The Education of the Artist

May 8, 2013

There comes a time for reflection on one’s own past and that time is now. Slipping as I am into a well earned obscurity, I think about my own education in the arts and how that would not happen the same way now. I don’t want to get into old chestnut that in my day I walked to school through snow up hill both ways. Quite the opposite, it was a golden time and, here is the key, my education was cheap or perhaps, more aptly, not expensive. Kids today pay a small fortune for fine arts education that is often third rate. My undergraduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, the California School of Fine Arts when I started, cost me a few hundred dollars a year in tuition–a sum I could raise working part time around the school. Today’s tuition is around $37,000 plus fees a year. My graduate degree from Indiana University was pretty much free plus I got some dough as a teaching assistant. I walked away from my education a free man. Don’t give me that crap about inflation. You cannot earn the money to go SFAI today working part time and summers and there is the small matter of materials, eating and a place to live. Tuition has out stripped inflation many, many time over. Even at my own provincial or state university, Mount Allison, where I taught for twenty-nine years, tuition is around $7000 plus a whole lot of fees, however, this does sound like a bargain compared to good American art schools.

What does this all mean? Well, it changes the very nature of art and who makes it. Working class students are mostly out as those who do go to university are looking for degrees that will in their minds, and it is mainly in their minds, led to a well paying job. Men are largely out as they, when they go to university at all, are too practical for their own good. What’s left upper and upper middle class, women. I have nothing against women artists. The more the merrier. Again, in my undergraduate days (1959-1965), art schools were filled with wildly romantic males wanting to be heroic abstract expressionist, and at SFAI sloppy figurative, artists. Not a bad role to play at local watering holes after a hard day throwing paint around in your studio or class room. Many of the people, men and women, I went to school with came from working class backgrounds whose parents had never gone to university. They were not worrying about what they were going to do for a living when they graduated. Perhaps they should have as it was still a bitch to make a living as an artist then as it is today. The idea then, and I hope a little bit today, was to change the world to a better place through art. It didn’t work then and it’s not working now, but let’s give everybody an A for trying.

Eakins_Dean's_Roll_Call_1899_wikimediaIt has been argued that a degree, fine arts or otherwise, does not buy as much as it used to, but the playing field has changed. In the 1950s and 60s a far smaller percentage of the population went to university. Graduates were an elite and hence in demand. Today perhaps five times as many people, as a percentage, go on to some form of post secondary education. Do the math. A degree is worth far less than it was fifty years ago. Before the 1950s, Mount Allison was the only university in Canada giving a BFA degree and their programme only started in 1938. When I came to Canada to teach in 1967 there were no universities offering a MFA degree. Today there many schools cranking out both degrees in Canada. (Should be said, however, that some of these schools are dropping or thinking of dropping their BFA and other humanities programmes in favour of more practical studies that are in line with the job market.) Hello, Mars to Earth, is it any wonder that there is a painter behind every expresso machine? Don’t despair as the second person behind the machine is likely to be recent B.Com or IT graduate.

Am I in favour of limiting the number of people going to art schools and universities? You bet, but then I am an elitist. Was I lucky to go through the system at a better time? Yes, but it was all my father and mother’s fault who conceived me in the late 1930s. Younger colleagues of mine are still pissed off that a no talent laggard like myself was able to waltz my way to an early full professorship while they have to toll many years in the mines of academia. Them’s the breaks. On the plus side most of them will still be alive when I am safely dead and things have got to get better, don’t they?

Back to limits and elitism. I am not in favour of how this works now; both are controlled by money rather than talent. Post secondary education should be free. Talented people should be paid to go to school. Society would benefit were its best people get the education and training they need to make a country a better place for everyone. While it appear that I might be smoking something that I shouldn’t, but let me assure that I am not inhaling and such things do happen in some countries other Canada and the United States–try Finland or Denmark for starters.

Two answers. One: Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Free is good, but I don’t think painting and drawing courses work very well in this kind of format. Two: Declare that everybody is already an artist. Vast numbers of people own a camera and know that the lens is on the front and you can buy a pencil or a brush without a permit. Who need a fine arts degree when we are all artists?

