When I tell people I studied Fine Arts, the standard answer is always “Oh… What are you going to do with that?”, my answer usually being a vague, “I’m not sure yet, maybe I’ll teach, or maybe I’ll work in a gallery, or maybe I’ll go into design…” The truth is, I will probably do a little bit of all those things and more, never really settling anywhere, but content to be constantly moving and learning. So what made my art education worth all that time and money? (To be fair, I have to say that I did not go to an ‘art school’ but rather pursued a liberal arts education with a major in Fine Arts, I double majored in Spanish, and I most certainly did not pay full tuition of over $100k, I paid significantly less due to numerous scholarships I’ve received over the years from DePaul, as well as several very generous organizations!)
So first, let me debunk the myth that art majors learn how to paint and draw. Yes, to some degree that is true, you do develop these skills but that is only a small fraction of what an art education entails. It taught me to how to be a self-motivated, self-reliant, and inquisitive person. With art, there is no starting or ending point. There is just a continuous process, as with any creative work. There are no calculations or steps you must take to come up with an idea, you must rely on your own thoughts, beliefs, life. And with every brilliant idea I had over the four years, I was met with a constant slew of “but why?” from my professors, oftentimes followed by the quick realization that I had nothing. Through this constant 4 years worth of push and pull, I have become a complex thinker, an imaginative problem solver and great at persuading others to believe me when I say I’ll make it work.
Along with the solid critical thinking skills I gained, I also gained a community of equally inquisitive and critical students and professors, each with their own perspectives, each with the strong belief that their perspectives were important enough to share with the everyone else. Being surrounded by people who are doing what they are doing because they believe in it is a very inspiring experience. At the same time, it is also a humbling experience. When you present work to others, to a certain degree you are also presenting them with your own self, to be judged, criticized and sometimes completely destroyed, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. I’ve seen tears, fights and insults during critiques, often fueled by the lack of sleep most of us got the night before the deadline. But you develop a tough skin after a while, and learn to pick and choose which comments you find important enough to alter what you are doing and that’s when the feedback becomes really beneficial.
Having said that, I really didn’t study art at all. I studied history, culture, people, communities. Art does not stand alone, it is not made in a vacuum, it is made meaningful by historical, cultural, personal context. My four years were a study of this context on all levels. This is not to say that art cannot be made to simply be made, but in my case, it cannot. I don’t find joy in doodling, in making stuff up, but rather find that the meaning or story behind the work makes it all worth it.
So yes, I did pay for four years of art school, but what I got was an intense four years of critical thinking, of learning how to explain to others why my every decision (down to the smallest ones which often matter the most) is meaningful, of learning what it means to grow a community that can’t wait to see your next step as much as you can’t wait to see theirs, of insane problem solving, of history, psychology, culture, sociology and of constant reminders that if I really want this, I’m going to have to work hard as hell to get it.