A fine arts degree is often both an opportunity and a risk at the same time: Only a very few art academy graduates can make a living from art afterwards. Nonetheless, the training provides experiences that can be applied in many ways later on.
If you ask artists what made them pursue a degree in a subject most people consider a tough profession where it is hard to make ends meet, the answers given are quite similar. It is usually parental involvement, dedicated art teachers at school or cultural institutions in the hometown with an interesting programme of events that steer them towards an art academy.
Another aspect not to be underestimated is the desire to break with social norms and adopt a different way of life that does not necessarily produce wealth. Most importantly, it is about the ability to act, work and live in a self-determined way. The argument that merely two to five per cent of graduates from German fine arts academies are able to make a living from their art seems to carry little weight.
The option of graduating as an art teacher may temporarily calm parents on the one hand and one’s own doubts on the other hand. But this just puts off making the decision whether to go for a vocation with a secure income or to follow the inner calling to live and work as an artist. A combination of the two is, according to those who have tried it, extremely difficult because you have to choose a second subject to teach. There is always this tug of doubt that continues until some form of confirmation comes from outside the academy, comments artist Bastian Börsig.
Personal responsibility in a shielded environment
In German art academies the regular admission procedure is in three stages. After a preliminary selection based on the submitted portfolio with examples of their work, the candidates have to prove their qualification in a practical exam. In a final stage the admission and class allocation are announced after an oral examination through representatives of the college. In most academies the class itself, with about 20 students, forms the central place of study and is headed by a master artist who does not necessarily have to be one of the most internationally renowned.
It is the regular presence of the professor that is far more important. You can’t actually teach art, says Daniel Roth, professor and vice rector at the State Academy of Fine Arts Karlsruhe. You can motivate students to find out where their strengths and interests lie, but the final step of bringing their ideas to life always has to be taken by the students themselves. In class meetings the presentation, positioning and argumentation of ideas and of the own work is practiced in front of the other students. These discussion sessions within the group are treasured by the students as an inspiring experience, even years after leaving the academy.
A open approach for free fine art
Fine art cannot be taught like other academic subjects where there are curriculums and examinations on course contents. The budding artist has to take charge and decide which of the courses he or she wishes to attend – whether it is to be practical work in the many different workshops or courses on the history of art and theory. Some draw inspiration from other sources and manage very well without a fundamental training in the fields of art history and philosophy, whereas others find the visual experience in historical and contemporary art, as well a wakefulness for current discourses absolutely essential. At the academy, the students are also given the opportunity to exhibit their work on the premises, during the course of study. It is a shielded environment, a place for experiment and a place where mistakes can be made without having any consequences.
Kunstakademie Karlsruhe | Photo © Pietro Pellini
After the academy
What awaits the artist who has graduated after 10 semesters is often already indicated toward the end of the course when prizes and scholarships are awarded, and when galleries and curators have begun to show an interest. Nevertheless, the artist still has to remain active outside of the studio. Once the age of forty-something has been reached it should be possible to earn a living from one’s own work, according to the rough estimate given by artist Susanne Ackermann. The up and coming generation are quick to move into the art scene and there is currently nothing more attractive than discovering and promoting young art with potential.
And what about the others? It is no longer possible to draw a clear line between the profession of an artist and that of adjacent fields. This has been the case for some time now. Most art students will possibly not earn a living as an artist, but they have learned to be innovative and flexible, they have learned to think differently and express their thoughts clearly. These are additional competences that are not only required of curators, critics or gallery owners. Very few of them become taxi drivers.