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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Five Years Later: "MFA: Is It Necessary?"

Five years ago, Artillery Magazine publisher, Tulsa Kinney, asked me to participate in a public one-on-one debate titled “MFA: Is It Necessary?” I said yes, but with a condition: I wanted to argue the con side. I’ve spent my life in the arts without a college degree and thought it would be hypocritical if I argued in defense of one.

As soon as I hung up the phone I was seized by panic. I had never participated in a debate before, so I put the next six weeks of my life on hold as I researched, rehearsed, fretted, lost sleep and generally drove my wonderful partner, Chaz, crazy. I was motivated not so much by the need to win (although I did want to win) but by the need not to make an idiot of myself in public.

I won the debate, a victory tempered by the fact that it was decided on the strength of applause from a raucous crowd who were swilling free vodka provided by the event’s sponsor. But more importantly, I decided to present my argument on my blog.
I’d like to know what you think, pro or con. Have things changed significantly in the last five years? Is the MFA still the standard for participating in the visual arts? Are MFA programs keeping up with the times? Are new paradigms gaining strength? If so, what are they?
The post took on a life of its own. I was quoted, requoted, invited to participate in panel discussions, thanked for helping prospective students make up their minds, and generally looked upon as the expert on why not to get an MFA. It’s still the most popular post I’ve ever published.

Robert-Fleury's Atelier at Académie Julian for female art students - painting by student Marie Bashkirtseff (1881) Wikipedia

I’m not as rabidly opposed to MFAs as you might assume. In a debate, you pick a side and you argue it. Having said that, the elitist, overly-cerebral, eye-roll-inducing, codified language games that have all but replaced the visual in the upper echelons of the visual arts are rich material for satire.

Take for instance, the following videos:

How to Graduate from Art School (animated, scripted and performed by ProbCause)

Art School VS Reality Ep.4, (written and presented by Peter Drew, filmed and directed by Frazer Dempsey)

I’d like to know what you think, pro or con. Have things changed significantly in the last five years? Is the MFA still the standard for participating in the visual arts? Are MFA programs keeping up with the times? Are new paradigms gaining strength? If so, what are they?  You can comment below or email me at janechafinsblog@gmail.com. (Be sure to let me know if I can publish your comments in a future post.)


26 comments:

  1. It's all a big male run money making racket , and it is not necessary but if you want to play the game with the big boys....I think women are slowly being integrated into the system, but the structure of it is a game. I would like to have a community that included me. Is the MFA the only way I get validated?

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    1. Hi "Demona" -- How are you? Thanks for your thoughts! Best, Jane

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  2. Seems like is easier to get a job with a MFA but to be an artist all you need is "duende" inspiration and wanting to be. LUiS www.luisituarte.com

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    1. Hi Luis! -- Thanks for taking the time to comment. Best, Jane

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  4. I value the theoretical education and exposure to various discourses the MFA offers. Since it was an art MFA and I taught art, I got a salary increase from my school district. I could have gotten discourse from a masters or PH D in any subject, but I would not have gotten the salary increase. It was useful as teacher and it gave me time to do my art. I think the MFA validates and gives the artist authority to declare themselves as "artist," "curator," "cultural blah," etc. I think making it in the art world is about personality and what the person is willing to do to make that happen for themselves; and your work has to be liked. In my MFA program, faculty told us to go to galleries, talk, and be seen. This seems like loitering, hanging out, a lot of unpaid labor that offers the artist little reward. I am sure this networking strategy works for some, however any one can become a skilled networker without a college degree.

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  5. In my personal case, I have not needed a degree in art at all to be successful in the visual art world. My degree is actually in accounting, but I haven't used it in years. I exhibit work regularly in juried fine art exhibitions, have the occasional sale of artwork in the four figure range, and a commission schedule currently booked through 2018.

    On my own, I do plenty of reading and research into the business of art as well as art history. Am I as well rounded as those with a degree in art or an MFA? Probably not, but I have gotten to do what I enjoy most in the world for the last 25 years...make artwork full-time without sacrificing studio time to another full-time job. I am blessed to be able to create art that comes from my own vision and soul.

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  6. It's necessary if you teach in college/university world. It gives you time to explore your work with peers who will challenge and be a support group in the future. But not such a big deal in the "art world" where degrees don't mean much.

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  7. I think it depends what age you are in, what time in your career. When I first moved to NYC at the age of 29, everyone would ask me: "Where did you go to school?" This seemed like a weird question at the time - it had been a long time since I had been at school and I had already shown quite a bit. But in their eyes I could be a recent-MFA-grad. And for years, I felt not having one was held against me, like about 15 years. Things are different now. That's because I am nearly 60 and if you're still making work at that age and showing it too, no one asks you about school!

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    1. Thanks Eva. Stayed tuned to future posts for more.

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  8. I quit art school as a young fool, and after a few years of floundering, I made and sold art, but had to work at several crummy jobs for my financial security, if you could call it that. However, once I completed my MFA and began to teach, I not only was able to have health insurance and to live in a decent neighborhood, but I saw that the credential offered me opportunities in university academia that were more than I had ever imagined. 34 years of teaching art and turning on students to the passion that is art, a worthwhile experience, would never have happened without that degree.

    I have made art professionally for over 40 years and I value my degree, even though other artists find fault with the system. I am an artist who teaches and I respect those of us who do both. We live a full artistic life that lets us make art and give back to society in teaching art.

