Monday, February 17, 2014

Is competition a good thing in art education?

Is competition good for art students? Here's a historical description of competition in the past, but you can skip over that to the end of the post where I pose some basic questions for discussion.

In his book about Paris in 1900, Richard Whiteing described the kinds of competition that art students engaged in:

"In the atelier you have the stimulus of all sorts of competitions. There is the monthly contest for the right to choose your place. The professor looks at your work, marks it as first, second, third, and so on, in the order of merit; and as it is marked, so you have the right to plant your easel where you will for all the month to come. It registers a step in honor, and it precludes bad blood. Then comes the annual competition for the medal, or a tremendous struggle for a place in some special class....With this we have examinations in history, ornament, perspective, anatomy. Students are supposed to know something about these collaterals of their great subject. Many take the history and the perspective in a perfunctory way, feeling that the strain is not there, and that drawing and painting are still the heart of the mystery."  
"Beyond this, of course, there is the struggle for the Prix de Rome — very properly restricted to Frenchmen. It is something like a prize — the winner has free quarters in the art capital of the world on a liberal allowance from the state. The first heat is a sketch in oils, and the result, of course, leaves many out of the race. The second is a figure in oils. For the third, the few left standing are sent to paint against one another for their lives on a subject given by the school. Now, there are all sorts of possibilities of unfair play in a competition of this sort, and against them authority has taken due precaution. A man may get outside help, and bring in a work that is only half his own; and even if he does every bit of it, he may still have fed his invention on the contraband of borrowed ideas. So, to prevent all that, they put him in a kind of monastic cell in the school itself, and there for three mortal months, until his task is done, he has to live and work, with no communication from the outer world. He is what is called en loge. He brings in his own traps, and he is as effectually under lock and key as any Chinese scholar competing for the prize of Peking. The moving-in day for the Prix de Rome is one of the sights of the Latin Quarter, with its baggage-trains of personal gear ranging from the easel of study to the fiddle of recreation. When it is all over, and the best man has won, he settles for four years in the capital of Italy to rummage at his ease in its treasure-houses of the art of all time. Of course he has to rummage on a plan. Paris requires of him a work every year, to show that he has been making good use of his time. If this is of unusual merit, it is bought by the government."
Some thoughts....and then I want to hear yours.
This description raises a lot of thoughts about competition in the arts in our times. Friendly competition, even if there's no prize in view, can bring out the best in amicable rivals. For those aspiring to professional work in art or music, the number of jobs is far more limited than the number of hopeful applicants. One might argue that being seared in the furnace of competition in the school environment prepares young artists for the rigors of making a living.

But not all art students want to enter that competitive world. What good would competition do for people who are studying art as amateurs--literally for the love of it, people who are trying to top their personal best.

Competition has other downsides. It is great if you're the winner, but winning every competition, especially in a regional environment, can lead to complacency. It might inspire those who lose out to work harder, but it can discourage or demoralize others. Or it might force them to conform for the sake of winning and thereby extinguish their flame of uniqueness.

Although some art schools and ateliers have a rigid set of expectations and standards that everyone agrees to upon enrolling, it's not that way in the larger art world. Our art world is so different from that of 19th century Paris that it's hard to imagine any group of students or academics agreeing on universal standards for judging. Do competitions in our day then become an exercise in second-guessing what the judge is likely to pick, and whether the dollar cost of entering a competition makes it worth the marketing value of getting a prize? That's a lot different from the Prix de Rome: it's more like an advertising roulette based on commercial concerns.

I would especially love to hear from teachers who have seen the good or bad results of competition in their classrooms. I'm hoping to hear how the contemporary ateliers with rigorous standards use competition in their pedagogy. And I'd like to hear from students who would like to share stories of the sting or stimulus of being engaged in a competition.
The quote is from Paris of To-Day by Richard Whiteing


Tom Hart said...

What an excellent line of inquiry! Alhough the painting and illustration courses that I took were rigorous, they weren't competitive in a formal sense. The competition was there but it was more against one's self with an unspoken, informal competition against the others in the class, using mutually understood standards against which we measured ourselves (and were measured). The successful illustrators of the present and past were the gold standard, basically.

