Friday, January 14, 2011

From the Vault : A Clarification

Back in May we discussed whether or not getting a MFA was essential to having a good career as a fine artist. As happens from time to time, but isn't obvious perhaps because they don't make it to the front page list of recent comments, someone found their way to that older thread and added to the conversation. Usually I publish the comments, but imagine few other people ever read then. This time, however, I wanted to highlight it because I've been thinking about this since we had a particular conversation at the #rank debriefing (see this video kindly posted by Kinaga Ellis). The video focuses on whether or not artists should go to art fairs, but it gets at what I think was at the core of that May thread, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned While Getting My BFA."

The comment it recently inspired was:
This is such crap. I tried to read all of the comments but just couldn't stand it anymore. You do NOT need to go to school to be an artist. Going to school will NOT make you an artist. That is the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard. You are born an artist, period. Whether or not you're a successful artist depends on how you define success and I think any true artist would define it as selling enough to be able to afford to make more.

As far as being able to speak about your work goes - if you have to explain it, it's not art. Your art should do all the talking.

A small part of me wants to cheer for the commenter, of course. It's a fabulously romantic sentiment expressed with passion. But the rest of me wants to ask how the commenter misses the (to my mind) obvious fact that he/she is not the only artist out there with the exact same goal ("selling enough to be able to afford to make more"). There are arguably hundreds of thousands of them. And I also want to ask how the commenter misses the connection between selling one's work (i.e., essentially being an entrepreneur) and developing some skills and professional contacts to facilitate selling enough of one's work.

Perhaps you can do this without getting an MFA (plenty of artists have), but the clarification I wish to make here is that hoping to sell your artwork does indeed make you an entrepreneur. Hoping to sell your work well should mean you wish to be a good entrepreneur. Toward that goal, there is nothing wrong or "anti-artist" about networking, investing in a higher degree, or sharpening your skills. It can give you an edge over the other entrepreneurs out there you're competing against for sales. Many artists feel they can learn to do those things even better via a higher degree.

I can see certain artists in my mind's eye cringing at that notion; intentionally going about being an artist with an eye toward becoming a stronger competitor in the field...a stronger seller. But you want to know who they're not, those artists in my mind's eye? Those artists are NOT Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol, or Hirst. These artists innovated in the studio and the market, and competed with vigor (Hirst still does, obviously).

So do you need an MFA? I would agree it depends on your goals and on how you define success. Will an MFA ensure you become a better entrepreneur? It probably depends on how you spend your time while getting one. But whether or not people are born artists, as along as they're forced to compete with other artists out there for sales, they might do a little reflection on what (besides their art) can give them an competitive edge.

Their competition is.

Labels: art market, mfa's, selling art


Blogger michelle said...

I don't know how much an MFA helps people with selling,but I do think that going to an art school can help people along to learn more about the language of art.In addition,there are things you learn that can provide shortcuts in your own work,so you can get to your goals in your work faster than if you didn't go to school.I think of this analogy-if you can play music by ear,you can be a wonderful musician, but by learning scales and chordal structures in a class, you can speed up that process of picking out the notes by realizing that relationships within chords and scales.It just makes it quicker..As for the commenter's point-I do think that there is a fair amount of being born an artist,but being creative and being an art world player are two different things.

1/14/2011 09:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a curator, my observation is that self-taught artists always seem to make the same mistakes in their work, while artists who went to art school have found ways to resolve those mistakes.

1/14/2011 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Anon, Educate me, what kind of 'mistakes' are you speaking of?

1/14/2011 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger jami said...

Why only an MFA, there are plenty of artists out their with MBA, MA, CT, J.D. MPhil, MTech just to name a few Ms and then there are all the Ps and Js. And don’t count out the self educated who travel, read, and seek out opportunities in life to learn and study with masters in different fields. The key is to learn and never stop learning. An artist is born but it is up to them how far their talents will take them, it is up to them if it becomes a business or remains a hobby.

1/14/2011 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Artists aren't born.

1/14/2011 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger jami said...

OK, so they crawl out from under rocks.

1/14/2011 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous jabraun said...

IMO, being in grad school is where artists learn to critique art, their own and others. The challenge of forming and articulating opinions, in the vulnerable situation of MFA programs, is valuable. This is what "anonymous" may be getting at by saying "self taught artists always seem to make the same mistakes", because they have not been through the experience of refining their vision and intentions and taken in wide ranging and direct responses during development of those. It's not about anyone telling you what to do, or "learning" to be an artist, or "explaining" your work. It's more about finding out how to nurture and prune your work over the long haul.

