The Mental Toll of Art School: How the conventional art school critique model is detrimental to neuroatypical students

I am finding it so hard to write about this even as we speak, which is exactly why I need to do it.  My heart is pounding, even though it's just me and my keyboard all by our lonesomes.  I look at every sentence and second, third, fourth guess every word and the validity of every thought.  

“This is fucking stupid.”

“No one wants to hear your opinion.” 

“You are literally wasting everyone’s time and energy by asking them to read this.”

When one is being criticized in the presence of other people, a big part of the distress is associated with the sense of being shamed in the presence of other people. The criticism then takes on a collective quality where the judgment causes one to feel isolated into a shamed corner.      

— Suma Chand, MPhil, PhD (n.d.)

You see, I have a mental health disorder most known as Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), paired with depression, which is anxiety’s best friend.  There are a lot of descriptions of how SAD affects those who are diagnosed, everyone is uniquely terrifying.  For me, it's like a parasitic bully that has somehow invaded my body and is constantly telling me, “You’re not good enough, you are an inconvenience to those around you.”  SAD doesn’t just erode your own confidence, it also enforces that everyone else shares the contempt that you have for yourself.  

I thought that by following my passions and becoming an artist I could ease that self-hatred, but the effect was the complete opposite.

My entire tenure as an art student was dependent on two things: critiques and defenses.  It seems innocuous enough; you present the body of work you have completed in front of faculty and peers, and then you are peppered with questions wherein you must defend your body of work.  Many times professors and peers aggressively try to poke holes in your statement or find flaws in your work.  It’s simple, it’s transactional, it seems fair to most involved and is considered the gold standard as a higher educational grading system.  For most of my peers it was not just tolerable, but enjoyable.  For me, it was literally torture. 

From Christopher's series "The Passenger", 2020 (Archival ink on paper. 27 x 22 cm)

Every semester was a doomsday clock countdown for me waiting for the eventual torturous end.  That fear compounded, as the stress and pain and damage from the most recent semester caused more dread of the next.  I started losing my sense of self.  The art I was making was intended to avoid criticism, not express my own values or explore my own ideas.  I felt like my passion for being an artist was being stolen from me. I was quickly unraveling into loose threads of panic and depression. 

Kids with Social Anxiety Disorder have an intense fear that they are being judged or scrutinized by others, especially in social situations. They are plagued with concerns that they said or did something wrong, and they feel embarrassed and humiliated. They leave a social situation, particularly with kids or adults they don’t know well, and they obsess about what they said or did. Most often they’re certain they made fools of themselves, and they’re certain they’ll do it again.

— Gene Beresin, M.D (n.d.)

By the end of my third semester in my MFA program I stopped showing up on campus, I couldn’t bear what I thought my instructors and peers thought about me. I stopped going to my studio because I was afraid of what people thought of me.  This is where the spiral sets in and this is where schools need to recognize the needs of these students.  

I am sure a lot of faculty just thought I didn’t care, that I was aloof, I was accused of ghosting the program.  The separation caused confirmation bias and exponentially flew out of control.  Me being alone, obsessing over every critique and small statement directed towards me or my artwork and faculty just thinking I gave up.  The catch-22 of anxiety is that it distances us from those we need to ask for help. Most people have no problem self-advocating, but those of us with SAD or other mental health disorders can trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t deserving of help.  

From Christopher's series "The Passenger", 2020 (Archival ink on paper. 27 x 22 cm)

This is the part where depression kicks in to really take it up a notch.  This is the part where I fantasize about hanging myself in the studio because I feel I have no future.  This is the part where any interaction I have is driven by a constant state of panic and I have two settings: not being able to talk, or rambling incoherently.  This is the part where I have the unflappable feeling that I can’t ever be an artist. I have wasted years of my time. I’m going into debt just to be a failure at something I desperately wanted to be good at.  

The British Office for National Statistics recently looked at suicide rates by occupation. Data collected showed that people who work in arts-related jobs are up to four times more likely to commit suicide. Male artists are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, and with female artists, the risk quadruples. 

— The Arts and Suicide (2019)

We artists are killing ourselves at an incredibly high rate and it's time to do something about it. 

This where I would like to say to all of my professors and peers: I am not writing to blame you for any of this, you did the best you could with the information you had.  I am here to let us all know that we can all do better.  I hate to attack a problem without a solution.  Open and honest dialogue is essential to intellectual integrity, critiques are quite effective at that; but at what cost?  I think it's time we work together to reframe the conversation and put our heads together to find a solution that can include intellectual integrity and inclusiveness.  

First, we have to admit we have a real problem and it is damaging countless individuals who lack the ability to advocate for themselves. 

From Christopher's series "The Passenger", 2020 (Archival ink on paper. 27 x 22 cm)

References:

Beresin, G. (n.d.). Living in Fear of Criticism and Humiliation: The Problem of Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from Living in Fear of Criticism and Humiliation: The Problem of Social Anxiety Disorder

Chand, S., Annie, Joshua, Keith, Young, A., G., H., … Kodakkal, P. (n.d.). Criticism: Depression and Anxiety. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/criticism-depression-and-anxiety

The Arts and Suicide. (2019, September 10). Retrieved from https://njtheatrealliance.org/news/arts-and-suicide


About the Author

Christopher Evans (b.1985, Schenectady, NY, USA) is an artist, educator, and writer. He holds an MA in Studio Arts from the University at Albany and a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of South Florida.

His work and writings focus on mental health disorders, stemming from his own depression, anxiety, and trauma. His work is saturated with obviousness, grotesqueness, clichés, and bad jokes as he tries to navigate life while he straddles two worlds; with a foot in each. Christopher currently works and resides in Saratoga Springs, NY.

You can discover Christopher's art on his Artzine gallery.

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