According to BFAMFAPhD, around 40 percent of working artists do not have a college degree. So why study art in higher education if you want to be an artist? Throughout my own college experience as an artist, I found that higher education brings students unique learning opportunities. In college, there is an environment where students can learn valuable lessons in a controlled space, there is an abundance of resources, and students are surrounded by people dedicated to helping them achieve their dreams.
Learning can happen in many different environments; higher education creates a controlled area of learning where a student can explore ideas with diligent and structured guidance. As an art major, you are frequently challenged emotionally, intellectually, and sometimes even physically (especially if you’re a 3-dimensional artist like myself). As art students who want to pursue a career in art, we must be open to criticism. In higher education, this takes the form of open critiques. Each professor has their own opinion of how a critique should run, giving students a wide range of varied feedback. For instance, in my own ceramic critiques with Bethany Benson and Robert Boryk, each professor had different priorities. Benson preferred to have students engage with the pieces and ask the artist questions to challenge the artist's intentions and achievements. On the other hand, Boryk conducted critiques as one on one conversations between the student artist and the professor, allowing for an in-depth conversation between mentor and mentee. Both critiques were beneficial to my development as an artist, in the former I was able to grow by acknowledging my thought process, in the latter I gained knowledge on how to refine my technique and knowledge of my craft. Higher education creates a controlled learning environment where these vital moments of self-reflection can create artistic foundations.
As artists, much of our work is personal and linked to our emotions; therefore, critiques on our work can be hard to handle. Higher education is a great way for an artist to learn how to control emotions to make critiques productive. In a classroom, if you get upset about a certain question or form of criticism, it will not hurt your career or future, rather it will be used as a moment of learning. In my freshman year, I made a self-portrait bust out of clay. It was an extremely demanding project. I was young and thought everything I made was of quality and possessed an in-depth intentional background. I was very wrong. During that critique, my self-delusion was disassembled and torn apart. My fellow students and professor asked me challenging questions about my work that I could not answer. I was embarrassed not only by my work but myself as an artist. However, after the critique my professor took me aside and explained why what happened was important: in a professional setting outside of higher education, I could have lost funding for my project or been fired from my job out of lack of knowledge and organization. Learning my lesson in an educational setting allowed me to grow as an artist without long term repercussions (the short term was getting a lower grade).
Materials, knowledge, and experience needed to properly learn about the wide understanding of fine arts are expensive and hard to find easily. Materials alone can cost thousands of dollars to efficiently learn about a craft on your own. Higher education is expensive, there’s no way anyone can deny that fact; however, with that general expense comes much more than just materials. As a fine arts major who specialized in ceramics, I learned quickly how expensive it is to obtain and maintain all of the materials I need to efficiently learn my craft. A kiln (furnace for pottery) alone is thousands of dollars and expenses increase when factoring in sustainability and practicality. In a higher education career, your tuition and financial aid can pay for materials, space to create, and the time and knowledge of your professors.
Professors and fellow students create a community of knowledge in higher education. Classrooms are filled with free exchanges of questions and answers. One of my favourite parts of being an artist in college was failing. In fine arts higher education, when a project fails, you have immediate guidance. This notion does not mean professors hold your hand and tell you what to do, rather they are like a roadmap. You have to draw your own path, but they will give you helpful advice on shortcuts, or where roadblocks may occur. When I failed, I never just hit a wall and kept hitting the same wall. My professors would guide me like a map and offer options/resources to succeed in the future, but they structured their advice so it is up to the student to choose their own path.
Communities can form anywhere and with anyone, but higher education communities stand apart. Professors and teachers alike go into their profession with the brave intention to teach students the knowledge they hold to further the wisdom of the student. In higher education one of the main purposes of the professor is to better the student. To attend art school is to create lifelong bonds with people who will always be available to guide you and lift you up to your dreams. In May 2020, I graduated with my English and Fine Arts degrees, to this day I remain confident that my professors will be there for me in the future.
Every individual learns differently and each learning opportunity and experience is valuable. Higher education is one learning device that includes hundreds of opportunities and experiences. Students are welcomed into a structured learning environment and they are offered endless resources and lifelong communication with mentors. The BFAMFAPhD’s statistic about 40% of working artists not having a college degree shows that higher education is one learning choice for you to make if that is the best option for you as an artist. Becoming a working artist is not an easy feat, there are thousands of obstacles artists have to overcome. If your dream is to create art for a living, keep working; work for your dream, and if higher education is the path for you, then know you will never be alone on the road to your dream.