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Vera Wang / Staff Illustrator

After some deliberation, I decided to bomb my Harvard interview. The story of how isn’t that important—I may have made a tasteless joke about the “Poo Fighters,” and then laughed too hard in my interviewer’s embarrassed, middle-aged, Harvard alum, face—but I thought about the gut hostility I’d felt towards this total stranger for a while. After I’d finished, stepping out of the Harold Washington Library into the icebox Chicago winter, I’d felt almost proud—take that, Ivy League! My jab at the Establishment was in, before heading off to meet destiny in some still-hazy dream of art school.

And yet, now, thinking back on my dumb arrogance, after two years spent in this civilizing center of higher learning, I feel like a bit of a dick. I’d spent all of high school building this mental division between academia and the “art world,” a dialectic into which I fit all of the things and the people that I cared about, somewhere between the Establishment and the commune, the robots and the free-thinkers, the Man and the People. So, don’t I seem like a sellout?

I thought I was for a while. But as I’ve come to realize, these divisive lines between the cool kids at Parsons and us don’t really exist; neither school can make the claim to have produced more or better artists, and there is no place on Earth that owns the monopoly on authenticity, creativity, or spirit. Maybe, then, in distinguishing between schools, we don’t react to the souls of places, but to their molds, the habits that they create, that we unknowingly witness in others without truly understanding them.

These habits are the invisible teachings of the schools we attend. Some of them are trivial: shower shoes, Clorox wipes, our body’s eventual adjustment to living in self-made squalor. Some of them are wonderful: the capacity of pure improvisation that two semesters of Lit Hum and CC have developed in us. And some of them are troubling: those that go unnoticed. I’m referring in particular to a habit I’ve felt affected by: the routine that Columbia develops in us that slowly stops us from freely making art.

This habit is born, I think, from two factors: a constant workload of heavy readings and the serious, academic nature of our studio art classes. We get acclimated to our M-W, T-Th schedule of readings in such a way that any free time is spent preparing for the next class, for the next reading response, and we are always looking to get ahead, facing an endless stream of hypothetical work. At the same time, the hours that artists do have to dedicate to their craft are generally spent making weekly projects for our classes. In this way, school gradually becomes the source for everything that we read and the end for everything that we create.

This aspect of the Columbia mold touches more than just the visual arts majors. I’ve heard, “Oh I used to paint,” “I used to draw,” and “I used to play guitar” more times than I can count, from students who’ve been too busy to enjoy making stuff. But in the case of students who came to this place very consciously trying to become Artists, to find the universe of Cohen and Kubrick, this habit of experiencing painting and reading as work gnaws away at the enjoyment we first felt in them without us even realizing it.

Columbia in itself is a wonderful, rich, contemplative place to study art—although, simply put, I believe it forms a habit of taking things with too much weight. So now, if our heads are jammed with definitions and techniques, it’s up to our own hands to find some freedom, enough at least to keep alive our stupid high school enthusiasm.

The synthesis of these two questions, “What is art?” and “How do I make it?” should be, I think, a natural process that requires space and freedom that schools different from Columbia may better provide. Yet, the critical thinking and the work ethic that we develop here are just as valuable for the making of art as they are for anything else. It seems that in order to reap the benefits of this very particular style of education, we have to be mindful of the different ways in which it shapes us, and fight against those habits we refuse to let define us. No school will swallow you and spit you back out four years later as an Artist. If you trust completely in Columbia’s path, it will confuse and consume you, and it will shape you more than you asked for. But maybe if we take a step back, doodle, avoid intellectualizing, get high, and remember the celebration of making pointless things, then the disjointed pieces of Columbia and ourselves will just fall into place.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore studying art, art history, and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. She really hopes not to be taken too seriously and just wants to have a good time. Perhaps, this is why she was not accepted at the better Ivy.

This op-ed is part of Scope on artists at Columbia. To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact

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