How Art School Reveals Human Nature

Sure, we can learn about human nature by looking at art. I’ve done that. What’s less obvious, at least to me, is how much  can be learned about human nature by observing art students. I got a glimpse of this from talking to a student at California College of the Arts. Three things I learned:

1. Every department looks down on every other department. Or, at least, there is a vast amount of “looking down on”. One example is that students in the illustration department look down on students in the fashion department. This is puzzling because the two subjects are unrelated (unlike, say, graphic design and illustration, which are closely related). Why does it happen? My informant thought it was because so many people looked down on illustrators that they were desperate to find a group they themselves could look down on; they chose fashion even though it made no sense.

2. Students in each major have distinct personalities. Photography majors tend to be self-centered and outspoken. In class, they talk more than they need to. Illustration majors are relatively childlike; they are wacky and playful and fun and less serious. In the illustration department, unlike other departments, critiques are always sugar-coated: “This is great, what a nice job you did, you might think about …” Graphic design majors are “urban” — more sophisticated, more interested in being cutting edge, more concerned about the job market. Fashion majors tend to be flighty.

3. Almost all students at CCA enter with their major already decided. They are intensely focused on their subject — think about it all the time. They have little interest in what can be learned from other disciplines. Somehow focus seems to get in the way of curiosity. You might think that art is about being creative and creativity is helped by curiosity. Somehow this doesn’t occur to them and isn’t taught.

Shown the above, my informant, wanting to give a more complete picture, added:

I also think that a lot of those students who help to create these perceptions are probably also the ones that feel the need to be labeled. The photography students who create the image of self-assuredness, the ones who talk about themselves and their work all the time, probably feel they need to do it because it’s the image of themselves and of photographers that they need to create. Same goes for fashion and illustration and all others. There are probably other students who feel the way that I do and just choose not to get into it and would rather leave those “personas” for someone else to convey.

I think it’s specific to art students, and [part of a] desire to be seen as artistic, since most artists i know outside of school don’t seem to perpetuate this. i don’t want to make it seem as if art students are superficial and uninspired. i’ve met my share of really great people.

More. Russ Roberts, interviewing Diane Coyle: “The culture among the graduate students [in economics at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s], and probably among the faculty, was to really look down on the other social sciences and to see them as a total waste of time.”

5 Replies to “How Art School Reveals Human Nature”

  1. Funny, the description of the different majors reminded me of your post of differentiating scientists from engineers. I bet all the artists look at that rift as similarly comical.

    We all want our cognitive shortcuts. From the time of being a baby, people become successful by copying the successful. If a photo major has idols to emulate with all the profiles/interviews of famous photographers happening these days they may think that being articulate and opinionated is a big part of being a successful photog. Similarly, illustrators in industry can be recluses, more child-like, etc.

    But above all, everyone in western society wants to be an individual but doesn’t want to fall so far from the tree that they’re alone. It’s better to be a ___ major than to be that weird guy.

  2. hm, do you have thoughts on personality tendencies among students of various degrees at a university along the lines of this post? i’d be very interested in your observations.

  3. good question, Mike, but I’m not close enough to a wide range of students to answer it. Most of my contact has been with students from just one major (psychology).

  4. …and the physical anthropology students look down on the cultural anthropology students (poor archeology students are caught in the middle of that cold war), and the experimental psychologists look down on the clinical psychologists (who think this is ironic), and the UCLA middle campus (biological and social sciences) looks down on the UCLA north campus (humanities and arts), and the south campus (medical school) look down on both middle and north campus. It all reminds me of a funny scene in Stranger in a Strange Land where the Martian protagonist (forgot his name) is trying to figure out why humans laugh (an alien concept and emotion to the Martian–pun intended) until he visits the zoo. He is at the monkey (or was it ape?) enclosure and observes the biggest male walk up do and hit the second biggest male, who then proceeds to go on and hit the third biggest male, and so on down the line. All of a sudden the Martian laughs with a sudden insight into human nature and a major source of all of its comedy. I guess this is why the ancient Greeks linked comedy to tragedy so well.

    By the way, REAL artists — those that ply their craft for a living — tend not to be like the art students described (at least not in my limited interaction with them). I used to hang out on a regular basis with New York fashion designer Byron Lars and many of his friends and colleagues who designed, illustrated, photographed, etc. Each artist I met, no matter what their niche, not only respected the practitioners of the other niches, but actually utilized them in plying their own craft. Whoever things illustration and fashion are different spheres of art has never met a real fashion designer. Illustration is probably what they do most, more than cutting fabric, I can assure you of that!

    I’ve observed that many successful artists and scientists do not where blinders to their own field, but have much broader interests and had more unconventional and highly varied educations and past experiences.

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