Marketing Mondays: Who's Self Taught?

In a Marketing Mondays post in 2009, I asked your opinion of the MFA—if you have one, if you think it’s important, if you’d go through the process again (with an update on the topic from Paddy Johnson in Art Fag City here)—but I’ve never asked to hear from those of you who came to artmaking without a degree in art. Today is the day. I’m asking, prompted by this question from a reader:

Q: There are many people who do not have degrees
 in visual arts but have been making art, some for many
 years. I am one of these artists. And I have been concerned
about how to approach galleries. Will the words
'self-taught' cause an immediate rejection, or are galleries pretty
open to considering self-taught artists?

A:  My personal point of view: I’m at the point in my career where my education is far less important than the years I have put into the work, so much so that I usually list my education at the very bottom of the resume. I have a BFA and an MA, however my MFA and PhD came via the University of Keep Going Until You Figure it Out. So I’m of the opinion that it’s the work that counts, not where you went to school. Indeed, most dealers will typically tell you the same thing: “It’s about the work.”

If you’re presenting your work to a gallery, I suggest that’s what you focus on. The work: what you’re doing, why, possibly how you got to this point. You don’t have to bring up the “self-taught” issue at all. 
Dealers didn’t go to “dealer school” and most critics didn’t go to “critic school.”  Jerry Saltz, the critic, has noted on many occasions that he learned how to be a critic by looking at art and writing about it. He was not trained in art; indeed he was a long-haul truckdriver before achieving his influential position in the art world. So let colleagues, dealers critics and others respond to what they see before them: the artist and the art.

That said, one of the things art school helps students do is understand (and these days, negotiate) the art world, along with providing a sense of art history, and a context for it all. Relatedly, there's a big difference between self-taught artists who work within the context of contemporary art--serious artists who may not have a degree but who have taken classes with good teachers, who attend lectures, who involve themselves in the art network of their region, who read about and think about art--and the hobbyists who dabble in self-contained societies.

Another issue is the one of the career switch. Here's a curator from a non-profit gallery: "Most (not all) self-taught artists always seem to make the same visual mistakes in their work. And worse are the professionals who have decided to change careers and become artists. It's not so much that their work is good or bad, but their attitude of privilige that their professional credentals are deserving of something."

I don't see enough self-taught work to recognize patterns of  "same visual mistakes," so I can't address that issue, but I would agree with the curator's comments about the career switchers. I, too, see an expectation in certain people who come late to art directly from a successful career in another field, like medicine, law, entertainment, publishing, that they will show up and enjoy the same kind of success they had in their earlier career. Sometimes it works, especially if they are well connected (example: Sylvester Stallone showing his derivitave paintings at Basel Miami in 2009 to big sales); sometimes it doesn't. Often there's no real background in art, no thinking about history, theory, technique, only that they want to express themselves and they want a gallery now. And a solo show, reviews, attention, and and sales, lots of sales. But the ones who roll up their sleeves and plow through with the rest of us, I say, "Welcome, comrade."

Now, artists--degreed or not--over to you. What do YOU think about this issue?

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annell4 said...

The path of "art" is a lifetime. The more you work, the more you need to work. I don't think the artist ever "gets it," if you are always working beyond where you are, you are always stretching and growing. You are what you are. I have heard it said, one cannot understand contemporary art, without some knowledge of art history. This is important.

Casey Klahn said...

Here is my 3 cents as a self taught artist. I enjoyed the comment of one art professional who said the self taught artist is in good company - van Gogh, for example.

The words you write about the gallery looking at the art are spot on, Joanne. In my limited gallery experiences, no one has ever brought up education.

OTOH, I want to hurl when I hear someone brag about their lack of letters. That is worse than ignorance - it is pride of ignorance!

In that vein, I am doing my part to study art history, which is an imperative that one can't do without. I think that looking at the masters is the best inoculation against the mistakes mentioned in your post. IMO, the number one technical mistake in visual arts is the poor use of negative space. Many artist's don't know how to present their ideas and images through controlling space.

Don't get me started on drawing errors, which is another problem present among artist and especially those who decide to be realists, where it matters the most.

To sum it up, the education has to be there, matriculated or not. The evidence is in the work. said...

I have just graduated from my BA and am thinking strongly about an MA. This is because the critical environment with all the support and daily interaction with people pushing ideas is something I find so essential. I know this environment can be found outside of colleges but I don't believe the same allowance of time, pressures or critical awareness can be formed without being in that environment. If you are not aware of any historical background to the arts that you engage with, then your not really engaging with it... why would you want to paint with out enjoying and endulging in the mediums incredible history? It will inform your work and give it wieght and purpose if your concerned with what has happened and is happening around you. I know all this can be achieved outside of college but I think there is nothing quite like discussing daily face to face about work and your own ideas as well as others...the learning and enriching of your practice happens in an intense period, having now done it I am overloaded with ideas and ambitious that will keep me going for a long time more. I loved my time at College and wouldn't of given it up for anything, I hope an MA is on its way. Of course it all depends on your circumstances in life, but if you can I heavily suggest doing it.

Judy Shreve said...

What years of study give you is a vocabulary to pull from to make your art. In college you get the opportunity to study 2d and 3d, printmaking, silk screening - all the things you possibly thought you would never use -- but having an understanding of those 'tools' makes it easier to make your art. And of course all those art history classes. . . .

Self-taught can limit your palatte.

Ben Stansfield said...

I'm not sure where exactly most would place me on the self-taught/formal education spectrum.
I would say my skills come from teaching myself, or more accurately, seeking out sources who could tell me what I needed to know, experimenting until I got it right, analyzing what I liked, and reading. Also, drawing, drawing, drawing.
I was frustrated with the year of university in fine art that I did, and left art college after three more years. I dreaded taking my first art history class, but learned the most, and enjoyed myself in those classes. The teaching assistants made the most difference in enjoyment and engagement.
I agree with much of what Casey said earlier, about the lack of use of negative space among many painters. Also, I've had more than one aspiring artist and hobbyist tell me they didn't think they needed to learn how to draw in order to paint 'abstractly'. argh, okay, I could not disagree more, but please don't talk to me about it.

kathy said...

I prefer to call myself "self-directed" rather than self-taught simply because of all the people I have learned from.
That being said I am getting ready to exhibit my first solo exhibit at a gallery. I will have textiles, mixed media and photography. And she invited me to exhibit. This is after several years of having a booth at art festivals in the area. Her comment when she invited me was "You are good enough". So keep plugging will be noticed. I keep studying and working, but it is not formal schooling. I guess I'm like some others...I don't have much time for it since I'm not young anymore!

Unknown said...

As somebody who was self taught for years before attending art school, I'd say college helps you focus and redirect your curiosity.

When you're self taught, it all comes down to form and technique (especially when you are young): How do I do this, how do I do that. It is not until much later in life when you become aware of your work as a whole and its relationship and contribution (or lack thereof) to your region of the art world. When you go to school, these lessons are taught from day one for many reasons, one of them being to avoid 'common place'.

In my personal experience, the actual painting chops were acquired long before I attended college. I was actually, for the most part, bored out of my mind and felt technically unchallenged. But the critical side of education, the art history and its application to your work is what ultimately makes you love school and it is what you take with you when you get out. It puts things in place, it fills a lot of voids. And on top of that, you get to learn how to network!

Lisa Call said...

Interesting questions Joanne. I see a lot similarities between artists and software engineers in this context.

I have a BS, MS plus 2 additional years working on my PhD in computer science. I've got a solid background in the fundamentals and the theory (yes - there is theory) of computer science.

These days there are oodles of self taught programmers running about. Computers are everywhere and programming is "easy" to learn. Seems everyone thinks they can program.

But in my experience, the majority of these self taught programmers aren't qualified to do anything beyond simple small projects as they don't have the fundamentals and theory needed to create robust and extensible complex systems.

This doesn't stop them from trying although most large companies won't hire self taught programmers.

Does this mean you can't learn how to be a good developer without a degree? No, but it means you have to spend some time learning the fundamentals and theory on your own. If you want to write a large enterprise software system - you are going to have to learn how to create a robust data model and how to architect the code so it is supportable for years in the future. Definitely doable, but it is work.

Another option for self taught programmers is to become a web developer. Most websites are simple and not much training is needed to put one together, especially if you start with a wordpress framework. So there is plenty of room in the world for these self taught programmers (many artists hire these types of folks to create their websites :).

I see a lot of parallels between commputer science and art. I think there are many options for artists and there is room for everyone. From self taught to MFA, there are many options for exhibiting and selling art on many levels - and the internet allows anyone to set up shop as an artist and sell their wares (just as anyone can call themself a web developer).

Although at one end (one might say the top), where the "Art World" lives, I believe most people in this arena either have art degrees or they have put in the work to educate themselves about this world. You need the fundamentals and vocabulary to communicate.

In both cases, art and computer science, I agree that is is absolutely easier to learn the fundamentals in school, surrounded by others immersed in the same world. Yet I don't think it is the only place to learn this information.

I am one of those mid-life folks working on switching from a professional career to art. Although I don't feel entitled to anything because I am successful in another field so I can't really relate to that comment.

How my previous success helps: I know what it means to focus. I know how immerse myself into a discipline and learn all that I can. It isn't easy as 40 hours a week I still devote to paying the mortgage with my computer degrees but in my remaining time I am working on cramming in as much information in as possible to successfully switch careers mid-stream.

It's a slow process as I don't have the benefit of the concentrated time in school but I'm happy with my progress.

I'll have my first artwork in a gallery in NYC next month and so I've got my foot in the door (or maybe just a toe but it is a start) so I figured I must be doing something right.


PS - the exhibit will be at Kathryn Market Fine Arts:

Nancy Natale said...

I am a career switcher who chose to study art at mid life. I went to art school knowing nothing about art and having little exposure to it. The years I spent there in studio classes, theory and art history put me in a kind of shell-shock that made me stay away from painting for a year after getting my BFA. Then I began what I think is a lifelong study of art in history and practice. I became aware of how little I knew and how much I needed to know to place my work in context. I don't think we are ever too old to learn as long as we have some synapses still cranking.

Casey is right that "education has to be there, matriculated or not." To some extent, we must all be self educated. Hoping to get what you need handed to you on a platter from an art school is delusional. You will need much more than that.

Seamus, not to be persnickety but one important thing you will need that you may not get in art school is the ability to write about your work - including knowing how to spell, punctuate and use standard grammar. Recognizing that you do not know how to do this is the first step in the education you need to survive in the world. If you are not capable yourself, you must find a friend or other kind soul who will help you or do it for you. This step can't be avoided. Really.

Sandy said...

Just the term 'self-taught' is a cringer. Nobody is self-taught. You learn from other people, from studying other art work, from conversations with artists, and yes, from taking classes and workshops and seminars even if it's not degree-related. The point is to take as complete a submersion in art as can be managed, and that's how you learn. Degrees are fine, they show a certain direction and focus has been driving the artist for a long time but of course it can be done on ones own, it's just lots more time consuming and skips quite a few essentials. The other thing about an art education is how it exposes one to all the different disciplines- thing you don't know about or haven't seen done. On my own I probably wouldn't have discovered my love of fibers as being art worthy for a long time. A weaving class I took just to fulfill a dangling requirement changed my life. The formal art education for me was invaluable but who's to say I couldn't have done it on my own by spending the time at my work? The bottom line is that after 45 years nobody cares where I went to school or what my degrees are in, even me. said...

I had enough degrees but I did want to learn. So I put myself through continuing art courses over ten years at the college level with accumulating credits. However,I enjoyed the freedom to pursue the teachers and classes thatI wanted, when I wanted and needed them. I studied under a working full time artist for another three or for years until he "kicked me out of the nest". I do what I do full time and so my work is continually informing me now.

Sometimes I think, because it's Boston, I should have been more academically connected. Then I think again and there is something more invigorating to me being untethered from institutional degrees and finding what I am trying to get at by just getting at it. ( No loans or monies owed!).

Ken Greenleaf said...

"Most (not all) self-taught artists always seem to make the same visual mistakes in their work.." Hmm..I wonder what that means. Having been in art now for 40-plus years, written about it at length, seen hundreds of shows and spent my early adulthood practically living in museums and galleries in NY, I can say without worrying about contradiction that most of the 'visual mistakes' I've seen have been committed by curators. And there is plenty of poorly thought-out, integrity-free work being done by people with sizeable degree loads, and original and accomplished work being done by those without any letters after their name. The reverse is also true. There's no correlation between accomplishment and education that I've seen. Paraphrasing Liebling, the way to make art is to do it well, and how you do it is your own business.

Adeaner said...

Soon after graduating from highschool, it became obvious that I wouldn't be attending college. There have been times when thinking about having to wear the label of "self taught" was discouraging. But it doesn't seem to be so critical anymore. It's been encouraging lately to watch some of the street artists come in from the cold and grow and mature as they become part of the gallery scene. There's some real talent and growth going on.
And I am so thankful for the Internet - what an education it's been for me through the years.
Yes, it's all about the art, but I wish I could have gotten the schooling.

Ann Brauer said...

By training I am actually a lawyer. After seven years working as a lawyer, I decided that i wanted to become a quilt artist. I think there is a lot to be said for being a self-taught artist. Yes, I used the skills I had developed as a lawyer in switching to becoming an artist. I spent a lot of time looking at art--thinking about it and trying to decide what worked and what did not. I was also lucky that I got commissions that were in many forms art training--for instance I had to make quilts in blue and red in a particular design--six a month--each one as different as possible. Think about that--it was art training.

