Educating an Artist?

Searching for the how and why in art education.

by James Harrington | July 17, 2015

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Young Student Drawing. c. 1738. Oil on panel, 8-1/4 x 6-3/4 in. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas / Art Resource, NY.
Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Young Student Drawing, c. 1738. Oil on panel, 8¼ x 6¾ in. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas / Art Resource, NY.

In September 2002 I entered a Master of Fine Art (MFA) program. After years of intensive study at the Art Students League, it is no small question to ask why I would seek an MFA. Frankly, considering the dire success rate establishing a career in art, it is something of a mystery why anyone enters an MFA program. Studying art is an optimistic act regardless of where you decide to do it. Yet, thousands of students like me enter graduate programs in art every year. Most will cease attempting to sustain a career in art shortly after graduation. In fact, most students graduate from painting and sculpture programs knowing very little about painting or sculpture. So, why earn an MFA?

One would think that the primary motivation for seeking an MFA involves the desire to learn more about  art and prepare for a lifetime of creating art. Two years of steady focus on art-making with one-on-one attention from professors, a private studio, and dynamic group discussions with ambitious young artists of widely divergent points of view should have some positive benefits. And to be fair, even the most calloused students, such as myself, enter these programs with some faith in this notion.

But there is another motivation aside from this, a powerful and seductive one—the lure of becoming a professor. University positions (tenure-track, of course) are the opiate of the MFA masses. These jobs provide financial security with a work schedule that allows the time and opportunity to continue making art. Working two or three days a week and earning a decent salary with benefits, summers off, a long winter break. Not bad. When your work life is devoted to your life’s passion, it’s hardly work at all. This is what graduate students talk about when they discuss their ambitions. It’s about a viable career in art. In other words, it’s about landing a university position.

I don’t mean to imply that the typical MFA candidate has no interest in making a living selling his art. We’d all love to earn our living by our work. However, let’s be realistic. Even successful artists face difficulties covering healthcare and maintaining a consistent income sufficient to support a family and prepare for their later years. Unless you make it as an art star (how long does that last?), these are very real concerns. Besides, many conceptual and performance artists don’t produce a salable product (but don’t every point this out when enrolled in an MFA program). Possessing an MFA opens a teaching market to you that brings a steady income. Now, the number of university positions that are available relative to the number seeking those jobs is not a pleasant thing to consider either. So, as I was saying, in an excess of foolish optimism I started an MFA…

“The relationship between the intellectual and the craft ends of art has become imbalanced within all art schools.”

The world of the university art department is another creature altogether from the independent art school. First, in my mid-thirties I was one of the older students in the department. At the ASL, even after twenty years of association, I am still below the average student age. The young students are seeking accreditation at the university.

The League taught me how, and the university asked me why. They’re both important. At the League one gains a solid foundation in technique. In the university one learns to talk about art, to analyze it, criticize it, and occasionally to make it.

You are required to study art history. You are forced to engage with points of view about art that are the polar opposite of your own. The League creates little art enclaves that seldom interact with one another. The advantage of this is you have an opportunity to develop immense strengths in a chosen speciality, portraiture for instance. The downside is that your assumptions are not questions and the culture of a particular class tends to reinforce these assumptions.

The League has a broad range of artistic points of view, broader than most university departments, but the students are self-segregated by artistic preferences. The university brings divergent points of view into close contact; it can be a war zone by comparison.

Some university art departments are more monolithic in their point of view on art than others. My department had some diversity, which won me both allies and enemies on the faculty. As a realist I was welcomed by some and became an anathema to others. I was forced to defend my point of view, and was as often verbally flayed for having the nerve to do so. My technique was a turnoff to most of those in the program, and the language I was accustomed to using a provocation. I learned never to use the words “universal” or “truth” or “real.” These have become politically incorrect terms within the university art department.

Don’t expect most painting majors to paint and sculpture to sculpt in an MFA program: the emphasis is on conceptual art and new media, i.e. the computer. One is more likely to find an entire studio covered with coffee beans or dirt gardens than to hear the tap of a chisel on stone. Animated shorts are more common than paintings and theatrical performances more enthusiastically received than any traditional media. The classifications of painting and sculpture are so blurred as to be meaningless. With a few notable exceptions, most of the students cannot draw and are not interested in learning. I could leave a set of Winsor & Newton paints out in the hall for a week with the sign “Please adopt me,” and it wouldn’t find any takers. Try that at the League.

“But how do you train someone to think like an artist? What does that mean?”

We’ve arrived at this state of affairs because there isn’t any agreement on the best way to train an artist today. The problem lies in the nature of art at this point in time. If just about anything can be construed as art, what are the skills necessary for an artist to possess? In today’s art world, if you lack the skill to create your art, you simply hire someone with skills to do it for you. Your idea is the art; the execution is merely the labor. This is not a new concept, but the utter divorce between the two is. From that point of view, the responsibility of the university professor is to teach you to think like an artist; the hard skills are not relevant. This is why so much of the university program is about talk and why someone whose training has focused on the technique is considered so misguided. Yet, they are not completely wrong: technique is only one element in what makes an artist great. But how do you train someone to think like an artist? What does that mean?

I think that the university is more comfortable with the realm of ideas and is discomfited by the manual. This is probably the source of tension between artist and art historians in academia as well. The closer to the manual, to getting dirty, the less intellectual you are perceived to be. With my years spent acquiring some degree of dexterity with paint, I am well neigh an idiot by university standards. I am focusing on the wrong end of the creative process. They have a point, to a degree, except that I do spend quite a bit of time on the conceptual end. But if you think painting is dead, anything I do is conceptually impoverished. If it’s too exclusively visual, it isn’t appreciated as conceptual.

