Top Art School And College Dropouts Who Changed Our World

Oh no, not another bloody Listicle! When I first got into writing drivel for advertising, using a numbered list format was frowned upon. Punchy headlines and compelling stories were acceptable. Lists were the province of headache pills and other boring products that no self-respecting copywriter touched, particularly if his or her novel of the century was tucked away in a bottom drawer. Thanks to the internet and busy people with short attention-spans, the “Listicle” is the newish fast-food version of information. Apparently, a recent BuzzFeed listicle entitled, “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity’” got more than 13 million views. 13,000,000! Jeez. So, I thought I’d test the unfortunately-named, Listicle. Yep, I’ll give it a testicle. I’m not expecting 21 million views, three of four will do. Thanks Mum. 

Let’s start with the geekboys and then progress to more interesting human beings.

1. Bill Gates – dropped out of Harvard after his second year to found Microsoft.

2. Steve Jobs – dropped out of Reed College after six months.

3. Michael Dell – dropped out of the University of Texas to found Dell.

4. Larry Page – dropped out of his Stanford Ph.D. programme to start Google.

5. Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out of Harvard to launch

Next, writers and people in film.

6. Robert Redford – was expelled from the University of Colorado. And you thought he was a goody two-shoes, didn’t you?

7. Steven Spielberg – dropped out of Cal State, Long Beach.

8. Orson Welles – dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago after a few weeks.

9. J.D. Salinger – dropped out of Ursinus College and New York University.

10. F. Scott Fitzgerald – dropped out of Princeton University.

11. Harper Lee  – dropped out of Huntingdon College.

12. Jack Kerouac – dropped out of Colombia University.

Then people who dropped out of college and became musicians

13. Bob Dylan – dropped out of the University of Minnesota.

14, Mick Jagger – dropped out of the London School of Economics. Econo-Micks?

15. Elton John – dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music before graduating.

And now for the big one: art school dropouts who became musicians.

16. John Lennon – expelled from Liverpool College of Art. No surprise there eh?

17. Frank Zappa – dropped out of Chaffey College after one term.

18. Patti Smith – dropped out of Glassboro State College

19. Yoko Ono – dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College.

20 Eric Clapton – dropped out of Kingston College of Art

21. Joni Mitchell – dropped out of the Alberta College of Art and Design

22. Keith Richards – dropped out of Sidcup Art College

23. Ray Davies – dropped out of Hornsey College of Art.

And finally we come to people who dropped out of art school and still became artists.

24. Pablo Picasso – dropped out of the Royal Academy of San Fernando.

25. Jasper Johns – dropped out of the University of South Carolina and Parsons School of Design.

26. John Cage – dropped out of  Pomona College.

27. Ai Weiwei, – dropped out of Parsons.

OK, that’s yer bleedin’ (ooh, missing off the ‘G’, how twendy) Llisticle. So what? It’s just a bloody list.

What do we learn from that? The inference is that higher education’s a waste of time.  But is it?


There’s an old saying about research being akin to a lamp post; some use it to lean on, while wise ones use it for illumination. Similarly, some people use education to prop up their own inadequacies, whilst others use it to see further, to explore, to grow.

In 1967, Timothy Leary told a 30,000 Hippy audience in San Francisco to, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. He borrowed the famous phrase from Marshall McLuhan.

Years later, in 1983, Leary stated that the overall phrase was misinterpreted and didn’t mean, “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.” He went on to say that, “’Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change”.

For many, university, or art school enables them to do just that, it gives them space from parental influences and enables them to discover themselves, grow and perhaps change.

In 2013, Central St Martins asked alumni to give their opinions on the subject,

“What’s the point of art school?”

Amy (surname withheld) wrote, “Studying at UAL I was surrounded by the most thought provoking intelligent people and tutors I have met and I gained self confidence that it’s OK to have different opinions to others. Art school gave me a passion to keep asking questions not just accept the way things are…”

On the other hand, Roddy Jones wrote,” At last art schools have been found out. As an ex pupil of several I can testify that many vary in quality of teaching, teachers and curriculum. I often clashed with tutors when my work did not fit their concept of what art and design should be. I was often ejected or had to leave.”

I had much the same experiences as Roddy, but in the main, most art schools encourage self-development, individuality and change. This certainly isn’t true of most scientific, IT and business courses, which is probably why so many revolutionaries in those fields drop out.

It also explains a curious fact. Surprisingly the vast majority of famous artists in the Contemporary era graduated from art school. Don’t believe me? Here’s a partial list:

Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Sarah Lucas, Yinka Shonibare, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Julian Opie, Lucian Freud and Bridget Riley all graduated from Goldsmiths College.

David Shrigley – graduated from Glasgow School of Art.

Claes Oldenberg and Robert Indiana graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago SAIC.

Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, David Hockney, Chris Ofili, Bridget Riley, Jake Chapman, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore  all graduated from the Royal College of Art.

Antony Gormley, Augustus John, Richard Hamilton, Rachel Whiteread, Eduardo Paolozzi, Martin Creed, Stanley Spencer, Jenny Saville, all graduated from Slade School of Art

It appears that art schools foster creativity and self-development.  However, take a look at their ages and you’ll see that most of them graduated before tuition fees were charged here in the UK from 1998 onwards.

According to UCAS statistics, between 2011 and 2012 there was a 16.3% decline in the number of students applying to creative arts and design courses.

Only the more affluent can afford to take a chance and get into debt in order to study art. Another recent development is the rise in the number of mature students (as I was in 2006/7). Many of them are now empty nesters who always wanted to go, but couldn’t afford to, or had family commitments. If you take them out of the equation, the number of young art students has probably fallen by 20%.

So, what’s going to happen to artists of the future? According to the artist known as Bob and Roberta Smith, “We are really heading back now, not to the 1960s but to the 1930s, when art schools were only for the elite.”

Unlike MBAs from prestigious universities, such as Harvard, graduates from leading art schools aren’t guaranteed earnings of $145K when starting off. In fact, they’re not guaranteed to land a job in art, at all. Ever.

According to DACS, the national median wage for a fine artist in 2010 in the UK was only £10,000.

Maybe Andy Warhol was right when he said, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”

Many would argue with that, but not some of the philistines who run the world. Although, in recent years, a few have accepted the idea that art is a portable and internationally accepted investment. Sod the quality, or aesthetics. As far as they’re concerned, it could be anything from pork belly futures to baloney dogs, or pickled sharks. They don’t care, as long as prices go up and up baby.

I digress – don’t get me on that subject.

Does it mean that in future we’ll see more self-taught artists, such as Frida Kahlo and  Jean-Michel Basquiat? Or will we see an increase in the number of students studying applied, as opposed to fine arts?

I hope not. Perhaps some of our richer multi-millionaire artists could pay back society for their free education by setting up bursaries and/or scholarships for under-privileged and talented young people?

Words: Iain Maclean Photo: Moses Storm by P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016


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