A couple of days ago there was another post bouncing around my dashboard about attending art school vs. self-teaching. This seems to be a semi-regular conversation, I suppose because everyone has the same anxieties about choosing their life paths and measuring up to their peers. The stock answer is something very sensible along the lines of ‘go to art school or don’t, you will be paying for very particular resources, and the learning will be down to you either way’. That’s fine and I basically agree. The thing that’s been bothering me recently, though, is this parallel line which has developed, saying that being self-taught (or ‘having avoided tutelage’ as some people seem to take that to mean) is nothing to be proud of. We all go through the same hardships and struggles and self doubts and it’s unfair to dismiss the work put in by tutored students - art school isn’t hogwarts, and it comes with its own pressures and commitments that self-taught artists generally don’t experience, etc. etc.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should be minimising the work put in by any accomplished artist to get where they are. Focused learning is hard and tiring, and dedicating yourself to art in any context is laudable. What nags at me, though, is this idea that self-taught artists shouldn’t be proud of having gone it alone. The idea that there is nothing worthy or admirable about the fact you just happen to have learned without following a syllabus. And it really does nag at me! Every time I read that line of argument, it reinforces the sad sick knowledge that is always in the deepest part of me — that my slow and haphazard development is self imposed, that I have gained nothing from learning outside the education system and have only missed whatever opportunities it might have offered me. There is no innate worth or value in being self-taught, and if I fall short of what students achieve, I only have myself to blame.
I won’t argue with most of those conclusions. It’s true that my art will only ever be as good as I personally can make it, however long that takes. There are no excuses that matter when it comes to quality. It’s true that I lack contacts, I know practically nothing about any of the industries I could conceivably work in as an illustrator. Those aren’t weaknesses to be proud of, or to hide behind, or to play the victim over. They’re just facts about the path I’ve taken and plan to continue along, and I’ve got to take them on the chin, and find my own ways to blaze on around them.
What I will contest is the idea that I have nothing to be proud of. Because I have plenty. I’ve developed the confidence to trust my own judgement, to ride my own passions, to analyse and scrutinise and sift the disorganised noise around me for what is useful and what is vital and what is challenging. I’ve learned to root out and tackle my own flaws, and to recognise and experiment around my strengths. More than anything, I have gone on day after day after day after day, drawing and learning and chasing forward, bolstered by nothing except my absolute desire to master this skill. I don’t have a qualification or a job ahead of me, or the recognition of any authority to remind me on my worst days that sometimes my work is okay. To draw a parallel: working freelance is nothing to be proud of in itself. Working freelance and keeping tight office hours and being organised and professional and staying on top of your finances and keeping up with the standards of your employed friends? Yeah, I’d say it’s worth noticing what you’ve been capable of.
So self-taught artists absolutely should celebrate their unique path, once in a while. We don’t have mentors or tutors or exam boards to recognise us. When we achieve, we have to be proud for ourselves. It’s really worth remembering that.words ART self taught self teaching