I went to the School of Art at CMU mainly because I was told by my guidance counselor in highschool that I'd fit in very well socially, and I also heard that CMU is a great school. If I hadn't gotten into this school, I'd probably have gone to Syracuse or some art school that wasn't nearly as academic/well-rounded as CMU.
I went to CMU SOA (School of Art) expecting to learn very "practical" stuff -- in the sense that they'd help me fit right in to the Hollywood niche of 3D modeling and animation or working for Pixar, perhaps even doing that stuff for a game company in sunny California. I know how incredibly cliche I sound. I probably sound like every other animation/digital art student in an art school.
But here's what I learned in regards to these expectations I just mentioned:
1. Around the end of my senior year, I'd realized I only wanted to do 3D animation/modeling because it was where the money was, compared to 2D media.
2. I don't have to work in a huge company that the whole world knows about in order to be happy.
3. As an artist, I'm an artist because it's what I love to do and I enjoy it -- if I'm going to be an artist, I shouldn't be motivated by money. For me, my best work has been motivated by passion... so I chose 2D media because I loved it more than 3D. And in the long run, if your passion leads to your best work, it will pay for itself.
Let's talk about what SOA actually ended up making us do. Granted the college experience is actually what the STUDENT makes of it, not what the college MAKES YOU make of it, overall I found myself pretty unprepared once I got out of the internship that's (pretty much) on the CMU campus. (I interned at Disney Research for a year and a half -- word of advice, if you want to work there, get connections and stand out in 3D art or engineering or programming... or something related to robotics...) and that was about 3 months after graduation. So technically, I didn't know what to do with myself on that fall after graduation. Here's why I think this is so.
Freshman year, all your classes are pretty much picked for you. Concept Studios I and II, Drawing I and II, 3D Media (wood, metals, clay...), Electronic Media Studio... World History, Interp and Argument, Contemporary Arts Forum... of course, if it isn't a Studio class (each 6 hours a week) it's some history kind of course.
In my experience, you don't really take multiple-choice question tests. You're expected to answer essay questions during tests, write essays for the bulk of your assignments, go to lectures and recitations and be able to discuss the readings. In at least 90% of the classes I've taken, participation is expected of you and takes up a significant fraction of your grade. That means you need to speak up during critiques during Studio classes (and when you do, contribute to an 'intellectual' discussion) and show that you've read the material in classes like in World History and any Art History classes.
One huge obstacle I had to get through in my first 2 years of CMU SOA was how this school was NOT trade-school-like, like Art Center College of Art and Design of RISD or Ringling or MICA... though I really loved the professors and they were all very respectable (the art professors anyway), they're DEFINITELY leaned more towards the Contemporary Art scene, as in work you'd find in the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Museum of Art or the Whitney Museum... you're expected to obsess over artists like Marcel Duchamp, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Vito Acconci, Matthew Barney Marina Abramovic... I'm not saying that these artists were irrelevant. I totally understand that (some of) these were among key figures that brought us from "art" in the "traditional" sense, like hyper-realistic paintings to today's contemporary art consisting of the abstract and conceptual, as opposed to purely aesthetic and literally representational.
What I greatly appreciated about this program is how it got me to learn to accept contemporary art, even though it seemed like in Freshman year the professors were showing me porn-like videos of artists' performances. Make this distinction though. Just because I ACCEPTED it doesn't mean I learned to LIKE it. One of the biggest things I learned in my approach to any art, (and in a way, anything else in life,) was to be able to see them intellectually/objectively, while being able to put away your personal preferences because it is not enough to just say you hate Vito Acconci's perverted disturbing art work, you've got to make your point and prove it to those you're discussing the piece of art with. Basically like a lawyer.
So essentially, you're taught to do whatever you want as long as you can defend your work intellectually and if the work somehow has something to bring to the table. Not in the practical sense, but "intellectually".
Bottom line in regards to the kind of work you do in this school, in my experience, it's not enough to simply draw a pretty picture or if you just happen to be more skilled in drawing/painting than your peers. If you show your complacency to the faculty, they won't treat you that well.
I found that the faculty/staff really like art work that has these qualities, some or all of these:
- thought-provoking/huge discussion-sparking
- compositionally "different"
- innovative/enlightening in a very intellectual way
- work that demonstrates that you worked very hard, whether with your hands and/or you did your research thoroughly and you worked smart...
In the years after Freshman year, aside from finishing off your required courses, you can branch off and take classes from the rest of the University which I think is awesome. This is where I felt like it could have been in my power to make sure I was prepared for the real world, perhaps if I'd taken classes in marketing.
Senior year is great because most of the time, you're expected to come out with a great senior project. Senior Studio is equivalent to TWO studios, (12 hours a week, 8 hours of "homework time" every week...) for both semesters. You do whatever you want, as long as the professors are okay with it. If they're not okay with it, then it'll just be very difficult for you. :P
In summary, I did alright in this art school. As an art student, grades are NOT top priority -- it's your portfolio. However, I have to say that this school was *abysmal* and almost self-saboutaging in regards to preparing their art students for the real world. I don't think they emphasized these things enough, given that you want to come out of school making money off of making your art:
1. YOU NEED TO NETWORK, AND LEARN TO TALK TO PEOPLE
2. YOU NEED TO MARKET YOURSELF!!!!!!!
I have to say. Skill-wise, this school allowed me to explore A LOT and sure, I did learn, but I felt I was extremely unfocused towards what I would end up doing a year after graduation (which is right now, pretty much). Currently, the most marketable skills I have are ones I developed myself outside of school and any employment I've had. Conclusion? If you care enough/are passionate enough about something, chances are THAT will get you places, not the school. Sure, CMU is impressive, but as an artist you have to pull your own weight. You have to go out and find people who are willing to buy/promote your work -- whether you get people to show your work in galleries or you draw up a contract with people to do work for them. There's very few people I know of from my art class who ended up in a salaried job who make more than like 40k a year (I only know of 1).
