Is Education About Expanding Your Mind, or Expanding Your Wallet?

the head of a man is opened like a car hood, and another man adds oil to the mechanics inside

Years ago, I spoke about art and commerce at an art conference. An audience member got angry when I suggested art schools should teach students how to survive in the real world, particularly around money.

According to the angry person, “Mental expansion, and not financial gain,” was what art education is about.

That kind of idealism is affordable only to the wealthy, or those with income that comes from something other than their art.

It’s always folks with money that say, “money doesn’t matter.”

For some, art and money don’t mix, and the very mention of “art + money” makes people upset.

The thing is, money is always part of the arts in some way, shape, or form. Grants, sales, supplies...

Traditional art programs teach things that can be measured such as color theory, composition, and technique. Let’s celebrate schools that teach students soft skills like how to market their work for sale, or how to write a decent grant application.

Of course education should encourage students to become life-long learners with inquisitive brains, but we also need pragmatism. Without it, art institutions easily fall into charging large sums of money to provide their students with spiritual transformation through providing an “educational experience.” That’s not experiential education. That’s BS.

Some art schools have become a bit like art churches: students give their life savings to attend, and get a certificate at the end that says they’re officially saved. The certificate enables the certified artist to give sermons at other art churches, and receive financial compensation for it.

If education was just about learning how to think critically, why would anyone pay money to get a degree? You can learn the same things on your own in a book club or as you practice your art. The reason you’d invest in a degree is to advance your career and secure an income, unless you’re already financially secure in which case you can afford to expand your horizons for a fee, even if that doesn’t make sense.

Having a degree determines class, status, and access more than it demonstrates critical thinking skills. Find an uneducated (MFA-free) individual who is making a good living as an artist and you’ve found someone who has developed critical thinking skills on their own.

Next: 10 Tips for Struggling Art School Graduates