Thought — 3 Min Read

Self-Taught

by Case Greenfield, July 12th, 2022

Thought – 3 Min Read

Self-Taught

by Case Greenfield

July 12th, 2022

The other day, I was reading this NYT article about self-taught artists. It made me think, because I too am a self-taught artist. No formal art education at an art academy. Should an artist have a formal art education or not?

Here are some interesting quotes from the article:

Before then [i.e. World War II], aspirants to the art world largely figured out the mechanics themselves, through apprenticeships, maybe, or informal classes at independent schools like the Art Students League of New York, where working artists like the painter Thomas Hart Benton instructed Jackson Pollock, even if the instruction shaded toward the antagonistic (Benton despised abstraction; Pollock said the only thing that he learned from the older artist was how to drink a fifth of whiskey a day).

“Self-taught” is also a euphemism, one eliding the structural reasons why an artist might have gone without formal education.

It finds attractive the artists who simply decline to adhere to a straight path, nonconformists who reject the niceties of the school system or are allergic to its structures, or who simply can’t be bothered to participate, people whom Dubuffet referred to as refusers.

“If you ask me, everyone is self-taught,” said Jugeli. “I don’t want to say I was all alone and did everything by myself, because I had great support, but I don’t believe you can learn how to make art — you have it or you don’t have it.”

“Art schooling,” he continued, “it’s a socialization process, and there is a lot of unspoken, tacit knowledge.”

“The thing that helped me was just traveling and looking at people’s faces, like, ‘Damn, I want to sketch that dude.’

“You know when you’re an artist.”

But some self-taught artists acknowledge that their development has been less about innate talent than about practice.

“No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh.”

“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses — where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere — are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”

[Morris] Hirshfield’s story, in particular, is instructive. A Polish émigré to New York, he was a successful manufacturer of women’s slippers. After retiring from business because of failing health, he began in the late 1930s to paint flat, enigmatic pictures (“Angora Cat” [1937-39], depicting a white fluffy menace with searing eyes that can seem to vibrate on the canvas, is particularly mesmeric).

These are just a few examples. I suggest you read the article.

So, should an artist have a formal art education or not? Obviously, I think it is not necessary, although, of course, it may be at least helpful. For one, to learn the mechanics of painting and other forms of art. Also, you naturally get in touch with other artists, which clearly can be very inspiring (or not, of course). You learn about art history, placing your art in a historic perspective. You learn how to interpret historic and contemporary art works. There are lots of good things in a formal art education.

Maybe the most important is, that it makes it easier for an artist to adopt the self-image of an artist. Because it is socially accepted, in your group at art school. And because it is a formal education, after all. I myself observe a process in my mind of slowly losing the idea that “artist is not a real profession, it’s a hobby” that I was raised with as an adolescent. It’s a slow, persistent and stubborn process. Also, there is this notion of imposter syndrome, obviously. Uncertainty.

A downside that I see may possibly be that the opinions of your teachers about art may work as a funnel, causing you to create more of the same, within the borders of what is deemed acceptable at your art school. Although as a self-taught artist it can be hard to find or develop your vocation, your own artistic philosophy and voice, requiring a lot of self-confidence, the good thing clearly is that you are free to develop a free style. On the other hand, there is no blank slate in art: we all stand on the shoulders of giants. And that goes for the self-taught artists and for those with a formal art education. … And maybe it is even easier as a self-taught artist to find, no, stick with your natural personal style.

And let’s be honest. There is no black-and-white difference between self-taught and art-school-trained artists. Many started at art school but never finished. Many ‘self-taught’ have close connections with art schools and/or followed selected art classes. Also, there are many peer-to-peer learning communities of artists (and patrons, and art lovers in general). And, in the modern times we live in, you can learn a lot on the internet, and I mean, really a lot: online artist communities, instructions on artistic mechanics, news(letters) about/from the artworld, texts and videos about artworks, etc etc.

One point, yet, I want to make.

In my view, it is different for young people and for older people. As a young person, with limited life experience, It may sometimes be difficult to find your vocation and voice, let alone philosophy. To me, it was really very natural – hence easy – to formulate my artistic philosophy and my choice for mind models as my main artistic topic. Because, during the years, I learned that – at least for me – this is the most important topic for humanity.

And of course, I found the Hirschfield story inspiring, because I too was – at least partly – forced to retire from business because of failing health, my ears.

Ceterum censeo

And let’s be honest, there is a lot of good and poor art from formally trained artists, and there is a lot of good and poor art from self-taught artists.

Ultimately, let the artworks speak.

(After-thought, August 19th, 2022) — In my home country – Netherlands – currently there is a public debate ongoing about whether Art School should be recognized as an academic education at a university or not. Some say it definitely should, and some say it definitely should not (sorry, linked newspaper articles are in Dutch).

So, why should it? “Art school education is above all the search for your own artistic voice. That process covers research, creation, reading, observing, reflecting, and discussing. That is all academic work equal to a university study. And in many other countries Art School is an academic study at a university.” (my summary)

So, why should it not? “Academic education at a university demands students to strictly follow the guidance of the curriculum and the professors. It kills all creativity and free-thinking. Traditional Dutch Art Schools typically teach you ‘not to give a f@*% about how things always have been, must or should be done’. The problem with Art School as an academic education is that it teaches an elite and limiting view on what art should be.”(my summary)

And if there is one thing that all artists agree on, it is: art and artists don’t have to do anything at all.

Now that I think about it again, I think I myself had the best Art School possible: 60 years of very rich life experience. Painting techniques can be easily learned, especially with today’s internet. Finding your artistic voice isn’t necessarily picked up at school. Look at all of the famous artists. Almost all found their artistic voice after many years of life experience. Real artistic inspiration and an artistic voice come from your good and bad experiences in life, not from lessons at Art School.

So is Art School bad? No, of course not. You can learn a lot about art (history) and artistic techniques and mechanics. And you are adopted in the art scene. It is just not at all a guarantee that you will find your artistic voice once you completed the Art School curriculum. For most artists the search for your vocation and voice then only just begins.

One might compare getting an Art School degree a bit with getting your driver’s license. In some countries it’s no big deal to get your driver’s license, in other it’s a big effort. It helps most people to behave decently in traffic, but some who don’t have one still behave very decent and skilled. And some people who do have their driver’s license still cannot drive and are a disaster on the road. And most importantly, driving — let alone winning — a formula one race or, let’s say, the Dakar desert rally, definitely doesn’t happen because you have a driver’s license; you win because you practiced a lot and learned the tricks while doing.

Share This Story: