Maybe I don’t want to be an artist: a discussion on art education

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Since recently completing my Bachelor of Fine Art degree, questioning the importance of art education became less of a casual thought and more of a practical reality. Reflecting on the past four years, I began considering its value. What did I gain from my education? Was it worth the time and money invested? What is education’s role when studying the arts?

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To help me answer these questions, I (EH) invited two of my friends, Abbey (AM) and Eric (EW), who are a part of my 2016 graduating class in Ryerson’s Bachelor of Fine Art, Photography programme, for a discussion over coffee.

It’s 4:30pm on a Saturday Afternoon. We are in London, England, it is 22 degrees, and the setting sun shines a gold tint on the brick houses that surround a neighborhood café in Finsbury Park.

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I wanted to facilitate a conversation by beginning with asking about the curriculum, facilities, and resources we experienced. Were they reflective of our modern age and personal interests? Did you ever feel like the programme limited your ability to produce successful work that catered to your interests?

EW: There were lots to offer through the resources and facilities. I learned how to do ‘photography.’ And we challenged it.

AM: Through the photography programme, we all discovered something else besides simply photography that we were interested in. I think the professors understood and accommodated our desires. However, we did enter a photography programme.

EW: What we learned in our second year could be the reason why I initially started the Photography programme. We were told what to do technically and consequentially taught how to think about it. Because of that, we were able to find an outlet to rebel. We learned the rules, but we didn’t learn how to break them.

AM: In regards to my own work, I definitely tried to rebel against what I was told. But it is because of those “correct” foundations that my work progressed in a way that it was meant to.

EW: I think our professors would be happy either way, as long as our work was supported conceptually. We wanted to break the rules, but we still wanted their validation, the A+.

AM: A personal validation.

We got onto the topic of what it means to be a “successful” artist. In order for an artist to gain recognition, is it important for an artist’s practice to be identifiable by a specific medium, genre, or area of interest? Is there room for experimenting?

EW: I loved whenever people would be able to identify you based on your work.

AM: You feel great when someone is able to notice and recognize your work as yours. If you want to be able to sell yourself, people need to talk about your work in a specific way.

EW: If you are proud of your work, you keep producing it. And if you keep producing it, you are an artist.

AM: I think the last two years of our programme was very broad and we had a lot of opportunities to express ourselves the way we wanted to. The professors were great at letting us develop our own opinion and taught us how to have an intelligent conversation about our work.

EW: Our education definitely encouraged you to experiment, but that’s what got me less confident about my work. It got to the point where I was producing work that others were interested in, it was validated, and I had confidence.

EH: When you start experimenting you are more vulnerable emotionally and technically.

AM: I think contemporary art is about experimenting.

EW: Experimenting with concepts is different than experimenting with medium.

Over the span of four years, I have not only seen a huge transformation within myself, but also my peers. I was curious to know what Abbey and Eric expected from the programme prior to starting and what they got out of it.

EW: I remember googling “how do you transfer analogue images to online?” I went into the program so clueless. I wanted to be a “photographer”; use photography to help people. I didn’t see that as being an artist.

AM: I wanted to be a high-end fashion photographer that changed the way things were done and perceived in the photo/fashion industry.

EW: What does our programme want to produce from us? Established photographers? Why would you have a cookie cutter curriculum if you wanted to produce different outcomes?

AM: There are only so many jobs in the photography industry that not all of us could end up as photographers. It’s a competitive market. Our environment at university was creative, while other “photography” programmes can be quite technical.

EW: Which gets you a job.

EH: What was the most valuable lesson learned from your undergrad?

EW: The connections made, the people, the opportunities.

AM: I learned so much about different aspects of life. It wasn’t only what the professors taught us, but it was the environment we were surrounded in. The different areas your peers were interested in, you learned something.

EW: Maybe that’s when you care about art… when you learn something. Is art about learning something, or about pretty pictures? Is it important to make art that’s pretty but also didactic?

Due to the uncertainties of being a “successful” artist, I was curious to know if that motivated Abbey and Eric to complete their university degree. We started discussing the reasoning behind going to university and the outcome of it.

AM: It makes me feel better about myself that I went to university and got a degree. It is something I was taught that I had to do and because of that I feel so accomplished. It’s a thought that is enforced in our society.

EW: It seems like I checked it off the list. Mom told me I had to go.

AM: We grew up in a society where you are taught that attending university is what is going to help you establish your career. But now, graduating from art school, it’s like, fuck.

EW: Can I edit that thought? Attending university equals buying your career. We think that paying an institution for four years is enough to fix the rest of our lives.

AM: Our friends are studying things that can pay off their loan.

EH: Someone once told me, “you’re studying something that you put the most into, but get the least back [financially].”

EW: But we know that going into it.

AM: Studying and producing art is so different than any other career path. It is mentally and physically exhausting. You cannot separate work from home.

EW: Being an artist isn’t a 9-5 job. It’s a lifestyle.

AM: Exactly. The art you are producing is who you are.

EW: Maybe I don’t want to be an artist.

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Evan Hutchinson

Author: Evan Hutchinson

Evan Hutchinson is a contemporary lens based artist from Toronto, Canada currently residing in London.