Art School Un-Confidential

A conversation with student artist Lucrecia Ramona de Jesus Uribe Restrepo

Luca and I take up our usual spots at the dining table. She has just left an online meeting for some very important professional artist business. I have spent the morning looking into the fridge, wondering how long I can get away with not buying fresh vegetables. The sun is bright, the room is stuffy, and Luca begins disemboweling an almond croissant. 

“What was the shift like when you came back to Australia for university?”

Luca has, to date, lived one of those extraordinary lives that automatically makes her the most interesting person in any given room. Born in Colombia, Luca moved to Australia with her parents at ten, while her older sister attended boarding school in India. For the first month, Luca and her Dad lived in a tent in a large coastal community, with microwaved meat and peanut butter toast making up the bulk of her diet. She was the only South American girl, and one of three non-white students at a big, very white school, before packing up once again at sixteen and following the path of her sister to boarding school; this time in Costa Rica. At the end of her schooling, Luca returned to Australia to study Fine Art at the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). 

Luca (italicized): I think entering a space like VCA, Luca explains between bites of her croissant, as a non-Victorian or non-Melbourne person makes you really, really lonely and socially stuck. My high school friends had all solidified their friendships while I was in Costa Rica, and when I returned I didn’t have that social safety net of a friendship group to fall back on, or mutual friends with anyone I attended school with. 

I became friends with the people who weren’t from Melbourne because we all knew we would never get into that elite circle

Unlike Luca, my own experience of art school is limited to attending the exhibitions of friends of mine. Though each exhibition is different to the last, there remains two irrefutable features in each and every tertiary art show: cheap red wine will be readily available, and everyone is secretly competing against one another to have their work recognised by an academic, gallery owner, or curator. How do you navigate friendships with people you are, fundamentally, competing against? 

You become friends with people that don’t have the contacts or the networks or a position in that elite circle. I became friends with the people who weren’t from Melbourne because we all knew we would never get into that elite circle. We didn’t attend Melbourne private schools and we just don’t know any of the people that a private-school graduate who has parents very involved in the art or cultural scene might. We didn’t want to talk about the things the people in those circles wanted to discuss, which was usually other people in other fancy circles. 

I realise that despite differences in our degrees and general life experiences, to attend university in Australia is to engage head-on with a class problem that is trying to camouflage itself into the everyday. In my Arts degree, it was my peers getting internships with members of state Parliament, or doing holiday work for a well-regarded barrister. For Luca, it was people having access to gallery owners, curators, or collectors through their personal social circles. She was forced to enter this new space as a stranger, rather than being ‘known’ through Melbourne’s private school network. 

Art school is all about making connections. When you enter the school with a lot of money, and have lived a life that is about associating with other people who have a lot of money, your art instantly has a higher value than the standard for university-level artists. Without doing anything more than existing, you have a pool of possible buyers who can afford to pay more for your art, regardless of its actual quality or value. 

The scale of how we value art – financially or culturally – is warped by the dual ‘N’ words – networking and nepotism. It is the first time I realise that capitalism has truly made itself known in the supposedly un-capitalist world of art education. Where art’s value scale is warped, and the boundaries between what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art become blurry, does this have ramifications for the type of artist and artworks universities are cultivating? 

I think a big thing for universities now – at least this was the case at VCA – is about producing very political, very avant-garde, edgy artwork that makes a big political statement. But not everyone is creating political art. I think my art is personal, and I was always told in classes to be more political and less subjective. 

they loved art that was odd bits of hair stuck to the end of any vessel.

As two women sitting at a table on a hot summer morning, neither of us have the fortune of not existing as political entities. While I have been afforded the privilege of a stable middle-class upbringing and the social ease that comes with being white, as a woman body, existence, and safety are constantly threatened and debated within both crime and general socio-political discourse. For Luca, a young, migrant woman, there is greater politicization she exists within. What is personal for her is inherently political because she is not allowed to merely exist within the broader social-mechanism of Australia. For Luca, her work is not ‘political enough’ because those who are in charge of the warped university artistic-value scale are unable to look beyond their own understandings and parameters of what constitutes ‘political’. Her work is not ‘political enough’ because for a split second she is choosing not to exist politically, but as an emotional, loving, and at times abstract being. A broader university agenda – to produce cutting edge artists who have lots of critiques about the world – undermines the work of any artist who elects to create work that is more personal or aesthetically based, and, as Luca notes, does not align itself with any particular struggle. 

Oh, I never produced enough work during my time at art school, either. Not political enough, not fast enough and from what my tutors said, ‘not interesting enough’. Then again, they loved art that was odd bits of hair stuck to the end of any vessel. 

The conversation was always ‘Where is your art situated within the contemporary world, and what is it asking? Who is it fighting? How is it political? 

We laugh. While Luca is a phenomenal painter and illustrator, she also enjoys creating large scale works. Her final collection of works included painting a tubular, snake-like creature on the floor, walls, and ceiling of a room that would soon be discarded. This, it goes without saying, is not artwork that can be easily produced or replicated, as per the suggestions of her tutors.

I sanded the shit out of that room because it had a build up of gunk and junk on the walls covered by cheap white paint. But I think the piece was as much the painting of the snake as it was of the time and effort in doing a very physical job and giving very personal care for something that is ‘useless’. 

They always wanted more and more work, always saying ‘Okay why don’t you do something else now?’, they really focused less on the craft and more on the production. 

I ask if this signifies a shift from the traditional anti-establishment, bohemian lifestyle of the art world. If this new agenda signified a transition towards art being a means of financially sustainable living in order to better align with the ideals of a capitalist society. 

I don’t think so. They encouraged the stereotypical starving artist making art and struggling. Maybe they just wanted artists who showed a political struggle with the political, contemporary world. The conversation was always ‘Where is your art situated within the contemporary world, and what is it asking? Who is it fighting? How is it political? 

I’m worried, you know, that my hands will forget what my mind remembers

Is this shift in forcus to speedy production and easy comprehension – under the guise of ‘political’ or ‘edgy’- because there is a bigger focus within the arts to ensure it offers a sustainable living for artists? Or, more to the point, because now art has become more deeply capitalised in order to exist within a country that doesn’t always appreciate it. 

Oh without a doubt. That’s why there’s such a push now to create digital artworks that can be shared more easily, and sold online or used to generate work and an income. So students would buy a drawing tablet rather than paints because in the long run, the tablet is financially cheaper. But I still felt judged for doing digital art – maybe because it was still too personal or ornamental, or still never at a fast enough pace to satisfy the university public. Either way, it doesn’t feel like painting anymore, and I haven’t painted in so long. I’m worried, you know, that my hands will forget what my mind remembers. 

We pack up the plates and our coffee cups, preparing to get on with our respective days. I look around at Luca’s artwork, adoring the walls of our home. I prepare to write of our morning, and as I flick on my computer I hope my hands won’t forget what my mind remembers.

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