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Art and the Undergraduate
Courses in painting and sculpture have always been risky choices in a college that produces more CEOs than any other in the land. But a surprising number of undergraduates find the studio as alluring as the classroom and the lab.

John Choi didn’t come to Yale to be an art major. “I knew that I wanted to take courses in art when I came here as a freshman, but my original field of interest was molecular biophysics and biochemistry,” says Choi, now a senior. “I remember telling people that I would most likely be a doctor, but that if I could pick a dream job, it would be making commercials.”

Once at Yale, Choi duly took the courses required for admission to medical school, but he also selected courses in painting and sculpture, as well as an introductory class in graphic design, taken during his sophomore year. It was the design course that prompted Choi to consider a career in art more seriously. “All these years, I had really wanted to be a graphic designer, but thought that it was too impractical,” he says. “Then I realized that there are plenty of people who are commercial artists who make a good living and have rewarding lives. Why couldn’t I be one of those people? I had to give it a shot.”

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the switch. Choi’s father, bitterly disappointed, accused his son of being too lazy to do the work required to get into medical school. “So I finally had to declare myself an adult and make the first real decision of my life,” says Choi, “and that was to study art.”

It’s not surprising that Choi’s father found his son’s choice unnerving. Although music, theater, and the other arts thrive at Yale College, its prestige rests on the reputation of its traditional academic departments. The high cost of a Yale education and the uncertain job prospects for artists can make the decision to study art seem risky or even foolish. And although the Yale School of Art is regarded as one of the best graduate art programs in the country, its undergraduate component is less well known. Yet every year a small number of students—there are 29 art majors in this year’s graduating class of 1,284—choose to devote their time at Yale College to graphic design, as Choi has, or to painting or printmaking, to sculpture or photography. Far from squandering the opportunities offered by Yale, these students say they are getting the best of two worlds: top-flight instruction in studio art, and a superior liberal arts education.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the undergraduate art program at Yale is its relationship with the School of Art. Established in 1864, Yale’s School of the Fine Arts, as it was called, was the first American art school affiliated with an institution of higher learning. For its first half-century, in fact, the School offered only an undergraduate degree, or B.F.A.; it awarded its first master’s in 1936. The bachelor’s of fine arts was discontinued in 1975, but the current director of undergraduate studies in art, Richard Lytle, says that “our program today is in many ways the child” of the original five-year degree. “We don’t give B.F.A.s anymore, but we still retain the same enthusiasm for educating young artists, and the same belief that their development should be dealt with seriously and with concern,” he says. The School of Art taught 732 undergraduates this year, more than any other professional school at the University.

The graduate and undergraduate art programs at Yale share the same faculty, which means that “artists at the height of their power and maturity are teaching people at the beginning of their careers,” says Richard Benson, who was appointed last year to succeed David Pease as dean. Undergraduate art classes are small—their average size is between 15 and 20 students—and intense. “Unlike lecture classes, we are in constant contact with our students, giving them continual feedback,” says Richard Lytle. “It’s more like a laboratory environment, or the kind of closeness that occurs in learning a foreign language.”

Lytle’s analogy is apt, says his predecessor in the job, Janice Murray. “When you teach undergraduates, you’re teaching them beginning language about how we see, and that’s never boring,” she says. Murray, a graphic design professor who was director of undergraduate studies from 1994 to 1996, says that she and her colleagues find it “refreshing” to teach College students. “These are people who are willing to try things out, whose reputation isn’t on the line,” she observes. “It’s a very different experience from teaching in the graduate program, where the students have already committed themselves to an area of study.”

The presence of such graduate students constitutes another kind of education for undergraduates. Students enrolled in the School of Art serve as teaching assistants for many College art classes, but Richard Benson suggests that students gain by simply sharing space with each other. “Undergraduates here tend to be extraordinarily bright in a conventional way, while graduate students have extraordinary powers of imagination,” he says. “Bringing them together benefits both groups.” Because distinctions between undergraduate and graduate students are less sharply defined than in other University departments, art majors enjoy an unusually collegial and egalitarian environment. Undergraduates often call their professors by their first names, and intellectual independence and self-sufficiency is encouraged. “I tell my classes, ‘We are not giving you student projects,’” says Ron Jones, a sculpture professor. “These are issues that adult artists wrestle with all the time.”

Although they may have more freedom to direct their studies than their classmates, art majors say that their studio courses are every bit as demanding as Yale’s academic offerings—perhaps more. “I’ve been really impressed with the rigor of art classes here, with how much is expected of students,” says Suena Huang '98, a painting major. “Communicating an idea visually is just as difficult as understanding a theory in physics class. Choosing which color to use, which elements to bring out and which to subdue—it’s hard, and there are no concrete answers.” Art majors must enroll in a minimum of 14 related classes, including five terms of advanced courses, three courses in the history of art, and a year-long senior project. A typical art class meets for four hours a week, but that time is usually spent reviewing and critiquing student work; art majors say they put many more hours a week into actually painting, drawing, and taking photographs.

