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.”