In addition, having the law degree allowed me the freedom to realize that if I was not making the quilts that I wanted to make--I could make a living more easily doing something else.

Yes, there were times I had to rethink what I was doing with different design solutions but my work is known for its unique look. And I have been supporting myself making art quilts for 30 years. I guess I can't ask for more than that.

Jhina Alvarado said...

I am considered "self-taught" (I have a masters degree in math education) but by no means am I ignorant to the art world and what is necessary in order to be successful. I do my research. I paint daily. I market my work. I put the necessary time in and I think my work shows that. I just got my 9th gallery today (of which most came from the galleries finding me) and not a single one of them cares whether or not I have an art degree. I think having good work and a professional work ethic is what matters. I know MANY people with art degrees that don't have that and because of it, aren't doing much with their art.

Eva said...

I had studied art history more than the making of art in school. Then I painted for 2 years at the ASL, but never graduated in anything, never got a degree in anything. I think it hurt me in my early 30s - especially as in NYC everyone always asks you where you went to school.

That question is rarely asked in your 50s however! Now I think the situation might be the opposite; it has set me apart. But only because I am still here. You gotta work, work, work, however you get there.

I don't know if you have read the article in the NY Times about dropouts saving America, but I loved the piece.

Victoria Webb said...

I liked Ken's response, so I'll just say ditto.

However, one area that I doubt some pedigreed/degreed artists are proficient in, is the chemistry of paints. I once discovered that the former arts chair of a major university knew little about it, and freely admitted as much.

Now that IS important because our paintings will deteriorate in time if we haven't been diligent about learning this stuff. So whether we find the techniques and basics from books or from professors, it is crucial to the work's survival.

Tina Mammoser said...

I'm not self-taught, but don't have a degree - I studied privately with an artist. This was still a stumbling block with *some* galleries. What I learned? It was because my work wasn't strong enough and I was approaching the wrong galleries at that point. It was too early. But I worked hard at just showing anywhere and everywhere I could. Co-ops, local societies, non art spaces, then up to small local galleries. Starting from the bottom and working my way up slowly through venues eventually my CV was long enough to show consistency, dedication and experience with displaying my work. At that point the galleries I'd spoken to before just looked at the work, the education was a side conversation and really just an in-roads to talk more about the work.

I was a career switcher too, but always assumed I was at the bottom of a new career ladder and just the beginnings of a creative voice and ability too. (heck, still am!)

Unknown said...

This is an interesting thread. I live in Santa Fe, ground zero of artist life switchers and galleries that will show them. There are also numerous artists who give workshops to those people and I have seen the most awful work, with no color sense and no sense of composition. I know those people are enjoying themselves and that's fine. People buy their paintings and that's fine too, but I agree with Lisa's post- you can move a bunch of paint or wax around a canvas or board without really knowing what you're doing, but to have a serious art practice it's almost impossible without a real art education. Whether that's an MFA or not is a trickier question.

For me, grad school was invaluable, and I went after a career as an illustrator, feeling that without that immersion I would never make the leap from commercial art. I went to Rutgers which wasn't that expensive at all, but then I lived in the area so that helped. I knew very little about art theory and I soaked it all up, including the criticism from my classmates and professors. I did have a reality check when I left school but my former career has taught me focus and organization that I put to use in a different way now.

I went into a gallery here the other day, a good one in my opinion, and saw a really mind-blowing show of paintings, very different, sort of Rembrandt meets Anselm Kiefer. I asked the gallerist where the artist was from. "Oklahoma," she said. "SELF-TAUGHT."

Donna Dodson said...

I was a pre-med major in college but graduated with a degree in French literature. After college, I worked in human services and I wrote poetry for years, then I switched to drawing and making found-object sculpture and studied with a local artist in his studio at the same time I was setting up my own studio practice. I would say I am self taught except that I studied at a very prestigious school, so I cant lay a claim to outsider artist, mentally ill, religiously inspired or art brut. I also grew up in the middle class and had rigorous intellectual training doing research and writing. I think it's true, if you come at the art world on your own, you have to work hard to find a peer group, something you get at art school.

Anonymous said...

Art school is a laboratory. It is a place to learn about process, philosophy, criticism, theory, and maybe about life. Art is about life, however.
Think about it, one of the world's most important contemporary artists, with a range materials produced that is extraordinary, dropped out of college. He never had a formal degree in anything whatsoever. His name, Steve Jobs.
That said, it would be unbelievably conceded to think we are comparable to "The Great Masters," many who did not attend art schools as they didn't exist when they worked. We are mere mortals and should probably use every single tool we can to help ourselves. Education is probably the best tool we can have.

