Why Can’t Little Johnny Draw? Art Education and the College Admissions Scandal

The fallout from the college admissions scandal in the U.S., in which some parents (including several prominent ones) allegedly paid large amounts of money to obtain entry for their children into elite universities, has largely swirled around highly-charged debates over wealth and race. Yet there’s also an interesting question to be explored with regard to what those students involved in the scandal intended to study once they got to the college of their choice. In an opinion piece published on ArtNet yesterday, columnist Tim Schneider weighs in on both the current cause célèbre of the admissions scandal, as well as the scandal of American college tuition generally, but he doesn’t address a fundamental, underlying assumption of his piece: the continued justification for visual art schools in the first place.

First, let’s consider the more general topic of American higher education. In his op-ed Schneider notes that, “[t]o paraphrase entrepreneur, author, and NYU business-school professor Scott Galloway, American higher education has transformed from a public utility into a luxury product.” Yet this is an historically inaccurate statement, because higher education has always been a luxury product, if we define a luxury as something that is desirable but not, strictly speaking, necessary. Like many other things in contemporary society, such as solid granite countertops and television screens the size of small islands, luxury in this country has increasingly come to be viewed as a right.

Bear in mind that most of the oldest American universities were not founded to be the intellectual equivalent of the electric company, but rather as elite training schools for Protestant ministers. Eventually these institutions, as well as those of orthodox faith or comparatively newer vintage, were designed to turn out gentlemen (and later ladies) who would be the social, economic, and political leaders of their communities. For most of this country’s history, higher education was viewed as a privilege, and as such it was difficult to gain entry into such institutions if one did not have the resources to attend, the intelligence to merit consideration, or the connections to assure matriculation.

That being said, we tend to forget that most of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the 19th and early 20th centuries – John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, etc. – never went to college, and in some cases never even went to high school. Others, such as Henry Clay Frick and John D. Rockefeller, may have had a bit of higher education in business-related subjects, but never finished a degree. Yet ironically, it was the highly-educated graduates of Ivy League schools who ended up working for these comparatively uneducated individuals, not the other way round.

However the issue raised by the ArtNet editorial needs to be considered more narrowly, focusing on art education, not on whether little Suzy would be better off going to a trade school instead of reading garbage by Noam Chomsky and Rigoberta Menchú for four years. Education in the visual arts is somewhat problematic in the present climate, when it comes to questions of elitism. As Mr. Schneider correctly discerns, “thousands of students effectively buy a stealth luxury product premised on exclusivity (an MFA) to give themselves the best chance at a career of… producing stealth luxury products premised on exclusivity (artworks in the gallery system). The snake eats its own tail.”

Moreover it must be said that the particular problem with art schools, when it comes to the visual arts, is that they seem rather unnecessary, given the aesthetic values embraced and championed by the art establishment. Put aside for the moment those who go to art school to learn how to shoot a film, or to restore a work of art, or to study the history of French Rococo painting (poor devils.) In the past, an aspiring visual artist attended art school in order to learn how to draw, paint, sculpt, etc., to at least a reasonable degree of competency. Today, when creativity is valued over craftsmanship, and feelings are more important than technical skill, why does one need to go to school for the creation of visual arts at all?

For most of history, from ancient times up through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, being an artist was considered a professional trade, not a philosophical calling, and nearly all of the greatest Old Master painters – Giotto, Raphael, Titian, etc. – received their art education by serving as apprentices to established artists. Gradually, groups of artists began to gather together to educate themselves and share ideas and techniques, such as in the case of Nicolas Poussin (whose sketch for his later painting, “A Dance to the Music of Time” illustrates this piece) and his circle. Later, the growth of these informal institutions and the demise of the guild and patronage system led to the creation of institutionalized art academies, which trained generations of artists such as Eakins, Hopper, and Picasso.

Once Modern Art took hold of the art establishment, and conventional values regarding form and technique went out the window, the need for a formalized academic setting in which to learn how to paint a picture went out the window with it. If all truth is as relative as taste, and artistic value is purely in the eye of the beholder, then why do I need a teacher to tell me how to apply paint to canvas? If it is not because I have to learn how to draw before I can paint, then it must be because I have to earn my place in the art world by paying my dues to those who happen to run it.

One can certainly understand the frustration of high school students who, despite having high academic achievements, are unable to secure places at universities where they would like to study, when these universities are apparently for sale to the highest bidder. Truth be told, it has always been thus when it comes to higher education. We are just more outraged by everything now, because as a society we are deeply silly and shallow, having little or nothing serious with which to occupy our free time.

Yet while Mr. Schneider raises some interesting arguments in his piece, and at least acknowledges the existence of the elephant in the room regarding the self-gratifying nature of visual arts education, it must be said that the art establishment itself has a long way to go before it can presume to stand the moral high ground in this debate.