The Making of an Artist: Desire, Courage, and Commitment

The Making of an Artist: Desire, Courage, and Commitment

by Kristin G. Congdon


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What drives an artist to create? And are there common traits that successful artists possess? In The Making of an Artist, Kristin G. Congdon draws on her years of studying and teaching art at all levels—from universities to correctional settings—to identify three traits that are regularly found in successful artists: desire, courage, and commitment. In this collection Congdon explores each of those traits, as well as giving ethnographic case studies of six visual artists from diverse backgrounds and locations whose practices embody them. Marrying the work of biography, journalism, sociology, and psychology, the book opens up the often mysterious process of making art, showing us how those characteristics play into it, as well as how other factors, such as trauma, madness, class, and gender, affect the ways that people approach the creative process.

​Powerfully insightful and fully accessible, The Making of an Artist will be an invaluable resource for practicing artists, those just setting out on artistic careers, and art teachers alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783208517
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Kristin G. Congdon is professor emerita in the Philosophy Department at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

Read an Excerpt



School's been blown to bits.

— Alice Cooper

Artists respond to their formal educations positively and negatively, and sometimes somewhere in between. Artists with formal educations often refer to themselves as being self-taught, dismissing the influence of their teachers. Artists who do not have a formal education in the arts often embrace the fact that they figured things out for themselves. Everyone recognizes that formal education is but one way in which artists become educated. These facts raise questions and challenges for educators. Are art schools educating artists well? What are they doing right and what could they do better? And how is it that artists without formal educations become good artists?

Ben Davis notes that each generation of artists since the 1950s has been increasingly tethered to academia. So many people have MFAs these days that a Ph.D. is currently being pitched as a way for artists to rise above the sea of graduates. Many artists will tell you that graduate education in the arts may be a way to learn skills, but it is more so a way to secure college or art school teaching jobs. Getting a graduate degree does not necessarily lead the way to becoming a successful practicing artist. However, many would-be artists still act as though schooling is the primary route to take if one wants a life centered in creative expression. They recognize that the G.I. Bill was extremely helpful in educating many artists (including Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Diebenkorn, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Bearden, Leon Golub, Norman Bluhm, Robert Colescott, Philip Pearlstein, and Larry Rivers). But the question remains (especially in today's artistic and educational climate): how important is a formal education for the artist?


Daniel Joseph Martinez, recognizing the considerable level of enrollment in art programs in 2005, phrases the question differently: "I wonder if the popularity of art schools suggests that the way you become an artist is by going to school?" This question is repeatedly raised as tuition rises, education becomes more factory-like, and innovation, risk, and playfulness are less welcome in the classroom.

Universities, for example, have become so managerial, with the idea of play almost obsolete, that David J. Siegel asks if anarchy can save the university. He cites the increase in intellectual efforts that now go into ubiquitous conversations on costs, credit-hour production, and graduation rates. He writes:

The ranks of nonacademic administrative and professional staff members more than doubled from 1987 to 2012, according to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the American Institutes for Research, while tenured and tenure-track faculty positions are rapidly yielding to a contingent work force.

As universities and colleges have become more institutionalized and hierarchal, so too have those who teach and study in them. Play becomes stifled, a sense of freedom is diminished, and the creative spirit has little room to explore. Likewise, anthropologist David Graeber blames the lack of creativity in today's universities on the ubiquitous bureaucracy that overrides most everything: "If I were to generalize, I would say that what we see is a university system which mitigates against creativity and any form of daring."

Moreover, the control of corporations and legislators is increasing in educational institutions. Gordon Lafer reports that the Kansas Board of Regents has weakened academic freedom "by deciding that faculty members can be fired for social-media comments deemed 'contrary to the best interests of the university'." The Governor of Florida has proposed that differential tuition should be employed at state universities, raising fees on the humanities while keeping them lower for computer science and business majors. And across the United States, online courses costing less than $10,000 are proliferating based on legislative demands. Lafer claims these efforts are well-coordinated, coming from the nation's premier corporate lobbies. Minority voices are muffled and the majority suffers from missing out on hearing diverse voices. Sameness and predictability are becoming the norm, characteristics especially detrimental to the art student.

For Nigerian-born, US-educated Ojih Odutola, this sameness meant challenging how her art program taught blackness: "Art professors don't know how to read blackness as a color, a material, a concept, a tool. We know all about light, contrast, rendition. Why can't we apply that to the black surface?"

