The question of whether or not an environment can turn someone into something they weren’t before has reared its head several times over the course of my life. We first began discussing nature vs. nurture in middle school on a simplified level when there were all those controversies about babies getting bitten by crazed pitbulls—“are some dog breeds just violent or did they have bad owners?”—and it hasn’t really stopped since then. Recently —within the last year or so—it's morphed into a discussion that hits a lot closer to home for anyone who has ever gotten an eyeroll or funny look back when you told someone that you’re an art student. About whether you’re born an insufferable prick, or if insufferable prickdom finds you. I’ve heard it asked more than once and in differing tones by other kids within the major—“guys, are we jerks?” “are we assholes?”—and whether they’re asked in genuine self consciousness or the interest of pulling a weird self-effacing-but-not-really humblebrag is hard to say. Just by the fact that the latter is a thing that actually happens the prognosis looks pretty grim, but the question is still worth taking a look at.
In preparation for writing this article, I did some research. A quick Google search for “does art school make you an asshole” turned up several sources that basically amounted to, more or less, “yes.” Titles showed several variations on the theme including “I Hate Art Kids”, “Art School is for Assholes”, and one that minced no words: “Artists are F*cking Assholes.” Harsh for sure, generalizing, but are these perceptions totally unwarranted? The halls of art history are hung wall to wall with the faces of people who were legitimately horrible. Domesticabusers, womanizers, liars, thieves and plagiarizers, manipulators, actual murderers: some of the greatest of all time have absolutely done it all in the worst way. Of course, all of the previously listed are a step above casual annoyingness like calling everything “derivative” or spending all your student loan money on designer streetwear to flex in, but they’ve definitely contributed to the mythology of the “real” artist as a horrible individual whose horribleness everyone simply has to deal with because it’s part of their whole deal. Yet at once, there have been artists throughout history that have been legitimately good people—as good as anybody can be, as, after all, nobody is perfect. Good parents and spouses, great friends, philanthropists, activists, etc. Despite the fact that history oftentimes favors those who were particularly unscrupulous; even those who might otherwise fall into the “jerk” bin have still done wonderfully kind things in their lives—and quite a few of these people at one point or another attended school to study art. So how did they make it out mostly unscathed?
I asked around to some friends about what their thoughts on the matter were, and their answers provided an interesting insight into the idea of the art school environment as a breeding ground for shoulder chips. First there were the anecdotes: “We went to a student show recently,” one recalled, “and the first thing that we heard was somebody loudly complaining about how there were too many people.” “A stranger told me without solicitation my life was sad and unfulfilled because I said I didn’t really like the outdoors.” “Power moves are a thing.” “I’ve watched people use crits as a way to personally attack one another.” But besides these isolated horror stories, a more general point was made and the gist was this: it seems to be insecurity makes a lot of people act like assholes; and God, are the arts as a whole an incubator for self-esteem issues. Before one even comes into art school, it seems like the question of “am I actually good, am I good enough” is always in the back of most people’s minds. Of course, this isn’t just an art thing—but when it comes to subjects like math and science there are oftentimes clear metrics for whether or not you’re good at them.
In the arts though, there is no right answer, and that leads to a lot of self doubt, comparing, and anxiety. Now take all of those unpleasant feelings, multiply them by the number of students in a major, add a new environment, new people, and a newfound sense of urgency as everyone and their grandmother is telling you you’ll never make it—salt to taste—and congratulations: you have got a recipe for verbal altercations and walking in on people crying in the bathroom. Except, isn’t this how it goes for every student during their first year of college? Not the school supplies and the crying thing (or the everybody telling you your first apartment will be a cardboard box thing), but the fear of inadequacy and a desire to prove oneself, oftentimes through climbing and hostility. If all one needs to turn from sweet and innocent high school senior (lmao) to trash talking, eye rolling, unsolicited opinion giving dick—why doesn’t Google turn up result after result for “Are business students assholes” or “Are English majors assholes?” Well actually, the truth is that it does. “Business Students are Douchebags”, “Unpacking the Pretentiousness of Literature Majors”, “Why are Engineering Majors so Arrogant?” Pick literally any major from psychology to philosophy, type it into the Google search bar followed by “are”, and get immediately confronted with a list of adjectives like arrogant, insufferable, douchebags, mean, rude, etc. If one didn’t know any better, they might think that college students in general are just obnoxious people, but that couldn’t possibly be true… right? Right?
Yes and no. By the fact that there are plenty of sweet, genuine, non-jerky people on college campuses, we know that the phrase “college ruins people” cannot be true. There is nothing about higher education that is specifically devised to make people insufferable (or maybe there is—that’s debatable depending on who you ask), but as expressed before: competitive environments in general tend to bring out the worst in people. This isn’t limited to schools either: the sports world, the workplace, anywhere where there are two or more people and a task to be done can fall prey to this kind of toxicity. Notice though that I didn’t say these circumstances create obnoxiousness, I said “bring out.” As in, if someone is an ass now, chances are that before they stepped foot on campus, before they caught the bus (or Jeeves pulled the car around—however private school kids get to class) for their first day of high school, when they were still in diapers throwing mulch at the other kids on the playground: they were obnoxious. Jerks are jerks, that’s just the bottom line. Though art school kids are often singled out due to a common perception of us as lazy, spoiled pseudo-intellectuals (or even lazy, spoiled, real intellectuals) as fueled by plenty of unfavorable film and television depictions and stories passed around about “tortured genius” types (again, a whole other article) that are as obnoxious as they are brooding and sad and so, so cool: we’re only a scapegoat. This is at least partially our fault given that oftentimes we end up the perpetrators of our own mythology, but on the whole getting formal instruction on putting paint to canvas or however you make art doesn’t automatically turn you into the kind of person that can’t have a conversation without dragging Marx into it. If you have a strong sense of what’s an okay thing to do or say and what is not, you’re not usually going to throw that completely out of the window at the drop of a hat. But, if you never had those things to begin with, letting it all out won’t be as much of a problem for you.
At the end of the day, the truth is this: art school kids can be jerks, but not any more so than anybody else. It may be a different sort of jerkdom—perhaps a jerkdom that tends to make itself more pronounced because chances are that if you are in the arts you’re at least a little bit more outgoing than most—but still. It’s unlikely that a few months (in a freshman’s case) of being in a certain environment changed you on a fundamental level. So next time you find yourself quoting Foucault to someone when all they did was ask you for the time, don’t ask yourself “is art school making me a jerk?” Instead, ask “am I just a jerk in general?” And if you really are quoting philosophers while someone else is just trying to make it to their next class on time, or describing your parents not respecting your career path as a form of oppression, or trying to think of clever little art school stereotypes for a blog post at two in the morning, I can tell you with full certainty that the answer is yes.
Written by Shori Sims