I’ve seen some absolutely amazing artwork produced by folks with advanced art degrees. I’ve also seen some unremarkable artwork produced by people with advanced art degrees.
The same goes for artists with no art degree. Some really knock their work out of the park. Others keep striking out. It just goes to show that, in the end, it comes down to the work. Does it speak to you or not?
The late painter Jack White, referring to himself and his wife (who is also a painter) wrote:
“In my 44 years and her 24 as full time painters, no one has ever asked if we had a degree or multiple degrees. They look at the work.
The bottom line is unless we make art people want to buy no matter of how many degrees we have nothing will sell. People buy art they like. The only ones impressed with your degrees are your parents and you.”
Jane Chapin, Director of Offramp Gallery, once researched various galleries in the United States to see how many of their artists had an MFA degree. She combined the stats for all the galleries and found that only 40% of the artists had an MFA degree.
“My research shows that an MFA doesn’t give you an advantage in getting into commercial galleries or museums, making a living as an artist or getting grants. It’s very expensive and saddles you with student debt that you have very little chance of paying off by working in your chosen field.”
Unless you plan to teach in a university, Chapin didn’t see any real advantage, or disadvantage, in obtaining an art degree. Her advice was this:
“Save your money, live your life, read, travel, pay attention, learn to think for yourself. Work hard, look inside yourself and make yourself the best artist you can be.”
Skills versus degrees
I’m a believer in the benefits of a university education. Particularly when the student lives or spends a lot of time on campus. My years in college and grad school exposed me to new people, ideas and experiences. Despite the expense, I feel the investment was worth it.
My university education provided a broad range of studies in subjects beyond my major. A good education should help you learn how to think and become well rounded.
The problem is that degrees don’t always translate into skills. I graduated with a master’s degree in criminal justice before entering into the law enforcement profession. However, I quickly found out that I knew very little about what it took to be a cop. I had to acquire those skills in the police academy and through many years of on-the-job training.
There are some professions, such as medicine and the law, that clearly require university training in order to succeed. Being a professional artist, however, is not dependent on a university education.
Some artists today are bypassing university degrees and enrolling in classical atelier programs. Unlike many university art classes, classical ateliers teach the old school basics of drawing, painting, form, color theory, etc. Students come away with real drawing and painting skills.
In the technological industry, degrees are helpful but skills matter a great deal. Apple computer may glance at your computer science degree, but they’ll want to know about your coding abilities and actual skills.
The good news is that we live in an age when information is readily available online. There are countless websites, videos and tutorials to help you learn and grow.
If you can’t afford a formal college education, there is nothing stopping you from developing a wide array of useful, marketable skills. Even in the creative arts.
Pride versus arrogance
I’m proud of the degrees I earned, because they took hard work and focus. But I never mixed my pride with arrogance. In my police career, I met many professionals with less formal education than me who were intellectually brilliant. Had I been arrogant, I might have dismissed these people and missed out on their wisdom.
There’s a splendid scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where we witness a snobby university student try to belittle a guy in a bar. Until the guy’s buddy (Matt Damon, a working class guy who happens to be an intellectual genius) puts him in his place.
The point is, be proud of your degree(s), but don’t be a pedantic dolt. It’s not about your degree or social station in life. It’s about being a decent human being and working hard at your chosen profession.
Pride in your work
When it comes to art, there are certainly some artists who wax poetic about their work. I’ve met a few MFA artists who chatter loftily about the meaning of their paintings.
In the end, it still comes down to the work. Not the description in the catalog or eminent art school attended. Not your degree. What matters is quality.
Whether you’re an artist, writer or musician, don’t let anyone say you’re not a real artist. Believe in your work, whether you have a doctorate degree or no degree.
Keep honing your craft. Keep improving. In the end, it comes down to the work. Collectors respond to what’s in the frame more than your resume.Readers respond to the prose, not the author’s biography. Music listeners are moved by the melody more than the path that led to its creation.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking a formal education and earning a degree in the artistic field you love. Or any other academic discipline. But the degree will still be secondary to the work you produce.
It always comes down to the work. Now get busy and go make something magnificent!