Barnett ’24: The Current Dilemma to Justify Art School: The Death of Wallet and Art Innovation


This fall, millions of Americans packed their bags and hugged their parents as they left home to pursue a four-year college education. Upon graduation, these students will join the nearly 40% of Americans with a bachelor’s degree. However, only a small proportion of them – two million to be exact – have obtained an arts degree, and of those two million, only 10% end up working as artists.

While many four-year graduates enter the workforce with a decent income, art degrees rarely offer a stable salary. Knowing this, most students attending RISD, Julliard, and their peer institutions don’t focus on the big bucks, but rather on creating the best art possible. If so, then one has to ask a simple question: Are art school graduates doing better arts? Beyond the financial burdens, aspiring artists should recognize the potential creative risks of enrolling in an art school.

While there are valuable aspects of an arts degree, spending $ 200,000 out of pocket over four years in a classroom is hard to justify. RISD charges an average tuition fee of $ 45,000 after financial aid, which means students must pay more than $ 180,000 to graduate. Although the design school is considered one of America’s most elite art institutions, its tuition fees are near average.

With this investment, students hope to acquire a set of foundational skills, join a like-minded community that can launch them into a successful career as an artist. Despite these benefits, the reality is that working graduate artists struggle to pay their rent, earning a median income of $ 36,500, just above the $ 30,500 earned by those who left college to start their career. career.

These data show that the financial gain of an arts degree is not sufficient to justify its significant investment. Finances, however, are only one piece of the puzzle. The full answer goes beyond a simple cost-benefit analysis and explores the concept of creative returns.

To understand the true artistic value and limitations of the art school, one must understand that many artists care more about doing great work than profiting from it. Prospective artists still enroll in art school despite the fact that their degree is likely to earn them much less than that of a liberal arts degree – around 35% less to be exact.

Financial considerations aside, artists care deeply about preserving the originality of their work – a trait that can be threatened by attending an art school. Much of the curriculum in art schools lies in the practice of theory and technique – learning the do’s and don’ts of great art. However, true artistic innovation flourishes in the betrayal of these rules.

In practice, one needs to understand the pedagogical techniques cultivated by art schools, and how they can classify students into narrow-minded ideals. Business school teachers are masters in their field – they know the rules very well. Some may adhere to them, while others may have broken them in their own work. But, even this latter group – the “innovators” – have themselves created their own set of rules based on their counter-trend choices. The students are then graded according to the personalized rubrics of their teachers, with the illusion that these strict artistic rules apply to all practices in the real world. After graduation, students subconsciously go online, adhering to these rules in their work.

Now imagine an artist with no college education: a blank canvas of an artistic mind, without an unconscious perception of what is institutionally considered “good” work. This person has the freedom to create strictly from their imagination without following established conventions and standards. They can end up being incredibly innovative, as the best artists don’t just try to break the rules, but rather create freely, with no rules in mind.

A small group of 4 musicians from Liverpool called “The Beatles” became the Tom Brady of groups with little or no knowledge of music theory. Orson Welles, one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, never watched movies because he was afraid to copy them.

For those art forms requiring a great degree of technique, art school certainly has its practical advantages. If you are trying to paint realistic 16th century portraits or compose for a 40-piece orchestra, then art school may be for you. Yet four years of school can be destructive for both the wallet and the art. Instead of signing up, most artists should just consider taking the plunge – starting to create.


Kayleen C. Rice