Art school?

I gotta girlfriend, she goes to art school
I gotta art school girlfriend yeah
Stone Temple Pilots, “Art School Girl

While browsing “The Steins Collect” at SF MOMA earlier this week, I found myself wondering — as I often do when in fine-arts settings like painting classes or galleries — whether I should go to art school. My art training is very haphazard; I’ve taken classes here and there but never a prolonged course of study of any technique or medium. This often makes me feel inferior to more schooled artists, but I’ve rejected the idea of applying to art school. It’s taken me so long to build up creative self-confidence; I’ve suspected my growing voice would be dampened by the constant critique (and attendant self-doubt) of an academic environment. These days, though, I feel strong enough that I think I could maintain integrity to myself even while absorbing challenges and criticism — which means I feel ready to get pushed a little. So I began again to ask myself, as I walked the galleries of Matisses and Cézannes, whether I should apply to art school.

I got home that night and started looking up schools and MFA programs in our region. They all required courses in theory and art history, and some also demanded that their students teach. They were grooming their graduates to become professors and/or exhibiting professional artists, but neither of those are quite what I want to do with my art. I thought about the two degrees I already have, and of jumping through all those hoops in yet another school, and I just got tired. I left my PhD program because life is too short to spend in fulfilling requirements that don’t serve my goals; I don’t want to start an MFA only to find the same frustrations. I complained to Erik, and he asked the question I should have started with: “What would your ideal program look like?”

I had to think about this. “Well,” I said, “I know I’d want to be in community with other interdisciplinary artists, like at IWL. I’d want to have regular opportunities for conversation, and I’d want us to be supporting, challenging, and workshopping each other’s stuff.” The community is vital, but is probably the part of any program that’s the greatest toss-up, because you never know who you’ll get as your classmates. I would want a community as broadly diverse as the ones at VONA and IWL, and I’d want to respect my classmates as people and not just as artists, which might be the trickiest part of all.

“Also,” I said, “I’d want a lot of studio practice and a lot of mentoring on craft. But I’d want that to be based on what I needed, not on some arbitrary curriculum that might or might not be relevant to my goals. I’d want the freedom and focus of the figure studio at the RAC, only with more guidance from experienced artists.” Getting this would depend a little on the program’s values and a little on the teachers themselves. And of course I’d want the teachers and the program to be as committed to experimentation, diversity, and individuality as I am myself… and generous with the opportunities that come from an institution and from its network.

So should I go to art school? It comes down to (as do all things!) how I want to use my time, and what I’m trading off. At the moment I’m thinking I’d do better to spend at least another year or two working on what I’m doing now, so I’ll have an even stronger foundation — and stronger personal vision — to bring to school with me, should I find the perfect program and decide to apply. And it’s certainly possible that no reputable MFA program would accept me, in which case all this thinking is moot. At any rate, the larger goal is the same as it ever was: to translate my ideas into the strongest and most compelling work I can create, and get it out to the widest possible audience. I can do that always, art school or not.