Sunday, May 17, 2009

self taught artist rant!

Ok, this may be contentious, but, just hear me out...

As someone who went to Art College and has a degree to prove it, I get a bit hot under the collar when I see the phrase "self taught artist". Whether the phrase is used as self-depreciation (most often) or as a badge of honour (as in "University of Life) it implies that those of us who scrimped and starved to get through Art School were just the passive receptors of some great "Master" teaching us the ancient wisdom of the arts. A bit like Yoda and his Padowans... or whatever they were called! An art degree doesn't imply I know any more than the next person because it's all subjective. Why bring up the fact that you didn't go to Art College? Who cares, it makes no difference, creativity is in the genes, it can't be learnt if you aren't that way inclined.

I know what you are thinking, but creativity CAN BE nurtured! That is what the "self-taught" artist has missed out on, that chance to be valued and guided and formed among equals. Consider this: When I was at High School I was miserable, I had good grades but felt out of place and lonely and couldn't wait for the torture to end, to go to Art School where I half-seriously believed that someone of Picasso-like stature would be waiting to usher us into the hallowed world of ART. Imagine my disappointment on my Foundation course to be confronted by some pretty average painters who had been battered by life and retreated to the quieter waters of academia and a regular pay check - I know that was their motivation because I did it myself years later, AT THE SAME COLLEGE, only difference being that I willed my students to succeed. They were jaded and lacking in enthusiasm and if they had any secrets to pass on they guarded them jealously and treated their students with thinly veiled contempt. It was as though we were constant reminders that their own dreams had fallen by the wayside.

The one bright spark? We had a History of Art lecturer who was thankfully unaffected by the general malaise, he still lived and breathed Art with a capital A. In his mind he was wandering the streets of Montemartre just behind Toulouse-Lautrec and co and he would take you along for the ride if you actually cared to follow. This was back at a time when Life Class (my favourite) was compulsory and art students were still expected to be able to draw reasonably well. Not that you got any more guidance than the whole use your thumb as a ruler, young Jedi ... all said with a yawn of boredom and hardly a sideways glance at the students work. Those of us who had already TAUGHT OURSELVES to draw in childhood (anyone who gets very good at a particular skill has spent years practicing) enjoyed the chance to indulge our concentration but those who struggled rarely improved. I enjoyed it more than school but it wasn't the "education" I had dreamed of.

The real joy was being among like-minded people for the first time, not being the class freak, (you may have guessed, I don't go on Friends Reunited much) or feeling able to speak my mind. That was the real value of my time at Art School, feeling like I fitted in at last. OK so I didn't go to a great college, maybe my fellow students and I were short changed by some particularly pedestrian lecturers (possibly that isn't the case for most art students) but the point I'm trying to make is that ALL artists are self-taught, nature of the beast. Watch a small child with some crayons, they are teaching themselves to draw. Most will continue to do so even if someone laughs at their efforts, because they love it. I drew no better after Art School than when I was 12 and spent all my time engrossed in a Prado Museum catalogue trying to figure out how to paint light like Valasquez. I still haven't figured that out and the Great Masters are no longer here to tell us.

Do I regret that time? No. Not at all, it helped make me who I am (God help us all), and I met some life-long friends there. So, on behalf of all those Art Students who variously battled parents angry that we were wasting our time, survived in damp and scarey accomodation that gave us a permanent limp and a weird cough we still can't shake 20 years later, starved and went without sleep alternately as we juggled several dead-end jobs to pay our way, or struggled with child care and guilt to pursue our dreams, please stop suggesting that the sacrifices we made to get that degree make us somehow less. That we were handed the title "Artist" on a silver platter. We are ALL self taught, there is no other way.

Feel free to take issue with everything I've just said, I'm not trying to belittle anyone, just trying to point out that we are all in the same boat. :o)


Georgina said...

AGREE, AGREE, AGREE!!! Although my years of academia were not as dramatic. I returned to school as a "returning student," in my late 40's...I'm now 57 and graduated with my art degree 4 years ago.

Even though most of my peers were younger than my own children, we still had the same common goal and passion. No matter what, it's in us, part of us, driving us to create. Some feel it's an affliction to have that kind of passion to learn, to create...even saw that kind of attitude among my sad so many had lost their love and passion for what they were teaching us. Being the old lady in the class, I pushed them to teach me...that there was still plenty of get up and go in this ol' gal; most were just tolerant.

Yes, we're all self taught whether we have our formal training or creating in on our dining room's there, inside of us...that blessed passion.

Yve said...

True, it's just like breathing, it's more about the way you think or the way you are "wired" than anything that can be learnt. I learnt to crawl then walk, nobody taught me, drawing was the same, I became better the more I did it (sadly the opposite is true of walking, particularly when you get to drinking age!) ;0)

jaz said...

i agree too!!! my daughter majored in art history and is having so much trouble finding a job. i feel that people are threatened by true creativity. so many just can't unlock their own and when they see someone that does, the have a deep resentment and envy. i got ripped off by the dean of fine arts from a prestgious art university. it's a long story but he totally ripped me off.