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Enter the Void: How to Graduate from Art School

“I just want to know what your potential future scenarios are.”

When I hear this phrase, I am having an up-until-now-enjoyable dinner out with my parents. My vegetable roti is fast going cold. My mother is reaching across the table to take my hand and fix me with the kind of concerned look that every 20-something knows and dreads. The content of this dinnertime chit chat is about to turn south.

My parents, who have both kindly travelled halfway across the world to Toronto to support me during my graduating exhibition, have every right to know what my next steps will be.

But I really don’t have anything to tell them.

At the end of this month, I will no longer be an undergraduate student, but rather a worker bee navigating the world at large. I’ll have finally left OCAD University, ended my internship here at Canadian Art, and finished my lease on Baldwin Street. I have stepped off the edge of the proverbial cliff and the ground is rushing up to meet me.

I leave dinner with hunger pangs.

My last day as an undergraduate art student also happened to coincide with the release of Radiohead’s latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The British rock band’s discography of modern alienation soundtracked much of the soul-searching of my angsty teenage years, and it looks as if Moon may similarly act as an emotional chaperone for the next chapter. Music has an ability to attach itself to a moment or a memory, shaping it to the point where the two coalesce. In the music video for song “Daydreaming,” the band’s latest release from the album, Thom Yorke wanders through suburban enclaves, into brightly lit IKEA-decor homesteads and past stairways decked with family photos, turning his head, back and forth and around corners, exhaustively searching for something. Over a gentle piano melody, Yorke’s bitter, melancholic words feel particularly applicable to my current predicament:

They never learn
They never learn
Beyond the point
Of no return
Of no return

So I’ve graduated from art school. Now what? I came to OCAD U in 2013 without any particular career agenda. I knew that I wanted to create and to work imaginatively, but beyond that my expectations were moot.

It was only through the relationships I built with the faculty at my school, and through attending artist talks, by the likes of Edward Burtynsky, Rebecca Belmore, Charles Stankievech, Abbas Akhavan, Ryan Gander, Deanna Bowen and Alfredo Jaar, that I started to consider artmaking as a means by which to not only express myself and to make an impact on the world around me, but also to make a living.

However, such lecturing artists represent a level of success that only a small minority of BFA graduates will ever achieve: one where it would be possible to sustain oneself primarily on one’s art practice, and the residencies, awards and funding that come as a result of that.

It isn’t simply about earning enough money to get by, or about being perceived as “successful.” It is about being in a position where, as an artist, your work is being seen and considered and being reflected upon by a broad and engaged audience.

My experience of exhibiting work so far—on my own dime, and without any name recognition—is that in this context, it is comparable to throwing an overly expensive party for an audience that consists primarily of friends and relatives, people who toast your genius, glance at your work and say “that’s nice” with glazed-over eyes and feet itching for the door. (Though perhaps that is just the particular reaction my work prescribes.)

Truth will mess you up
Truth will mess you up (repeat) 

Each of Yorke’s lyrical accusations boldly revs up the downbeat symbolism of Radiohead’s album, giving way to a surge of the strings of the London Contemporary Orchestra and filling me further with dread.

I am not Lena Dunham. This is not my Girls moment.

The millennial tale of too many graduates for too small a job market, of never being able to afford to buy a home, etc., is overdone.

So I won’t stress you out with facts: according to a 2011 National Household Survey, the average income of a visual artist in Canada is a meagre $24,672, or that 22% of male and 28% of female graduates of visual-arts programs in Canada find themselves in jobs they are overqualified for.

Without the financial support of student loans and my parents, both of which I’ve previously been dependent on, how can a young artist like myself ever hope to make it?

And if I, a white, middle-class male, am looking anxiously at the hurdles ahead, I can’t imagine what attempting to break into the art world as a person of colour, or as a person with a disability, must be like.

Yet the reality of having to actually support myself is slowly dawning. I have been chasing the ice-cream van down the road, it has finally stopped, and only now am I realizing I didn’t bring any change.

