For this Summer Session we’re going Back to School, but that doesn’t necessarily mean formal education—today we’ll be taking a look at a question submitted to our arts-advice column Help Desk, wherein Bean Gilsdorf breaks down the components of an MFA program for the autodidact looking to challenge their practice without taking on the financial burden of art school. This article was originally published on June 24, 2013.
I’m an artist in my mid-twenties who has absolutely no formal education. So far I’ve managed to be fairly happy with small but very meaningful visibility, knowing that art making is about process and that it takes time to find one’s self. But I’m starting to hit a wall when it comes to the growth of my practice, and I’m worried that my lack of “training” might be my problem, so I’m slowly starting to consider going to an art school, with great fear, mainly because I haven’t been in an educational institution for a long time. So my question is: How important do you think education (art school) is in order for someone to be or to become a professional artist? Do you see it as absolutely necessary, or do you think that one can do without?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you could toil your whole life and make profound work and still remain nearly invisible, so let’s separate the notions of visibility and making. Visibility—that is to say, participating in group exhibitions, exhibiting your work in solo shows, receiving press, and all the ancillary duties that come with and reinforce it (such as giving artist lectures)—has shockingly little to do with art making. Instead, visibility is often correlated with how much money you’re born with, who you know, where you went to school, where you work, and other social factors, but in the long run it is not directly related to the quality or process of your work. This is why Josh Smith is a famous painter.
We also need to set aside the notion of how you become a “professional” artist. There’s a wide range of what can be considered professional, so figure out what it means to you. Does it mean that you make enough sales to support yourself (and possibly a family)? Does it mean that a gallery represents you? Or is it enough to be able to scrawl artist on your tax forms and write off your studio rent and materials? Take a moment to read Dan Fox’s beautiful essay A Serious Business: What does it mean to be a professional artist? and explore your assumptions about what makes one a “professional.”