The art world is a barren land inhabited by chimeras. Art historical mythologies like ‘individual genius’ pantomime before political ideologies, lurking in universities to debunk. We fall madly in love with the ‘story’, primarily Western, and with ART, the most mysterious chimera of them all.

Universities and other educational establishments are like corporations, maximizing profits for a diminishing product. Teachers and students are disadvantaged through lack of tenure and heavy debt while burgeoning salaries distinguish the administrators. Ironically, the people engaged with transfer of knowledge, who should be the most valued, are predated upon by the system.

Art schools churn out undergraduates, graduates and post-graduates who recolonize the infrastructure at different levels, like ants. Many will become teachers while a handful will become successful artists with ensured income from art and auctioneered eternal value. The vast majority will remain invisible. They will work part-time at minimum-wage jobs to ensure they have time for art. They will try to get gallery representation, sacrificing 50% of the sale, while bringing their own buyers; a New York gallery wants guarantees of a thousand buyers before representation. Artists ‘hope to get paid’ by cash-strapped galleries beset with their own problems. Some dealers do ‘kiting’, keeping money in circulation to fund new activities rather than paying artists.

Five years of learning

Who would want to swim in this drought-stricken puddle of opportunity, so full of deceit? I spoke with two emerging artists located in Toronto. Laurianne Simon Le Corre, from Brittany, France, with her MFA and Izaak Sacrebleu, who received his BFA from the Ontario College of Art and Design.

Laurianne studied at École européenne supérieure d’art de Bretagne (EESAB), a small art school of about 100 students in Quimper. It affiliated with schools in Lorient (Communication), Brest (Design) and Rennes (Art, Design and Communication) to ensure survival. Laurianne did part of her Masters as an exchange student at L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Thus she has opinions on the Canadian and French approaches to art education. Her degree took 5 years to complete.

Izaak also took 5 years to complete his 4-year undergraduate degree. He feels it was a positive ‘failure’, leading to better paintings. The time spent in art school, unfettered by outside demands, is invaluable.

First year is generalized into painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, new media studies, video, art history and cultural studies. Laurianne remembers 4 hours of nude drawing every week and modelling the nude in clay for sculpture. For Izaak, sculpture meant learning about different saws and tools, skills he could later turn to for survival. He comments that students coming from school are likely to be painters. Their first experience of sculpture and other art disciplines will be here. This vital general initiation year is now under threat with the requirement to preselect one’s majors before entry, a somewhat ludicrous innovation. Izaak also notes that understaffed teachers and technicians had to control abuse of available resources, thus hindering experimentation.

From formal to free

The following years lead naturally to increasing specialization. Many famous artists taught at Laurianne’s school but instruction was quite informal. Teachers would let you grow, advise and suggest artists to research. She felt that they already considered her an artist and part of the ‘family’. Teachers would include students in events. “(Art) was to learn how to live, how to go through your emotions, wake up and find a goal for yourself. I learnt how to concentrate, read a book and have a discussion.”

By contrast, when she spent 8 months at UQAM, Montreal, she found it more regulated. “Everyone was in their own bubble”. However, this experience was also enriching. One important negative was not having a personal work area. “I need my mess.”

From formal to free

Laurianne originally studied video and sculpture but selected painting because it would be easier to survive after school. Her course included group activity to find venues and organize exhibitions. “Here in Toronto I am missing my friends to do exhibitions with.”

Izaak’s experience was more structured. He identified as a portrait or figurative painter and was challenged to develop more unique ideas. The course exposed students to as much stimulation as possible. Initially he felt this led him down some blind alleys. He says he sewed patterns for hours and then emulated the designs in paint to create, in hindsight, ridiculous paintings. For Izaak, the Critique process was valuable, helping him become self-critical and learn what makes good or bad painting.

Storage became an issue when he left art school. He relates trying to fit a 4 x 4 foot painting into his dad’s SUV, eventually smashing it to fit. Prophetically, his art has become about destruction and restitution. He survives by doing construction work, reclaiming discarded materials that he reworks into paintings. Sometimes he goes for months without work and uses this time to make art.

I asked them what the experience had taught them. Laurianne answered: “You learn how to protect yourself from yourself.” Izaak said: “One of the great things about art school is it teaches you how to be broke.” They would both do it again.