In my earlier life, my "competitive art" experience was in the world of shows. In that sphere, the answer to your question "Do competitions... become an exercise in second-guessing what the judge is likely to pick...?". The answer is a resounding YES. For me, personally, those shows and contests are worse than useless.

Anonymous said...

I think in terms of education it comes down to the fact that education as a whole should really be catered to the interests and strengths of an individual student. Like you say some might be in it for the love of it in an attempt to beat their personal best. Then, if that's so then they shouldn't be graded competitively but based upon their progression. However, those who would benefit the most from friendly competition should be allowed to do so, but it must be the teacher's responsibility to keep the competition fun and friendly.

Tom Sarmo said...

I agree with Dustin. To add: Teachers should present competition as an option in life, like most other things are options. Just because culture pushes competition as good, doesn't mean it's good for everyone. While some may thrive and grow with it, competition often kills curiosity and experimentation. Those parts of art broaden artists, ideas, and life way beyond medals, prizes, and temporary accolades.

Unknown said...

As a middle school art teacher, it is a challenge to have a program that opens every students' eyes to the world of art, while at the same time recognizing those who are beginning to discover that they have exceptional talent! My goal is to have units and projects in which everyone can be successful to some degree.

The Scholastic Art Program is an excellent program. Teachers are invited to send their best student work. Standards are high for both technique and originality. I try to stress to students that it is an honor to be chosen to represent our school. I explain that it's a "long shot", and I hope they realize that they are already the "winners" for our school. This year I sent our 17 best works. Only two were accepted as honorable mention.

It was a disappointment to some degree, but at the same time, an honor for the winners. I always question, "Were those really the BEST?" and "Would different judges have chosen different pieces?"

Probably, but welcome to the world of art!

Competition is a part of every aspect of our society, from academics to applying for jobs. Winning and losing well are both opportunities for students.

In short, I do believe competition is good, but it is a challenge for art educators to have a balanced program, in which every student they teach is engaged and challenged at a level that is appropriate for that student.

bill said...

In schools this is so dependent on situation and make-up of the classroom. The ability levels in my classes are so varied that competition would be meaningless. Students know who has come into the class with years of drawing experience. Some just can't compete. My job is about individuality and helping a student find a path. There are certainly schools where the level of ability is high across the board. I believe competition offers insight as to where one stands in such a situation. I don't believe, however, competition should be a motivation in or after school.

I do believe after school that competitions can play a vital role as long as one understands the parameters, plusses and minuses. Entering and competing with the best in the field can provide targeted exposure and a certain stamp of approval.

Matthew Kerr said...

I teach an illustration class for interior design students at the local technical college.

We don’t have “competitions” but at the beginning of every class each student posts their homework on the wall for group critique using the PPQ format. (Praise, Polish, Question The question is rhetorical so the student is forced to keep mum, internalize the question and really think about the answer.) Every student sees their classmates work and, more or less, understands where they are in the pecking order. In this way the students that are lagging can be inspired by the good work and the students that are doing well can be proud…but still pick up useful information from the other critiques to aid in their improvement.

Over the years teaching class (and in my own studies) I’ve found that having a few really good students in the class elevates the level of the entire class. I’m not sure why, but having more high achievers to emulate must help the students visualize their own success.

On a professional level and with regard to the idea of conforming “for the sake of winning and thereby extinguish their flame of uniqueness”; the ASAI (American Society of Architectural Illustrators) has a “members choice” award that is given every year in addition to the more formal categories of competition. Thus allowing those with fantastic ideas that may not conform to the standard dogma of what architectural illustration must be to participate in earnest.

Good question. Thanks so much for the blog. It’s amazing. So much helpful content…and every day to boot!

Dan Gurney said...

In over three decades of teaching kindergarten—where art is still an important part of the curriculum—I’ve gradually and steadily abandoned competitions and rewards.

For me, the allure of competition had been in large part because I focused on the triumphant. I also noticed the short term results in the heat of the contests—kids striving to win.

But at the end of the day when I allowed myself to look at and think about everyone else involved in my kindergarten competitions—the vast majority of those involved—I saw that my competitions had this cost/benefit profile: One winner and a roomful of losers.

