Don’t Go To Art School

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I dropped out of art school over a decade ago.

After two years of being bullied by many of my art tutors for being: “too rigorous”, “too concerned with outcomes”, “uptight”, and “asking too many questions”, and two years of being alienated by most of my classmates because of one quite toxic girl’s dislike of me, I left with tears in my eyes. I’m a fighter. I don’t give up easily. But it was clear I couldn’t win. It came to a head when I was told I should “develop more intimate relationships with my tutors” to pass the next semester, innuendo fully intended and confirming many suspicions. This is something I never talked about in public, and hardly very much in private, until relatively recently. It was a deeply upsetting experience I did not have the tools to cope with at the time.

Thankfully I’d been doing a course combining modules with the university’s philosophy department. There I didn’t feel like an outcast and my hard work was rewarded. The mixed messages had been doing my head in. When I went to one of my philosophy tutors and opened up a bit about it all, they suggested I transfer to a degree in philosophy. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My philosophy tutors loved the qualities my art tutors had criticised me for and I thrived in that environment, both as an artist and as a thinker.

As far as I’m aware I’m one of only two from my art class that actually work as artists now – the other was a fellow rebel. The more I have talked with others about my experience, the more I have found others to have had similar experiences, and the positive accounts of the culture of art schools that have come my way remain a tiny minority compared to the number of stories of isolation, harassment, abuse and inappropriate behaviour I have heard, and continue to hear. Not to mention the complete lack of technical skill actually taught or, indeed, desired at these institutions. My advice to young artists now is: don’t go to art school, find someone with skill willing to teach and find the time and space to practice and develop. You have to master the rules before you can effectively break them. Anyone who says differently is a con artist not an artist.

I can see now that most of the tutors I had at art school had little real skill. Some were just attention seeking frauds. I felt like I didn’t belong there because I didn’t. All these years later I am so grateful to my philosophy tutors and classmates, the many books and online resources I used to teach myself the skills I have today, and everyone who appreciates my work. And I am so glad I walked away.

I watched art school chew up and spit out so much talent; I watched so many gifted people have their hearts and their dreams broken to gratify the egos of their resentful tutors. I didn’t paint for a year after I left, it was the most unproductive period I’ve ever had. But then I went back to it and if I can bring a little light, beauty and meaning into the world then it’s been worth it to keep going.

9 comments

  1. It’s astonishing how often I hear people lament their time at art school, how often their courses avoid skill and genuine draughtsmanship.
    I studied biology in uni, something I feel better about each time I hear one of these stories. Younger me would have been devastated to turn up at an art class and not be taught the actual skills.
    GCSE art was bad enough😅
    It’s a shame that art education is in such a state and I feel genuinely sorry that you had just an awful experience. I can only imagine how many creative dreams were crushed from similar experiences. There is likely less art in the world because of art schools and that is tragic.
    I am glad you got through it though, and I am glad you found your groove and started making art again.
    The world would be a poorer place without it😁

  2. Thank you, I’m glad I did too, and glad you think so 😊

    I’ve been hoping to hear things have changed for years, but I’ve heard so many variations on the same theme for so long from many different people about many different schools. It seems to be a culture problem within the art world itself, specifically the fine art world. I suspect if #metoo got going in that context it would blow it apart.

    Biology was a good pick, a solid subject with lots of opportunities, and artistically very interesting! GCSE art sucked for me too, but I cannot praise A Level art highly enough. I had an excellent teacher and two years of being taught skills and encouraged to experiment toward developing a solid sense of myself as an artist. This contrasted so badly with art school, which had the opposite effect…

    I really do think the state of modern art has a lot to do with this, as you say, there is likely less art in the world because of art schools. I suspect there is a lot more bullshit and con art because of them though 🙄

  3. It’s weird, I kind of regret not going. For me there was a narrative around the whole art world that focused on all of the negative aspects – massive competition, no jobs, you won’t be able to earn a living from it. For someone intrinsically cowardly, like me, they just seemed risks too insurmountable. But that was 20 years ago.

    • Those were all good reasons not to go, and still apply. The one and only reason to go is to network, and you don’t need art school for that. There are more specific art courses that focus on skill, many taught as night classes, that would be better for networking and actually useful. If I were you I would look into that kind of thing, rather than regretting not sinking a load of time and money into something the majority who have done seem to report getting very little out of but trauma. Consider yourself to have dodged a bullet 😉

  4. It’s astonishing the lengths people will go to keep the best and brightest students down because they’re afraid that if they reach success it’ll topple them from their thrones. I’m so sorry you endured that, Janice. I feel your pain because I was bullied severely in school- for six long years and it got so unbearable, I attempted suicide at the age of 14 and almost didn’t make it.
    But I’m glad I lived. I have since moved on to happiness and wonderful people in my life. I now use what I endured to help those who are bullied today. Know that you are a very brave lady and I admire you for opening up about something so painful!

    • Thank you Cherie. I’m very sorry that you went through all that, and I can sincerely empathise. I’m glad that you’ve moved on and things are better for you now. I’m also glad that you felt a connection with what I had to say. Being able to use our past bad experiences to help others is a powerful expression of healing. Wishing you all the best with your work.

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