are other crazy people who love this same thing and I’m part of a long line of doers and makers and thinkers. Originality, in my mind, is another word for novelty, and I hope my work is never novel. Novelty is very exciting but interest and meaning fade quickly with the novel. Sincerity is my highest aspiration. If I can spend my efforts making something sincere, then it will always be meaningful to me, and that is something that can transcend culture, language, and time.

I will never ‘arrive’.

I learned early on how much I have yet to learn. A work is never ‘finished’, I will never fully ‘master’ a process (though I might be better at it than the guy next to me, but given time he will get to where I am), there will always be someone else better at what I do than me or with a better idea than mine. The beauty of an art school is that it’s structured to remind you how little you have accomplished, it just comes with a built in timer. You and your professors are given a predetermined number of years (usually 4 or 5) to figure out what exactly you want to do and what you want to say; the rest of your time is spent figuring out what not to do and what not to say. I don’t do this to be perfect- to figure out the formula for art and then stop or to get the biggest award there is and then be the best artist of all time. I love art school and I love being an artist because I love making and thinking and saying and doing. That’s not something you can quantify.

Being an artist is a privilege.

You might have to work at Starbucks or in some kind of cubicle-hell or waiting tables. You might not get the job you want, the residency you want, or the studio space you want, but every second that you spend figuring out how to make it all work is a gift. No one owes you anything (as we’ve discussed, you probably owe the government), so when you feel like complaining about how your old classmate already has 3 international shows on his CV and you’re stuck working at some local dive, remember, Van Gogh wasn’t famous like we know him to be today, until 50 years after his death (which occured after he shot himself… in the chest… and took over a day to die). If you’re in this gig to get shows, you’re doing it wrong.

If you didn’t want to be a fine-artist (whatever that means), then you shouldn’t have gone to art school.

The value of an art school education is not one that can be quantified, monetarily or through a full CV. Art schools exist to teach you about art, not to teach you how to be an entrepreneur or how to get your name out there or how to deal with recession or any other ‘real world’ problems.

There are other ways (maybe more efficient or cost effective) to learn these same things, besides going to art school. I’ve had friends share their thoughts about the supposed value of institutional higher education- that it is a fruitless system, providing no real insight, but exists solely to take your money. I appreciate that discovery and exploration is a life-long journey. Anyone who thinks X-number of years at an institution of learning will teach you everything you need to know has a few surprises waiting for them in Post-education World. However, I get a little uppity the more I hear this ‘Art schools are useless’ attitude. I have learned a lot from art school; it came at a great cost, but I will always value my education.