Most, if not all, college students understand the dreaded line of questioning that comes hand in hand with meeting new people or conversing with relatives. The most familiar of all questions, in my experience, tends to be, “What are you majoring in?” My response, Studio Art, is then consistently followed by, “And what are you planning on doing with that major?” What accompanies this question, generally, is a patronizing stare and compassionate hand clasp as if the questioner has already accepted your failure and wants a head-start on consoling you through the inevitable poverty that will follow graduation.
If this is not a familiar experience, you either have a familial support system to be envied by all, or you have chosen a major that society has deemed beneficial and proper.
As an art major, I have been asked this question consistently by every person I meet, whether they be a relative or stranger. I have been asked it in job interviews, by cousins, aunts, co-workers, parents. Of course, when it comes to parents I understand, they’re making sure I’m not setting myself up for failure, that is their job after all. What baffles me is the strangers, the people who think of art as something one does for fun, who think of art as the easy way out of a “real” education.
Let me tell you: an art degree is most certainly not the easy way out. I will not say it is the most difficult major — considering that art is the only major with which I have any experience, it would be presumptuous and without grounds for me to say that my major is more difficult than anyone else’s. However, I can say that it is not easy.
First there is the cost. Art supplies are incredibly expensive. A single tube of paint can cost as much as $50. A single quality canvas can cost $80 or more. My first painting kit cost about $350, not including canvas costs, and that is just a single class. Needless to say, having a job throughout the school year is a must, although, with class and studio work, finding the availability to work is quite a challenge. One does not commit to the astronomical cost and time commitment of majoring in art lightly.
Each Studio Art class is two hours and forty-five minutes long, and meets twice a week. Each professor expects, at minimum, six to eight hours of work outside class per week (although to achieve an A-AB, one should spend at least 10 to 15 hours, if not more). This would be simple if one could graduate only taking one studio class per semester, however, scheduling conflicts may require up to three studio classes at once, a situation I have encountered twice now.
With three studio classes at once, 10 to 15 hours per class each week becomes 30 to 45 hours spent in the studio working, in addition to whatever homework your fourth and sometimes fifth classes happen to supply. Claiming to live in the studio is not an uncommon joke, and I have heard people tell stories about having to sleep there to make deadlines. I personally have found myself working in the studio or in my room on projects as late as three or four in the morning, because even with 40 hours spent outside class, to complete a project to the expectations of the professors, it is not rare that last minute all-nighters will still be required. The professors know what you are capable of, and they expect your best every time.
The boundaries on what defines art are constantly being pushed. To a person who does not take the time to ask questions about works they don’t necessarily “get” at first glance, many present-day works might appear effortless and even thoughtless. I assure you, despite all appearances, even works like these take time. The professors know the difference between low-effort and abstract. In order for an abstract work that appears low-effort to be accepted, there are countless discussions of ideas to be considered. As in writing, artwork often comes in iterations, drafts — studies and sketches — hours of problem solving, discussions with peers and careful planning.
Of course, when creating work that is meant to appear low effort, it is understandable that a viewer would consider it to be — as it appears — low-effort. It is not. Admittedly, it is easy to discount what one does not understand, and even artists do not always understand each other. Therefore, especially for one who is not interested in art, it cannot be expected that they put in the time and energy to learn about the art movements of the day.
Nevertheless, one does not have to understand the work nor the ideas behind it to know and respect the time and effort it takes, not just to create a single artwork, but to complete college with an art degree. It is difficult, to say the least, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Emma Mehegan can be contacted at email@example.com