The Problem with my Art Degree

I haven’t been a student in a while – it’s been about 8 years since I graduated with a Fine Art degree – but I have dealt and spoken with a lot of artists who are current students and I think others may feel the same way I do about this. So read my rant and let me know if you agree or not, or if things have changed since I was a student.

I wrote the below on our recent Manc of the Month: Gina Riley piece:

I studied Fine Art at University and felt like as a perhaps vulnerable and naive student, I (along with many on my course) felt lead into creating work that was ‘growing popular at the time.’ I wish I had done something else, something that felt more ‘me’.

My fine art work for my degree show was a video piece, a bloody video piece! I had never picked up a video recorder in my entire life. As students it felt our tutors were discouraging us from doing any drawing or painting, it was made very clear that that had ‘been done’ and the tutors wanted to see something new, something current. Which led to a ton of us doing video and sound art, stuff we had never done before. This is not to say I am not proud of my art, I worked really hard on it. But looking back, I wish I had done something else, something that felt more ‘me’. Needless to say I haven’t done any video work since!

I did get a great mark, a 2:1, only 2 marks off a 1st. I know exactly why I didn’t get a 1st, and it’s because I couldn’t ‘talk the talk’ of art. An independent examiner came in to speak to some of the students and I was really ill-prepared for this talk. He was asking really in-depth pompous questions, and at this point I had completed my work about 4 weeks previous and shut it all out. I wasn’t in the art zone. Basically, I couldn’t be arsed. I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, I wasn’t talking up my work as well as I could, and I honestly think I didn’t even understand his questions! So there it was, my 1st slipping through my fingers. I also don’t think my 2:1 was credited to the video work itself. I got that mark for the leg-work I had put into it, the research, the theme of the piece etc. I could have created a whole different piece of art and I feel like I would have achieved the same high grade. However (and I know I may upset some current students and any academics reading this) I don’t think the results are really that important. Yes it would have been amazing to get a 1st, but that euphoria would have only lasted a short while. The actual important thing about going to Uni, is going to Uni. I have been working for 8 years now and I have not heard anyone or any employer talk or care about the result of your degree, only the fact that you have a degree.

The other problem with an art/creative degree is that no one, or no course, really teaches you what life is like after University, how you can actually use your talent to work. I came out of University and applied for a ton of art jobs, and as a Fine Art student you think, ‘yeah, I have the qualifications, my CV isn’t bad, surely I should get an interview at least.’ Nope, nada, nothing. I have always been an organiser and I thought maybe a curator would be a good job for me. I thought I could run art events and exhibitions. Instead I ended up working for an events company that ran shopping centre events! Christmas light switch on’s, fashion shows, children’s entertainers etc. Really using all those video art skills I just gained – not!

Cotton On Mcr’s photographer went through the same thing. His course taught him art photography, but nothing to do with real-life photography jobs. His tutors actually laughed at him when he said wanted to be a commercial photographer! He came out of Uni and managed to get a job vaguely in the photography field, taking photographs of fabric for an online fabric store. Yet that wasn’t his main role, that was only a tiny section of his day-to-day tasks. He basically worked in a fabric shop and took the odd photo. But you have to start somewhere right? He is now Head Photographer at an amazing studio. But this is the thing, tutors don’t warn you that you may have to start in an events company, or in a fabric shop. You need that hit of reality. The studio he works in now, had a student internship programme, which invited students to work with them for 3 months on rotation. After working at the studio for a fortnight the first student apparently went back to the Uni and asked why they weren’t being taught basic photography and retouching skills, or anything useful in the real world. After that the internship programme was mysteriously cancelled!

For me, once I’d stopped doing art I found it pretty difficult to get back into it. Being out of practice, not being surrounded by other creatives, not having a studio and equipment on your doorstep, actually having to work and pay bills, meant I stopped doing any art and lost all interest in it. I started telling people I did an art degree because I was good at it, and didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t go to any galleries, I didn’t draw/paint/video (haha!). I literally didn’t do anything. If you don’t carry on with your practice, it’s pretty much wasted. It’s only now with this blog that I have re-found my love for art and enjoyed seeing people’s work and visiting galleries again. Maybe, after initially not getting any art jobs, I just got too comfy in my events role? I never carried on looking for artistic roles. Hard to say really. Maybe I just didn’t want to do anything in art? Who knows?

I write this just because it is something that has been bugging me for a while and that I have talked about before, just never on the blog. And maybe it’s all irrelevant now? I have this blog, I am involved in art again. I recently attended a Drink & Pour painting workshop which was great fun! So I am being arty again. It’s only taken me 8 years since graduating with a Fine Art degree. And I will illiterate, this is all personal and I am sure there are creative people out there that don’t agree with anything I am saying and that is fine! It’d be good to hear from you if your experiences are the same, or different. And if you have managed to get a job using your video art skills!

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  1. Holly Aitchison

    Its interesting reading this as it’s a similar experience to my own. Studying a fine art degree after school I specialised in photographic and electronic media and I thought I would be equipped to gain a job in the arts. When I graduated I struggled with being out of the art school bubble and making new work due to no longer being around creative people. It’s not so easy to keep yourself motivated to make work when you aren’t getting commissions or paid work to do with your degree. I had moved down to London after completing my degree in the hope’s of studying to be a curator but this didn’t work out as I wasn’t able to get into the course. I tried when in London but the only things I could get were unpaid internships and then having to work a shitty job on the side. It just didn’t seem feasible at the time and after a few knock backs and not really knowing what to do I ended up rethinking things and changing my career completely. 7years on from graduating art school and I am currently studying to become a nurse where I have more stability and future job prospects. I know a complete change! I definately commend anyone who is still able to use their art degree and work and be an artist but like you say it’s difficult when you have things like bill’s to pay. I feel my relationship with my art practice is a distant memory and I feel disappointed for not keeping this up but my life has just taken a different turn. I do enjoy photography still and try to still keep this up but its seen as more of a hobby now. Its comforting to know that others with a fine art degree have had a similar experience. You never know though, it’s a degree that could be picked up again in the future 🙂

    • cottononmcr

      Hi Holly. Thanks so much for reading the article and giving your feedback! It is a shame to hear that so many people went through, and going through, the same experiences I did! I want to make sure this message gets to as many art students as possible, to make sure they are aware of the challenges they face and they have the time to prepare for ‘the real world’ after Uni. I don’t want people to think it is impossible to get into the art scene, as there are ways to do it and be successful, but I just want people to be realistic about it and find their own way of doing things.


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