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September 10, 2003

True Art School Tales

Friedrich --

With this posting, we're pleased to kick off a new feature, True Art School Tales, an irregular, ongoing illustrated diary about life as an art-school student by John Leavitt, who's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. John's own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here. If you click on the thumbnails of the drawings John has included in his diary, you'll get to enjoy them at a more sensible size.

True Art School Tales

Yesterday was my first day back at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where I'm a student in my sophomore year. Nothing had changed, least of all the setting -- the FIT Buildings are windowless gray boxes, featureless and dumb. (Of course, the same could be said about the students.) The insides are no better -- nothing but high-school-yellow linoleum and concrete walls. How a school supposedly devoted to beauty could have one the most famously ugly buildings in NYC, I'll never know. It's telling that it was built with city money during the '70s, when the city had no money to pass out. Architecture like this makes people forget that they live in a democracy.

FIT doesn't resemble a college. Rather, it looks like the bank I once worked at. One summer I did data entry for Fleet Bank. It was an old building, built in the heat of the Cold War, and was designed to protect the records and money against a nuclear attack. The entry labs were 5 stories under the earth, accessible only through long, over-lit corridors and interlocking rooms with low ceilings. During the two weeks I was there, I wondered, what good are the records with everyone blasted to radioactive dust? Buildings like this dull the senses, not something you'd want an art school to do.


The day was spent in lines trying to change my forced schedule. Every semester you're given a block of required courses that is set in stone, and some limited Liberal Art electives -- apparently art students can't be trusted to choose their own classes. Also, they keep the identity of the teacher hidden until the first day of class. Which means that unlike at other schools, you can't pick your teachers. I've been told, with a straight face, that this is a good policy because otherwise "everyone would want the good teachers."

In any case, I got most of the changes I wanted made, though I wasn't able to remove one terrible teacher from my list, the ancient Professor R--. In every college teachers get a reputation, and some come to be regarded as blockages in the collegiate colon. There are teachers who fall asleep, make lecherous advances on models. Or, in the case of Prof. R--, prattle on about tedious political matters and social consciousness without teaching a goddamned thing. I'm not paying for her soapbox. Or rather, yes: apparently I am.

She also demands complete attention to her babbles and inanity. In a drawing class, why is half the discussion on film and not on ... say, anatomy? But doing other work during her class is out of the question -- she's too alert. I could make an extra effort and change this class too, but it would involve enduring another 3-hour line and gathering another 4 signatures -- these are the kinds of lines that make you want to fall down, foam at the mouth, move to someplace rural to paint fruit.


Still, my bureaucratic hassles here are nothing compared to my friend Jen's. In the course of 2 years, FIT has lost her records, dropped all her classes, cancelled required classes, lost her health insurance, de-registered her without informing her (and kept charging her for classes she wasn't taking), and told her that she couldn't take night classes because she was a Parsons Student and didn't have the right vaccinations. She'd never gone to Parsons.


I was engaged with a Toy Design student in a minor debate about whether FIT is an Arts college or a Crafts college. I think it's closer to a casino myself. You come in, they empty your wallet, and then you leave with a vague feeling of both loss and accomplishment. Of course in a proper casino there would be free cocktails.


Lest you think I'm all bitter and bile, I'll admit that some classes here are worthwhile. The comic art class is taught by a rather famous painter who spirals around the room and teaches cartooning with wit. Last year I was lucky enough to have two wonderful teachers, hard-nosed classicists who cursed and shouted, and who treated us like students and not delicate china dolls. They gave honest critique, taught methodology and technique, and gave solid pencil and paint classes, respectively.

I was so grateful that I've kept in contact and sat in on their other classes. That's the secret to getting a top-rate education, it seems to me, at least in the arts. Since everything has to be played to the mob, to get any real instruction you have to latch onto the good teachers and bug them endlessly. Which tends to work, surprisingly; they're usually shocked to find a student with a work ethic.


The biggest surprise college has given me is this: it's easy. Some background is required. I went to a very rigorous high school, one of those experimental ones where they expect you to know Latin and Middle-English Chaucer. I was planning to go into Biology but switched to Illustration in my 3rd year. I was told that in college I would have that smug smirk wiped off my face, and brutally shown how little I know. But it's just not true. The teachers are reluctant to criticize students and the students reluctant to ask questions. The lack of seriousness in a school for art, about a subject I take very seriously (not only in an aesthetic sense, but in a pure career sense) is very disturbing. It is possible to go four years here without learning a single Art History fact, analyzing a single painting, or learning one drawing technique.

Surrealist Moment of the Day: The Display and Exhibit Design models left in a huge pile in the middle of the 6th floor. It looked like a mass grave for mannequins. Of course, on the fine-arts floor, it would be considered art.

-- By John Leavitt

posted by Michael at September 10, 2003


My observations--from twenty years ago--pretty closely tally those of Mr. Leavitt regarding the generally low motivational level at art school:

The lack of seriousness in a school for art, about a subject I take very seriously (not only in an aesthetic sense, but in a pure career sense) is very disturbing.

It is very surprising how many of the people, even at ostensibly special purpose art schools like Otis Parsons in L.A. and F.I.T. in NY are just there to get a degree, and presumably have a good time outside of school.

Has Mr. Leavitt considered transferring to a much more traditional art program (there seem to be a number around the country)? Alternatively, I get the impression, although I have zero first hand experience to back it up, that some of the more prestigious design schools insist on a more demanding curriculum. How about one of those? It would be interesting to know how and why Mr. Leavitt picked F.I.T. in the first place.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 10, 2003 7:36 PM

Enjoyed reading your diary.
I sympathize with your dismay about the ugliness of the FIT buildings. The few art school buildings I've visited (including FIT) are drab and cluttered. I wonder if that is a national trend?

But you're in Manhattan! With so many fabulous buildings nearby -- and great museums, music, films... Enjoy!

Posted by: valine craig on September 10, 2003 11:07 PM

what can one say -- should have gone to Parsons :) although their building is much worse. But there are always a few people in the illustration department who take the work very seriously, and their printshop is *great* :)

Posted by: Con Tendem on September 10, 2003 11:32 PM

well, at least you're doing it. you're in art school, man! even if vast portions of it are shitty, it must be superior to the droning hell masses of creative folk endure, as they trudge through retail and sales hell. enjoy it, suck all you can out of it, and stamp your voice on the world. what else is such an education good for?
(i admire that you've kept note of the deficiencies of some of the students - please note, as i'm sure you do, that there are multitudes of us who can't afford or are otherwise hindered by time or space from attending art school)
please make it worthwhile. the phantoms of unfulfilled, tortured men and women, living in drudgery throughout the world demand it.

Posted by: dublin on October 27, 2003 3:42 AM

I'm a senior in high school right now, and I applied for early acceptance to FIT. I plan on getting my BA in Advertising and Marketing Communications. In a state of boredom, I have been searching around for tidbits of inside information on blogs of FIT students, etc. Nice to know your opinions.

Posted by: Claire on December 27, 2003 2:35 AM

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