    To me, putting in those two grad school years of hard work, getting pissed off and emptying out my graduate studio into the back of my El Camino several times only to turn around and go back with more determination, was the best thing I could have ever done. The grad school experience puts you in contact with other artists, it forces you to think only about your art voice in the midst of others working towards professionalism just like you, and it rewards you with the knowledge that you accomplished something pretty valuable.

    Yes, there are politics, but believe me, politics are in every single facet of life. So get over it. Studying and working hard within the educational system is a great experience and is not for the faint of heart if your intentions are honest and you are ready to push yourself. I could have figured it out somehow I suppose, but it would never have happened in only two years of the MFA experience like it did for me.

    No you do not need it to be an artist, and maybe today galleries and power brokers in the art world do not see it as significant. But realistically, it is not easy to make a living as an artist. So it was a way to participate in a larger sense as an artist.

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    1. Thanks Karin. I've gotten a lot of response. I'll be talking about this in later posts.

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  10. Until we live in a perfect post-Trump world, an advanced degree is a practical necessity for all artists and an imperative for artists of color. My admission to Otis Art Institute began only 4 years after Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order creating Affirmation Action in 1965. As a Latina, AA was too new to have any effect on my admission, and in 1970’s American society the cards were still not stacked in my favor when I earned my MFA in 1974. However, a graduate degree along with my skills leveled the playing field enough for me that I was able to teach at the university level for 30 years to support my studio practice. MORE importantly, college was my introduction to the process of becoming an educated human being__an educated Latina. One who could develop into an intelligent artist who also lives in the world of the mind. There is no substitute for an education in the humanities for any artist. Artists are no different from lawyers or physicists. Any profession profits by practitioners who have a broad knowledge in many subjects. Without a well-rounded education beyond studio skills, what intellectual resources does any artist have to draw upon if he's never read Shakespeare, Elliot, or Marx? Listened to Mozart, Mahler, or Muddy Waters; taken courses in math and science, in history, or seen a ballet. This country is in the midst of a frightening wave of anti-intellectualism as clearly reflected in the current political campaign. Artists by their nature of their work lead the way in the evolution of culture. You can't do that if you’re a dummy.

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    1. Thanks Judithe! It will take me a while to digest everything, but stay tuned.

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  11. It should be all about the quality of art; however, that is not the case with gallery directors. They want artists from "pedigree" schools. Over the course of years, I've toyed with getting my MFA but decided against it as I didn't want to be saddled with big debt. And then there's the implosion of Roski School at USC.

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    1. I somehow missed your comment until now. Not all gallery directors are looking for a degree. I ran Offramp Gallery for 8 years and it was not something I looked for. I would refer you to the research I did five years ago: http://janechafinsofframpgalleryblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/mfa-is-it-necessary-debate.html The percentage of artists with MFAs represented in galleries I looked at was anywhere between 34% and 56%. It would be interesting to see some new data... I absolutely agree with you about the debt.

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  12. I may be an ignorant, 41 yr old, non MFA recipient to someone else. I'm OK with that. I have struggled, both with finding the right galleries, and getting in front of the right collectors, but i did 2 four year apprenticeships. I am surrounded by artists no better off than me, as far as careers go, yet I don't have the debt that my friends and colleagues with various states of degrees have. Also, if I wanted to be an art teacher, i could see how that MFA would have paid for itself, but since I am an Artist, not and Artist/Teacher I feel like i made a wise decision.
    I feel this discussion is kind of not really the right question to be asking however. I feel like the real question should involve the evolution of what it is to be an artist, compared to what i was taught, through my apprenticeships, what to expect, and why.
    In my experience, i never had to show a degree, just my work, which is judged merely on, (i'm guessing)sale-ability in the eyes of the director. If I get a chance, it's not long, to find out if it sells, otherwise i have to move on. No promotion on any gallery's part, no introductions, just hang it on the wall, anyone shows any interest, they are immediately given a discount, and the cut goes 60/40 sometimes 70/30, favoring the gallery. Stuff like that is what reality is to me, and the rest of us Artists, whether we have a degree, any type of formal education or not. We have to maneuver around those obstacles, blaming the degree, or lack thereof, seems like displacing an issue or two. My first Master will argue the fact to me, that I am not being prolific enough, I am not hitting the pavement enough, but "things are not the way they used to be", if I compare them to what I perceived first hand, for the 2 artists careers i was there for small portions of, and the way they described to me "how it was". and the "way it is" for myself, and my contemporaries. You almost have to open your own gallery, and represent yourself. A few of my friends even struggle through it that way. My point is, an MFA doesn't really hold any weight around here. It's more of a personal journey. I always feel like a Business degree might have done me more good. Because that's what it's all about, after all. The relatively small percentage of collectors with any serious money to spend are after those high end pieces. But that is a dream for people who are planning to give up being an artist if they can't be "famous". Regular people buy art because of the colors, price, and whether or not they like it. Also, for the mystique involved in working with an artist. That mystique is almost ruined by institutionalizing the process of becoming an artist, but that last part is just my opinion, and could certainly be overcompensating for not having a degree. but like minded people also want to be recognized for who they are, not who they are "supposed" to be, according to aforementioned Pedigrees, and such. Trained poodles, excepted, of course.

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  13. Thanks for your comment Scot. I think you're on to something with the business degree. I hear a lot of artists say that. I'm still digesting all the comments left on this topic. Will ruminate on them for a while before addressing again in another post. Thanks again, Jane

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