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Drawing, and “the degree system.”

This tells you what’s wrong with the current mainstream system. (Artist’s work is presumably by Seymour Fine Art.)

The picture above tells it all. Yes, I know there are exceptions. There are some excellent schools out there that are not trying to “de-skill” art students. But I’m talking about the majority, which apparently are.

Before I get started, I want to tell a story. A year or so ago, I was attending an unstructured figure drawing class, and my mom said she wanted to go with me. “But I can’t draw!” she cried. “I’ll make a fool of myself!” (As an aside, she can draw, but she’s never really devoted much time to it, so her skills are not that developed.)

I quickly dismissed her fears. I said, only partly in jest, “Just tell everyone that you have an MFA, and they’ll accept whatever you produce.”

There’s some truth to that. Having a degree in art is no guarantee that you’ll actually have any skill.

Today’s post is inspired by a recent Facebook entry by ARC Living Master Virgil Elliot. He wrote an account of an encounter with an art student, who had contacted him about getting a one-year mentorship.

Elliot had a somewhat passionate response, in which he addressed the basic concept of actually learning how to draw, an ability that the student, who was a “product” of de-skilling, was lacking. Some quotes from Elliot:

You should not attempt to paint, or glue junk to a board and try to call it art, or shoot photographs of dead fish being cut up, or try to write artsy-sounding rhetoric, manifestos, philosophies, statements, or anything at all to do with art, nor should you even be pursuing a degree in art unless or until you can demonstrate mastery of drawing at the very least. Art begins there. Where one takes it after that is up to each artist, but one must first become an artist before anything one does in the name of art warrants consideration as such. The first step toward becoming an artist is to master drawing. True artistic freedom begins with mastery of one’s medium. Until then, one is not free because one cannot do what one lacks the ability to do. One is bound by one’s limitations. Remove those limitations of ability, and one can then soar to great heights and be truly free, but not until then. And no amount of rhetoric can make up for a lack of skill.

(I will quote huge swathes of Elliot’s post, because so much of it is so good!)

I’ve been trying to say this, in so many ways, for years. Elliot says it so much better than I ever could!

If an artist can’t draw skillfully, they are living with those limitations and bound by them. Yet I find that some dismiss an ability that they have never had, which makes no sense. It would be like claiming that you don’t want wings to fly, because they offer nothing, yet you’ve never had wings in the first place. How do you know that something you can’t do—don’t have—is of no worth? You’ve never experienced it.

I’d also like to backtrack and repeat Elliot’s statement: “Art begins there. Where one takes it after that is up to each artist.” By this he means, no one is saying that you must adhere to one particular style, only that you should start with drawing. Then as time passes, go where you will go.

Pablo Picasso “The Old Fisherman (Salmerón),” 1895, Museu de Montserrat, Barcelona

As most everyone knows, Pablo Picasso had a good foundation in traditional skills. It certainly didn’t hurt him, did it? He still did what he wanted later in life, didn’t he?

Knowledge and skill do not harm you. They are not something to fear. They give you more power, not less.

Now on to “The Degree System” (as I like to call it). It is the current mainstream attempt to “de-skill” artists. Talk is more important than skill. Concept over execution.

More from Elliot:

University art programs teach people how to BS their way into the art world. They teach people how to pretend to be artists.

This sounds harsh, but has some truth to it. It’s all about talk, talk, talk.

That the universities have been warping impressionable young people’s minds for so many decades where art is concerned constitutes a massive fraud perpetrated on gullible people who assume that college professors must surely represent the intellectual elite, and that therefore they must be taken seriously no matter how nonsensical their ideas are.

I’ll also add that these teachers often don’t know what “skill” truly is. They may not even be able to recognize a skill past their own, and certainly can’t teach beyond their own limitations and understanding. (Refer to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People with lower skills often believe they are on the same level as those with more skills. They don’t see the difference between their sub-par abilities and the work of those who are far more advanced.)

I taught at a college for three years, which job ended due to a concerted effort on the part of the other art faculty members to get rid of me because I was actually teaching the students to draw and paint well, rather than making excuses for incompetent farces masquerading as art.

I have seen this, and had friends talk about this too. One of my friends was trying to properly educate his ceramics students on the science and technical aspects of pottery (like how to make a pot on the potter’s wheel) and was discouraged by the heads of the Ceramics Dept. He had to work “on the sly” and in secret to expose students to these things. Imagine! Students wanting a degree in ceramics, but they didn’t know what a potter’s wheel was, didn’t know the differences in glazes (stoneware vs. earthenware), didn’t know how to prepare their work so it didn’t fall apart or blow up during the firing process.

Another friend, who ran a ceramics dept. at another school, shook his head and said, “There’s no way I would hire any grads from [the other friend’s] college. These kids don’t know what a wheel is, can’t form any pieces that won’t fall apart. What could they teach?”

What use are these types of degrees? The students pay a high price to learn nothing.

And a final quote from Elliot:

You don’t need the degree in order to pursue art, or to make a living as an artist.

This is true. Let’s follow up with a post by successful artist, Noah Bradley:

Don’t Go to Art School.

Bradley talks about the high cost of an art education, and explains that so much of the necessary training can be had online, through practice, attending a local figure drawing class, and reading a lot of books.

But with that said, some schools are bucking the trend and do actually offer a credible education with a solid foundation in the basics. But many don’t, or are punishingly expensive.

It’s time to revolt. Either find an art school or university that gives you marketable skills (rather than just teaching you to talk talk talk) or go to an atelier. (ARC—The Art Renewal Center—has an “approved” list of some quality ateliers.) Or, follow Noah Bradley’s advice. There are many paths to excellence.

Don’t study from teachers who are victims of “The Degree System” and who view traditional skills through their own limitations, or have an agenda to devalue and dismiss the fundamentals. If you have an interest in representational, realistic art, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.


P.S. I’ve been meaning to add this thought. If a person is successful, fulfilled, and happy with their art, but they never learned how to draw, then they should continue to enjoy life! If their work is attractive or compelling, and has gained an appreciative audience, then I am not suggesting that they should feel miserable about it.

But what I’ve been seeing is a lot of excuse-making for never learning, or, teachers acting like attaining skill will somehow mar or stain and student—will “pollute” them. This is simply crazy.

Deliberately preventing students from expanding their horizons, or in other words, deciding for them that they shouldn’t learn the fundamentals, is one of the things that is so terribly wrong with the “degree system” today. Furthermore, the almost violent opposition to anyone drawing or painting realistically (as described in the “de-skilling” article), as if the mere fact that some are still working in that style is an offense, is also truly bizarre. There’s something else going on with people who have such a strong negative reaction to anyone learning how to draw, or working in a realistic style.

One thought on “Drawing, and “the degree system.”

  1. I fight the same battle from my business in Dunn. NC, Art on Broad Atelier. So glad to find connections.

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