LXV said...

I might be willing to concede that today's higher education (in any field) has more to offer than just a networking opportunity and passport to more remunerative employment, if there were any indications that its graduates had mastered even the basic reading, writing and 'rithmatic skills that used to be required to finish grammar school.

Oriane Stender said...

I agree with Ken Greenleaf that formal education does not correlate in any causal way with achievement in the visual arts. I have a BA from a state U, not a BFA from an art school, and no graduate degree. I did "major" in art but I could legitimately call myself self-taught because I didn't learn much about making art in school.

People have different learning styles. I learn best independently, seeking out what interests me without assignments. In a major metropolitan area with lots of colleges around, you can get what you need from going to lectures, exhibitions, etc. In other words, some people are able to participate in the cultural dialogue without matriculating at some institution of higher learning. [Now, with the internet, you can do some of that even without an actual community around you.] I picked up most of the skills I needed outside of school. But I know some people didn't grow up in an intellectual environment and need an official introduction to culture, history, etc., who found that college opened up a whole new world for them. College didn't do anything special for me even though I went to a "good" school.

[I also agree with LXV that the lack of writing skills of many graduates is not encouraging.]

Joanne Mattera said...

Oh, you are a great group of commenters! Each of you contributed something to this discussion.

A couple of comments:

Aron says: "When you're self taught, it all comes down to form and technique (especially when you are young). How do I do this, how do I do that. It is not until much later in life when you become aware of your work as a whole and its relationship and contribution (or lack thereof) to your region of the art world."

Yes, I see this among artists who come to art through a particular medium, whether clay, wax, wood or whatever. It's all about the technique, not about context. Only later, often through prodding, does awareness of context come in.

Sandy says: "Nobody is self-taught. You learn from other people, from studying other art work, from conversations with artists, and yes, from taking classes and workshops and seminars even if it's not degree-related. The point is to take as complete a submersion in art as can be managed."

I like Sandy's thinking. (Reminds me of Elizabeth Warren's comments about the wealthy. No one is truly "self made." They were provided educations, many of them public; they hired workers who were educated in the same way; they shipped their goods over roads that texes paid for, etc.)

And, of course, as Oriane and others point out, there are many ways to participate in the "cultural dialogue without matriculating."

Ken says, "There's no correlaton between accomplishment and education . . ." (However,I do think those Yale MFA'ers have a leg up, not necessarly from the formal education but from the contacts they make.)

Finally, as many of you mentioned, there are things you may not learn in art school that are essential: paint chemistry (I'd add archival issues)and the ability to express yourself well. I know from being a visiting artist here and there that professional issues are addressed these days--it's what I'm brought in to do--but an occasional visitor is not the same as a course where a student learns to present her/himself well. All things being equal, whom would you rather work with--the poised and articulate artist who delivers what's needed on time or the one to keeps you waiting and then hands you a jumbled resume, incoherent statement and unusable images?

Keep the great comments coming.

Anonymous said...

Hey Joanne, you had better read Steven Henry Madoff's (no relation to that other Madoff) "Art School."
It is a very academic text with some fairly heavy writing. There are some really interesting characterizations along the way by various arts intellectuals. It should be required reading for anyone interested in art education at any level.
Best to you, Anon.

Ben Stansfield said...

I'm late to get back to the comments, but agree with Sandy and Ken. Self-taught feels so egocentric, and not at all what I'm trying to convey, which is that I have a mixed formal education, with a ton of self-directed learning.
I suppose, as an art-school dropout, I'm sensitive to some of the sniffy elitism I've encountered in the intervening twenty years since, from people who stuck with school. I envy their contacts, but not always their skill. In painting, I've found so many that got the best technical skills from illustration/graphic design programs, but often a lack of critical thinking. As always, the education doesn't make the artist.
Great stuff, everybody.

Unknown said...

I don't think I should have to "think" about being self-taught at all. How was I to know that I would start painting abstract art after the age of 40? I kept painting knowing nothing at all in the beginning, because I HAD to paint! At some point others not myself, called me an artist. I own it now though frankly, I feel I still just paint.

Unknown said...

p.s. Great question :) !

Fran said...

Self taught means that the "talent" of the artist is raw and unbiased by teachings. I am a self taught artist and although I love to see other artists works and learn from other artists, my style is all my own and is guided not by what is in my head but what is in my heart. That cannot be taught in a classroom.