This situation isn’t helped by an older generation who often paint my peers and I as particularly disengaged from reality—lazy and whiny about our so-called unfair lot, and self-absorbed, particularly in our obsession with new media.

Yet in reality, ours is a time marked by loneliness and mental-health crises. We are the most highly educated generation, but we face the highest level of debt in a job market incapable of sustaining us. Neoliberalism has created a dichotomous space in which only a few achieve extreme wealth and art-stardom, while the rest are marked out as “suffering artists” or “art failures,” achieving only a small portion of the funding of the people on Top 10 lists. To make it in the art world you need a “scratch-four-to-win” of talent, contacts, money and sheer luck.

Part of this reality is tied up in a system that begins with education: hundreds of thousands of students a year graduate from art schools in North America as part of a hugely lucrative, heavily marketed educational industry. That industry then unleashes them into an economy that cannot sustain them. It seems that we have all been set up for a fall.

It’s like a weapon
Like a weapon
Of self defence
Self defence
Against the present
Against the present
Present Tense

When I moved to Toronto three years ago, I anticipated eventually moving back to the United Kingdom. I had been hoping this wouldn’t involve a return to the upstairs bedroom of my parent’s croft in the Scottish agricultural heartlands, but that would certainly be an easier exploit than scratching a living in the midst of London’s currently out-of-control housing crisis.

Yet artist friends are flocking to the British capital and to the slightly more affordable Berlin; young artists face a similar struggle when choosing between Toronto or New York City and the more affordable cities that surround them. In London, Berlin and New York, the seething creative masses are doing battle over tiny crumbs of arts grants and funding, while couch-surfing through a tide of unpaid internships. When asked what the young and the struggling should do to get by in New York’s art world, art superstar Patti Smith advises: “Find a new city.” Perhaps the best way to make a living as an artist is to be untethered, drifting from artist residency to artist residency, from city to city. The last residency I applied for proudly announced on their website that they had received 424 applications—I am oh so pleased for them.

And in your life, there comes a darkness
There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky
There is nowhere to hide

I have watched as many of my friends have graduated from art schools and from universities and colleges, only to spend the next year or two deeply depressed, attempting to make ends meet working the same job they did before university, before succumbing and applying for a master’s program in something more economically tenable.

I hope one day to be in a situation where embarking on a master’s degree might be an eager decision, one which I’d enter with excitement and with enough savings to afford it. An MA from the Royal College of Art in London would cost me, a domestic student, the equivalent of $18,000 right now, but after the UK Conservative government’s recent call for a removal of the cap on tuition fees, it could be anything above that and as such, simply unaffordable. It is a system that only allows the wealthy to be cultural producers. “You can’t make art without money,” Damien Hirst stated recently. (And you can be sure that he knows what it’s like to budget to get by).

Imagine for a moment, if you will, “sellable” art. It should be deeply aesthetic, but also capable of description; conceptually bold, but not too bold; strange-looking, but immutable; hangable, but still striking; it should not take up physical space (God knows, storage is expensive), but take up the right ideological space.

I am sorry to look at my work and recognize that it is the exact opposite of these criteria. Large, difficult to handle structures; temporal installations; abstract and intangible performances; acts of social intervention. My work is often reactionary, political and critical of power—which makes it all the harder to create when, more often than not, banks and corporations hold art-funding purse strings. I am striving to make work that is as inventive as it is socially-engaged but when Mitsibushi is widening their collection, I can’t see my artwork at the top of their to-buy list.

The ones you light your fires to keep away
Is crawling out upon, expelling
And all you have to do is say yeah

How does an artist’s practice continue to evolve outside of educational institutions? Will juggling a typical 9-5 job with other freelance work and grants writing leave time for learning, experimenting, producing work or evolving my practice?

No one has told me the secret to surviving as a socially engaged, politically aware artist. Grants, of course, exist to support such artistic endeavours but they are competitive. Putting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promises of an increased arts budget aside, arts funding in a recession is especially precarious.

At this stage, I wonder, is it necessary to work within art professionalism, with gallery representation or within the cycle of funding and making that many artists feel dependent on?