According to Adam Grant, child prodigies rarely change the world. They may do well in school, but they do not do any better in their adult lives than less precocious children from families of similar means. The most creative children are the ones that are less likely to be teachers' pets. In fact, teachers tend to discriminate against those children who demonstrate highly creative behaviors. Furthermore, creative children do not worry too much about being non-conformists like their peers tend to do. Grant writes: "They're programmed to be iconoclasts, rebels, revolutionaries, troublemakers, mavericks, and contrarians who are impervious to fear, rejection, and ridicule." These children end up having strong opinions about institutional education that can continue into adulthood.

We can also look to other artists who have strong opinions about institutional education. Ai Weiwei dislikes academia more than officialdom. And Dave Hickey, who was eventually removed from his teaching position at the University of Las Vegas, claims that students who weren't already artists got nothing from his classes. Although his colleagues asked him to encourage critical thinking and self-awareness in his teaching, he resisted. In fact, he maintained that art students were far more apt to get recognition as artists if they didn't go to graduate school. If you do go, he contended, you should bring your own ideas and culture with you and work from that. Although he spent ten years as a university art professor teaching, he slams the institution:

My optimum solution would be to abolish graduate studies in art altogether. Failing this, one might just avoid it. Try the late Michael Balog's solution: make surfboards that are better than art then make art like that. Try Raymond pettibon's trajectory: grow up in a literary family in a beach house full of books, get a degree in economics, teach math, draw posters for your brother's band [Black Flag], hang out, and get discovered. Or Josiah McElheny's trajectory: study anthropology, become interested in single-source traditions like glassblowing, go to Italy and study that tradition, learn to blow glass from the masters, and start making art. Or, as a last resort, try the solution my classmate Gilbert Shelton fell upon. Gilbert and his crew went up to the art department at the University of texas every day and painted Abstract expressionism. Every night, they came home to draw posters and underground comic books. When they had enough pages, they founded Zap Comix and moved to San Francisco. Finally, they moved to paris, where they still draw comics.

In keeping with this line of thinking, Ken Robinson believes everyone is born with immense natural talents that are rarely realized. He claims that one reason for "this massive waste of talent is the very process that is meant to develop it: education."

Nancy Andreasen, who has studied creative individuals for several decades, finds that artists are autodidacts, and that for them, university systems can be limiting. One reason is that would-be artists enjoy teaching themselves and like to study more than one subject. In universities, a student is generally forced to focus on one or two subjects. She notes that George Lucas, who was awarded both the National Medal of Arts in 2012 and the National Medal of Technology in 2004, has interests in many areas of study, including anthropology, architecture, interior design, history, sociology, neuroscience, literature, and digital technology. Andreasen concludes that the usual academic path of selecting either the arts or the sciences as an area of expertise may be a serious mistake. Increasingly, artists are working to heal the environment (for example, Mel Chin, and Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison), and hundreds of artists are working with new technology to discover what it can do to enhance their artwork. There can't be, and should not be, any limits to what artists study.

It is no secret that all levels of modern education are in some kind of crisis, with education in the arts in particular turmoil. Holland Cotter, in his excellent New York Times article "Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex" (2014), makes the connection between money, art, and education, lamenting the fact that today's artists and educators are far too involved in the "money game", which controls all aspects of art. His assessment is that art schools are too accommodating to the art market and its "caste-system values": "Programs are increasingly specialized, jamming students into ever narrower and flakier disciplinary tracks. Tuitions are prodigious, leaving artists indentured to creditors for years." He wonders how innovation can take place in such an environment:

How confidently can they [students] take risks in an environment that acknowledges only dollar-value success? How can they contemplate sustaining [...] long and evolving creative careers? The temptation for many artists, after a postgraduate spurt of confidence, is to look around, see what's selling, and consider riffing on that.

While he acknowledges that he may be exaggerating, Cotter asks that students be taught the inseparable connection between art and politics, thereby returning art from what he calls "the brink of inconsequence."

Cotter's disappointment in the way the United States (and I would extend his laments to other parts of the western world) now regards art can be extended to the humanities. In 2013, then Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, threatened to cut funding to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggesting that disciplines like gender studies should not be taught in a public university; the focus should instead be placed on practical matters and jobs training. (It is distressing to note that other governors and politicians have followed suit.) According to Kristen Case, McCrory implies that students should not think about "imagining their lives because their lives have already been imagined for them."

It is notable how many artists talk about receiving their best lessons from experiences outside school. Additionally, many artists have had little to no formal art training at all. And studying the arts in college, as everyone knows, doesn't ensure a career in the arts.

Truthfully, even decades ago, academic organizations seemed rigid and unwelcoming to many? creative people, including researchers in the arts. The fiery ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax wrote to Jack Harrison of the humanities division of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1962, justifying why? he had not enrolled in graduate school:

I had come to feel strongly that big institutions often kill good research. Those long corridors, those administrative routines, those bloodless and vicious battles of grades and positions, the weariness of institutional lunches, especially the heavy and puritanical atmosphere that somehow pervades many places all this combined to stifle the imagination and the impulse to work hard and the freedom to enjoy the work. I resolved to be as unbuttoned as possible during my brief stint of cooperative research and to make the standard of the job that everybody enjoys himself.