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Saturday, 4 May, 2013.


  1. Hi Virgil,

    Thank you for the comments. I think that the cost of education might be factor (Cooper Union now has a 37K tuition) but we must also remember that having twice as many people in the world than in 1970 paired with a division between wealth and poverty in the first world that is worse than at the time of Nero, might factor into the formula. Our new Faculty have an average age of 50 but that is because the boomers are still hanging on to their paychecks (gap between rich and poor), so our lecturers have raised families on 18K a year when poverty hangs around 35K. France has free universities and Art Schools as does Finland but they also have some of the highest dropout rates in the world (One of my students cheerfully responded the other day that she was one of those!) I do think you have a point with the tuition being beyond a summer job and that is quite true. I have wrestled with many of the same questions as I too am approaching the age of pasture. My daughter, who is now in Art School has a different attitude. She: a) in all respect, wishes that we would all disappear. b) says that we wasted many years trying to work instead of make art c) the world of galleries and commerce that we lived is dead. (now I suppose she would fall into the elite category with parents, artists and teachers, but trust me, we are poor enough). I am curious to see what her generation will do. They are fascinating to watch. Actually Internet art is my favourite place these days.

    Other than that, I hope you are doing well. Hey, don’t exaggerate this getting old stuff too much. Your life has not been any easier than anyone else’s, and teaching is not quite the lark others make of it. We just watched “Gerhard Richter Painting” and “Abramavic’s The Artist is Present” and concluded that if people who sell work at 33 million a pop are concerned that they are “has beens” or “not understood in the art world”, then I realize that our vocation is a very complex beast to analyze.

    Take care


    • Must let me know how it all turns out with your daughter. Like to talk to her in about twenty years, should I still be kicking. This blog thing seems to work for me. Need a place to let off steam. Regards, Virgil

  2. I applaud your last statements. When “anyone” of any age discovers that (s)he is an artist, it’s cause for celebration!! And all of us are artists. When children are provided the simple tools such as pencil, brush, paper etc. and …this is important…allowed the TIME… to fiddle around and draw, or sculpt in the back yard dirt, or throw paint around on a piece of canvas, or whatever they find to do, this lays the groundwork.

    Setting aside free unstructured TIME…leisure time for kids to discover in, not in front of the TV or computer screen…is essential. This does not mean that creativity cannot happen at the computer…it can! But there needs to be something else besides the computer in their lives. Most bright kids I know now are locked into schedules from sun up to sun down, filled with structured activities. I would have died if my childhood had been that structured. I had time to create all by myself. Most of what I really love to do now had its roots in my childhood unstructured time, which was supported through structured music lessons, swimming classes, theory studies, art classes, and school work.

    One more thing: I recently was writing letters of recommendation for a gifted former undergrad music student of mine to get into graduate studies on the Masters level. She is good, so she was readily accepted everywhere she applied, both in Canada and in the States. She has finally decided to register at an American university which will cost $46,000 a year tuition. Yes, you read that right…$46,000 a year. She is not rich, nor is her mom. She has stayed out of school and worked hard for several years, but she was not able to amass much savings probably because she was paying off her undergrad loans, took piano lessons, completed an education degree, and paid for her own living expenses. She will get a hefty scholarship from this US school, and they have pffered her an assistantship, but after that, there remains many many thousands of dollars needed each year which her amazing mother will cover with loans. I was horrified to hear how much American universities are charging these days.

    Thanks for renewing your blog!


    • Right as usual, Janet. Every parent I know tracks every moment of their children’s lives. God forbid free time to get into trouble. If we were starting over again we would have likely not became artists, but would be saying “Want Fries with that?”.

  3. Well said Virgil. I’m sure that whirring sound you might have heard is just Harold Adams Innis spinning in his grave upon hearing about that PR ploy MOOCS. He was more into the oral tradition or at least, say, 10 to one.

    • Perhaps, Innis has it right being dead–spinnig or not.

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