Of course, they have a full slate of other courses, too—but students say that the artistic and the academic often complement each other. Suena Huang, who divides her time between the Art and Architecture Building and Science Hill, says that chemistry and painting demand similar virtues: “patience, perseverance, open-mindedness, and attention to detail.” In addition, she says, “my experience in the lab is a really rich source of material for my art.” Indeed, art students say they often bring ideas and images from their studies into the studio. “No artistic endeavor exists in a vacuum, and an academic campus provides a context for all of your work,” notes John Choi, whose senior project depicts animated organic chemistry reactions. Choi’s classmate Stephanie Sandoz '97, a double major in art and international studies, is using her knowledge of Asian cultures to create a Japanese-style folding screen; senior art major Heather Landers is designing a magazine based on James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book she first encountered in a Yale English class.

But many of the benefits of a University education to an art student are less literal. Professors who have taught at art schools or conservatories say that art majors at Yale are unusually sophisticated in their approach. “Yale students display a remarkable ability to choose meaningful and original subjects for their work,” says sculptor Ron Jones. “Their grounding in a liberal arts education gives them something to think and make art about.” Although an art school might have offered her more thorough technical training, Stephanie Sandoz, who plans to become a professional graphic designer, says that she feels she’ll have “plenty of time to learn specific skills later. I would rather have developed critical and analytical thinking skills in college, and that’s exactly what I’ve done here.” Her adviser, John Gambell, suggests that a broad-based education is no disadvantage in graduate school, either. “I’ve found that people with a liberal arts background are often the strongest students in the Yale graduate art program,” he says. “They have a breadth of knowledge and culture, and can articulate what they see.”

Acquiring such intellectual breadth takes time, however—time spent away from the studio. Like other Yale College students, art majors must amass 36 credits over four years, distributing them among languages and literatures, the humanities, and the sciences and social sciences. Art students say that the scheduling of academic classes often conflicts with their art courses, and that the demands of reading, writing papers, and studying can leave little time for art. Richard Lytle estimates that a Yale art major spends less than half as many hours in the studio as a student enrolled in an art school might. “But those who are hungry for more time to work find ways to do it,” he adds. “I’ve been impressed by their level of commitment.” Sculptor Ron Jones says that the key to teaching art students who are also Yale students is “not to fight it, but to take advantage of it.” Says Jones: “I try to harness their ambition in the service of art. Yale students want to do well, and they will work tirelessly.” He also relies on the round-the-clock accessibility of Hammond Hall, on Mansfield Street, where the sculpture studios are located. “Undergraduates are there at all hours,” he says. “They may be in class all day, but they can work on their art at night.”

If finding the time for art is difficult for Yale students, finding the courage to try something new—and the humility to accept unaccustomed failure—may be even more so. “Art is different from anything else, and people who have been very focused academically have to unlearn some conventionalized ways of thinking,” says Laura Newman, a professor of painting. “It can be hard to get them to do what they don’t already know how to do.” Michael Roemer, a professor who holds a joint appointment in American Studies and in Yale’s small filmmaking department, says that students in his introductory classes often receive a jolt. “All of a sudden, they realize that they’re not very good,” he says. “It isn’t easy for them to find themselves doing work that’s obvious and clumsy.” A random group of young people, given cameras and told to shoot a film, would probably produce similar results, says Roemer. “But it won’t stay that way for long. The students here learn with incredible speed and motivation, and they do terrifically good things once they get going.”

Once they do get going, however, there may be few places at Yale for them to go. The undergraduate art program offers only three classes in filmmaking this year, for example, three in photography, and one in printmaking. The intense focus of the graduate school, with which the undergraduate program is so intimately linked, does not afford great variety in its academic offerings. On the other hand, says graphic designer John Gambell, Yale’s limited selection encourages versatility. “There aren’t enough courses in any one medium to fill a schedule, so the students have to learn to work in all media,” he says. The relatively small number of classes offered by the art department—it lists 24 courses in this year’s catalog, as compared to history’s 128—also means that hundreds of Yale students who want to study art must be turned away each year.

Richard Benson says that undergraduate teaching was reduced during a round of belt-tightening at the beginning of the decade, and that expanding such instruction is one of his priorities as dean. At the very top of his list, however, is improving the facilities that undergraduate and graduate art students share.

“This building is difficult to make things in,” he says of the 34-year-old Art and Architecture building. “The lighting is bad, the ceiling height is oppressive, and the ventilation is poor.” He would like to give students more studio space, he says, and to bring all of the art programs under one roof.

That roof will likely be the one at 1156 Chapel Street, a now- vacant building which the University purchased last December. Officials hope that a renovation, expected to be complete by the fall of 1998, will provide new classrooms, studios, and exhibition space for use by undergraduate and graduate students alike. It will be the first time in more than three decades that the Art School has had its own headquarters. But Benson is also determined to maintain and even strengthen its ties with other departments. “The School of Art has become more disconnected from the University than it once was, and than it should be,” he says. “Reconnecting is a long-term goal of mine.”

That effort might include creating more joint appointments like Michael Roemer's, encouraging more curricular collaboration with other fields (for years, painter Andrew Forge and English professor John Hollander taught a class called “Word and Image” together), or simply making it possible for more students, from more departments, to experience art at Yale. “We offer art classes to undergraduates because we hope they’ll find something in them that resonates,” says Janice Murray. “Whether they become artists or not, they’ll use what they learn about themselves in art class for the rest of their lives.”  the end


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