A few lessons learned from Daniel Clowes' Art School Confidential

27 October 2014

Although I read the comic before I saw the movie, Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Art School Confidential came out the year I was heading off on my own art school journey and so acted as a kind of preliminary guide to what I should expect from the experience. Although I didn’t burn down the houses of any murderous artists, fall desperately in love with the life drawing model (he was a chain-smoking guitarist who wore a too-short silk dressing gown) or have a string of one-night stands with emotionally unstable classmates, there were certainly some lessons learned from Jerome, Audrey and co that proved invaluable in the months preceding my enrolment, even if some of them turned out not to be true. Here they are in no particular order.

For the duration of my foundation course I’d traipse up a massive hill every Wednesday morning for a lecture delivered by a former student of our college. They’d talk us through their own art school experience, relay what they’d been up to since and take us exhaustively through their portfolios, hoping to inspire us to get creative. Some of them were genuinely impressive and inspirational, while others were just old mates of our tutors who’d been dragged in to fill an empty space. Either way they often had massive egos lurking beneath the surface that would leap to the surface if their opinions were chalenged. “What the hell do you know you jumped up little brat?” Granted there were never any quite as repellent as Art School’s Marvin Bushmiller but one or two weren’t all that far off. Tragically it was the least successful that seemed to think most highly of themselves.

Let’s make one thing clear; if you want to have any drinking buddies during your time at art school then your crits are not the place for honesty. You think you’ve entered into some kind of sacred circle where the candid exchange of ideas is paramount and all opinions are valuable. They are, but only if they’re complimentary. Make the mistake of voicing any real criticism and you’ll be in social purgatory for the rest of your three years. The only time you can really get away with sticking your oar in is if your tutor has opened the floodgates by saying something outrageous. Then you can all jump on the bandwagon and give your classmates’ work a good old ribbing. One of my tutors once told a fellow student he couldn’t tell if her work was ironically shit or just plain shit. After that it was a merciless free-for-all.

They just are. They talk about their emotions, and their feelings and then have the audacity to channel them into their work and display it publicly. What’s more everyone encourages them to do so. There’s no other type of student so predisposed to wearing their heart on their sleeve. That said I’ve never actually seen any students snogging a picture of a girl they fancied and weeping convulsively. I guess people only did that after hours in the studio.

Imagine my disappointment when this turned out not to be true at all. There was I aged 18, leaving home for the first time and expecting to enter a world of casual sex and endless drinking, only to be met with an awkward gang of fellow misfits. They may well have been sexually confused (everyone was!) but sure as hell weren’t going to talk about it, let alone take action. People were more open-minded at high school.

What is art? Where does it lie? Can a photograph be art? Is art simply about intention? Is art still art if it’s been reproduced? These are all questions you’ll be asked in your first few weeks of lectures, after which you’ll be given whole books to read that wrestle with this idea for countless hundreds of pages and still deliver no concrete answers. There will be discussions of the patriarchy, social history, and of course The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. But all will be forgotten by third year, when you’ll be so busy freaking out trying to make some actual work that debating the theoretical implications of what you’re doing will feel like a complete waste of time. Thanks Walter Benjamin!

Back to School
Throughout the month of October we’ll be celebrating the well-known autumnal feeling of Back to School. The content this month will be focusing on fresh starts, education, learning tools and the state of art school in the world today – delivered to you via fantastic in-depth interviews, features and conversations with talented, relevant, creative people.

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About the Author

James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and came back in summer of 2012 to work online and latterly as Print Editor, before leaving in May 2015.

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