Neither attending art school nor intentionally staying away has any bearing on your success, whether we’re talking about technical/craft or art world/economic. The people who go to art school and are driven, devoted, passionate, and willful are going to be successful as artists proper (as opposed to, for instance, as commercial artists). The exact same thing applies to those of us who didn’t or who refuse to go to art school. The only difference here is that the chances of the autodidact getting a commercial gig are supremely small; that usually requires a BFA. The point is that neither provides you a greater benefit.
I got a gallery show when I was still working on my very first series. I’d only been painting for a couple months. I don’t have an immense inherent talent. The reason I got into the show was because I was painting 80+ hours a week and I acted responsibly and professionally toward the gallery director and in my submission. With that level of dedication I had amassed more hours of painting in one month than most students would in two semesters of painting classes. I could also focus on my own work because I didn’t have to produce for any classes.
There are, however, three differences that I see between the two options. The first is the technical training and critique. In art school you get the guidance that can give you the platform to go your own way. You don’t necessarily get stuck with what they’ve taught you, but if you’re responsible toward yourself and your art then you’re going to pick and choose the application of what you’ve learned. If you haven’t learned something you can’t exactly choose to accept it or reject it. Critique is also very important as you learn very quickly what your mistakes are and how to address them.
This leads to the second difference which is knowing your failures. Being an autodidact I have to make all my own mistakes, recognize that there are mistakes and what they are, and figure out on my own how to resolve them. This doesn’t necessarily get easier as you progress, either. I take a great deal of pride in my own progress, however, as I’m the only one responsible for it. In art school you are permitted to learn from the mistakes of other students and from the failures that professors can help you pre-empt by saying things like, “Now make sure you don’t do ‘x’, because every time you will get result ‘y’ which makes your drawing/painting/whatever look like shit for ‘z’ reason.” We autodidacts don’t get that kind of benefit unless we stumble on it in a book, and even then I’m never entirely sure that they’re correct because I don’t get to see that one kid in class make the exact same mistake the professor warned us about.
The third difference is community. While sites like BlueCanvas, Obsessed Artist, and Deviant Art are great, they don’t replace the sense of a physical art community. There are only a few professional artists that I know in my town because I don’t have a really clear way to find them. Galleries here happen to be scant, so perhaps that is more an issue with my location than others. Through art school you would have a wealth of people over the years from whom to choose to surround yourself and engage outside of class. Talking about aesthetics, art theory and philosophy, experiments, new techniques, some art you saw around the corner, etc., with other artists in a face-to-face dialogue has been an important aspect of artistic practice since its birth. As awesome as posting on forums and blogs actually is, people with a physical community can do this AND the other thing. Art school inherently offers this while many, if not most, of the autodidacts struggle and pine for it. I do think that some people are better left alone, and that there’s no way for us to know whether our art would be better or worse if we talked about it in a verbal dialogue with all its flux and flow that online communities just can’t do. We’re social creatures and 99% of us require social interaction to feel right and accepted, especially when it comes to our interests and even moreso when it comes to our passions. That’s the entire reason we created blogs and forums in the first place, to increase the amount of communication we can have with other people in the world because of that inherent need.
Go to art school, or don’t. The outcome of your art is only determined by your own values and virtues, not by whether or not you have a degree.