1/14/2011 11:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A talented musician friend who enjoyed success back in the 80's (record deal, MTV exposure, touring, etc.) and now enjoys a different definition of success (no touring, only writing/recording, peace and quiet) once said: "I can teach anyone how to play music, but I can't teach them how to write music."

I don't know if artists are "born" or not. That discussion is a bit much. BTW I watched all 10 of the #rank videos Ed referenced on Youtube before I wrote here. What was interesting to me, was all the "self-justification" that was going on. It seems to me that artists do this more than the rest of the population. I'm sorry, but like "Andy" said: "It's just a job..." Chuck Close said: "...You show up for work every day..."

Being an artist isn't more "special", than some other career. Maybe it's partly a lifestyle choice, but STOP WITH THE JUSTIFICATION. You don't have to apologize for where you live, or if you have or don't have a degree either.

If you choose to be an artist, then just do your job, which involves figuring out what you want to accomplish (as an artist), and where/how to fit in, so you can achieve your goals*.

*Goals may need adjusting.

1/14/2011 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

@Jabraun, ok that's a respectable answer. I still want to know what Anon 10:27 was getting at.

1/14/2011 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/14/2011 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely if you want to blend as an uber-angst-ridden common artist in the current time period, the MFA will have taught you how to use language to cover your art -- much like fertilizer -- in hopes that it will grow with the gallerists. However, it may not do anything for the visual component of the art itself.

On the topic of someone "being born" an artist -- Artist is a self-imposed term, so anyone who says they are an artist, IS one.

If your goal is "success" by making money, rather than by producing quality (which are not mutually exclusive in the art world, just very very rare bedfellows), then the art industry wants a good talker -- a celebrity of sorts who lives a flamboyantly twisted existence, or at least is good at pretending to do so. This is where going through the motions of an MFA can really help you.

They rarely teach effective business skills, however.

1/14/2011 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I think an MFA, no matter the medium (creative writing included), is worth what you are already bringing into the program.

I'm coming at this from a writer's perspective, having read many a MFA-born novel. And in all of them the corners are rounded, the edges are polished and what's been manufactured is something you automatically know was written by a professional, even if you can't put precise words to that thought.

However, as in any business (and, I agree with our master of ceremonies on that point), there are trade-offs. And the main trade-off is that you get this sense from each novel -- and I would imagine this true of all MFA-born artwork -- that there is this water mark embossed on it, with the name of the school that awarded the person his or her MFA. And the difference between MFA writers I believe do have a chance and those who just don't have "It" is that the latter learn how to conform to Hoyle but nothing more. For the true artists, an MFA is just the ribbon and the bow and the box, not the present.

An MFA can't teach compassion or perception, nor the intuition born of both that's the basic requirement for "Artist" status. In a way, an MFA program is like economics in that it can tell the whole history of everything up to and including the moment the required texts were printed, but damn if it knows what's coming next.

As for artists who don't go the MFA route, again there are trade-offs. On the one hand you don't sacrifice any of the rawness that can make certain artwork so attractive. On the other hand, it's not as if they don't need to learn the lessons taught in MFA programs. If anything, they have to do more than their MFA counterparts, because they don't have to just learn the lessons, they first have to learn what the lessons are that they have to learn. The DIY approach is like the reception on my iPhone: It's wonderful when it works.

By the way, MFA stands for "Mutha Fuckin' Attitude". right?

1/14/2011 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Rico said...

I enjoy your blog very much, you generally offer something worthwhile to consider, or at least an interesting point of view.

Personally, I liked the list you submitted in the previously-referenced post:

* Understand the liberal arts context (understanding visual arts as it relates to other arts)
* Know your art history
* Expose yourself to interdisciplinary concepts and a wide range of media
* Understand art as an intellectual activity
* Learn about interaction between theory and practice
* Spend time in your studio
* Learn how to listen to (as well as offer) criticism
* Meet and learn from visiting artists
* Spending time learning about professional practices

Does one have to go through an MFA program to experience/achieve these criteria? No. Could one's ideas and practices be expanded by an MFA program? Conditionally yes, but depends not only on the program but equally on the fit.

Here I think is the broader issue; the artist must find their market and the means to that market. If an MFA program is part of the means, part of the whole experience, then a program should be chosen as carefully as one will eventually choose galleries and exhibition opportunities. Choose unwisely, and suffer; rejection, disappointment, disillusion and frustration.

