Tuesday, August 05, 2014


That's me, far right, painting critique, 1967, Idaho State University

On the Quilt Art list the topic of art education comes up pretty regularly. This time it was in connection with an article on Huffington Post about Art Schools that seem to be ignoring traditional art and methods and discouraging traditional representational forms of art. The article included lots of complaints from current and former students who felt disrespected and poorly served by an education they had spent thousands of dollars for. This, of course, brought out the self-taught artists on the list who would have you believe that a formal education in art is not just unnecessary, but in many cases actually stifling and a fraud. I always find this discussion frustrating because first, I learned so much in my college program, and because it feels like part of a very discouraging societal trend of devaluing education in general.  I wrote to the list:

"I hear so many stories of art school experiences that did not include any kind of traditional training, dogmatic teachers pushing an agenda and cruel and dismissive treatment of students that I have to believe it happens. But hard to imagine. My experience was different. I was an art major at a state university in the late '60s and still greatly value the education that I got there and the teachers that I had. 

My first two years were solidly grounded in life drawing, art history, color theory, all the practical stuff about stretching canvases, learning about materials, basic design principles, etc. etc. then we moved into studies of modern and contemporary artists, movements and philosophies. Great discussions and debates about art and meaning and culture and ethics. 

My two favorite teachers were very passionate about art, and definitely had their own private preferences, but they never disparaged anyone's interest in a particular style or movement. At the same time, they mercilessly pushed us to broaden our scope, to learn more, to open our minds to the strange, the uncomfortable, the hard to understand and to go beyond mere prettiness in our understanding of art and to never stop exploring and experimenting. I am grateful for all that. I might have found it on my own, I likely wouldn't have. I do know that it gave me a degree of confidence just in knowing how to proceed, what tools are out there, the knowledge and vocabulary to talk to myself, and enough discipline in drawing and composition not to have to struggle with those fundamentals. And it truly broadened my appreciation for art that is outside my experience of the world. I used to wish I had gone to a "real" art school. I'm beginning to think I was lucky to land where I did."

Me, in headscarf, pottery class, 1967

I do know that there are self-educated geniuses, and I know that a university is not the only route to an education, but I also know it is a pretty good route for most of us.  I was lucky to find such a valuable education in a humble state university, I guess, though I really am skeptical about those art school horror stories and have to wonder sometimes whether some students are so resistant to new ideas that they view them as a threat to their comfort with mediocrity and ignorance. And I'm not just talking about art students. 

No conclusions. No judgement. I'm just pondering this anti-education trend and wondering why, after all these years, I find myself defending my own education. 


  1. Your "education" differed from mine. University also but not that involved. We were never taught how to paint, as the professors felt that it was either in you or it wasn't, so we were shown the tools and materials and left on our own. My watercolor skills are entirely self taught which is sad--as I am sure they could have been improved with help. And, we went to school at exactly the same time. 1964 to 1968.

    I usually got A's in all my painting classes. Not true in pottery, lettering or screen printing. I was the professors favorite in intaglio printing. Always an A. I even tried a mezzotint. I have never felt I learned anything about art or technique in 4 years there.

  2. I feel the same way Terri. I attended college about the same time as you and my major was graphic design. We learned to letter, paint and illustrate by hand to make comps. Along with that I received an excellent fine art background in several other disciplines. Three years of figure drawing were required. I had a ball and greatly appreciated the chance to try several areas of art making. Now it's all computer. How sad.

  3. I have always envied those who studied art in college. I was in the math crowd who really wanted to be in the art crowd. I think what I missed out learning was the discipline of creating art and appreciating the time spent creating. For me it was what I did after work, more than a hobby, but not a life style. I have learned art basics from adult ed classes, books, and experimentation. I still wish I had thrown some art classes into my course work. Oh, and quitar lessons, too. :)

  4. I think there are good doers and good teachers and those two groups don't always overlap a lot. I went to business school and we had some good challenging teachers and some that made you want to run screaming away never to return. I think it is up to us to realize what kind of teacher one has and recognize the lost opportunity and try again. Unfortunately, that is easy to say looking back now. Not so easy when mired in the undergraduate years.

    I took many art history classes and I wish I had taken some fine art classes. I loved walking through UofO's art building just to smell the chemicals. :)

  5. Anonymous4:10 PM

    I had a great college art experience, including a year abroad studying art in a different university. I had professors that I butted heads with who wanted me to follow their rules unreasonably, and I had professors who were awesome and inspiring mentors. I double-majored in Comparative Literature and had the same experience there...but I do know a lot of art majors who don't make any art now. I think that's more about them than their education. I didn't go to a "real" art school (UC Irvine), but I was taught by actual artists who were making art in the real world...there are things I wish they had taught me better (like how to find materials when the university isn't selling them to you, or how to actually get a JOB), but in the end, I think there were things I needed to learn by myself anyway. So I guess if you're in art school and it's not working for you, then find another art school...just like you would with any other degree.