I am seventeen years old and am struggling to find what I️’m meant to be. I’ve loved art ever since I can remember but also am very passionate about philosophy and social sciences.
I feel so pressured to pick the right thing to study, and university is so expensive that I can’t afford to make the wrong decision.
Sometimes I feel like, if I don’t choose an artistic career, I will regret it my whole life, but I also wonder how necessary university is to succeed as a visual artist.
How am I supposed to make a decision that will shape my whole future at such a young age?
And how do I know what’s the right thing to do?
Dear 6:23 P.M.,
You’re too young to give up on the relatively practical and doable dream of pursuing art.
You’re approaching a turn in the road, and are uncertain about everything that comes next. This is a common place to be at seventeen. And it’s a feeling that you’ll have a lot if you end up becoming an artist.
The hardest thing about being an artist is that there isn’t really a set way of doing it. So there are a lot of unknowns, not only at the beginning but all along the way.
What kind of art should you make? How will you make money? Who will your art be for? How will you structure your days? What will your community be? What steps will you take toward your goals?
You won’t be able to answer any of these questions easily, and none of the answers that you do eventually come to will remain reliable for very long. You’ll feel around in the dark, finding a scrap of an answer here, a scrap there. The same as the confusion of building any life—only endless, constant, and often on your own.
There are lots of ways to make it as an artist, and really no concrete line between making it and not making it. You can make art your career by showing in galleries and selling your work; you can be a professor. You can work as a graphic designer or tattoo artist. You can make money by winning a lot of grants. You can have a day job to pay the bills and also make your art. You can even have a big, life-consuming career and also manage to be an artist. For some of these—professor, showing in galleries—it’s helpful to have a master’s degree. Which is maybe a good reason to study art in college.
I have complicated feelings about college. I️ wasn’t particularly happy there. And besides a few classes (which made it all worth it), I don’t know if I learned much. But I’m glad I went. College can give you a bunch of things, besides giving you access to certain jobs and advanced degrees down the road. It gives you time to figure yourself out, and access to people who can offer useful advice.
But I️ do think that focussing on your art (while also, in another part of your mind, thinking meaningfully about how you’ll make money) while you’re in school is a good way to set yourself up to be an artist. And you’ll likely have opportunities to take classes in other fields as well.
Making a life as an artist is not easy, but it’s not necessarily harder than other ways of life. Work hard, look for people who can help guide you, and don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. As time passes, you’ll get better at sifting out the right answers from the wrong ones. And, by all means, focus also on philosophy, social science, and other stuff that interests you. Anyone who tells you that artists don’t also do other things or have other interests knows only bad artists.