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The Dram-edy of Art School.

I’ve been watching Six Feet Under on Netflix (Note: Don’t worry about spoiling it for me. I accidentally saw the series finale when it aired. I was in a hotel and saw “Oh hey, Six Feet Under, I’ve heard about that show.” and half-way through the episode I thought “Gee, this feels awfully… final.” Lo and behold. So, now I’ve started from the very beginning.) and I’m at Season 3 now.

At this point in the show, Claire is in art school and her storyline involves a lot of her somewhat outrageous professor and being acquainted with the “art world” and whatnot. Watching it, I feel like watching a distillation of my college career, except with more platitudes and a deeper sense that somehow, there has to be some kind of “meaning.” There’s a big theme of “Why make art?” going on and hell, if 6FU can answer that, they’ll be doing a better job than my $120,000 education.

It kind of makes me squirm to watch. It’s what you would expect from a television version of art school. Claire’s professor, Olivier, asks her why she’s an artist and she answers “Because I have a lot of pain.”

Squirm, squirm, squirm.

“That’s good. Pain is good for an artist.”


He moves on to ask her friend, Russell, the same question.

“Because I have to. Because if I can’t make art, then life has no meaning for me.”

Now, I know a lot of great artists who would agree; but these are not great artists. They’re 19 year old college kids. Anyone who, at 19, declares that art gives their life meaning kind of makes me want to barf. Including myself at 19, when my favorite quote was Ani DiFranco saying “art is why I get up in the morning, but my definition ends there, y’know it doesn’t seem fair that I’m living for something I can’t even define.” I make myself queasy just thinking about it.

Olivier objects over and over again to art that’s “pretty” or made in another artist’s style – encouraging his students to see with their “inner eye.” Squirm, squirm, barf, squirm. My professors never advised me to see things with my own eye until I had first mastered the “formal concerns” of art (composition, color, form, line, etc.) and explored other artists’ “vocabulary” to find elements of their styles that “spoke” to me – encouraging me at every turn to rip off other artists as much as possible. (As Picasso famously said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”)

Of course, my own professors advised me to sacrifice beauty in favor of meaning. To which I have to ask, what’s wrong with beauty? What’s wrong with art in the service of making life more beautiful? I will agree that art on the basis of pandering the lowest common denominator or art that is made on the basis of being “sell-able” isn’t the kind of art that is worth spending time on – but I don’t agree that art has to spend 24/7 being challenging in order to be worthwhile. Sometimes, we don’t want to be challenged. Sometimes, we want to be comforted. Sometimes, we want challenge to come in the form of challenging us to see the ordinary as beautiful – and not challenging us to change our political beliefs or even our definitions of art or beauty.

Olivier at one point says that great art is felt in the liver and in the gut – that he knows when something is good if it makes him want to puke. That this sort of visceral response is what great artists should strive for.

That makes me want to puke.

We can’t spend our entire lives surrounded by art that turns our stomachs. It’s too exhausting.

My favorite piece of art, the painting that made me want to be an artist is Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. What I love about it, and what I want to re-create in my own work is that it feels like home. It’s someplace I’ve never been, it’s just an artist’s depiction of his room and it feels like a world that I could inhabit. I want to make more inhabitable worlds in hopes of making my own world a little more beautiful.

So what if I’m not wiping my butt on the American Flag, I think that beauty is a worthy goal in and of itself. Just because art school challenges us as artists to expand our view of beauty doesn’t mean that they should render beauty completely unnecessary – though unfortunately, that seems to be the trend. And it makes me squirm.