I’m writing this a few days away from being done with one year of art school, and done with Virginia Commonwealth University’s infamous Art Foundation program, AFO. I’m generally of the philosophy that anything worth doing is worth reflecting on, so I’d like to talk a bit about my experience in this program and how I’ve changed over the past eight months. It’s been a whirlwind, and I’m left with that bittersweet feeling that the days in the beginning of the year are simultaneously so close and yet a short lifetime away. Here’s some of what I learned.
Art Foundation, and Nick Seitz in August
The first year in the art school is spent in a program called Art Foundation, which consists of 12 studio credits in four studios: space, surface, time, and drawing. Additionally, there’s a five week class each semester which are brief inquiries into any department of the student’s choosing, and six lecture credits which comprise an overview of western art.
I came into the school a bit nervous about AFO, as I know many students do. The reality of taking a semester studio in drawing loomed over me spring semester, I had never sculpted anything in my life, so space studio seemed a bit daunting, and I was so fixed on photography that I felt like surface and time were just distractions in addition to the fear of drawing and space. I spent most of my summer studying the old masters of photography, and I’d sort of ensconced myself in old ways of thinking. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I had no idea what it meant to do in response to contemporary thought, let alone what contemporary art thought even was. I just wanted to get into Photo and do whatever that entailed and graduate and become a fine art photographer. The details of that were lost on me. Not that I have the details now, but I at least now have a bit of an idea of how to find myself. Of course, more on that later.
I guess the easiest way to do this is to talk about some concepts I’ve learned, year 1.
The lines between mediums have really started breaking apart
One thing that I sort of scoffed at when I came into AFO is that some number north of 80% of people switch their intended majors before completing AFO. It’s the sort of program that generally self-sorts people in a hurry, which is great. For people that “did art” in high school but have no idea where to take that, by exposing them to a variety of thought and material practice, they generally have a good idea by the end of it what department would suit what interests them. Some people come in thinking they know what department to go into but discover that they may actually be better suited to study in a different department. Some people realize they don’t want to do art school, which is totally fine. AFO is clarifying: what you want to do in art, or if you even want to do art in an academic setting, are questions which are a lot easier to answer after a year in AFO.
All that said, I didn’t think for a second I’d do anything but photography coming in. I’d be in that stubborn 20%. And, well, I suppose I was, as I’m going into the photography department next year, albeit with a minor in Craft & Material Study. But AFO made me realize how easy it is to switch up, and how much contemporary art is guided not by mastery of one medium but a propensity for expressing ideas in whatever medium is best suited to the task.
This speaks to something which I’ve gradually learned over the year: although it may be simple to think of, say, the Photography and Film department as “art you make with a camera”, the department titles (at least the BFA degree departments) kind of serve as those cartoon-y wooden building fronts which stand in for the abstract concepts and approaches to art which are harder to give a name to. For example, the things studied in the photo department may be better described as art which is concerned with image creation and the representation of the world in images, whereas the Craft & Material Study department (which is split into the concentrations of wood, glass, metal, fibers and ceramics) would be concerned with object creation and craftsmanship of practice in creating fine and original objects.
My decision to study in the Craft & Material Studies department is the result of a shifting focus of mine from photography as an act of detachment and representation to an act of attachment and creation. When I came into school I was interested solely in the formal landscape, which is fancy art-talk for “taking really really pretty pictures of nature”. Yes, ok, very good. However, paraphrasing the words of one of my favorite photographers, Ed Burtynsky, I was born about a hundred two years too late for the formal landscape to be all that interesting as far as art practices go. Between a project class in the Sculpture department first semester, the Crafts department second semester, space studio, and I even got a bit of it from drawing, I realized I ultimately was interested in the creation of image objects, and generally finding some neat intersection between representation and creation.
So, I’d really like to study wood (which entails furniture design) and perhaps glass, as well as getting my BFA in photography. What kind of work I’ll make, what it’ll look like, I have no idea, but throughout this year I’ve gained a much more insightful voice into my own interests, feelings, and inclination of what I’d like to do in my own art practice.
Art school, like anything, is as hard as you want to be
I don’t know if people come into art school with this attitude, but I generally feel that there’s a prejudice against art students that we’re going to school for our hobby, and we simply frolic about, gaily making art and laughing about how carefree we are.
I’ll say it now, the curriculum of art school has been hard as hell, but it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. And there’s definitely a balance to that- there have been times when art has gotten way too serious for me and I hate the idea of art, and there can definitely be the tendency to just be too loose and nonchalant and not treat it with a bit of reverence it’s due. As far as a college experience goes, it’s been an interesting one.
I got into a conversation with Will a couple of weeks ago, it basically started by him asking “I wonder what it’s like to have a normal college experience…”
I’ll generally get a good amount of sleep each night, despite working until 4 or 5 a few more times than I can remember. The feeling of shuffling back to my dorm in the bleary eyed hours of the morning on desolate streets with my portfolio and drawing supplies is not an unfamiliar one. There have been stretches of the semester where it feels like literally every hour of every day is, by necessity, filled with studio work with class work and actual class time crammed into the cracks in between. “Collapsing into bed” time gets pushed back later and later, coffee becomes life blood, and the residual momentum was actually at a certain point making me physically uncomfortable when I wasn’t doing something productive.