Competition is devastating to both individuals and society. That conclusion is, scientifically speaking, quite well settled—and yet it is widely unaccepted culturally.

Almost twenty years ago, Alfie Kohn published a thoroughly researched and carefully reasoned book titled No Contest. He argued that competition is inherently destructive everywhere it exists: whether in families, classrooms, athletic endeavors, and, yes, even in business. He reviewed a great deal of formal psychological and sociological studies that support his thesis. As Neil geGrasse Tyson has said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.”

I’ll close with another quote from Tyson: “Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging those who have not.”

marctaro said...

Excellent topic! Very interesting to hear you bring it up.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as I'm currently teaching a course in design for video games (what we call concept art). This is about as competitive a field as you'll find anywhere. There are very few available jobs, which are very rewarding, and highly sought after. Yet, it is one of the few jobs open to an artist where they have full time employment with excellent benefits and really tremendous potential for upward mobility.

It's a field where skills are everything. Much like illustration, candidates are judged harshly against standards of objective realism, and/or audience response. You can either draw something, or you can't. You can either think up enough ideas on time, or you can't. You can produce a winning, design people love (on budget) or - you can't. Performance is all that matters.

Yet, the art eduction I've encountered personally was completely without competition. Leaving student unprepared for the reality that they must deliver quality in order to succeed. Students usually need a few years after school to raise their standards, if they even hope to compete.

Overall - I'm coming down in favor of competition in art education. I feel students need the dose of reality - some very real measurement of where they stand and what they need to to do excel. If this is not provided, I worry that we (educators) are taking their money and returning nothing but dreams.

Karen Eade said...

The first problem with competition in art (as opposed to athletics, for example) is that there is no agreed objective standard to which competitors must aspire or supersede. There is no artistic equivalent of the 3 minute mile. In short, the standard for judging winners is always subjective. Hardly anybody liked Cezanne's work during his lifetime, for instance. People thought it was weird. Now he is widely regarded as the father of Modernism and his pieces fetch millions. This is the second problem with competition in art: how do you know you have "won"? Generally speaking, it is because you have hit someone's hot button - a judge or a buyer - and a monetary value - a prize or a price - can be ascribed to you. What, in all honesty, has either of these things got to do with art? But here is my third and final problem: I have just paid fees to enter 3 pieces into a juried competition. If they are not short-listed I will CRY. So there you go. Competition is pointless but winning is important. I don't know how to draw a conclusion. Thanks for the wonderful blog.

Unknown said...

A very interesting question, to be sure. I think competition is a double-edged sword. As a student, one of the last things I want is to be forced into competition with my peers, especially if it's an uneven competition. There are far better ways of accomplishing improvement. However, I feel that at the same time, voluntary competition can be a very useful tool. An agreement among friends to engage in some friendly competition can be very beneficial. I think it boils down to what a number of others have said--if you want it, competition can be a tool for growth. But if you don't, having it forced upon you can be severely detrimental. Wonderful post, though, and great question--thank you for asking it!

David Teter said...

"Is competition a good thing in art education?"
I think it depends on the what level of education the question is applied.
I agree with 'Dan Gurney' that it is not good at lower levels of education (kindergarten) because these kids are still in developmental stages of life.

But in higher levels of education like college it is a good thing, as 'marctaro' says.
At this level it is geared towards performing in the real world after school so it is used as a teaching tool.
I remember student competitions in college as a positive experience. The winners had their work published. The sponsors of the competitions were professional organizations outside of the school and represented what it would be like in the professional world.

And remember, higher education is voluntary, you go because you want to go. Education before college level is mandatory. So competition in (art) education prior probably does not help much. As 'bill' says it should be geared towards "...individuality and ... finding a path."

krystal said...

Nope. I don't really agree with competitions in art. I think that certificates of excellence or merit are fine; it shows a certain level of competency, but not really for art. I grew up in a society that had a VERY rigorous math and science programme, and the discipline needed for that programme (where we did have to sit an exam at age 11 that determined our path for the rest of our lives)outlasted ANYTHING I have ever had to do in my life (including college). I can see the value now of that sort of education. But to be quite honest, I think that the saying that rings true for art students competing is "the students with As become Academics, the student with Bs become bosses and the students with Cs become CEOs". There is also a huge difference, I was reading, between the way we create when we are young and when we are older. To subject young children or maturing children to those standards is often a waste because some brilliant artists emerge later in life (ever heard of the architect, Lou Kahn?) while many so called child prodigies became exemplars of mediocrity because they could only copy really well and couldn't really create or build in a meaningful way. That's my opinion.

nate marcel said...

