In their latest Dazed column, art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad discuss whether formal training is needed to break through in the art world
Anonymous: Can you be an artist and not go to art school? I need advice: I’ve been painting since I was 18 but never got the choice to go to art school. I asked a yt professor for advice/comments on my portfolio and he shot.it.down. Didn’t ask about concept or theory, he just said, any place that accepted me for an MFA only wants my ££s. Honestly my confidence is a bit knocked, but I just know I am meant to express this stuff and create. I’m of South Asian descent so I’ve never had any confidence with it anyways, but still: what’s your take on all this?
The White Pube: Hello Anon, this is a good question. To start with: I’m fuming at your professor, tbh like any and all post-graduate courses aren’t just there to take your ££s regardless of what your BA was in??? I want to make this exceptionally clear: You Do Not Need Formal Training To Be A Practicing Artist. Rather the opposite, I think some of the best/most exciting artists out there now have invested time in honing other crafts & skills outside of the art world. Our friend Andreas Mallouris was a practicing plastic surgeon before doing his MFA (and now he still maintains both practices, literally splitting the week in two, alongside running an artist-led space in Nicosia, Cyprus); Basquiat never even went to artskl; some artists have studied things adjacent to visual arts but not the actual thing, like Imran Perretta studied Architecture; and of course many just haven’t even done an MFA. Also, it doesn’t really matter whether you did a BAFA anyway! I know so many people who make their money doing completely separate jobs to make a living alongside their creative practice (including: Me), or teach alongside their studio practice. It also doesn’t ensure that you’ll be able to stay in the art world; I know people who’ve been priced out by having to work full-time, people who had enough and made a dramatic exit, married rich & had babies instead, and so many people from our BA have just never been heard from again (if ur reading this, I hope ur all ok).
“I want to make this exceptionally clear: You Do Not Need Formal Training To Be A Practicing Artist” – The White Pube
The idea that there is a set way to become an artist, that you can go to a big fancy expensive school & get a qualification and Only Then are you Qualified™️ is ELITIST! And symptomatic of this shift from the Art School to the Arts University; we now pay >£9k a year, we expect to have something tangible to prove that our time, money & effort was well spent, and we forget that the main point of going to art school has always been to have an incubation period where for 3 years you’re just immersed in Making.
If I’m being generous, I’ll say that I can kinda see where this professor might be coming from. The art world is notorious for being impenetrable, exclusionary and made for Insiders only. It can be hard to get the art world to take you seriously without an art degree: some curators are obsessed with only showing their London Art School Mates, and pay-to-enter open call shows, like Bloomberg New Contemporaries insisting on entry requirements that demand you be fresh out of a BAFA/MFA, are only part of perpetuating the art world’s bubble that can value credentials & the soft capital of name-recognition institutions over the content of your work. However, this is why your professor is fuckin WRONG-O. If you want to go about leaning in to this system of soft-capital (no judgement bc we’ve all got to get by), then an MFA is a surefire way to ensure you solidify your art-world credentials & there’s absolutely nOTHIN wrong with coming to an MFA with an undergrad in something outside ~the Arts~. You’ll have 1/2 years to spend in a studio, surrounded by peers of varying skill and determination, with access to some workshops and - most importantly - some possibly valuable opportunities to get formalised feedback on the work you’re making. Whether it’s a crit, a tutorial, or just a chat in the studio with your mate while you’re having lunch; if it weren’t for these concentrated and specific moments of feedback, opinion and critique, I’d still be making Diaspora Art. All universities in the UK right now just want your money, and I’ve heard the US is worse (if that’s even possible), and it’s kind of like the degree certificate you get at the end of all that fuss is just a weird receipt for the blood sweat & tears of it all. Some people (idiots) acc value that.
I say the above to make a really trite point: often art world gatekeepers won’t take someone without formal qualifications seriously. There are a few bits n bobs happening and artists’ self-education is taking off, but it’s not as radical as it needs to truly be to give it weight/be enough of a fuck you to institutional gatekeepers. It could be worth just going through the motions of an MA to get yourself that paper degree and get on with your life & work; bc if you want to be an artist, a curator, an art writer who writes for other ~serious mags~ it can be easier to get hired when ur CV has a fancy MA on it. But that kind of rests on a) the privilege of having the FUNDS to do that (if u do, hello here is our patreon and b) being arsed enough about these snobby RCA/Goldsmiths curators who only care about the academic implications of the concept you’ve imposed on ~this acetate lump spray painted neon orange~. Sometimes experience wins out & I’m sure at a certain point in your late twenties/early thirties, no one actually cares where you studied or what you got in your GCSEs. Volunteer roles can be a good entry point to working in arts’ space, but all this now requires a leg in the door in the first place. It’s hard, sticky one stilllll, it relies on luck & chance & other peoples’ belief.
I have a really good suggestion, a way to strike a balance between fucking it alllll off & j leaning in, n I say this sincerely, with your best intentions at heart: Lie. Just lie. The process of getting an exhibition is about who you know, as is just the day in n outs of being in the art world, I reckon you can swindle it. We wrote our first column about how to handle (or, potentially, swindle) sociability in the arts & how to enter a sector where the professional is so blurred with the social and there’s also our text on How To Get An Exhibition. Like, right, you could just enter the art world as a fabulous social butterfly. Choose an obscure fancy sounding institution from another country, make sure it’s real & ~prestigious~ and just go about being Joanne the fabulous scammer. No one checks, no one cares beyond a surface level validation and, if you get found out, it’ll be funny rather than scandalous. A dramatic exposition of the art world’s vanity. I dare u. I truly believe the best thing you could categorically do is lie, get on with making art, and in 40 years when you’ve made it, you can stand up and tell everyone off for being so obsessed with institutional validation that they overlook real talent. lying to the white people gatekeepers is reparations. Do you know the artist Temsüyanger Longkumer? He was in the last Kochi Biennale so you know, that says something. according to his website he studied Graphic Arts at both Guwahati University and then The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda both in India. Maybe one of those can be your fake MA. white people won’t question it, promise.
In conclusion! Being South Asian & the mere IDEA of going to art school is a thing, our parents want us to be Stable & Secure. For some people that means our parents push us towards professional degrees & jobs where we can attain some kind of social mobility - immigrant life. It’s understandable! I too would like to make money - but I did an art degree bc there was literally nothing else I was any good at or enjoyed doing. I can understand why you never had the opportunity to go to art school, and it’s not something you should even hold space for feeling bad or guilty or like an imposter about. But I can’t sit here & honestly say that my parents wanted me to be a doctor or anything else, bc when I was 16, even they knew it’d never happen. Not everyone can be dentists or lawyers, not everyone is afforded the opportunity for that! And some of us are good at other things, and being in the creative industries is just as valid and valuable; same as being a mechanic, a chef, a train driver. The art world’s insistence on entering that strategic formal pipeline of ACADEMY > INSTITUTION > MUSEUM is ripe for being used as a tool of exclusion. I understand why it exists, as a pipeline, bc it kind of primes people - education isn’t bad! But formal academies aren’t the only singular kinds of education that’s worthwhile or valuable in pursuing. Fuck your professor, make art from the heart, make art with your entire chest; rob this fuckin england & LIEEE.