A lot of this work was made for myself by virtue of wanting to do something to a high level of excellence, and it’s more or less worked. I had straight A’s last semester, and I may pull the same feat this semester (although if I do it’ll be by the skin of my teeth in two classes). Will and I talked about how strange it must be to be in an academic course where, if you only have lecture or lab classes, you can only learn material so well. Of course additional time could be spent reading about your field and keeping up with current research, but at a certain point, you just have an inescapable amount of free time. At the beginning of the semester, I had a space project that between the idea and my own partial incompetence, I probably worked 30-40 hours on in a week and a half. Just one project for a class which comprised 3 of my 16 credits this semester. I just, that was the idea I had, and I had to do it. First semester, I walked 28 miles in 10 1/2 hours for a project. I built a small house in five weeks from materials I salvaged. I shot and edited a TV intro by myself which was copying a professionally made one. I made a six minute documentary about my clothes. These are the ideas I had, and I dug into them, and I shouldered that work simply because that’s the idea I had and I wanted to do it.
I didn’t have much of a social life, sure. I occasionally drove myself crazy with work I made for myself, yeah. But I count myself as blessed for having a passion and having something that I feel like I can absolutely throw myself at full steam. It’s been fun, definitely. But fun in a sort of, wipe the sweat/tears/blood/charcoal dust off your brow, shake the sleep out of your eyes, and look around at your classmates in part shock and part silly joy over the absurdity and difficulty and fun of the energy you spent making this “art”. Which leads me to a good point.
Art is whatever the hell it wants to be, and that’s a beautiful thing
The conversation of “what is art” gets boring really, really fast in art school. The fact is that, there are no more definitions of art to challenge any more. The wall between common objects (what has historically been the antithesis of art) and art was first broken through in the early 20th century, Warhol and Duchamp picked it open enough for people to squirm their way through in the 50s and 60s, and then in the 70s and through the present day a vast number of artists have neatly dismantled every bit of that wall and we now have an art world in which there are no formal distinctions between what is and isn’t art. That is to say, there exists no set of criteria by which you can formally (information that can only be obtained by the sensory experience immediate to the object) determine if something is art, or not art.
I spent a lot of time being bothered by this fact. In art school and in a lot of contemporary practices, people are making art which I do not care for at all. From where I stand, there seems to be this art that’s made that only serves to show how clever the artist is. Or there’s art that’s made to be irreverent for the sake of being irreverent. Or there’s art that brings up the brokenness of society only for the sake of bringing it up, to bring new material forms to sadness and isolation, to the end of demonstrating the insightfulness of the artist.
All this art really, really bothered me for a lot of time and I spent a lot of time reading, and thinking, and writing, and reading more and thinking more and writing more and trying to figure out a way that art could be “better”. Could be more like the art I love, the art that improve my day, and makes me feel good, and connected to world and to people and to myself and just, makes me a better person.
The process of letting go of this frustration revolves basically around letting go of the awful temptation to feel that I’m always right about everything, which is basically what this boils down to even if I don’t, of course, think that.
Fortunately, the world does not revolve around me, and the world does not consist solely of people exactly like me. The freedom of art to be whatever it wants is equatable to the boundlessness of human diversity, and the uniqueness of each human experience is something worth celebrating. Anything can be done and be called art, and be considered as a cultural production worth giving special and attention and consideration to, and that’s cool. It brings prestige to people, it gives people a forum to express themselves and feel a part of something and feel better for having made art. Now, of course, being edified by the process of making and/or consuming art, and making “good” art are two completely separate things.
Making “good art” is a weird thing
The justification for a lot of good art, if the artist had to answer the question “why did you do this?” is usually “because I wanted to.”
It seems like to be a decent contemporary artist, you need to do this weird thing where you start out doing something freely or thinking some way because you enjoy it and it makes you happy. Then you need to beat the joy out of the action with long nights working, you have to study and burden yourself with the history of things, and take this weight of the world on your shoulders. You have to master the technical aspects of your medium: you need to connect your hand, mind, and eye in a perfect observational-reflexive arc, you need to be able to solve theoretical material problems in space with ease, you need to be able to visualize a photograph and intuitively work through the technical steps of creating it. You need to be so perfect at everything that art is a chore, that it’s painful because of how much you’ve practiced.
And then you need to ignore everything you’ve learned, and break some rules, and do some stuff differently, and just be willing to let yourself do something because it makes you happy. To find something that makes you joyful and throw this technical excellence at it, and know what outcome your actions and choices will have, and allow your passion to have a material manifestation. That is my understanding of what it means to make excellent art.