I teach art at a Community College, and although I would like to build a competitive angle into my curriculum it would be utterly counter productive and absurd. I am happy today after teaching for ten years to turn all of my instructing capacity on getting students to SEE their world through art, to APPRECIATE what artist do and what hard work the practice and the learning is, and to INSPIRE them to draw, stressing that drawing can be a lifelong focus of expression and enjoyment no matter what skill level you are at.
That said, I also make sure they understand there is an unwritten "leveling up" that skills must take on if a career in making stuff for other people is to happen.
Maybe in another ten years I'll figure out a way to have the cake and eat it to.

Kyle said...

I know that I can't compete right now in the professional world, and so I study and stuff around my work schedule and family. But If i can create something that beings me joy, or better yet, someone else, then I feel like I'm on top of the world!

College was a roller coaster for me, as far as "competition" goes. I wasn't the worst, and I wasn't the best, but I was sure encouraged by seeing great art and it certainly didn't impede me (personally)

since college I've had some real failures and a minuscule amount of success, but that is ok.

the hardest part about college was also the nicest thing. you didn't have to compete. the problem was that I wanted so badly for someone to tell me I was mixing paint wrong, or putting it down wrong, etc., but some of the classroom ideologies were more about ideas than technical skill.

Other classes were wonderful because some teachers were bold enough to tell me when something wasn't working, when they were disappointed, and then how to fix it.

I guess I feel like competition is healthy if it drives a person's ambition to learn, and awakens their desire to progress. If thinking about doing art or being ok with an idea is where you are taught it is ok to stop then I think complacency takes the reins.

in the end, regardless of whether we go to school or not, our education is on us. Most of us won't be awesome out of the gate.

Unknown said...

Competition in art school? No thanks.

Some interesting lessons about the outside world, where capitalism and competition rule, about how to survive with an art degree, soms basics of marketing your work, finances, ... etc: yes please :-).

Robert J. Simone said...

Absolutely, unequivocally, competition is a good thing. A world without it, would be less fun. For me, winning local and regional competitions doesn't cause complacency. It fuels interest and desire to compete on a broader stage. Makes me work harder each year. Yes, the ego gets bruised along the way but it heals. Yes, there are those who try to get an edge by doing derivative work, getting outside help and then calling the work their own, forging relationships with judges, etc. There are politics and back biting. Who cares. Good painting, great painting rises to the top. Competition shouldn't be compulsory but it should be available. Those without the appetite or constitution for it should stay away. And may the best work win......

Marcus Carneiro said...

Ivo and Andrew Wales, gave me an idea.

Maybe it would be good to have lessons about competition, with the instructor guiding the class through various external art competitions and helping them make sense of whats happening.

How students will be ranked in each different competition will be of little relevance, what will be evaluated is their understating of the dynamics of each event.

Of course it will be challenging to master this subject to the point of instructing other people about it.

James Gurney said...

Thanks to everyone for a wide range of views, all well expressed. One thing I guess I could add is the related thought of how to teach cooperation, a skill much needed in a movie or game studio, a comic collaboration, or a master/workshop scenario. Although a major focus of schools should be how to pursue an individual vision with steadfast devotion, schools should also offer young artists experiences and skills for working as part of a team. That's something that really wasn't taught when I was in school, but I've heard personnel people at major studios say that they would appreciate it if people were better at it. And of course it's possible to have cooperation and competition going at the same time, if teams are set up to create short films for festivals, for example.

Bdszoke said...

