Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

When we think of the word ‘art’ or ‘artist’ in layman terms, we often tend to think of paint, canvas and marble busts. Or we imagine a fanatical, bedraggled, bohemian genius, an anomaly or an otherworldly being cut off from society; a lone ranger painting or sculpting away something in solitude and dying unwanted and penniless.

One would think that these myopic and romanticised stereotypes would by now be considered trite. Yet that does not seem to be the case. In recent years, many colleges and universities in the country have introduced art and design programmes with high enrollment ratios. Then there are art dealers, critics, writers, curators with art galleries and exhibitions that are held regularly. Also, many of our artists have taken on celebrity status in the international art world. All of that does not matter because, despite these developments, there is a stigma attached to art that persists even today.

So, how true are these assumptions? Do students simply sit in art schools to while away time because they are ‘not smart’? As if the admission process is not intense and competitive enough, the foundation year of most art schools is rigorous. Students are introduced to and expected to become familiar with a multitude of skills and gain a certain level of understanding in a variety of disciplines in a very short span of time. These may include subjects such as sculpture, drawing, drafting, ceramics and design, etc. This excludes the theory and history classes, for which there are written assignments and end-of-term research-based presentations. Problem-solving, material experimentation, extensive field research, time management, creativity, manual dexterity and oratory skills to explain ideas are just some of the key requirements for these subjects. Moreover, this schedule intensifies in terms of workload when students take up their majors and can be particularly physically and emotionally exhausting in their last thesis year.

Stereotypes associated with art need to be eradicated

Juries and tutorials where students are expected to defend their ideas in front of their classfellows and a panel of professionals accomplished in their respective art-related fields can often be a nerve-wracking, traumatic and demanding experience.

Unlike other disciplines where everything is textual and is likely to be accomplished at home, in a computer lab or in the library, students in art schools are often expected to complete their work in studios or in design labs. This may involve long hours, particularly at the end of each term, and students often end up pulling all-nighters, a fact that baffles most parents.

A lack of awareness and understanding, and the absence of seminars or frameworks that introduce the arts in a comprehensive manner, as well as an overall failure of our educational system to produce analytical, critical

young thinkers, means that neither parents nor students who are attempting to survey career choices understand that art and design schools demand as much ingenuity, intelligence and hard work as any science discipline. The world has changed and various specialised art-related disciplines have emerged that should encourage students and parents alike to reconsider their views.

Amina Ejaz is an assistant professor in the cultural studies department at the National College of Arts (Lahore) and relates her experience, saying that she came from a business background academically but, despite scepticism and opposition by her family, she completed a master’s in art theory. After two years, she was appointed a permanent faculty member and her specialised degree helped her obtain that position.

At the 2017 Karachi Biennale, artist Ayaz Jokhio produced a mock classroom with puppet sculptures of children in school uniform who automatically stood up as one entered. Was he trying to mock our mental conditioning and insular views?

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 17th, 2019