Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Colleges and Schools that Don't Have Art Programs Should

As May comes to a close, and June slowly drags summer along, what seems to be my journey as a registered student comes to a close. I'm now in that phase where I'm going to be obsessively checking the database for my grades, consciously not going to the graduation ceremony, and waiting for my diploma reading "Master of Fine Arts" to come in the mail.

Of course, given today's economy, I'm having the standard "well, what the fuck am I going to do now???" problems. There is panicking, frustration, exhaustion, and admittedly annoying behavior on my part due to the aforementioned. That said, I'm truthfully not all that worried. I know that when push comes to shove, I'll find a way to not go hungry, and not just survive, but ultimately be satisfied and self-sufficient.  To those who see no practical value in an art program, I owe this silver lining to participating in them for over 10 years now. Here is short the list of why.

1- Creative Problem Solving: Thinking Outside the Box, and Executing
 The word "creative" is almost universally synonymous with the word "artist". Bottom line. The only problem here is that it's become such a cliche' pairing that most people in my experience don't seem to understand why. While most of my non-artsy compatriots seem to think that all it means is that we artists have the ability to make "cool pictures" or "interesting statements". My take on it (and I can only speak for artists, makers, and designers that act as object makers, since that is my vein of interest) is that artists are essentially charged with making something out of what appears to be nothing.  We get tools, either an assignment or an idea, and we use our resources to make it happen. Granted, I understand that this is awfully paired down and simplified, but the fact is that those are the only two steps that are universal to this kind of effort. Depending on what you're doing, or where you're doing it, there will likely be limitations (money, space, time, equipment, the laws of physics), but it still requires ingenuity, creative spirit, and an attitude that says "I don't really care how you get this done- just make it happen." This is something that I've found in common with almost every construction worker, engineer, computer programmer, mathematician, or athlete I've ever spoken to- and it is a drive one develops in an art program.

 2- Understanding Hard Work, Goal Setting, and Dealing with Failure
Creating something great, no matter what it is, isn't about already knowing how to make it. It is about facing the obstacles on the way to the finish line, and in spite them, saying "I'm still here." Many of my friends, who are all in either business or law school, don't have a good grasp on the level of difficulty being an artist (at least in an academic environment) can really be. Truthfully, they seem to mostly be under the impression that while they imprison themselves in a library, forcing facts and figures into their brains, I'm sitting around painting flowers with a beret and a glass of wine- false. If you don't put your time in at the studio in a meaningful way, it is noticed. It is a place where a grade isn't simply a measurable quantification of how many answers one has gotten right on a final exam. At the beginning levels, the art class environment is one where you're, rather than being measured on natural ability or talent alone, one is judged upon how hard they work. Did they work hard to produce? Did they fail? Did they learn form failure? Was there a clear sense of perseverance, and a hunger to succeed? These are questions I ask when, as a Teaching Assistant, I sit with the leading professor and evaluate the students we've been working with all semester long. Some are work-horses, some learn to care, and some never really end up giving a shit. That said, there is no room for apathy, quitting, or a half-assed effort. Not in my class, anyway. And for those who've always been groomed to believe that failure is not an option- it isn't always your choice. Everyone fails at some point, whether they know it or not. It is about how you gather that information, and use it advantageously for the future. 

3- Experiential Learning
Allow me to preface this by saying that learning disabilities seem to run in my family. My mother struggled with them all through school, and it has passed it's way along to all of the kids in my family (some worse than others). Baring that in mind, the traditional form of learning through repetitive reading have pretty much never worked for me. It has always taken approximately four times longer to get through any of the readings my classmates have doing, and sometime down the line I just stopped doing most of them all together. That said, I had to figure out a way to take in the information I needed in order to pass my classes- after all, it's hard to pass a literature class without reading the literature itself, right? Well, I figured out that many of these classes would require one of the tools I learned through art making- learning through "experience". What I mean specifically, is taking the subject, visualizing it, discussing it with at least one other person understanding how it works, what it is, and the flow of logic. Now, comparing the flow of how fabric should fall over a rigid structure versus the flow of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment are not a perfect comparison, but it's essentially what got me through Advanced Placement classes in High School, a BA with a large academic focus, and a Master's Degree- all complete with philosophy, literature, and art history intensives.

4- Detail Orientation, and Quality Control
In it's purest, simplest form making art is more or less about one thing- describing something. For those of you who are artists or art historians that just scoffed at that sentence, I get that it becomes more complicated than that, but bare with me. As I mentioned earlier, especially in drawing form life, there is an element of immersing one's self in something that becomes helpful when trying to turn a 2D plane into a convincing description of a 3D object (for those of us who are builders of sorts, the reverse can be equally difficult, if not more so). As I mentioned before, this is an aspect of art making that has been an invaluable source of enhancing my own research skills. Additionally, on the execution end of things, at several levels of art making, accuracy is absolutely essential. This is not necessarily (though it can be) in the sense of proportions or how much the object looks as it does it real life. As a professor of mine always says, "making art is all about creating a fiction". At the end of the day, it's the artist's (or whomever) job to take it step further and make us believe the fiction. Is what we're doing convincing, and why? Was the effort worth while? This bleeds into other subjects, as the root of it is essentially based upon building skills in finding the details, figuring out how to sort them, and making editing choices decisively and with confidence. 

5- Observation and Communicating Ideas
One of the fundamental qualities of making work, for me, has always been about information exchange. Articulating an image, let's say of a person, is no good unless it is something other than just a cold figure. Who could the figure be? What is the expression of their face or body language? Assuming there is color, what does the pallet or tone say about this person? These aspects of creating an image of a person can also help the reverse side of the coin, in terms of receiving information as opposed to giving it. Understanding how to create personality, behavior, and mood through art allows us to pick up on those details when we see it in person for ourselves. In terms of practicing the delivery of ideas and information, there is the dreaded classroom critique: a forum in which everything you've made is out on display, to be judged, picked at, and (presumably) defended. If there is anything I've learned after over a decade of being on both ends of the hot seat it's this- more than anything, they are designed to keep you on your toes. They force you to think quickly, speak confidently in front of authority figures and peers, and inspires preparedness so as to not look like a fool trying to pry their foot from their mouth. The more these sessions occur, the more practice one has for an anxiety-ridden arena where success is often determined by a third party.

For a few more tidbits on the subject, visit this article on the Live Strong website.

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