Pages from the classroom constellations section of Artifacts

The possible problem with art school

Four surprising sections in Artifacts, our new book of fascinating facts about art, artists and the art world shed light on the artist pupil relationship

Does it matter who you went to art school with? Well, it certainly matters to one group of people: art historians. In our new book,Artifacts: Fascinating Facts about Art, Artists, and the Art World, Phaidon’s editors have drawn up an enthralling set of Classroom Constellations, showing which famous tutors went on to instruct which famous pupils.

“Before the foundation of art academies, aspiring artists gained experience as apprentices and assistants in the workshops and studios of master painters, sculptors, and artisans,” explains the book. “This tradition of professional artists training younger talent continues to this day. Some educators have gained a reputation for being particularly influential, nurturing students who have gone on to have successful careers, and some becoming art educators themselves.”

Leaf through these pages, and amateur art historians can gather how, for example, Josef Albers helped shape the careers of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, when Albers taught them both at Black Mountain College, North Carolina; or how Michael Craig-Martin’s teaching at Goldsmiths’ College in London influenced a generation of Young British Artists, with Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Liam Gillick among his student body.

Yet these neat lines of influence aren’t as direct or consequential as a simple history of fine art might have us believe. In Artifacts’ Admissions section, the book lists many famous artists who were rejected by art schools (Gerhard Richter, Francisco Goya and Judy Chicago, among others); those who were expelled (step forward Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali); and those who dropped out (an august group that includes Picasso, Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger).

An equally impressive roll call is listed in Artfacts’ University of Life page, which collects together prominent figures in the art world who never attended art school. Included here are obvious outsiders such as the Swiss asylum inmate Adolf Wölfli, as well as mainstays of museum collections, including Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko; and respected contemporary pioneers, like Frank Stella and Lawrence Weiner.

Finally, the true learning processes at work in art school are brought into finer detail in the book’s pages Reflections on Learning and Reflections in Teaching, in which noted pupils and teachers offer their thoughts on what actually takes place in the classroom. In some cases, a lack of knowledge seems as important as the acquisition of new truths. The late American artist and educator Jimmie Durham is quoted as saying, “I tell my students, ‘Don’t be so sure of what you’re doing.’”; while the Californian painter and CalArts graduate Ed Ruscha recalls, “the biggest thing that I learned in art school, really, was that I had to unlearn everything that I’d learned before—I mean since my birth, literally.”

In other instances, a disdain for the teachers and the institutions seems to be key; the British artist and Goldsmiths graduate, Julian Opie is on record as saying, “people said I should go to art school, which I thought was for losers”; while the late American conceptualist and UCLA tutor John Baldessari once said “students are the first to tell you you’re full of shit. I like that kind of feedback.”

Nevertheless, that simple association of established artists alongside nascent practitioners might be one of the most effective aspects of the teaching process. The New York painter Kehinde Wiley offers this insight: “Being in the class with professors who are working artists, the light slowly started to turn on, and that sense of imagining myself as one of those people.” Maybe that experience alone justifies those tuition fees.


For more simple insights into how the art world really works, order a copy of Artifacts here.