And I need to emphasize what I mean by "pulling your own weight" -- I originally intended to do 3D digital art work, mainly because it was where the money was and it was a hugely accepted form of art-making in the "industrialized" art world. An important message I got from CMU SOA was that no matter what you do, you've got to be firm in defending your work. Because I was confronted with people from the game/animation industry who said "Isn't 2D art dead?" Well, is it that much easier to find a crowd of people who are willing to pay a million bucks for art work made of garbage? In the end, whatever you do, you've got to pave your own way in the world. If you can find art made from garbage in famous museums like the Moma, I'm pretty certain that you can make a living off of 2D art -- your art doesn't even have to be "functional." You just have to be there to show it, get an audience and defend your work.
The impression I got from this community of artists and art professors at CMU was that you'd end up making your art on the side while being a working stiff here and there -- whether you're a barista, barber, waiter, bartender, whatever, but your art happens to be the center of your life. Objectively, this to me is acceptable and if these respected artists are fine with that, then I'm happy for them. However, that is NOT the life I want. Going to so many of the art lectures that the professors required us to go to, the artists kind of depressed me because for many of them, their primary sources of income were not coming from making art.
But even if your most famous piece of art work was simply a huge piece of metal laying down on the floor, or a canvas with nothing but Gesso wash on it, what it all comes down to is NETWORKING, AND MARKETING YOURSELF.
One of my professors said there are 3 ways of becoming a "successful" or being a known artist:
1. Make sure your art is super good
2. Nudge people to show your art
3. Sleep around
I kind of disagree with #1, because if your art is REALLY AWESOME and it's hidden in the cold dark corner of a cellar somewhere, there's no point. So I'd say a combination of 1 and 2 are your best bet, with an emphasis on 2.
In the past year, I've learned from my own experience that the "successful artist" ratio of being a good artist that churns out good work all the time and marketing yourself/your work should be like 1:1. The more marketing the better, in fact. Think about it. Old artists who have been dead from like a year to like aeons STILL have the saaame art work hanging in the MoMA and the Metropolitan. They don't even have to be dead. The same art work from the same artist can come up in many museums over and over again -- I mean from what I've seen, the artist doesn't have to spend ALL their time making new art. They can spend like, 10% of the time making an awesome piece of art or a series of works, and then spend 90% of the time talking to people and marketing the work. If they spend 10% of their time making a 10,000,000-dollar painting, do they SERIOUSLY need to spend allll that time making art work? If you ask me, NO.
And that is a huge reason why I say CMU SOA kind of fell short for me. They didn't emphasize marketing nearly as much as I think they needed to, because I feel many of my classmates came out extremely unprepared for the real world given that they wanted to make a living from making art work. I spent 6 months, after my internship ended, learning to market myself -- in my case, I make game graphics for clients, and I just have to make sure my work is accessible, relevant and up to a certain standard, and that my cover letters are very specific to the job postings.
Now that is not to say that CMU as a university sucked. Because it didn't. if CMU were only made up of SOA, then I kind of would be on the fence about my experience, granted I came out unprepared for the real world but I grew up a lot in my approach towards any sort of art and life in general.
Aside from classes, I cared a lot about video games -- playing them and making them. Game Creation Society (one of the school clubs) to me was a great way to network (as i said, NETWORKING IS IMPORTANT, AND KEEPING TIES WITH THE PEOPLE YOU'VE DONE STUFF WITH!) and find a group of people to work with.
Socially, I didn't quite fit in with the artsies. I mostly fit in with game-players and game-makers. I just had to hang out with people I can totally geek out with, and aside from the "artsy enlightenmnent experience" and networking my way into Disney Research, the game-making group of people I'd met and got to cling on to was one huge reason why I do not regret being at CMU. Not only do you learn to work together with team-mates in making games, the club invites companies like EA and Sony to come and scout for potential employees/interns. If you don't get a job out of it, at least talk to the people, network and make yourself known!
So overall, I loved CMU and I do miss it. The art professors were *VERY* nurturing, gave you tough love and were always able to help you even if they don't specialize in your medium of art-making. The student body is very diverse, and most importantly, most of them I've met really care about their field of study and worked hard -- and that is a VERY good vibe to have, because it made me want to care even more about what I did and do well.
But if you're looking to end up working for Pixar or some huge animation/game company like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network or EA or Blizzard... I'm pretty sure you'd have a harder time (not saying it becomes impossible) getting into those companies if you go to CMU SOA as opposed to a school like SVA/RISD/Ringling/Art Center or some other more trade-school-like institution. don't get me wrong, though. CMU SOA does have a few animation classes with an emphasis on learning Maya, and in the earlier required classes, you're required to learn how to use some software, including Flash, Final Cut Pro and Photoshop.
If you go to CMU SOA, and they don't end up teaching you how to market yourself as an artist, do your own research on your own time -- and you could even do freelancing part-time during the school year if you're good with managing your time. It's not enough to just be a good art-maker, if you want to be "successful" -- you've got to round up your audience somehow.Good luck and I hope you enjoy your college years!