by James Harrington | May 25, 2017
The new student entering the Art Students League may have a disconcerting experience. Nobody is telling them what to do, whom to study with, or what to study, nor for how long. It’s up to the individual. Advice may be available from experienced registrars or other students (opinions are never in short supply), but the decision is left to the individual. There is no prescribed curriculum. A curriculum would provide structure, but it would also impose restrictions. The League is designed for maximum freedom. This is a school for grownups; no one here is going to take you by the hand and spoon-feed you. Curiosity, the creative drive, and self-discipline are your guides. There should be a large sign in the League office declaring the ASL’s educational philosophy: “You have to find your own way, but we are here to help you do it.”
The Art Students League is a distinctly American school founded in the spirit of independence shortly before our nation’s centennial year. Just as the country sought to find its own way independent of Great Britain, the group of students who formed the early League sought to be free of dependence on the National Academy of Design. “We can do it ourselves” could as easily been the league’s motto. This is the secret of a League education, the freedom to find your own way. The League founders were never so much rebels as believers in autonomy.
The atelier system, brought back from France by American artists, existed outside of the restrictive École des Beaux-Arts. Students were free to come and go as they wished from communal studios so long as they contributed their fee to the studio’s expenses. Master artists were asked to come in and critique twice a week. A raw beginner would learn a great deal of the basics by observing more experienced students. Students could change ateliers if they chose to follow another master. This is in contrast to the strict curriculum of the exclusive École where students proceeded from drawing the cast to the nude and eventually being allowed to paint, often with prescribed subject matter.
League students always had the freedom to choose their own instructor and to determine their length of study. The League has always had open enrollment. It is true that in its first decades there was a sequential curriculum, beginning with drawing from the antique (plaster cast), but it was abandoned fairly early on.
As modernism began to change art, so did art education. As art became more concept-based and less craft-oriented, the universities became more comfortable teaching art. The league stayed true to studio-based art education. Degrees were never a part of the league philosophy. The League is a league because it is a group of artists who cooperate to maintain a school where you have the opportunity to study art in the manner and the pace you desire. We maintain it for ourselves and those like us. You are interested in art? Join us. Everybody is welcome.
It is a daunting prospect to take up the study of so great a subject with so much freedom and so little structure. It is very likely you will take a few missteps. Why not just tell the beginner what to do? It is the singular genius of the ASL that the best possible training for an artist is to teach self-reliance. Eventually, the student must leave the classroom. If they are accustomed to finding their own way, seeking what they need to know, and comfortable with a lack of structure, they will adapt well to independent studio practice. Finishing a curriculum can give one a sense of completion. But is an artist’s education ever complete? Aren’t we always seeking? Can we continually ask someone else to provide the answers? Eventually, we must learn to trust our own creative instincts. The League asks you to do this from day one.
What of providing a foundation for the student to build upon? It doesn’t take much genius to realize you start by drawing. There’s your beginning—draw! Good luck. This attitude is not a bit callous because in reality the League offers a huge amount of support and structure. It’s just that you can put those building blocks together as you see fit. It’s a building full of artists who all have ideas about the right way to do things. The ASL student has the freedom to explore in a way that no other school offers.
The League has such rich and varied offerings with no barriers or prerequisites. If we were all made alike as artists, more structure would be very beneficial. But we are not made that way; we all have different needs and creative desires. The league allows the student to take what they need and asks no questions, makes no demands. It’s the à-la-carte approach to education. In a world that is now replete with art schools offering degrees and varied curricula, academies that train students for a specific style and direction, the Art Students League stands apart for its commitment to educational freedom and independence. It is the best training ground for the art spirit to come to fruition. It would be a folly to trade away what makes us unique in order to sell what others are offering. The League offers educational independence and creative self-reliance. The League cannot compete with the university, and it shouldn’t be a choice between them. They are different. Many students will wisely attend both.
The League should stay true to its independent spirit. It’s a tough school for those waiting to be given directions. For those with the creative impulse the League is the beginning of the road, but you will have to find your own map. We’ve got lots of maps, though eventually the road is all yours.