What do Thom Yorke and I have in common (other than our crass British sensibilities and our penchant for periods of emotional downturn)? We both feel the fear.

Anxiety now rules my every waking moment. Outside of school, I no longer have access to the cameras and recording equipment I made regular use of. A few days ago, my laptop wheezed its last dusty breath. I am now an artist without tools.

I have seven days left to decide if I should leave Canada, and, if not, where I should live. I don’t know where my next paycheque is coming from. “This is a low-flying panic attack,” sings Yorke, and it rings in my ears.

Was there a class I should have taken to prepare me for this moment? At what point during the post-graduation period of VIP handshaking, medals, photo opportunities and grand self-congratulation should I have received notice of my impending doom?

A young artist’s life is sure to be full of uncertainties. I realize I cannot expect the world to fall into my lap. There has to be a certain degree of get-up-and-go, no matter how high the challenges are stacked against me. At a certain point you just have to let be, and listen hard for what might come next.

And the Path trails off
And heads down a mountain
Through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads
I don’t really care

Benjamin Hunter is a web intern at Canadian Art.

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jetson joe says:

it sucks to be you. Every artist fights to figure it out, with no established path of maturing or of finding a way. I make art in my off hours…and sell online…moderatly successful. I think you also have to realize that the stratosphere spotlight is for a very limited influenced and connected few. However you can make a very happy and productive life if you realize that there are other ways to be successful and an artist. I would say get a job that is creative…and expand your horizons…be responsible, keep your “sane” friends close and let the crazies go…they will pull you down. Stay clean and healthy and stay off all drugs and limit the booze (you cannot afford it)…and stop lamenting your sorry lot and get busy out there doing something…Take it slow…as there are many many ways to “make it”.

Hoda Ackad says:

loved the article! I graduated from Concordia in 2001 and have been working in my studio since. I think that after graduating it takes time to find spaces that will show your work. Recently I have submitted to American shows and have been successful in getting in some group shows, Help Hope Nepal Art Miami Basel and a bronze Award in Artforward international contest.I have been working on a project called The Power Behind the Scenes: Culture Montreal and have gotten a lot of media attention even TV interview. Unfortunately my work does not sell easily so even with lots of media attention it still is very difficult to make money from it . I don’t think it should be about that anyways. Art should remain free and when a person decides to do a career in art he or she should not look for their art to produce a living. That should come from somewhere else.

Sherwin Tjia says:

I agree with you and sympathize. Especially about how the art school business produces way too many artists for an infrastructure that can’t handle all of them. Out of my BFA class of 30, only about 3 people make their living as artists. A lot of them have gone on to do artistic things, but they all support themselves some other way.

Often I go into art shows and think to myself, “This would have cost thousands of dollars to make.” Often the art pieces that make the news are simply that – outrageous expenditures of money.

Sometimes I think to myself that I shouldn’t have gone to Art School, but rather a School For The Dark Arts. Like in Harry Potter. If you are a good person in this world and are gently making mildly provocative art, you get your little shows and acquire consistent, ardent collectors, and that’s nice. But someone who marries a stone is international news. You cover a skull in diamonds and you sell it for 4 million. You steal people’s tumblr profiles and print it out large and sell it in a gallery and each one goes for 100k. Or maybe you’re already famous and you make art about your fans’ regard for you.

Being bad makes the news and infamy in the arts makes more money than the nice portraits of capycabras with birthday hats on.

So I urge everyone to become the Bad Boy of Canadian Art. You have nothing to lose but your student debt.

I hope Canadian Art will one day cover my meticulously animated movie drawn with the guts of disembowelled bunnies.

Valerie S says:

the majority of us artists have day-jobs. just remember to guard your “golden hour” jealously. in the end- what really matters is that you are producing work. and take a business class. one failing of ECIAD was no having any business sense. Once i incorporated business with my art practice (and changed mediums) and an obscene amount of work. my practice has taken an upswing. Very few artists live the “art-star” dream.

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