Avuncular advice

princeton-man-1hey danny just a (not so quick) question for ya
we’re in the middle of this whole looking for colleges and setting up visits thing and it is absolutely overwhelming. i was told by an admissions dean to find someone who is in the field i want to go into(Art/Art Ed/Art therapy[still deciding..heh]) and come up with a list of questions i can ask to these places i visit to find the school with the best program.not just a good art program but good in integrating art and teaching art. the two art teachers i have are at two oppsite ends of the spectrum. one is a photo teacher that doesnt believe in going to school for art education but just going to some artschool for art, doing what you want all through college, bettering yourself and afterwards consider teaching (after youve spend thousands of dollars on an education already). the other teacher is one of the nicest people i know who is so busy with just being a teacher, having a family, and driving an SUV that she doesnt draw anymore or make things. she’s all for practicality and strictly the teaching aspect. i feel like these people aren’t very much help in that they both have their own ideas of what being an art teacher is and these ideas aren’t mine. and after all this jib jab my real question is do you know any art teachers or professors or anything of the sort that can give me an idea of how to feel these schools out for a program that im looking for? how to narrow down the options. i realize that not knowing for sure what i want to do doesnt help this situation but i know i want to make art myself. learn as much as i possibly can and do the best that I can and work with people/the public and make art mean as much to them as it does to me. if any of the above content made sense, your input would be greatly appreciated.
thanks for your time(!)
-niece in distress

Dear Morgan:

I hear you. Choosing the path you are to take in life is a daunting prospect. But, here’s the secret: you aren’t making that choice right now. It’s a long and gradual process with many twists and turns and none of the crossroads is irreversible. Don’t worry about the end result right now. Don’t think that you have to choose the school that will firmly and clearly deliver you to the door of the job you will do until you retire.

Secondly, don’t be impatient. Don’t rush to get a highly professional education right away. Don’t commit yourself to an idea of what you will do in life. When I was seventeen I couldn’t have described the life I lead today. I know you are anxious about being successful in what you do. You and you parents don’t want you to become a starving artist. Believe me, that’s extremely unlikely.

But similarly I wouldn’t want you to make up your mind today that you will be some thing specific. Your experience is simply too limited for you to make the right choice at this point. There are so many sorts of stimulating and lucrative creative jobs you could have, and most of them are careers you have not even heard of yet.

The training for most of them is similar, however. You need to learn as much as you can about as many things as you can. That should be the goal of your college education.

I have met and worked with many young people who went directly into art school and/or an advertising school. They think they know far more than they do. The fact that they have been taught some technical skills does not prepare them for a career in advertising or design. In fact, I would much rather hire a smart, worldly, inquisitive person who traveled the world, read history and sold shoes at Macy’s than a person who focused entirely on getting a career in advertising since they were seventeen. Most of the skills they think they acquired can be learned quickly on the job. But reading good literature, debating politics and philosophy, living among many different sorts of people, those are experiences that will advance you far more in a creative field. The most interesting film directors didn’t limit their educations to film school. The most interesting writers didn’t come out of the Iowa program; the most successful copywriters didn’t limit their educations to the Miami Ad School, etc.

You say you are interested in art therapy and art teaching and you may well end up in those fields. But may I suggest that the reason you are interested in those fields is because you know people who are in them. Frankly, your world is a little limited. There are many, many other options you should look into first.

Here’s a partial list of the jobs of creative people I know, stimulating and lucrative jobs you may not have considered, jobs that may actually be perfect for you: documentary producer, flash animator, magazine illustrator, greeting card designer, software engineer, toy designer, packaging engineer, medical illustrator, court room artist, commercial photographer, automotive designer, production designer, prop maker, line producer, cinematographer, magazine art director, jewelry designer, fashion stylist, typographer, costume designer, film editor, sound designer, architect, urban planner, graphic designer, food stylist, runway photographer, book editor, book jacket designer, museum curator, art historian, retail display designer, fashion director, makeup artist, choreographer, stage manager, commercial composer, industrial film editor, fragrance designer, information architect, strategic planner, potter, art buyer, continuity person, textile designer, set carpenter, industrial chemist, fashion forecaster, copywriter…

You can prepare for most of these jobs the same way.

First of all, do your best in high school. Have diverse interests so you build a good resume: School paper, school play, community stuff, etc. Sports matter far less after high school than they do in high school. Same with TV, Play Station, drugs, liquor and other extracurrics. But don’t be a goody-two shoes either. Live fast but don’t die young.

Apply to the best possible schools. Set your sights high. You are smart and articulate and you can do it. My high school had no formal grades so many of my classmates worried they couldn’t get into a good school. I didn’t know better so I applied to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, University of Chicago and had University of Michigan as my safety. I got into all of them (but Yale) but only visited the one I really wanted to attend: Princeton. I knew very little about it but I like F.Scott Fitzgerald. I also liked the fact that it had no law school, no med school and seemed committed to under graduate education. My parents were not particularly wealthy but family members kicked in some cash so I could go.

Get a very liberal education: This is the last time in life you will get to immerse yourself all day in all sorts of learning among a lot of smart people. Don’t waste it by limiting yourself or your field of interest. I studied French, Latin, History, Geology, Politics, Literature, Economics, Art History, Music, Anthropology, Psychology, and more. Only when you are absolutely forced to, choose a major. Mine was Political Science with a minor in Near Eastern Studies, I wrote my thesis about 1960s radical students. Again, none of it had anything to do with my future career, and yet it was all immensely helpful in separating me from the dull careerists in my peer group. I was and am interesting and interested. I can bring a lot more to the discussion than those who majored in graphic arts or economics. Trust me, if you could learn all the professional skills you need to in four years of college it wouldn’t be worth much in the job market. But the ability to form associations between obscure things is a very valuable skill that you can only hone by reading and experiencing as much as possible throughout your whole life. I go my first job in advertising after a couple of weeks of interviewing. It was easy and I had zero experience.

The future looks bright. There are more and more opportunities for creative people to earn a good and interesting living. In the dawn of the Information Age, technical skills mattered a lot and engineers and economists were Kings. But, frankly, billions of Indians and Chinese are taking over those jobs. What they don’t have and won’t have for the next few decades is a good grasp on culture and a sufficiently free society to encourage individuals with new and fresh ideas. That will give America a competitive advantage for most of my lifetime, if not yours. People who make things will be very valuable for a while to come. The entertainment field will keep America first: fashion, consumer culture, computer gaming, web design, marketing, music, film, etc. Think of how those fields have transformed over your short lifetime. Any hard-core specific learning you get in a second rate college in these fields will be obsolete before you graduate. But if you have a diverse and insatiable hunger for learning and a creative mind, you will always be on the cusp of the new wave.

Education never stops. Apply yourself in school but use your summers to explore other fields. Write to people and ask for internships. Spend half your summer making spending money, the other half working in a gallery, for a commercial production company or a magazine publisher (I worked at the White House, for cryin’ out loud – also newspapers, congressmen, McDonalds, record stores, etc.) Stay with relatives in big cities and immerse yourself in the metropolitan jungle. You can also wait until graduate school to go to an art program; by then you may feel more comfortable about where to specialized. Meantime, keep reading and exploring. My nightstand is piled high with history books, art criticism, books in technique, magazines, etc. I take classes, interview people with diverse careers, and keep hungry and inquisitive. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. And you don’t need to be either.

I hope this is a little helpful. But let’s discuss it more. Call me anytime and I’ll help you however I can
Meantime, don’t worry and be happy,
Your uncle,
Danny

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