About one year ago, I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Studio Art.
I chose to study art first: to devote six years of my life to the pursuit of direction within myself, always guided by the fundamental rhetoric of the arts because I knew that what this study called up within me would allow for refined pursuit of my other academic interests in future degrees.
At times, enforced by philistine ideologies in certain cultural circles, variants of the phrases every art student is intimately and begrudgingly familiar with would surface: “What are you going to be able to do with that?”, “Oh, so you have to go to grad school”, or in some cases so far as…
“I’ll come visit you in your cardboard box!”
I am happy to report that, roughly one year post-graduation, I am not yet living in that box (in fact I’ve grown quite comfortable in my quaint third story apartment overlooking a redwood grove). Rather, I have a job which provides me more than I need in a wonderfully supportive community driven by humanist values, the ability to pursue art in the manner in which I so choose, and an acceptance letter to my first choice graduate program for the Fall of 2016. Above all, I cultivate my own independence, procured of my own accord, which in my view, is invaluable. But I have heard it all, and I have pondered it all.
After graduating, I asked myself to formulate a cohesive answer to the question “why [the study of] art matters” in my first postgraduate year (which has recently come to a close). Initially, I thought it necessary to know the answer to this question in order to arm myself from further attempts by strangers (or more intimate relations) to castigate the practicality of my life choices, but I have grown into confidence and quickly realized that, due to the perspective afforded me largely through my pursuit of the study of studio art for so long, truth requires no defense.
I cannot guarantee that what follows is the “right” answer, and believe in no such concept, but I do know that I am at peace with it as my answer for the present time. When I am asked, I now reply confidently:
“I chose to study art first because of what it teaches. Art teaches us, fundamentally and primarily, how to see.”
If I cannot see the world, how then can I begin to understand it? And, without understanding it, how then can I operate therein for the benefit of those in plain sight, the plights of whom otherwise may have gone unseen? How could I begin to assume that I would be effective in any professional capacity without first having devoted my sensibilities, passion, and mind to the study of thoroughly, fully, being able to see? I could not clarify the existence of anything within myself without first the ability to do so with my own eyes.
By its nature, its fundamentals implore us to find within ourselves the inherent, difficult-to-teach ability to learn; to extract details from the environment around us and to process that information in a manner unique to our perception and sensibilities. Organized study thereof (at the collegiate level in particular) will provide the ability to engage in supporting coursework which otherwise teaches us to learn. We engage in writing-intensive courses, we study art history, we compete with and support one another alongside our academics and artwork. We are taught patience, time management, culture, humanism, language, philosophy, and we see all of this as presented in the best and worst light humanity can produce. We engage in cooperative, constructive criticism. We encounter ego, often and frequently, and learn to override or succumb to its wiles. We are challenged to produce, by most curriculums, art which is not only demonstrative of technical ability, but which demonstrates an understanding of the world and viewpoints which express a fine-tuned ability to truly see. We are expected, by the culmination of our curriculums almost universally across the world, to discern our perspectives, supported on the backs of detail and reason as would an engineer building a bridge, or a lawyer defending a criminal.
The act of learning is an art in itself, contingent both upon the ability of the learner to see with open eyes and of the teacher to coax (or pry) them open. It is by virtue of this fact and this fact alone by which I am able to function effectively in an academic context — not just for my own edification, but for the benefit of my students.
It is purely due to the pursuit of this degree at its most fundamental level that I am in any way, shape, or form able to effectively operate at my post and in my field, as it is purely due to this pursuit by which I am afforded the opportunity to lend a visual perspective, both figurative and literal, unto any subsequent endeavor which I choose to undertake.
I believe confidently that the foundation upon which the academic future of those who pursue the arts is the soundest by virtue of its well-examined substance, and after one year, I have never been happier with my choice of, what I was often told to be the most “useless” major in the world.
A degree in the arts requires no apology to society, negates no complementary skill, and hosts no regret. It requires no explanation, but should one feel like giving one, know that above all, an art student should be celebrated not only for their pursuit of truth, but for having the courage to do so in the face of a world which can be both brutal and beautiful in the same afternoon… and the bravery with which to see it.