In terms of "defining one's success," again I would say choose the arena you wish to play in. I met a successful artist once who talked about coming up from the minor leagues and repeatedly used a baseball metaphor. It made a lot of sense in that context and speaking with that artist.

To Anon, you make some good points but I'm on the fence as to whether the practice of art is "just a job" like any other. I think there is the false suggestion of superiority or inferiority here, and instead I see it as apples and oranges. Perhaps something wrong with the much of the art made in past few decades is the idea that it is merely a vocation.

1/14/2011 01:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Charles Browning said...

A good MFA program is a trial by fire that will either cause a break through to a new path or clarify and intensify an existing one. These days it may also teach you about artists business and get you started networking. But a student only gets these things from a program if they go in knowing what they need and pursuing it. it's a two way street. An MFA program won't make you an artist. And an MFA program is a lot of money, so it shouldn't be an automatic step for anyone. One of my artist friends I respect most has neither a BFA or and MFA and shows at a high NY level. He did it by essentially following Ed's list that Rico reposted above. I went the MFA path, knew what I needed from it, and pursued it aggressively.

1/14/2011 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Unless you want to try to get one of the few remaining college teaching jobs out there, the degree itself is pretty worthless. But what you learn can be very valuable.

Self-taught artists always make the same mistakes, but artists who went to art school are taught to make different mistakes.

1/14/2011 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Making the right mistakes is the key to success :-)

1/14/2011 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Self-taught artists always make the same mistakes, but artists who went to art school are taught to make different mistakes.

That's the right answer.

1/14/2011 03:15:00 PM  
Blogger JoannSondy said...

Look at some of the 'art' in galleries and critique magazines... was all that produced by someone with an MFA? I highly doubt it. I happen to know several people with MFAs and frankly, they're no better or worse than I am. IMO, it takes discipline, passion, compassion and understanding to produce the kind of artwork that evokes emotion and controversy. I could take my camera and walk downtown and photograph any number of individuals less fortunate than I or how about a family removing their belongings from their foreclosed house? Come on, this is more than soup cans and soap boxes!

1/14/2011 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The flip side of that argument is that everyone with a camera thinks they're a photographer.

1/14/2011 03:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i wonder what percentage of MFA graduates are living on their work 10 years out of school. 0.001%? Still making work at all after 10 years...5%?

1/14/2011 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Rico: "To Anon, you make some good points but I'm on the fence as to whether the practice of art is "just a job"...
I didn't mean for "Just a job" to sound like any suggestion of superiority or inferiority. Sorry if it did. If you really study the lives of successful artists, most have/had the mindset "its a job." They want to go to work every day. "job" is a good thing.

"...I had to stop talking about becoming an artist, and start being one..." Jasper Johns

" ... Perhaps something wrong with much of the art made in past few decades is the idea that it is merely a vocation..."

No, I think its the other way around.

1/14/2011 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Until recently I taught a professional practices class each semester at an art school in a major city in the Northeast. At the beginning of each semester. I'd ask how many students were planning to go on for an an MFA, and every hand went up. At the end of the semester I asked the same question and fewer than half the students responded with a raised hand. I consider that a major accomplishment for me as a teacher and for them as students.

These young artists realized THEY had the power to choose their path and direct themselves (something we midcareer artists never got to learn in art school when the prevailing attitude was "selling equals selling out"). Moreover, they learned a bit about how the system works and how to think about creating a place for themselves in it. One recent BFA graduate has just curated a terrific show for a LES gallery where he works. Another publishes small art books. Another is running a photo studio and making her own work. And another founded and directs a collective of regional artists while applying for and obtaining residencies for herself. Many are painting and showing, usually in DIY venues. These are, to my mind, much more valuable real-world activities than the pursuit of an MFA. They can take the money they would have spend on the degree and make a down payment on an apartment, a home or a studio space. Now THAT's an MFA worth having.

That said, I do think a BFA is helpful in helping a young student learn to see through artists' eyes and to think like an artist. Artists may be born, but like all natural talents they need to learn some basic skills.

1/14/2011 05:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of instructors at University level art courses are artists themselves who didn't "make it" either financially or in artistic recognition of their work. Are the failing artists teaching the next generation of failing artist? This is what statistics shows. The circle is closed...Who cares about learning to articulate own point of view if graduates have difficulty to articulate through the art. MFA more or less is only for fun, camaraderie, kind of hobby...

