Working with an Old Model

  • By Tess Banta '16
  • tbanta16@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014

Tess article

I’ve been drawing, painting, and generally making a mess of my notebook margins since grade school. I came to Amherst instead of an art school because I didn’t want to give up my academic pursuits, and I figured that a double major would suit me fine. Even though I came to Amherst absolutely positive that one of my majors would be Art, by the end of my first day of orientation, I knew I’d need a new plan. ­


I’m not going to pretend that my art background isn’t a little different from most Amherst students. My high school offered a massive variety of art classes. By the end of four years, I’d taken introductory drawing and painting classes, ceramics, printmaking, anatomy, advanced painting, illustration, children’s book illustration, and a full year of digital art. This isn’t the norm, so I wasn’t expecting Amherst to accommodate me completely. I did expect, however, an art department that offers, besides the basics every semester, at least a few rotating courses that explore more unusual and experimental art forms.


I’ve since learned that our Art Department seems to be structured on an outdated model. The classes, while well-taught and certainly worth taking, are limited. The major requires that all students take introductory drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and photography classes. This can be helpful for people who aren’t quite sure what they want to do with an art degree. Personally, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy an entire semester of introductory sculpture or photography. I’d tried printmaking, and knew that it wasn’t for me. Those who have tried  a new art form and didn’t enjoy it know that pushing themselves into that niche probably won’t produce great art—quite the opposite, in fact.


So you’d think that the Art Department would offer more options for students who want to major in Studio Art, while allowing them to skip certain basic classes in favor of others that would fit better into their future career. It’s a little unorthodox, sure, but we’re talking about art. The Department already requires students to become familiar with 150 artists for its comprehensive exam at the end of their junior and senior years, so what harm can the freedom to choose relevant art classes really do? I believe the current requirements fail to create well-rounded artists. They are largely a reflection of the lack of other class options.


Amherst’s old-fashioned sensibility manifests itself in two additional ways. The first is that the Department treats art like a crowded buffet table. You can sample from every tray, but you’re rushed to the end of the line before you can create anything even resembling a real meal: shrimp on top of waffles, scrambled eggs over pasta salad. Maybe you’ll find something you absolutely love, but there’s a pretty good chance that you didn’t get enough of it.


The second problem with the Amherst Art Department is the positively Victorian course catalogue. Just like the young man who went off to College in 1930 with rosy cheeks and a stiff collar, you can enroll in Drawing I, Painting I, Sculpture I, and Printmaking I. After that, you can enjoy Drawing II, Painting II, Sculpture II, and Printmaking II. It’s not that these aren’t valuable classes. It’s extremely important to cover these five integral disciplines. But beyond these core classes, there’s not much else.


There are only three art classes offered at Amherst that involve touching a computer keyboard. Two of them are photography classes, and the other class is an architectural design program. This is the 21st century—we might not have the flying cars or self-tying sneakers that we were promised, but I at least expected digital art to be integrated into every college’s core art curriculum. As passionate as I am about art for its own sake, I also want to make a career out of it. I don’t know what world the Art Department thinks we live in—one where professional artists scoff at Photoshop, perhaps—but recent college graduates often don’t have the time or money for the supplementary classes that they’ll need in order to have a competitive résumé.


I don’t want to come off as too cynical, but we live in an age where serious, well-paying jobs don’t go to the applicant with no working knowledge of the Adobe suite.  Big name magazines, ad agencies, and movie studios aren’t run by technophobes—the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue isn’t secretly an Amish man hiding behind a desk with a large Anna Wintour puppet. There is nothing wrong with Studio Art majors who graduate and decide to dedicate themselves to gallery art and personal artistic expression, but for those of us seeking a different kind of career, Amherst courses don’t cut it.


My public high school has offered a digital art class for years. In 2014, is it honestly too much to ask for one at Amherst College? If you ask, the school will encourage you to take classes within the five-college consortium. And if you really want to, you can absolutely make that work. My Sequential Imagery class (i.e., comics) at Hampshire was fantastic. But I came to Amherst because of the professors, the class sizes, the resources—in short, the fact that it’s a top-notch school. And the art classes that are available here are top-notch as well.


I don’t want to continue relying on other schools for my art education. I want to learn at the school that I’m graduating from. Before I can do so, however, Amherst needs to start taking risks, look where the arts are headed and try to keep one step ahead, or at the very least, try to keep up. If our students and professors can, why can’t our curriculum?