Friday, January 28, 2011

Art School Part II: Foundations, or the Don't-Sleep-For-A-Year Experiment

There’s a point, somewhere around the 72-hour mark, where sleep deprivation starts to feel like an extremely potent hallucinogen.  A person starts to have micro-sleeps, or periods where they slip in and out of consciousness for seconds at a time without realizing it, and the real world becomes entwined with the dream world. It becomes extremely difficult to decipher what’s real and what’s not. Anyone who has had the pleasure of staying awake for days on end has undoubtedly experienced this, but I can say with some confidence that it is probably most prevalent amongst art students, especially within the first year of art school.

The ECU School of Art and Design’s entrance requirements differ from those of many other art schools – there is no initial portfolio requirement for admission. Instead, one is tentatively accepted into the program contingent upon successful completion of the Foundations Program – a series of courses consisting of Design I, Design II, Drawing I, Figure Drawing, and a few art history classes. You must pass each of these classes, as well as the Foundations Exam, with a C or better in order to move on to the survey level. The theory and premise behind the foundations program is sound: It levels the playing field and allows anyone to have the chance to go into the art program, despite their background and experience in art. After all, someone may have a passion for art, but come from a school with a very poor art program where they weren’t able to build an adequate portfolio.  In practice, however, it becomes something much more sinister.

The problem is that, when you open the floodgates, chances are you’re going to get a flood.  By allowing anyone to declare themselves an art major and participate in the foundations program, many more people will do so than the school can feasibly accept.  As such, the foundations program becomes less about teaching design and drawing, and more about breaking the will and spirits of the students. You have to weed out the ones who can’t handle the pressure. There’s a rule for foundations professors (perhaps secretly stated, or perhaps just unwritten and widely understood) that you can only allow a certain percentage of your students to pass. The rest you MUST fail.  I can’t be entirely sure of the attrition rates – they’re not exactly posted. But with a little bit of deductive reasoning, it’s not too hard to guess. In the fall of 2007 (records for 2006, my entry year, were not available, but they are undoubtedly similar) 11 Design I classes were offered with an average class size of 15 - that’s roughly 165 new entrants. This past December, I walked across the stage with 24 of my peers. You do the math.

Painting a Design I project. At a friend's birthday party. Brush strokes are forbidden.

In order to make sure this quota of failure is met, foundations professors assign the most grueling, monotonous, and time consuming tasks, and will accept nothing short of perfection. Each studio class meets 6 hours a week – for which you only receive 3 hours of credit – and it is expected that you will spend a minimum of two hours working outside of class for every one hour of class time in order to receive a C.  How about an A? You should probably double that number. And don’t forget that you’ve got those other classes to attend, too. There’s simply not enough time in the week, and so the ones who make it through foundations are the ones who find that time by learning the art of surviving without sleep.  You learn that you can’t possibly have a social life, and so your social circle becomes your fellow art students. You spend every waking hour of your life in one building, painting color swatches and drawing cubes, and you find time to nap in your other classes. You tell yourself that 6 hours of sleep every 3 days is fine, and you can make up for it on the weekend. Except you’ve got that crit on Monday. You start to break down, physically, emotionally, and mentally. And on the precipice of complete mental collapse, when your body is running on paint fumes and caffeine, you reach a nirvana of creative clarity that makes it all worth it. And when it’s all said and done, and you officially make it out of foundations, you realize you’ve learned so much more about being an artist than you ever knew paint swatches and cubes could teach you. You’ve learned the value of hard work, perseverance, and the creative energy that mental instability can bring.

A vast majority of the people who fail out of foundations were never meant to be artists to begin with, and would have never been able to make it in the art world if they’d made it through. But perhaps there’s a better way to go about letting them know this without destroying their GPA and wasting a year of their life and thousands upon thousands of dollars in tuition and art supplies. Perhaps we could remember that these are still people we’re talking about, and that they are betting their future on their educational investment. Or maybe that sweet feeling of success just wouldn’t feel so good if we didn’t know so many other people had failed.

Check back next week for Art School Part III: And Now The Fun Begins.

1 comment:

Melina Reed said...

"You’ve learned the value of hard work, perseverance, and the creative energy that mental instability can bring" --If a school succeeds in creating that kind of mental instability, It certainly is an amazing establishment. I don't think any piece of art I've created has not come from that place of instability in some way. I feel that that place of instability is a pathway to the most genuine attempts to understand the human condition, which begets the most genuine art. After all, what is art if not an attempt to connect to something outside ourselves? --Mel