1/14/2011 06:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Jedd Haas said...


First of all, I agree wholeheartedly with your concept of the "artist as entrepreneur."

But the idea that an MFA program will teach you any relevant business skills seems rather unlikely. As the anonymous poster above notes, professors are generally those who weren't able to make a living as artists. How are those who failed going to teach you how to succeed?

Looking back at my own school experiences, while some professors cheered me on as I got shows while still an undergraduate, others exhibited jealousy and made negative remarks. So in addition to the fact that learning "the business" probably isn't going to happen in school, there are also those who will actively denigrate you or sabotage you for having the temerity to be ambitious.

With that said, an MFA is vital if you wish to teach; without it, you have no chance of getting anything other than an adjunct position.

1/14/2011 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Anon 6:19. I think your entire remark is incorrect. Simply, the fact these artists are teaching means they have found a way to support themselves as artists. So I then question what is implied by the term "make it" which seems at best a simplistic characterization of success one makes right after exiting the University.

Further there are artists who choose to teach, who choose to live and work in regional locations, full well knowing that their chances of "making it" (defined as highly visible success) are slim at best. Your remark is cynical and degrades the educational profession where it is quite common for the student to be far more successful than their teachers.

The attitude you are projecting, places the blame for failure on the artists who were your teachers but they are not acting out your career, or making your art. How can they be the blame when it's your 'career'? Keep your day job.

1/14/2011 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger Arcanum-XIII said...

Maybe it is so in the US — I don't know the curriculum (and since each school/teacher are nearly free to do as it/he wish I should vary a lot) but here, in Europe, no lesson were taught about the art market. No contact with art curator, no gallery, no museum, no nothing. The master was about the work, and how to "speak" (meaning : telling lots of craps to justify what is barely a drawing or a painting). When it's finished, well, you're on your own if you do not have a nicer teacher or end year jury's member.

Is art education valuable ? Of course — lot of time to do only one thing, create art and learn about more about, and meet interesting people. Will it help to get a representation ? From where I'm standing, not at all.

Is this bad ? No. Success is different for everybody. At the end, it's you who define it, not your MFA, and not the market.

1/15/2011 04:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I mean by "self taught artists always seem to make the same mistakes" is this (of course, it depends on the work of art):

often self taught artists approach art making with no ideas or small ideas (ideas that have been around since cave painting). They justify the lack of ideas as "intuitive." There may be true intuitive art, but having a good idea trumps it.

they don't know how to approach the page or properly exploit their medium. There is a basic lack of understanding of design and process. Many believe that photo-realism is the ideal apex of art or that abstraction is simply the manipulation of geometric shapes or random brush strokes without an underlying structure.

they don't understand color theory or proportion in drawing. Often they reject working from life in preference to working with photographic sources.

they don't know how to "look," to separate what they what to make art about, from the chaos of the world.

they tend not to look at other art, either because of a desire to remain "pure," (that is, uninfluenced by other artists and truly original) or an unease at going to galleries and museums.

Now, none of these items in theory make for bad art. In fact many of them have been taken by certain artists and developed in to conceptual artistic practice (and those artist have become successful), but most of those artists (I still believe that Manet had a flaw in his skill, not a conscious decision) have rejected one or more of the basic art school practices as a way to achieve something new.

An art education doesn't need to be a BFA or a MFA, but it should teach the artist materials, technique, design, critique, art theory, art history, inquiry and intellectual discourse.

The BFA teaches you how to make art, the MFA teaches you how to think like an artist.

But as we learned in education classes: all teaching after middle school is society's way of prolonging adolescence for the sake of controlling the pool of labor.

1/15/2011 05:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Seems to me that one of the extraordinary aspects of the gallery art system, appears to be how many of the artists within the system got there grace of peer references. Many gallery curators will take the time to consider work recommended by their existing stable of artists. Often the doors are opened by your peers. Obviously there are those who surge beyond their peers, but the ground is that your "network" (the old boys innuendo) is a formidable asset in any career applies equally to the art world. Getting a MFA may offer many insights and such, but not to be neglected is the credibility established via your peers. Peer groups can be varied, and offer distinct responsibilities and opportunities, maybe there are distinct advantages to a peer group whom have coalesced through a MFA.

It's easier to give credence to someone who has already earned the respect of another, whether another artist, curator or degree granting system. Things do snowball and gather their own momentum... a MFA can add to that, but it isn't that on its own.

