What’s wrong with our industry that we are so quick to belittle formal education? Whenever the topic of an art degree arises, there’s an angry mob that amasses, collectively chanting how “useless” a degree is in photography and that the best school to learn from is the University of Hard Knocks. To really understand this issue, we have to first step back and look at the value of art and why photographers are so polarized on the term. Then, we have to recognize that “art school graduates” are not the real problem; it’s the dismissive attitudes toward them that are.
Without getting too heavy into the discussion of what makes art, art (that will be a future article), let’s quickly address the value of art. Art is the way in which we describe, translate or ask questions about the human experience. It is found in every culture around the world, and it has been taking place for tens of thousands of years. Not every photographer is an artist, and not every photographer wants to be. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is, however, an important distinction to make, because, while photography can be considered a skill or a trade by many, it can also be considered a medium for artists. With that distinction established, it’s important to remember that while a photography degree does teach the skills the be a photographer, it also teaches the ways in which photography can be used as a artistic instrument. This is where I believe the genesis of the disconnect occurs – some photographers choose to pursue work and be small business owners (and facilitate other people’s vision), while others choose to peruse art (and facilitate their own). Neither is wrong, but they are very different.
What’s So Valuable About an Art Degree, Anyway?
First, we can all admit that the resources to learn things online are practically limitless. For example, with enough YouTube videos, someone can teach themselves Photoshop pretty competently. Want to learn how to use the lens flare filter? Check. Want to learn if you should use the lens flare filter? Those results are very different. And that’s really the benefit of an art degree in a nutshell. There are an amazing amount of resources on the Internet that teach how to do things, but there are far fewer resources that explain why. At a good art school, a large component of the education is just focused on the “why.”
The value of an art degree teaches the conversation of art and why a meaningful opinion begins after “I like it” or “I don’t.” The true value is one's ability to articulate the “because.” Can this be learned outside of a school setting? Absolutely. Is it easier? Absolutely not.
While a photography degree does include classes that teach the mechanics of using a camera and lighting, it also teaches a lot more. In truth, it’s not that hard to learn to take a competent picture. What is hard is learning the historical context of your subject matter, how others have done it before you (both in photography and other visual mediums) and what conscious decisions you’re making to be different. Can this is still be learned outside of a school setting? Absolutely. Do most people even think about incorporating these things into their work on their own? I’m not so sure.
Why School Then?
Some people learn differently. While certain individuals thrive in a scenario where they are their own guide to learning, that’s not the best use of everyone’s energy. Some people need structure. Some people want the opportunity to learn in a place far from home. Some people want to learn with a support group of like-minded people. Another key benefit is having the chance to learn from multiple instructors at once, taking bits from each to incorporate into how you’d like to do things, because no one has all the answers to everything.
If your approach to photography is to learn a trade or a craft, then school is probably not the best course for you. Teaching yourself (if you’re very self-motivated), assisting or taking workshops will be just fine for the vast majority of people who want to be photographers and small business owners. For others, it’s just not.
In school, there are classes dedicated to art history. Art history is one of the single most valuable things to study for anyone working in a creative field. As the old cliché goes, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. If you’re existing in a vacuum and thinking that the work you’re doing is completely original, chances are it’s probably not. This is part of what makes good art incredibly difficult. There is a word called “vemödalen” which describes the frustration of photographing something that we think is amazing and unique even though thousands of near-identical photos exist of essentially the same thing. How hard does it now become to be unique (or even extraordinary) in a world that is saturated with decent imagery?
Of course, copying or imitating others is still part of the learning process. It’s helps us bridge the mental gap between the idea and the execution – to see where someone else began, where they ended and to articulate what the process may have been like for them. When Francis Bacon began, his work was derivative of Picasso. Now his work is some of the most sought after in the world. If our own work is not as sought after as we’d like, we must reflect on if we’re actually doing anything different than what’s been done before. Success rewards originality.
In addition to studying history, art school forces the student to work and create outside of his or her comfort zone. There's a good chance that if someone is self-taught, they may not have the desire to work in an area they aren’t interested in or challenge themselves in that capacity. Working in those areas may open that person up to something they never thought they might enjoy or even a new way to approach a current way of thinking. To make it even less daunting, someone is there to act as a guide through the entire experience.
