Finally, the end has been reached. The light at the end of the dark confusing tunnel of my contemporary fine art degree has been reached and now I am free. That freedom actually came at the end of November 2017, almost 6 months ago, and only now am I coming here with the courage write about it.
Was it worth it?
The course I completed was a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art) – Painting major. Unbeknownst to you dear reader, although I somehow managed to wrangle good grades it was hell, in particular in the last years when I became so disillusioned with the whole thing it made my entire life miserable and I was ready to quit had it not been for the fact I was so close to finishing.
I lied to myself and said ‘yes it is worth it’ because I wasn’t ready to face the reality that I had spent over $20,000 on a course of study that is practically an illusion, where in the first class the teacher said “We can’t give you a definition of art, if we could we’d be rich!” That should have set my alarm bells ringing. Imagine in a medical, science or law degree if they said the same!?
It sounded like an innocent and intriguing idea to be presented with at the time, but the implications of that idea that ‘art has no definition’ pervaded the entire course of fine art study. It became evident through the lack of direction, the lack of clarity, the obscure learning outcomes, the lack of any real teaching of actual skills… but surely you’d learn to paint or draw at least, right?
Ha, sadly, nope. That’s what I expected to learn, and that was what I had the most trouble coming to grips with. After I had completed my Level 2 units and had just started my final Level 3 graduating project I had a massive panic attack. The cause? I realised that until that point we had not learnt any painting technique whatsoever, had only been taught a few fundamental skills in drawing technique through the drawing electives I chose, and I hadn’t mastered anything I had expected from a traditional course of fine art study. I realised I had spent several years and a lot of money on almost nothing – time when I could have instead been doing my own art practice, building a following, networking, getting clients and commissions instead. I felt scammed, depressed and furious.
Up until that point I had kidded myself into thinking, they are just building us up to learn the real techniques in the more advanced units. But then as we were started our final projects in Level 3 I realised, no, at this point the teachers expect us to have all the skills we need now. That this is it. I lost faith in the entire contemporary fine art establishment and became convinced it is one huge in-joke, and I still believe it.
The truthful answer is: No, it was not worth it.
One of my life goals, to make myself and my family proud, was to complete an education in Fine Art. Proud mum – tick. Completed something – tick. Now, I can’t help but think what have I really gained except for a piece of paper? A $20,000 piece of paper, 6 lost years, minimally improved artistic technique, a jaded outlook on visual art, and overwhelming anxiety and self-criticism whenever I pick up a pencil.
Through the experience I gained the viewpoint that contemporary art is nothing but a self-absorbed entity whose claims and actions are just an attempt to justify its own pointless existence, while actively shutting out the general public through a shroud of mystery and illusion of elitism. I recently heard someone describe contemporary art as ‘the emperor that has no clothes’, and I agree. When I showed or expressed my preference toward classical art and the old masters, teachers patronisingly told me that I hadn’t learnt yet to rise above and forget about unimportant stuff like technique. Or when I actively rebelled by spending my final classes on projects that would allow me to develop figure and anatomical drawing techniques, my teachers angrily marked me down for not being conceptual or inventive enough. I felt I was forced to introduce an element of ‘shitness’ like deliberate mistakes or sloppiness into my work on a regular basis just so I could pass my projects, because that seemed to be what my teachers valued more so than what I personally considered to be a well-executed work.
I’ve given you the above account not just to vent my frustrations, but also as a warning to anyone considering taking on a degree in fine art as a way to become a better artist. Contemporary art taught in universities is not the way it is popularly made out to be. Those ideas of sitting down in a figure drawing class with a live model? Being taught the old secrets of how to use gum turps and linseed oil, and work your oil paint? Tuck those fantasies away. Technique and the ability to actually execute a drawing with clarity and poise are practically banned, it’s now all about ‘concept’ but even ‘concept’ they are unable to teach very well. I don’t mean to sound so negative, but I honestly feel it is mostly bullshit, illusion and marketing.
Here are the things that we were not taught, which many of us would expect to learn in a traditional fine art course of study:
- No figure, anatomical or portrait drawing whatsoever. Never even mentioned!
- No exercises or mention of atmospheric perspective or anything about landscape painting actually
- No colour theory
- No direction on how to hold, use, shade with, or even sharpen a pencil properly (no joke)
- No direction on how to use paints, nor what mediums are or what purpose they serve
- No direction on how to choose brushes, what different brushes do, how to hold or use a brush to achieve different visual effects, nor how to clean a brush
- Very few exercises and little theory on composition
- Very few exercises on technical drawing with perspective
It’s not that I learnt nothing, I did learn some things, but most of it was through self-discovery not from teacher direction. For example, I learnt how to approach art with a work ethic and work process, how to stage the art production process from thumbnails to finished works, how to develop concepts, working to deadlines, reflecting on and refining work. I did become more experimental for the better. I did learn how to use charcoal, and layering inks, and I did have one good drawing teacher that pushed us and valued technique (only one).
I did become a better artist at the end of the degree, but a lot of this was due to my own self-study and perseverance outside of the course, from watching YouTube videos to learn techniques to complete projects, and studying figure and anatomy from books. During the course, I am embarrassed to admit that I even watched Bob Ross videos for painting guidance because we received so little from class, I did weekend painting workshops, and signed up to Watts Atelier online to learn real drawing technique which pushed me further in six months than the entire fine art degree did in six years.
In hindsight, I believe I could have bettered myself as an artist much more effectively in that same time by simply taking weekend workshops, doing my own art practice and self-study, becoming a member of community studios with shared facilities, studying at an Atelier, or studying at a TAFE. TAFEs don’t have the reputation of universities, but their focus tends to remain more grounded on building skills and learning technique, rather than academia. Ateliers are focused on replicating the guilds of centuries past, with a strong focus on technique and learning real skills, but generally don’t give out qualifications.
My next step is to learn to like art again, which fortunately is coming back to me sooner than I expected. I will be taking more workshops and doing all that practical stuff I missed out on, and actively unlearning some of the stuff I learnt and internalised from the course that I don’t agree with.
It’s good to be free, but my work is certainly cut out for me.