1/15/2011 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

As usual, it's too easy to generalize in this kind of thread as to which is better... because there is no right answer.
But in terms of artists being entrepreneurs, I have to say, the most prominent entrepreneurs in our society seem to be people that never even finished undergrad (Zuckerburg, Bill Gates come immediately to mind), and that has not stopped them from achieving huge, unbridled success. Granted, once they got started, I'm sure these people had help from many a MBA along the way, as I am sure is the case with successful artists as well.
And if a MFA is really about being a good business person in our field, then why not wait for 10 years of practical real life experience in the field before getting one, as most MBA's do? Maybe that's a contributing factor to the current obsession with young artists. Because in the end, even though the MFA can be a good growth experience, it doesn't often make a mediocre artist into a great artist-- at least not one with staying power. Just as a MBA doesn't make a great entrepreneur, though it can add some depth to a good entrepreneur's worldview or make a mediocre business person climb higher in the status quo corporate system. So for those young MFA's, best get 'em while they're still hot...

1/15/2011 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on, Joanne. This argument goes on in my home almost daily. I've been to art school and taken nearly everything I needed to finish but math and science. I work as a commercial artist, am a struggling homeowner and spend every spare minute working on art, reading art history and criticism, or promoting my work. My tenant has a master's degree, struggles to get adjunct teaching jobs, and is now desperately longing to wear a greasy paper hat to make rent while asking why I don't improve myself by going back to school. In the end, it's about the work. No one goes to art shows to read CVs.

1/15/2011 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

don't fool yourself. it is about the work, but ultimately, how far you get, is about who you know.

1/15/2011 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course; thought that went without saying. How else could Koons and Hirst be explained?

1/15/2011 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blogger Edward_ said...

"don't fool yourself. it is about the work, but ultimately, how far you get, is about who you know."

And *that* is just sad.

(Frankly that is also why there is so much bad art out there -- people promote people, not skill or talent or innovation.)

1/15/2011 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

don't fool yourself on that account either...there is a lot of bad art that doesn't get promoted.

1/15/2011 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous An Artist said...

"don't fool yourself on that account either...there is a lot of bad art that doesn't get promoted."

But there is way too much that does because the "artist" went to the "right" school and has the "right" friends and that is just wrong. It should ONLY be about the art.

And aren't art dealers and galleries supposed to be doing the marketing for artists? Why do artists have to be entrepreneurs now? Is the work just so bad that they have to learn how to "sell it" or it would never go anywhere?

My problem is not with people going to school, my problem is the scam industry in this city that promotes crap as art because of where the "artist" went to school or who they know.

1/15/2011 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

does that heavy chip on your shoulder make it hard to walk?

1/15/2011 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous An Artist said...

You know what I wrote is true. And you know that it's not right, and unfair to all artists.

1/15/2011 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, so I'm being a bit too snarky perhaps, but saying that it's "only about the art" leaves anyone who makes what they think is great work but not meeting any success no option but 1) assume everyone else is dumb for not seeing how great their work is; 2) assume the system is rigged and therefore not worth worrying about; or 3) think perhaps there are other, human things (besides change their work) that they can do to facilitate a response more like the one they wish to have.

1/15/2011 01:57:00 PM  
Anonymous An Artist said...

I say it's only about the art because it is only about the art, it's the truth and it should be said.

I'm not sure of your point. Are you saying that the system that's in place now gives an artist more options?

1/15/2011 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm saying the art doesn't care if anyone looks at it, or recognizes how good it is, or celebrates it all. So saying it's only about the art is an abstract ideal that is nice in theory but doesn't mean anything socially.

If the artist cares about those things, THEN, he artist, being human, should consider human interactions (e.g., networking, communication skills, business skills, etc.) as means toward such goals.

1/15/2011 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Welcome to the naivety swamp!

1/15/2011 02:51:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

An Artist said It should ONLY be about the art.

Why? this is not true about life in general. It's not true for musicians, or filmmakers, or writers, or garbage collectors or about any other profession.

1/15/2011 02:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The context in which the "it's about the art" comment was made was in response to the original post: MFA or no MFA? and not a gross oversimplification of a larger issue. There are many things-some knowable, some elusive-that factor into an artist's recognition or success, and luck certainly is not the least of them. Resentment and self pity are toxic and must be avoided at all costs. Artists-MFA or no MFA, New York or Timbuktu, young or old-increase their odds of success by remaining optimistic, working their asses off to make quality art and get it out in the world, having and using strong interpersonal skills, and making their own "luck". If that's too much to ask, better try another career path.

