A recent conversation with one of my interns left me thinking about education. We were discussing the differences between expressionism and impressionism when he said "I don't get what your saying. You were educated in these things, I wasn't."
But I wasn't either and I told him so. I have no reservations about telling people that anything I know about art I found out on my own. I attended no school, read no large volumes about the history of art. I never learned technique or why you use one brush instead of another. I could care less if I get Manet and Monet mixed up.
Sometimes we get way too caught up in labels and learning to the point where it biases us against those who come by their knowledge merely by teaching themselves.
"Oh you don't have a college degree? Well I am not sure this job is for you." Artists are sometimes safe from this occurring but we do face our own kinds of bigotry, most often from those who have had education and formal training.
Knowing the history of art is not the same thing as having an innate ability for art. A man with no education at all can achieve great artistry if they have the vision to do so.
Another conversation with an artist friend who had tried in vain to get his work seen in Los Angeles said that he'd been schooled several times by gallery owners that wanted to show him how little he really knew about the art world and that he'd returned to New Orleans feeling defeated and ready to put art aside and go back to his old job.
Thankfully he changed his mind and remained in the arts, but what a terrible loss it would have been of a talented artist just because someone tried to tell him he didn't have enough education.
I know I pick on the gallery world an awful lot, but this is one of the reasons we lose the poor starving artists who have the most amazing art around. The struggle to just survive in order to create their work is hard enough without someone telling them they aren't educated enough to survive in the art world.
Now don't get me wrong. Education is the most important thing that anyone can have. The more we know, the more we can achieve. But much of what we know we learn by doing. Our art gets better because we are repetitive and we introduce new ideas and new techniques into our work. It is not because we have the major artists of the impressionists era cataloged in our brains. Learning from the impressionists is crucial. Understanding what it was can help us strengthen our skills. Knowing the names of those artists is not as helpful.
Art is one of those things that you can go to school for years to achieve and come away knowing nothing. I know that's not the experience of some. I've met some mighty amazing artists who had art degrees. But I've also met many more who came away with a mind filled with the wonder of art and the concrete principles but absolutely no instincts for it. After a few months on their own they become dispirited and take a crap position as an illustrator for a grocery store chain.
In fact I find myself trying to convince a lot of artists with degrees to not throw in the towel, but to escape the educational prison and explore in new ways. I remember a friend of mine awhile back who had posted a piece of art that I commented on and told him I thought it was one of his best. He seemed kind of surprised and said he'd heard that from others but did not understand it as he wasn't trying to create anything major when he made it. He was just letting his mind wander.
If he'd been in front of me I would have been tempted to slap him like the Godfather would and tell him to wise up! That what he did was what art was all about! Yeah I'm not very tactful at times when teaching. But its true. Letting his mind wander is EXACTLY what he should be doing. Lose what you think you should be doing and just let your mind explore.
Now I admit I might be biased on this subject because I have not had the benefits of formal education in art. I know there are amazing teachers out there and amazing schools. And again I am not putting down education of any kind. But I would rather sit a student down with a big book of Andrew Wyeth's drawings and ask him or her what they saw in those drawings than ask them to memorize the various eras of Wyeth's work and why he was an important artist.
Keep on learning, but do at in a way that fits you personally. Don't get lost in facts or figures unless you are set on becoming an art historian or (heaven forbid) an art critic. And don't forget that your biggest gift is the ability to explore and try out new ideas and new techniques that bring you to a greater understanding of what art truly is.