I guess I might as well chime in, even if it is a bit late.
In college I originally started out as an art major, until switching my major to history (where I am now applying for a PhD). Part of the reason behind this switch was the dual nature of what Mr. Gurney so eloquently referred to as "sting and stimulus" in the field, especially in computer graphics.
There is a high level of competitiveness in our modern art schools, with a much stronger focus on art for industry's sake as opposed to art for art's sake. Within this, in many of the classes I took, the professors would hold competitions or public dissections of the student's work in specific categories during the quarter. On the one hand this did encourage the students to see how they did against each other, and allowed them to judge the specific technical merits of a 3d model, such as clean topology, organized UV map layout, animation quality etc. I found this competition ( especially when coupled with the breakdown) made sense in the technical aspects of the art. However, this left little room for innovation or doing things outside of "the proper" way, and was made harder by the constantly changing technology. Unlike in the past, working in digital means that one always has to keep constantly up to date with the latest software and tools, often at enormous expense. In addition, the subjective nature of judging at larger competitions meant that it was easy to feel discouraged, all the more so when thanks to information age, submissions and talent is truly global, drastically increasing the pool of competition. Placing first in artistic merit is all fine, but placing last on the technical sides is often enough to make students drop out or change majors.

From the perspective of a historian, though, I am not sure that we really can compare the environment of modern art competitions to the environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Society during that period placed an enormous emphasis at succeeding at the cost of your fellow man, a certain tinge of social Darwinism creeping into it.

It was expected and demanded that men would compete against each other, that there was a right and wrong way to do art. There was also a very strong tinge of nationalism in the mix, with various national styles or schools of art being seen as a reflection of the nation or people that made it.

This is vastly different from the modern ideal of individualism and creativity. The modern ideal, at least from my perspective seems to embrace freedom from politics, a degree of raw creativity, and being different far more than the art world did in 1900.

Unfortunately neither school of thought breeds the cooperation needed in modern industrial art, especially computer graphics, where large teams will be broken down into specialties - ie animators, modelers (who build the objects), texture artists (who digitally paint, and create the materials that the model is made of) etc.

Ultimately, I don't believe that competition in art is either a good or a bad thing, I just think it's an inherent part of any art course, whether professional or hobbyist. Whether it drives the artist further depends on the nature of the competition and instruction itself. I would certainly say that the world of modern art competition, within classrooms at least tends to have a greater regard for how the criticism will affect the students.

It makes me wonder if in a modern art school, a young man named Adolf Hiedler might have remained in school and not gone on to become the monster known as Adolf Hitler.

Amanda Teicher said...

I'm a student at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle. It's mostly adult education, but there's a (totally separate) program for teens. I've been studying there for two years, and I've participated in four competitions. I've won one prize, and I'm awaiting results for another (the awards ceremony is in a few days). In two competitions, I didn't win a prize.

I agree that it's wonderful to win. It's great to call yourself an award-winning artist and list the award on your website. But it hurts to lose, especially if you did your best.

For me, the value in school competitions is that I get busy working on a project to submit that will be good enough to compete. It's the deadline that I find useful, and the prospect of showing and being compared to the other students. It's not fair that a part-time student like me has to compete with the full-time atelier students, but it's a small school, so what can be done?

Also, the judging is always subjective, because guest jurors are brought in, and we never have any idea about what kind of criteria will be used in the judging. Most guest jurors like modern or at least interpretive pieces (and exceptional realist pieces) but most of our classes provide realist training.

So I keep doing my thing, trying, hoping to win, but usually not. I try to remember that every time I sell a piece, I'm getting what I really want.

Unknown said...

For me, working in a competitive mindset always produces bad results. It means that while I'm working on a piece, my thoughts are only in the future, thinking about winning the competition. I am no longer present, in the moment, with my drawing or painting. It just becomes something that divides my attention, and in the end thats what I need most when creating art.

Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

I suppose competition in art is viable, if you want to achive an effect or a subject as a result of the psychology of the competition. I think this should be very situational and not applied at all times in the artists' classroom. For exmaple; if the effect that one might want to achive is aggression or power, competition can definitely help, but it's a different case if what you want to get out of the finished piece is the oppposite of those stated above, like romance or tranquility. I understand that competiton is widely used as a motivating factor in a wide variety of areas but as I said, it is limited in art due to the nature of the art itself. Anyway, this is a stimulating discussion, and I've learned alot by the insights in the article and the comments as well! Thank you for sharing these with us.

Aisha Williams @

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