The downsides of applying to art school
As you might remember, I applied to art school a few months ago. It was one of those crazy ideas from the start, so I really wasn’t expecting much. I already have a Masters and I don’t really need another education. Since the public art schools don’t take fees over here it would have just been nice though. I applied to two schools, Universität der Künste Berlin and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, both good schools, but the one in Berlin is obviously more popular. Every year UdK gets tons and tons of applications – literally, portfolios are heavy – so I wasn’t expecting anything. The application is a two stage process with a portfolio and an entrance exam. I wasn’t even expecting to get past the portfolio stage.
Already a little while back I got my rejection letter from Düsseldorf. They graded my work 2.86, which is better than the worst mark – and they mostly only send out those. I was actually really happy with the outcome, because it basically meant that there was some potential in there. Good enough for me. At that point I already knew that there would be a rejection from UdK as well. It is easier to get into Düsseldorf, because they have much less applications. Well, yesterday I got my rejection letter from UdK and I have to say that this was a much more frustrating experience. The letter says that my work is derivative and follows “poorly understood role models”, employs clichés and doesn’t show any ideas of my own. Ouch! I mean, I expected a harsh letter from them, since I read one of those online somewhere, but it’s a whole other thing to actually read this about your own work. Yesterday when I opened the letter I thought for a moment “Wow, they really hated my work”!
I was on my way to my analog photography course and these words were ringing in my ears: “poorly understood? … poorly understood! … poorly understood …”. And then I started thinking. Wait a minute, what does that even mean?! They don’t even know my influences and assume I don’t understand them? That doesn’t even make any sense! There was no concreteness in this judgement, no specific reference. Derivative of what? And clichés? Sorry, no nudes, no skulls, no manga, no fantasy art, no street photography of homeless people. In fact, I racked my brains for probably an hour and I couldn’t even think of one cliché that fits my selection. I’m also not aspiring to become like a specific photographer. I can tell you influences, but these have very different styles. Derivative? I don’t know. Well, after thinking about it for a while I realised that they weren’t actually writing this about my work. They probably send a version of this to everyone. In the end “derivative” and “cliché” fits probably most of the stuff they are sent, so maybe it’s just what they send back to everyone who doesn’t get in.
In the end it comes down to this: They have too many applications and they liked the work of other people better. Period. And who are these people anyway? If whoever wrote this was a teacher there, then I can expect them to be primarily artists who have better things to do than to be locked in a room with thousands of portfolios full of poorly drawn dragons and skulls. On some level I can understand the sentiment, although it’s probably not a particularly good attitude to have for a teacher.
My stuff wasn’t good enough and they probably don’t even know why. The problem is that they have to give an explanation, since in Germany you can sue your way into a university. Any explanation! Better tell everyone that they suck big time so that they are entirely discouraged from even trying that route or from ever bothering them again with an application. Saves money like that.
In the end I’m not surprised that it works like this here. In Germany it’s entirely normal to have your spirits crushed. While I was in secondary school I always felt that the schools were designed to extract any type of individuality out of the kids and instil a sense of quiet desperation that forces everyone to just take any meaningless job. Equalise personalities, crush spirits, make them obey, make them do their job, instil ideology into them, that’s the purpose. Sounds harsh? Well, if you think about the history of mass education then this was precisely what education was all about when it was first introduced anyway. And even though now there might be more opportunities and there might be even a way to get something out of it, there are still remnants of this old purpose in the system. And art school is no exception. Think about it: Many brilliant artists dropped out of art school, because the system was too oppressive. Many artists also refused to take teaching jobs for the same reason. And additionally even nowadays there are many different forces at work that want to restrict creativity to the same oppressive and elitist art schools and crush it everywhere else. For example, here in Berlin they recently closed down the art space Tacheles and in Dresden they are planning to build a mall where the Freiraum Elbetal is located. As long as art is restricted to a canvas in galleries and museums the establishment is fine with it. Street art, graffiti, artist squats though? No, those are not artists, they are thugs! Criminals who vandalise public property. Or even better, lazy people who don’t want to do real work! That’s something Germans definitely don’t want to encourage. Funny that even the art schools over here are part of the ideological brainwashing.
In the end there are many different reasons why I shouldn’t even give this letter any more attention. It makes me wonder though. I myself am old enough to understand the forces at work here and know better than to take this harsh judgement too seriously. I will carry on with my work anyway, regardless of what these people say. What about those kids though? Those impressionable young kids, who just came out of school and aren’t quite sure of themselves or their work yet. What would such a letter do to them? Is it really necessary to crush people’s dreams like that? Isn’t it harsh enough already to get rejected by your dream school? Why go further than that? Luckily I never had very high hopes and UdK certainly wasn’t my dream school, but hey, the same thing just happened to tons of people who had high hopes and were dreaming a little. It’s a depressing thought that right now tons of talented creative young people are racking their brains about a stupid letter like that and might just decide to give up their ambitions altogether in the process.
Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t regret having applied. I think it was a necessary step and it really got me to a new level. I learned lots of stuff in the process and I realised that I’ve already found out where I want to go with my work. And in the end the other rejection from Düsseldorf was on some level even encouraging. I’m glad I did it. More importantly, I’m also not writing this out of wounded pride. I knew from the start that I wouldn’t get in and their criticism doesn’t seem specific enough to even be talking about my work at all. I am writing this because I’m just plain baffled by the attitude behind the wording of this rejection letter. Even if it weren’t a template letter designed to discourage people from suing their way in, even if it were actual criticism of the specific work that was submitted, even then there are much more diplomatic ways of phrasing the same thing and thereby soften the blow. Maybe these people find some sort of perverse pleasure in crushing people’s spirits on purpose, who knows? Whatever the reason, it’s sad, really, because it will discourage people from following their dreams. And why? Because some person in an art school says so? It’s ridiculous! I’m glad that I only tried to apply now and not when I was still naive enough to take such a letter seriously.
In any case, I will continue with my work and I doubt that I’ll ever again apply to UdK. If they treat their students to the same kind of judgement as the people they reject, then it’s probably not the right place for me anyway.