However, just because anything can be art doesn’t mean that it’s effortless to make good art. If there’s some kind of art you do that makes you happy, then by all means you should do that and pursue that, but it’s hard to reach some status of making “good artwork” without jumping through what can almost be thought of as silly academic hoops to someone that isn’t, well, jumping through them themselves.
To a certain extent, there’s always been an academic divide in art. Throughout history there have been masters within mediums, and up until the 20th century or so, it has been easy to visually distinguish what is good art. You can look at most famous paintings (basically) between the renaissance and the middle of the 19th century and say “Yes, of course, these are masters of their craft”.
However, as art has gotten increasingly cerebral, sometimes it takes a versing in art history and astute “art goggles” (basically, an ability to read artwork and understand connotations) to say “Yes, of course this artist is a master of their craft” even if the piece of artwork looks incredibly simple, and the craft may simply be thinking and arriving at the inspiration to do something a certain way, and understanding what thoughts, feelings and experiences any given decision will elicit in the viewer.
This is all speaking to the effect of what is “received” as good art. I believe that the art making process is a significantly different thing.
Art became the most important thing in my life this year
There’s sort of an elephant in the room of art school, and that’s that we’re all scared as hell that we’ll be unemployed after school. I personally fear the day, if it ever comes, where I’m in my mid 20s with some job I don’t want, cursing student loan payments and thinking to myself “Why did I think it was a good idea to go to art school, I don’t know how to do anything practical.”
In a conversation of unexpected and somewhat biting insight, my friend Will and I were talking to our RA who’s an engineering major who was telling us about some lab he was working on that seemed to have very practical and positive implications. Will turned to me after our RA had left and said “Wow, I kind of wish we were doing something that helped people instead of something which just inflates our already massive egos.”
Although Will was speaking of the ego in the most negative connotation possible, when taken literally, an ego is one’s sense of self importance, self respect, and identity, which isn’t inherently a bad thing.
One thing I ask myself as frequently as is appropriate without making myself too sad is “If you’re not here for a job per se, what are you here for?”
One nice summary of what I believe real art to be is written by a professor of religion, art, and visual culture named J Sage Elwell, who writes in a critical essay,”[the genuine work of art is] thus experienced as the sacred, and like a private chapel nestled in a dark wood, art offers sanctuary from this life not by directly transforming the world itself, but by enabling the transformation of the self.” The “inflation of the ego” art provides can be thought of as the fortification of your own identity. A way to escape or to transcend the homogenizing and entropic forces of the world. If things are crumbling into drivel, then at least by the process of making art, the attune artist is able to escape that, even momentarily.
I’ve told several people that my landscape photography is the closest thing I have to a religious experience. While I love the community of religion, while I find sermons intellectually engaging and comforting, and hymns are beautiful in their own right, I’ve never been a very spiritual person in the sense of being moved in some way by typical worship services. However, when I am alone in nature with a camera, with nothing but my own thoughts and the vastness, the precision, the wildness and the persistence of something that I am a small, small part of: that moves me farther off the face of this world and into spiritual realms more than any worship service I’ve ever been in. Art is how I reach at and experience some sense of God.
Art is also how I sort of reach into and connect with myself. When I go and draw I like to joke and tell people that I’m going to “move charcoal around in order to like myself”, and that does have some truth. I love to work hard on things, and I love to have time alone to do something difficult and think and work and feel like I’m making something. Art is a method of being wholly present in my own mind, and being happy there.
Finally, art is a fantastic community in its own right and connects people to each other. As mentioned before, art walks a sort of public/ private line where each artist has their own road to walk down, their own personal journey of what “does it” for them in terms of making meaningful artwork, but artwork is created inherently to be shared, and the process of sharing that is a very cool thing. To be able to gather around and have each person say “Here’s a piece of myself that I’ve brought to show you all” is just, it’s nice. To build up a community where everyone is connecting simultaneously to themselves and to each other is just nice. There’s no more fitting word for it; it feels warm and it feels meaningful and it simply feels good.
In my freshman year of college, in a vast university far away from home and people who were so familiar to me, away from my family, in a setting and a world and mentalities so far away from what I’d known for my entire childhood, art was something to grab on to. It’s a process by which I am able to suss out the things significant and beautiful and meaningful and True to me. In the future, it may not always be the most important thing to me, but for now it’s been a process by which I’ve been able to turn the vast stores of restless energy of my adolescence into a positive force.
So, if I don’t have a specific job or field I’m looking to rise to the top of, I guess in a cheesy way of saying it, I’m going to college to figure out to be happy and to grab the raw essence and meaning out of anything life throws at me. Of course there are jobs which would love to have a BFA in photography (or even the MFA I want to get…), and I’m far too hard of a worker to starve even if I weren’t working a job which I specifically went to school for. It’s a little bit harder to say exactly what you want to do ~employment wise~ after you answer “I’m studying art”, but I’m fairly confident that I’ll be able to find my way wherever life and my interests and takes me. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the ride immensely.