School / by Rick Araluce

This is an interesting topic. Does an education in the fine arts prepare an artist for the life of being an actual producing artist? Does not going on to higher education in the arts limit a person?

We live in a culture that so esteems and values higher education, and there are all kinds of surveys and studies to show that higher ed leads to better pay, better quality of life, etc. Even now, even with the bruising burden of student debt that crushes so many for years and years after graduation, there is evidence to support the notion that a diploma from university or four year college leads to a better life. At least in terms of earning power.

Okay, maybe that's true, somewhat. Maybe not going on to a four year college, or higher, will result in you having crappy jobs that pay shit your whole life. Or, maybe not. Roll the dice. Spin the wheel. If you are interested in pursuing a career as an artist, I'm guessing you are not doing it for the money. If you are, you are deluded. Because the odds of you making even a humble living off your art practice alone are astronomically high. There are just so fucking many of us out there beating the bricks. But, whatever. At any rate, with regard to school, many families ABSOLUTELY insist their children go to college. There is no argument and no choice: you are going to college. It is the same for the fine arts in many households. "Geez, I wished you wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or go for an MBA, but if you must be an artist, you're going to get a professional degree." No discussion.

I never went to a four year university or art school.

It's not like I couldn't have. I was enough of a hotshot in high school I could have applied for scholarships. With my abilities it is very likely I would have been admitted to a decent school somewhere. But I didn't even try. And my folks weren't that insistent either way. I even thought: why in fuck should I pay a bunch of money to train to be an artist when I already am an artist? Okay, probably hubris. But, whatever. That's how I felt.

My official art education was high school where I had a brilliant instructor for the four years I was there. Then, mostly because I was lonely and needed a bit of a social life, I took several classes at a local community college. That's it. Not much to look at on a resumé.

So, what's a young ambitious wanna-be artist to do to get into the Art World®™ without all the benefits of a degree? How does one even start without the aid of the networks one can form in school, and the support of the professors, and the access to art world insiders and professionals? I know that an MFA from Yale or RISD can go a long way to vetting an artist and open doors, etc. But, those places are hard to get into and that shit's expensive.

And so, even though I didn't have hardly a clue as to how to succeed as an artist at first, I at least had some idea. I didn't need university to tell me certain things. I knew you had to get into a galley or galleries to represent your work. I thought it was important to have your work in museums and so forth. But I also wanted to do other things with my talent. I wanted to illustrate record jackets and book covers and magazines. I wanted to work in movies somehow, either production design or actually making props and scenery. Especially for horror or Science Fiction. I had a diverse array of desires. Most of all, I simply wanted to create, and I'd take any cruddy job to make it so I could survive while I figured it all out.

And so I picked off my goals one by one, or at least sort of. That was my college. I did some book covers. I did some album covers. I had my artwork featured in a few movies. I worked on some pretty cool music videos; a bit of art-directing as well as creating miniature scenery and props. I got to know some interesting people in that world. But showing in actual legit galleries proved elusive at first. I wasn't doing stuff that was popular, or part of a trend, or art fashion, or "hip." No, I was doing what I wanted to do. Just like I do now. Only then, nobody knew me or cared. I had no champion of my work, no benefactor. It was depressing. I stopped looking at art magazines because nothing in them looked like what I was doing. I was firmly on the outside looking in to the art world, like some hobo looking in to a warm well-lit bistro with elegantly-dressed yuppies dining and laughing behind the glass. And, to belabor the image: it was cold out there. Now a days I'm inside the bistro, but I'm sitting at a table for one by the kitchen entrance trying to get the waiter's attention.

But Rick, you say, back to the question, dude: Has my lack of an officially sanctioned art degree cost me? Maybe. Hard to tell. I am awfully self-motivated and self-directed, so I certainly didn't need school to give me a framework in which to do my art. I know many people need the structure and goals school can offer. I had my own structure and goals. I know that many feel the need to have professors and peers judge their art worthy or "good." I understand this. Yet I believe that the stuff I was doing when I was school-age would have been poo pooed by most any professor of contemporary art, as it looked nothing like what was fashionable at the time. I had the real world, as they call it, to judge my work; the galleries, book and record companies, artist peers and others. Everybody has an opinion about art, that's for certain. Ignorant or otherwise.

If anything has cost me with my choice to go it on my own and eschew formal artistic training, it's most clearly the network that can be forged when one is in school. Many professors and teachers are professional exhibiting artists themselves--some world famous and hugely respected--and getting with their good graces can absolutely help your career in its early stages. This is called access. At times I wonder where my career would be if I had tried out for Yale, or RISD, or the Art Institute in Chicago, or Cal Arts in Los Angeles instead of diddling around for a few years at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA. Who the fuck knows? I feel one thing, however: I likely wouldn't be doing what I do now. No, I probably would have had my own unique vision of what I wanted to do worn away and shunted aside so that it would fit into what was acceptable or "new" or "important" or what the Instructor wanted or whatever.

Orange Coast Community College, as viewed by the East Coast Art Establishment.

Orange Coast Community College, as viewed by the East Coast Art Establishment.

Guess I'll never know.

I do know that getting noticed and exhibited has been a giant struggle. But, it would probably have been a struggle even if I had gone to university, and I'd also be saddled with student debt, as my folks were not about to pay my way through college. I've had to struggle to create my own network of fellow artists, curators, gallerists, collectors and the like without benefit of an instructor who championed my artwork in the art community. And yet, I'm asked to speak as an arts professional kind of often, lack of a degree notwithstanding. I'm even introduced as a "successful artist." A number of important curators and professionals at some top flight institutions know of my work, and a few even champion it. I'm respected in my local art community here in Seattle. People ask me questions and seek advice. Hell, I've even been made a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. That's a Big Deal, for those who don't know. And this from a dude who never went art school.

I guess a career is a career, no matter how you achieve it.