Lately, I have been receiving opinions from my peers (and even professors) that grades are irrelevant. I don't want to imply a lack of rigor or competence present at the school I attend. The school I attend is possibly the most prestigious art school in the United States, and the most selective by a comfortable margin. However, those facts only make encountering attitudes, such as those previously expressed even more bewildering. Now, this attitude is liberating to the extent that it allows one to take risks when producing work, but I have this nagging suspicion that grades must matter to some extent. To what extent do grades define an academic career in visual art?
Grades are a sticky subject for students, and even more so in art school. In the visual arts, there are no numbers given on exams, and there are no answers at the back of the textbook. What might be deemed as "successful" in one course could potentially be poorly received in another. This ambiguity leaves many art school students in the dark about how they are being evaluated. I hear students all the time expressing that they have "no idea" what their grade will be in a studio art course. (If that is the case, I encourage students to take the initiative to seek out their professors in order to inquire about how they are doing in the course at midterm.)
Technically speaking, the one situation where undergraduate grades carry weight in the visual arts is in the graduate school application process. Beyond that, I have never been asked to show my undergraduate transcripts in any other circumstance, even when applying for college-level teaching positions. On your resume, all that matters is that you have successfully completed your degrees. Most likely, no one will ever see what grade you received in your Drawing I course in the first semester of your freshman year.
Despite these circumstances, I do think that grades still matter in art school. I've taught both with and without grades at various art schools. There are certainly disadvantages and advantages to both situations, and there will always be an unending dialogue on this topic. In the most ideal situation, grades hold students accountable for their performance, provide concrete validation of their progress, and can even be a source of inspired motivation. On the first day of my three-dimensional design course my freshman year, my professor proclaimed that he "gave three A's last semester." I took my professor's statement as an exciting challenge, and thought to myself in that moment: "I'm going to be one of those As". (Yes, I did get the A.)
So while it's true that an art school transcript probably won't be scrutinized outside of a graduate school application, when viewed as a challenge or barometer for progress, grades can make a positive contribution to your overall experience in art school.
Ask the Art Professor is an advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com