I wanted to confess some bitterness I've had for a long time. Back when I was studying art in college, I had an experience that shaped the rest of my time at college. It fueled my distaste for the college system, as well as the incredibly exclusive world of "art school".
I'd also like to say: My distaste for school and art programs is largely due to me and my own problems, I wouldn't put the blame wholly on the institution itself (although it is deserved of some of the blame). I've never been a big fan of "institutions" or "groups". My parents can attest that I was never a big fan of "The Man's" boot on my neck.
Due to my overexposure of the world via television, movies, and music previous to college, I saw college and art class as sort of a parody of itself. Many of the tv sitcom art class tropes, turns out, were real: the class is full of people with tattoos and dyed hair who all kind of blend together while all claiming to be individuals. Tight jeans and funny hats as far as the eye can see. (I later on adopted the tight jeans and never looked back, one of the few things I retained from college. Ironically, I also have a tattoo, so I suppose the hypocrisy of this post has appeared earlier than usual)
I rarely took assignments seriously. There's one in particular that I became famous for in my wife's family before they even knew who I was. It was in film photography class, and we were assigned to go out and take a self portrait. Almost everyone took either a mirror selfie or a regular photo of themselves, but not me. I couldn't settle for a non-snarky answer to this assignment. I had an old fake Christmas tree in my dorm, so I shaped it into a human and made a mask of myself, attached it to the tree and took a photo of it. It hung in the classroom for a while after that, and unbeknownst to me, my now brother-in-law saw it, thought it was the most absurd thing he's ever seen, and told his family all about it. This all took place before Anna was even in college, a year or so before we met. We all had a good laugh when they told me this story about the goofball who took "the Christmas tree selfie", and I had to confess that I was in fact, the Christmas tree man.
But I digress. Back to the experience I had that made me have distain for art schooling. It was another photo class, I believe. We were supposed to bring in examples of photos that inspire us, some of our favorites. I brought in some work by Michael Kenna, Richard Avedon, a couple big Flickr photographers at the time (I can't be bothered to pull up or trudge through the swamp that is Flickr at this time), and Peter Lik.
Everyone ooh'd and aah'd at all my faves, because they were, I suppose, classically artsy. Once I got to Peter Lik, everyone turned to me (including the professor), as if I suddenly had become invalid as an artist and photographer.
If you've never heard of Peter Lik, you may have the same feeling that my art class did. In 2011, his photography was in better standing than it is now in this image saturated culture. I can come up with a bunch of photographers who are better at photography than Peter Lik is, but back then I didn't have as many sources of images as I do now. (Instagram barely existed)
What I didn't really know then that I know now is that Peter Lik's real art was in his marketing a business skills. His photography was simply a product that he was selling, and selling quite well. His whole technique was to make his images look much better than they actually were. Maybe I fell for it, or maybe I had a whole different reason for liking him.
I got into photography while growing up in Hawaii, so landscapes and nature was all I was really into. (My favorite type of photography to shoot is stylized portraits, but I naturally gravitate towards landscape photography as a habit) When we were moving away from Hawaii, we did what most military families did on the way out, we lived in a hotel for the last couple weeks before flying out. The hotel we stayed at was the Outrigger Reef Hotel, my favorite in Waikiki. It's walking distance from everything: The Apple Store, California Pizza Kitchen, Yard House (my favorite restaurant chain), and Peter Lik's photography gallery.
I went to his gallery and was blown away. Now that I have a bunch of knowledge of the photography printing world, I realize how ahead of his time he was. His photos were mounted on acrylic and backlit to make them look bright like a computer monitor. Everything about the place was beautiful and absurdly expensive. The gallery workers didn't bother talking to a 18 year old kid that looked 13, because I couldn't even afford a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom.
Now I think back, and I'm blown away by his marketing prowess, seeing as his strategy has made him a bunch of money. Back then, however, I was taken aback by his technical prowess. Sure, his photos are basically shiny hotel art, but you have to admit, he knows how to work a camera.
Back to art class. At that moment, I was indoctrinated to move my mind to a "deeper level" past the uninspired work of someone like Peter Lik. He wasn't an artist. He was a salesman. I think my professors and classmates would take far more enjoyment from me being into the crude work of Robert Mapplethorpe than the close-minded work of a Nat Geo landscape photographer. I may have gotten a standing ovation even if I confidently showed some tasteful nudes, because that's ART.
3 years out of college, my mind works in a totally different way. My knowledge base of the art world has been far expanded: I've been the artist, the salesman, the framer, the printer, the teacher, and the student over the past few years. I've been to real-life grad school, and what I've learned is how closed-minded that the undergrad level of college art is.
I've been hanging out with a friend who is passionate about the outdoors and landscape photography. He wouldn't consider himself an artist, and honestly, neither would the college world. I, however, do consider him an artist, and I'm excited to see where it takes him over the next few years. I consider him an artist due to his technical knowledge and all that goes into shooting his landscape photography. The things he has to do to get the shot is insane: not only does he usually hike pretty far, but he also has to understand the weather, how light changes depending on the seasons, and how to get his limited equipment to pull off what he wants. If that's not something an artist does, I don't know what is.
A trend I've noticed in the art world these days is the lack of emphasis put on technical mastery. Learning the technical stuff is what allows you to create more. This is part of the reason that I kind of hate Lightroom. It's given photographers an excuse to never learn Photoshop, which is basically the digital darkroom. Lightroom should be an addition to Photoshop, not a easier substitute that allows you to avoid the work.
I believe you can sell a lot of prints without technical mastery. If you are a good salesman and can build relationships, most of the time it doesn't even matter what the photo is of. If you want to be "an artist", I believe that technical mastery is absolutely key. If you have technical mastery and you're a good salesman, I'm deeply jealous of you. There's nothing stopping you from being a millionaire.
Despite, Peter Lik's photographs not being an art classes' "cup of tea", it doesn't mean that it isn't acceptable as art. In fact, what Lik is doing is a piece of art that every artist should appreciate! He is creating and selling just like almost any famous artist has done that was shared by the students in the class that day. Many students that I know look down on someone with technical prowess who sticks to the rules, and while using the placeholder "rule-breaker" as a substitute for "I don't actually know what I'm doing, and I just throw VSCO filters on everything."
It's like my old guitar teacher Uncle Harry (he's not actually my uncle, that's just a Hawaii thing) used to say, "You can only break the rules when you know what the rules are. Will, I'll teach you the Hot for Teacher guitar solo once you learn some scales, okay?" I never really learned my scales, and guess what? I suck at guitar.
My distaste for art classes and school in general begins there. You're taught that one way is considered "art" and anything beyond that institution's definition isn't acceptable ("art" can be a placeholder for 1000 other ideas that colleges represent).
I've been wanting to do write about schooling as it exists today, especially in regards to college, is mostly needless and mostly damaging. Consider this part 1 in a multi-part series on this topic. It's funny, over the past few months as I have been mulling over this topic, Austin Kleon has been doing something similar by making an archive of ways and reasons to "Unschool". He certainly captures a lot of my thoughts as well as inspired new ones.