The Pitfalls of Art School
Even though there are benefits, art school also has its drawbacks. First and foremost, it’s expensive. Not everyone can afford to go. In truth, college is expensive. If one is looking to start a photography business, an art degree is not necessarily the best idea. However, if one has the desire and the opportunity to attend, then by all means do so. I do not want to downplay how important both of those things are, and success after school depends heavily on both. Don’t attend art school with the plans to run a business. Get a business degree for that. Attend art school to become an artist, and be strong in your desire to do so.
Art school is not easy. No one shows up to camera class, takes a few pictures and gets an A. Students must work. Hard. Most likely, the majority of your career will be a struggle. School should prepare you for that.
Attending class and doing the assignments isn’t the only requirement. Sure, a degree can by had with good grades but the grading structure is in place because the education system requires it. Grades mean nothing in the real world. Hard work, dependability, meeting deadlines and creativity are what matter (not surprisingly, those things will also land you good grades while in school).
What Happens After Graduation
Upon graduation, the student receives either a certificate or a degree. A photography (or art) degree does not mean that you’re a good photographer (or artist). It means you’ve learned enough to pass the program, and with any learning experience, the effort put in always reflects the value of the outcome.
Graduation is not the end; it is the beginning. Therefore, the next logical step for many is to assist. Assisting is an incredibly useful part of the learning experience. It’s commonplace for companies to take on unpaid or practically unpaid interns. Assisting is no different. Don’t expect a livable wage as an assistant, but consider it a continuation of your education – a transitional limbo between college and being self-supported. The value of a degree when approaching a photographer is that they will have a certain expectation of what you are already able to do. Some photographers may not wish to teach an assistant most things from scratch. Then again, there are others that prefer someone to know very little going in so that they only know that photographer's process. This may be better for that photographer, but it may not necessarily be better for the assistant.
If you choose not to assist, remember that the artist’s path is not easy, and hopefully you have something that contributes to financial stability. Ramen gets tired quickly.
Of course, some do get to the end of the program and decide that photography is not the right path for them. Outside pressures (oftentimes the parents that paid for the education) will push for the graduate to find work in the field. This is not a path that someone can haphazardly and halfheartedly wander. It takes complete dedication and passion. It takes more sleepless nights than is worth counting. It takes “starting in the mailroom” and a willingness to tirelessly work to get to to the top. Be honest with yourself before wasting time and energy down a path you don’t want to take.
The Bias Against Art Degrees
There have also been some recent complaints about heightened egos from recent grads. I would presume to guess that this is a direct result of someone being in their early 20’s more than the fact that they have a degree, but that’s just a personal opinion. That said, ego works both ways, and making a sweeping generalization about how all art school grads are egomaniacs isn’t going to encourage a helpful conversation on the topic.
I find it so confusing that there is such a rift over the decision to go to school for something you love. There aren’t many fields where people are so proud to turn their nose up at education, as if not going to school makes someone better or more driven. It is possible to be so unpretentious that one becomes pretentious. We all share a passion for photography. That should bond us. Can’t we all just get along?
Aspire to Intelligence, Don’t Belittle It
If you’re against formal education, this article isn’t going to sway you. It’s not meant to. If you’re for it, all it probably did was reinforce your opinion. The point is not to change anyone’s mind – the point is for people to gain a little understanding. There is a tremendous value in an art school education, but it’s not for everyone. At the end of the day we’re all students, in one way of the other. Whether you have an art degree or you’re completely self-taught, what matters most is the effort you put into your life’s experiences and the value you get from them.
A small list of photographers with an art degree...
David LaChapelle (North Carolina School of the Arts and School of Visual Arts in NYC)
Guy Aroch (School of Visual Arts in NYC)
Erik Almas (Academy of Art University)
Bernd and Hilla Becher (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf studied and taught there)
Andreas Gursky (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf also teaches there)
Thomas Struth (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf)
Elger Esser (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf)
Nan Golden (School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University)
Michael Kenna (London College of Printing)
Ryan McGinley (Parsons The New School for Design)
Steven Meisel (Parsons The New School for Design)