Bad conceptual art eschews the visual. The conceptual art that I have seen produced consists of ideas that require a great deal of text, or verbal explanation, sometimes as a performance, and the visual element illustrated the concept. When that fails, they just add labels. The work is essentially illustrative. It requires explanation or expansion beyond the visual. Good conceptual art doesn’t have this problem. It doesn’t require discussion. I don’t want to have to explain my work; it’s a visual form of communication. If it needs explanation, it has failed. My peers in the program were infuriated by my reluctance to interpret my work for them. I was depressed by how few of my classmates were visual thinkers. Perhaps, they should try a writing program. Filmmaking is another good option; it allows for the seamless blending of the visual and the spoken word. This accounts for the fondness for video art in MFA projects.

This raises another issue. My classmates were making films, writing and performing poetry, creating sound art, and their primary medium was often the computer. (In some cases the reliance on technology seems to make the computer more of a collaborator than a medium.) How inclusive should the painting and sculpture programs be? There are film schools, drama schools, music schools, and MFAs in writing. Where are the demarcations between the disciplines? The standards are long gone. Really just about anything goes, as long as it is perceived as new. That seems to be the mantra of the MFA program: Do something new, and make it political.

I didn’t consider my work very political. I am concerned with the human experience in all its aspects, but I feel specific political issues can be quickly dated when included in art. Everything is political, they insisted. True to an extent, it depends how you define “political,” but does a portrait of my wife have to be political to be successful? It was made political though, a man painting a woman, even clothed, raised the horrible spectacle of the “male gaze.” It wasn’t safe to paint an apple without offending somebody. Had I though about who picked that apple?

The relationship between the intellectual and the craft ends of art has become imbalanced within all art schools. Within the MFA programs the two have become completely estranged. Concept is lauded as if it were something new, born out of the oil, the varnish, and the detritus of our predecessors. This is silly. What great art is not based on an idea, a concept combined with the means to realize it? The philosophical divide is really about how and why concepts are executed, and which are worth it.

“True artists will create with or without the degree, but today they are more likely to be doing it within the university or accredited independent art schools.”

Examining what we paint and why is interesting, and essential to one’s ability to produce art. The philosophy of art is discussed at the League, but not very much, and not by very many. Painting the model in the classroom year after year may make you a better painter, but not necessarily a better artist. Painting the model reinforces the technical side of art without the deep consideration of why you are doing so, thereby leaving the key conceptual faculty to atrophy, if it were developed in the first place.

Sometimes the study of the figure seems an end it itself, instead of serving a larger creative goal. The League should push its students to utilize their skills beyond achieving verisimilitude. It’s like we’re endlessly rehearsing for the real thing. Create art now! A decade in art school is too long! Some of the classroom are more like cooperative studio spaces than part of a school. Let’s push out the best and most accomplished perennial students out the door. Let’s graduate a few. Give them a grant and tell them to visit sometime. Careers are not forced in the classroom. Before they go though, let’s discuss what they are going to do with the skills that the traditional school teaches so well. In other words, let’s talk a bit more about the philosophy of art.

I feel that the Art Students League can be the avant-garde instead of the arrière-garde if we begin to think and discuss where we are in the contemporary art world, and perhaps embrace some change. What the League possesses nobody rivals, but it risks irrelevance if it can’t capture the imagination of more people who will make significant careers for themselves in the art world.

Like it or not, the young and career-minded are looking for degrees. True artists will create with or without the degree, but today they are more likely to be doing it within the university or accredited independent art schools. The degree has a market value; the education is broadening; art history provides perspective, and the significant philosophical questions are sometimes confronted. Yet, it is insufficient as a complete education, nothing is studied in depth and craft and skill are in short supply. Here lies the twenty-first-century opportunity for the League.

The complete school of art no longer exists (if it ever did); it has become fragmented, torn asunder by philosophical, political, and artistic differences. Blame Duchamp.

This is true of the art world at large as well: all is foment and ferment. Can one prepare a student for such a world? Even a born artist needs some guidance, but what guidance, what education is required? As broad and as complete as possible, an education that creates a thinking artist, a skilled artists, and a knowledgeable artist, open-minded and curious. It wouldn’t hurt if we were a little more business savvy either, skilled at negotiating the marketplace where we need to make our living. This includes the age-old traditions of marketing our work or our knowledge (teaching). Without the ability to teach artists are left to sick or swim by the sale of their work alone. The alternative is to provide commercial training in skills like graphic design. Or perhaps you prefer restaurant work? Do our schools consider it too crass to consider the financial welfare of their graduates? Perhaps we’ve abandoned the idea that art is a career. Are our schools training for a vocation or an avocation? If art programs are still considered vocational, there is work to be done improving them.

Until concept and skill are reconciled in a single institution that is able to offer the credentials that the young and ambitious seek, I would conclude that earning an MFA is a beneficial experience, despite its limitations. I understand more about the broader art world today than I did two years ago. My art history classes were wonderful. I can critically engage with art that I formerly dismissed, even if I don’t agree with the premise for that art. I can separate taste from objective judgment. I’ve learned to talk the talk, and I never stopped painting.

Can I be a professor now?

James Harrington[1] is a painter and teacher living in New York. This article appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of LINEA. 

  1. James Harrington: