"I am about to enter the painting department of my school next semester and I'm very excited; I love painting deeply and have wanted to do this since I was a child. I've spent many years working extremely hard and I think I've developed a level of skill and originality, but I still have fears about my next move. I've talked to many fine arts seniors and recent graduates from my school and they often seem depressed, confused or unsatisfied moving forward, because their skill set is inflexible at a high level beyond the fine arts and because standards of value in conceptual art are so uncertain. This seems like an unsettling combination, because it makes the artist's path both narrow and unclear, like an invisible rope walk. How can I use my time at art school to avoid these pitfalls and prepare myself ahead of time for the reality of these feelings?"
As an art student, staying in the present while acknowledging future challenges is vitally important. Keep the future simmering on the backburner, and continue to take note of what you see upperclass students doing. However, it's critical that you don't allow your concerns about the future disrupt your current studies. For example, many first year students express anxiety to me about getting a job after graduation. While jobs are certainly a legitimate concern, many students become consumed with this to the point that they end up compromising their art school experience.
Devote the majority of your attention to the present. Your time in art school is incredibly precious. Relish and soak in everything around you. Rarely will you have another opportunity to work on your art, uninterrupted, for such an extended period of time. Overall, the most important goal you can set is to attain a comprehensive, well-rounded education. I'm frequently surprised at how many students do not venture beyond their primary interest. I once taught at an art school where one student enrolled himself into five photography courses in the same semester. Diversity in your courses is crucial. Expose yourself to as many contrasting approaches and topics as possible. You'll be able to develop a well-rounded skill set which will prepare you for more opportunities in the future.
In addition to your own studio practice, develop a strong awareness of contemporary art. When I was in art school, there was a tremendous emphasis on art history which was hugely significant in my course of study. However, I had nearly no knowledge of what was actually happening in the contemporary art world when I was a student. When it came time for me to start working professionally, this lack of knowledge made it much more difficult to find a place for myself in the art world. Take advantage of every opportunity you can to attend a lecture by a contemporary artist. You can read all you want about an artist in a magazine or textbook, but nothing will substitute hearing a professional artist speak in person about their personal experiences and work. You will get a taste of what it means to be a working artist today, which will then influence your own future experiences.
Ask the Art Professor is a weekly advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com