Attending an Ivy League school isn’t often associated with studying fine arts.
But at Penn, the Undergraduate Fine Arts program offers students an experience that is both rewarding in itself and can complement other areas of study.
The Fine Arts program consists of a combination of seminars, art history classes and studio courses that range from ceramics to photography to drawing and painting. The major is a 16-credit program available to students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences and the minor is open to students in all schools.
Students view these courses as a means to think in a different, creative way — and many see them as both an escape from the preprofessionalism at Penn as well as a way to enhance other disciplines.
The time commitment of the studio classes isn’t to be taken lightly. Each class requires six hours of studio time per week as well as time outside of class to complete projects.
College senior Sydney Goldberger is majoring in Psychology and minoring in Fine Arts and said that “my Fine Arts classes require a larger time commitment than any other course I have taken at Penn … most professors expect six to eight hours of work outside of the classroom”.
In order to declare the major, students must take five core studio classes including “Drawing I,” “Sculpture Practices,” “Photography Practices,” “Painting Practices” and “Art, Design and Digital Culture.”
Additionally, students must take six Fine Arts studio electives, which range from “Introduction to Clay” to “Typography” to “3-D Computer Modeling.” This broad range of classes fits the department’s philosophy to “provide an open intellectual framework to foster critical awareness and independent methods of artistic research and learning.”
Much of the time commitment for these classes stems not only from the workload itself but also from artists’ perfectionism.
“It’s the kind of assignment where your effort is reflected in your painting,” said Wharton senior and Fine Arts minor Mindy Zou.
For College junior Amy Chen, who is majoring in Fine Arts, she doesn’t mind the time requirement, saying that “my work is play, so it’s like getting to play six plus hours per week”.
Others also view the classes as a cathartic release and enjoy the balance it provides to their curriculum.
Wharton sophomore April Huang is taking a digital media design class and says that it “relieves me from the constant stress and tension I get from my business classes.”
Zou added that, “Innately, I don’t like that some people at Wharton tend to do things they’re not necessarily passionate about. I find refuge in my art classes because everyone is passionate. Why else would you be there?”
Engineering junior Alison Weiss feels that studios can be an escape from the competitive academic atmosphere of her other classes. For her, art complements her major in Mechanical Engineering nicely.
“There’s a big emphasis on design in many fields a mechanical engineer can pursue, [like] product design and robotics...and having experience with art can definitely be advantageous,” she said.
Students also find that the Fine Arts program naturally enhances other areas of study like Marketing and Art History, and that studying art at a non-art school like Penn provides more of a multidisciplinary approach.
“The goal of the art department is to produce a well-rounded artist,” said College senior Joyce Hu. “They want an artist who’s studied global economy, music theory … it’s really helpful because art doesn’t exist on its own.”
However, while some students hope to leverage art as a competitive edge in the workforce, others have a difficult time reconciling it with the preprofessional culture at Penn.
College junior Linda Lin is majoring in Art History and minoring in Fine Arts. This combination allows her to study and research art all while directly experiencing the thought processes and technical procedures behind making art. Lin hopes that her path of study will allow her to develop a future career in promoting other artists through art galleries and the auction business.
“When people choose to study art, it isn’t because they don’t want a job,” Lin said. “Penn can definitely do something to expand the definition of preprofessionalism.”
For Chen, she sees her preferred medium tying directly into many practical uses in the professional world and believes that “the great thing about being a designer is that you can really work in any industry since everyone needs design, especially now, as brand identities become more and more important to the success of any business”.
However, working in a purely creative context is difficult, Chen feels.
“I feel all kinds of pressure to use design as an agent for commercialism rather than design as a fine art form,” she said, recounting career fairs full of corporate companies and consulting firms as opposed to opportunities in design agencies and ad agencies.
But for Engineering and Wharton senior Stephanie Zhu, the experience of studying the fine arts at Penn challenges conventional perspectives and adds to her technical and business studies rather than putting her at odds with the prevailing culture at Penn.
“It’s been difficult to actively choose a path in art when I feel like I’m being drawn into more ‘preprofessional’ areas of study or activities due to the school and my classmates,” she said. “But I’ve said this in all my interviews and I will stick adamantly to it — the arts are as essential.”
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