Because creative people are divergent and unorthodox thinkers, they ften do not fit into factory-like education systems. It can take hard work on a student's part to find inspiration in academia. Although sculptor Rachel Harrison dropped out of Wesleyan University, where she was studying comparative religions, and a few years later the Art Institute of Chicago, she eventually returned to Wesleyan, completing her undergraduate degree after being inspired by a teacher who taught her about sound installations and another who introduced her to the poetry of William Carlos Williams. She has taught in art departments at Columbia, Yale, Cooper Union, and Bard College; yet she still questions the value of an MFA, believing that no one should have to go into debt to be an artist.

Numerous artists are ambivalent about their formal educations, and this ambivalence comes from artists in all kinds of creative disciplines. Poet Charles Simic was a voracious reader as a child, but he did poorly in school. He was often truant, spending time walking about Belgrade instead: "If anything made me a poet, running away from school certainly did." John Cage tuned out of his academic education after a history lecturer at Pomona College sent his class to the library to read pages in a particular book. He found the idea of everybody reading the same book revolting. He dropped out of school and went to Europe with the goal of becoming a writer. And Brian Eno took drawing and painting classes at both Ipswich and Winchester art schools not to become an artist, but to learn about the creative process. He thought his instructors had it all wrong. They believed school was a place to make painters; he believed it was a place to learn creative behavior.

Walker Evans went to Andover, a well-regarded school, which he says was easy to do in his day. To get in, you just had to have the money to pay the bill. While he enjoyed being there, he didn't do very well academically. He read on the side and connected to the jazz of the 1930s. He also went to Williams College but left early. With financial support from his father, he later went to Paris to take classes at the Sorbonne. He never got a college degree, but was strongly influenced by French history, civilization, and language. These experiences, plus his deep love and respect for hard-working Southerners, inspired his photography.

Many? creative people don't do well in school. Jacob Lawrence dropped out of school when he was sixteen, later learning about art from museum classes. Jean-Michel Basquiat was also a high school dropout; his inspiration came from New York's street culture. Another high school dropout, comedian and filmmaker Chris Rock, grew up in a working-class family in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and was bused to a school in Gerritsen Beach on the edge of Brooklyn. Frequently bullied, he likes to talk about how that experience taught him how to travel in more than one culture, although it wasn't an easy lesson to learn. These artists, and many like them, learned more outside their formal education, or have learned things not explicit in their academic curriculum.


Scholars who study a category of artists they refer to as "self-taught" (also labeled as folk, visionary, or outsider) repeatedly note that art lessons and aesthetic inspiration can arise outside the academic world, and that an academic education could even thwart these artists' creative expression. In other words, some artists are successful because they are unaware of academic ways to solve a problem; instead, they work from what they know.

Vincent van Gogh was essentially self-taught. A recent study of his work reveals that he learned to paint through experimentation, reading, and study. He had an exhaustive method of trial and error, and his approach to painting was far more methodical than previously thought. Although his work looks spontaneous, it wasn't created that way. Nienke Bakker, curator of the 2013 exhibition Van Gogh at Work, explained: "You follow him [Van Gogh] on his path, improvising himself, choosing his materials. He wasn't doing it only out of creative genius, in a frenzy, or because of mental problems. He was very determined, very methodical. He's a great artist. He's not a fiend."

John Waters briefly tried studying at New York University, but it wasn't to his liking. After becoming successful, he said:

I realized that I knew nothing when I made them [his films]. Everybody else went to school; I made those movies. They always found some kind of audience, even though they're technically terrible. I talk about that in "Cecil B. Demented" [his 2000 comedy about an underground auteur]. "technique is nothing more than failed style." And I still kind of believe that.

So-called visual fine artists who are self-taught are easy to find. Neither of Elmgreen & Dragset, the artistic duo, attended art school, although Dragset had a few years of university studies that he describes as "part clown, part Shakespeare." Maurizio Cattelan finished high school but didn't get an art school education: "Making shows has been my? school," he says, along with reading numerous art catalogues.


Excerpted from "The Making of an Artist"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Intellect Ltd.
Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Education
Chapter 2: Desire
Chapter 3: Flo Oy Wong
Chapter 4: The Highway Men
Chapter 5: Courage
Chapter 6: Richard Brown
Chapter 7: Asma M alahmad
Chapter 8: Commitment
Chapter 9: Erick Wolfmeyer
Chapter 10: Catherin Beaudette
Chapter 11: Teaching

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