Art School: Should You Go?

Whether you know that art is your calling or are just at the beginning of your creative path, art school is a real dilemma. We’ve put together some pros and cons to help you decide.

What Do You Want to Achieve?

Art schools normally come in two forms. You have the traditional art school, where one is trained in classical techniques of draftsmanship, painting, and sculpture. Students are introduced to the use of perspectives, light and darkness, as well as human anatomy to be able to accurately represent the human body on canvas. Other art schools focus on abstract theories and ways of thinking. This is more common in contemporary art and is more useful for pursuing a career in the contemporary art market.

Like with any other education, whether it is fine art or abstract art, it’s vital you understand what you’re hoping to get from it. You don’t necessarily have to attend an art institution if you want to become an artist. The commercial art world is complicated and difficult to navigate for those who are not a part of it. To become a successful artist, it isn’t always necessary to be institutionalised in a particular mode of thinking.

In fact, art schools might stifle your creativity and limit your ability to create outside the approach you were taught. Nevertheless, art schools can also expose you to new ideas. Attending an art school has the benefit of being surrounded by like-minded individuals and fellow students who will challenge your assumptions. Art schools are not necessarily about being taught an academic curriculum, but about being part of the voice of the new generation. This new generation ferments new approaches to art overall through discussion, argumentation, and competition.

If you simply wish to paint and mimic the techniques of the masters, then you would be better off going doing a short course rather than a degree.

Art Schools: A History

From the Renaissance onwards, artists were taught with the intent to train the hand, eye, and mind, towards the same end. Over the last half-century, however, art has undergone a radical de-skilling.

Since the 1960s, art schools dramatically moved away from the classical approach. Even back in the nineteenth century, Modern Art in the form of Impressionism and Expressionism challenged the traditional approach of the École des Beaux Arts that focused mainly on historicist reproduction.

By the second half of the twentieth century, art qualifications were synonymous with degree-level study rather than craftsmanship. Some traditional art schools closed down while others moved into polytechnics. Following Postmodernism’s ascendancy, teaching came to be dominated by abstract art theory. Art History was replaced by ‘Visual Culture’; all standards were sacrificed to relativism.

Photography and digital imaging have made the creative process quicker and easier, enabling students to go straight to the market. Today, because of the complexity of society and the nature of popular culture, the boundaries between High and Low art have been blurred. 

It is important to note that in most schools, drawing and painting have come to be seen as no more than art’s old ceremonial vestments, so don’t expect to be taught in these ways.

Reasons to go

One of the most compelling reasons to go to art school is the resources. Even when university fees are taken into account. the provision of material and studio space is priceless. Being able to play around with the tools that the art school provides offers tremendous value to students keen to experiment to find their style and medium. Part of the educational experience is challenging yourself and broadening your horizons. You might attend school to learn how to paint, but come out with an understanding of how to generate a virtual universe and use a wide range of digital equipment instead. 

Social milieu is also an important factor. Not only will you be in an environment of fellow creatives, but you will have the opportunity to network with art professionals via campus events and outreach programs. Gaining insights into the commercial aspect of art is more easily attainable at an art school.

Attending an art school has the benefit of being surrounded by like-minded individuals and fellow students who will challenge your assumptions.

Perhaps you don’t want to create art in a professional capacity, but wish to pursue it academically to eventually teach the subject. If that’s the case, art school would serve to be useful. The structured environment will introduce you to a methodical way of thinking, which is essential if you want to pass the knowledge to others.

…and reasons not to

There are, however, reasons not to attend art school. If you are hoping to learn how to paint like the seventeenth century Delft School, you are likely to be disappointed. There are a handful of schools that do teach in the Beaux Arts tradition but they struggle with funding and are typically elderly amateurs rather than youthful energy.

Nevertheless, even if you wish to attend a traditional painting and sculpting school, you risk entering the realm of the kitsch. While these skills could be useful for restoration work, if you simply wish to paint and mimic the techniques of the masters, then you would be better off going doing a short course rather than a degree. It should also be noted that art schools do not teach art history. Again, it is important to understand what your aim is when deciding whether to go to art school.

Conclusion

Aspiring artists sometimes feel that forgoing an education leaves out of the field and limits their ability to network, which adds to the notion that you lose out if you don’t attend an art school. Given the preeminence of theory in contemporary art education, it is worth being taught in a structured way by professionals rather than trying to get to grips with it yourself. Otherwise, you run the risk of going down the wrong ‘rabbit hole’.

If you are based in the United States and are asking yourself whether art school is worth it, it arguably offers more to Americans than it does to their European counterparts. Europeans have the privilege of growing up with UNESCO heritage sites. A good art program, then, can jump-start your experience of exploring the cultural heritages the world has to offer, with erudite professors offering their knowledge on the subject.  On balance, though, if you have the resources, whether via a scholarship or higher education provided by the state, then, by all means, take the chance and go to art school!

Daniel Khalupsky
Daniel Khalupsky
An MA in Law graduate, Daniel has a wide range of interests including art history, architecture and film.