Many people go to professional art schools, but the best preparation for the real art world may well be high school. Cliques, popularity contests, rebels, authority figures with total control over your life -- the art world, it has been said, is just like high school.
My high school class, La Habra High, class of 1978, had two artists: me, and the tall and handsome Tim Dolce, who had very long hair, cultivated one overgrown curved fingernail and worshipped Fleetwood Mac and the comics artist Barry Windsor-Smith. We both ended up going to Cal State Fullerton to study art. He dropped out early, apparently because he preferred the Pre-Raphaelites to Chris Burden and Vito Acconci.
To get started with this column, I posted a request on Facebook, and also sent it via email to a few more people.
"Can I quote you? I’ve been asked to write a column for Artnet Magazine giving advice to students, because the new fall semester is starting at art schools worldwide.
"How important is the name of an art school? It seems like today names like Yale, Columbia and UCLA carry a lot more weight in the art world vs. 30 years ago. Do you think it’s exaggerated? I tend to think as long a school is decent, ultimately it’s what the student makes out of it that matters. On the other hand, many artists who show in important New York galleries went to Yale, a point that is often mentioned in their press.
"Are there some things that you see art students repeatedly being totally oblivious to? Or common mistakes in their attitude or behavior?"
The first to respond (with a regular email, not on Facebook) was Larry Gagosian, the world’s most powerful and influential contemporary art dealer, and probably the best, who wrote, via BlackBerry by AT&T, "Sounds like an interesting topic. Honestly don’t have an opinion. Good luck."
The second response came from a dealer just across the street in Chelsea, also very important, especially for young and emerging artists, Zach Feuer, who wrote, "Thanks for thinking of me. Glad you’re doing the column again -- it’s one of my favs on artnet. I’m not comfortable giving on-the-record career advice though."
Too bad, since Zach should have good advice, since he was one of several dealers involved with the Art Studentism moment in recent art, along with Jeffrey Deitch, Jack Tilton and Leo Koenig. Remember back in 2005, when everyone in the press was writing about how certain dealers were haunting art schools, like baseball talent scouts, to sign up the next art star before they graduated?
As a rule, however, Facebook opinioners (yes, it is a word) are less reticent to jump into any kind of debate. My impression is that most of the Facebook people are anti-art school. There’s a popular belief out there that "talent is talent" and "school won’t do you shit and could even hurt."
I disagree. With a few tiny exceptions, art school "can’t hurt, could help." It could help a lot if you have half a brain.
But more importantly, you have to be self-taught, even if you do go to art school. As I’ve written in the past, artists must do much more than make their own art. To have success -- money and fame -- an artist must also do the dealer’s job and the critic’s (or should that be the publicist’s) job, too.
And as a student you have to do the teacher’s job. You have to learn. It was in college that I learned about Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Zen (which I went and forgot again, a very Zen sort of thing), Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, etc.
When I got to New York and became a peg in the professional art world, I saw that it was very much like high school all over again. But I didn’t let it get to me. Life may be socially retarded, but you’ve got to grin and bear it. "Suffer in silence," as they say in Italy. Be better, not bitter.
Of my Facebook responses, I was most struck by a pair of back-to-back contributions that summed it all up. The first came from Daryl Edelman, a novelist, comic- book writer and editor who’s worked at Marvel, D.C. and Archie Comics. "When someone sends lousy art samples to Marvel Comics, the joke is, where’d this guy learn to draw, Harvard?"
To me this seemed brilliant, until my brother, the painter and musician Paul Kostabi, shot back, "Harvard it is then!"
On the other hand, composer Timothy Andrew Edwards succinctly and poignantly asked, "Where did Jean-Michel Basquiat go to school?" The debate got very involved.
Shara Wassermann, who teaches contemporary art history at Temple University in Rome, sent some sensible info via email.
"The winning student is open-minded and articulate," she wrote. "Just like in any other discipline, there must be the right balance between apprehended knowledge and spontaneity, theory and practice. And finally, there is no good student that has not ‘done their homework’, travelling and looking. Like any other profession, you need to be informed of what came before, and what is happening at the same moment."
This may not be very entertaining, but her last sentence is peculiarly relevant to the contemporary art scene in New York right now. Know your history, because otherwise you might end up like Dan Colen, making giant confetti paintings that look just like the ones Tano Festa made in the ‘80s, which are famous in Italy.
I also got an email from Don Lagerberg at Cal State Fullerton, who listed five different kinds of art schools, including atelier schools (like the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art), university art schools (like Yale) and professional applied-arts schools (like SVA in New York). He noted that art students today are very well prepared, in large part thanks to digital media and the internet.
That’s great, but what about the really important question. Like, in class, should you sit in the front row where the teacher can see you, or in the back with the bad kids?
Whatever you do, you should document yourself, because you’re going to be history; cultivate an audience, because you’re on stage; and have photographers photograph you, because you’ll always look younger later.
And like high school, the art world is a very social place. So have your gang of friends from school, and don’t hesitate to contact your favorite artists and ask to visit their studios. Remember, you have what everyone wants, especially in the art world: youth.
Okay, now I’m going back to my studies.
To see the Facebook dialogue on this topic, click here.
MARK KOSTABI is an artist and composer who lives in Rome and New York. He produces and stars in The Kostabi Show, a television game show. Please send responses and questions to email@example.com