1/15/2011 03:40:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Actually it's now been offered in a few contexts, the latest of which was (and the one that prompted my response): "I say it's only about the art because it is only about the art, it's the truth and it should be said, " which is pretty absolutist and, to my mind, indeed an oversimplification of a larger issue.

To get back to the central point, though, I agree that optimism is one of the central key ingredients to success (along with, as you note working hard and creating great art). I am ultimately hoping here to help generate optimism, by encouraging artists to work toward more immediately measurable, micro-goals (such as networking or becoming more entrepreneurial) while they are working on the longer-term goal of creating great art. And to me, self-pity is the anti-optimism, and that's why I have no tolerance for it.

1/15/2011 03:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I don't understand from any of this discussion is why we assume a higher-ed degree has anything to do with making money. The fact that the correlation between degree and earning power is even raised proves that we're all a little brainwashed by capitalism. Do you read a book because you think it will help you get a raise? Huh, me neither.

Seems to me that if you are an artist (born, made, I don't care), then you already realize that you do something which has an intrinsic value (for you, for the public if you have an audience for your work) that has nothing to do with making money. Would you make art even if you never sold any? Sure you would.

The degree itself---that is to say, the pursuit of knowledge beyond the navel-gazing confines of one's own studio practice in an academic and institutionalized setting---has nothing to do with being an entrepreneur, and that's why everyone runs into so much trouble with it. There's a lot of wishful thinking and resentment surrounding an MFA on both sides: "An MFA from the 'right' school will make me an art star!" (bullshit) "The MFA is a worthless degree for wealthy snobs!" (no), and so on. You want a degree that will make money? Go to trade school. Get a long-haul truck driving license, or become an aesthetician. There is a definite and quantifiable link between a trade-school education and your future earning power.

I'll admit that I'm biased: I'm in an MFA program right now. I love it (but then, I spent a considerable amount of time and money researching schools and flying around to meet professors so that I could be sure of the right match for me). I have learned more than I thought I would about my own practice, about the art world, about myself as a human being among other humans also trying to communicate. But I never ever entertained pie-in-the-sky ideas that the degree, those magic three letters, would aid me in selling my work or even in getting a job. I went back to school because it seemed to be a way of honoring the work I had already done, and one method of pushing my work in some new directions rapidly.

I'm getting my MFA because I thought it would aid me in my pursuit of making better, deeper, more authentic work; in understanding what my true goals are as an artist and as a human being in the 21st century. What ever money I spend, loans I take out, nights I don't sleep, sweat I create in my pursuit of being a continually-growing artist is totally worth it.

You only live once, right?

1/15/2011 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger grovecanada said... here's a link to how much an MFA costs...Ballpark values...That's alot of money...I mean, I read reviews of a book before I buy it...Sometimes I don't buy a book that might be 40 dollars just because it seems a little pricey...I'm on the fence about buying Inside the Painter's Studio by Joe Fig, & haven't purchased The Swan Thieves either...Now, am I going to pay 33 grand or more to get an MFA? Look, it's all very honourable to say that it doesn't matter if it affects my career earnings afterwards-but how exactly am I going to get back my 33 grand if I don't earn money as an artist afterwards? It's a little steep for my tastes...& to be honest, the stuff that has been said about self-taught artists, is the stuff that I was going to say about MFAs...How many times have I seen photo referenced realist paintings & am astonished to find the artist has an MFA? Does Cy Twombly have an MFA? (I'm going to go check...)

1/15/2011 09:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...though, I agree that optimism is one of the central key ingredients to success

be nice to shift the interpretation of that it's about the potentially hypocritical : it's only who you know - towards its about who you know how to get along with which is often your jury of peers. A MBA shows at least proof that you mastered how to do that with a hopefully more critical group of people. It's not their respectability or criticality that counts, but your ability to engage successfully with them. So hopefully in terms of your engagement with new relationships - the gallery-curator-critic ... that ground can be leapt over and the art relationship can focus on more important aspects then whether your pessimism will be toxic or not..I think Eds stated intent is pertinent to any artist at any age or level of current success.

1/16/2011 08:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grovecanada, that's part of my point: if you think the price is too steep, then don't do it. If it will only be worth it to you if you can make that money back pronto, don't get an MFA. How, then, can one pay back the student loans? Well, personally I am happy to work any number of non-art jobs to finance my artwork and education, but I recognize that others aren't. It's not one-size-fits-all.

Does Cy Twombly have an MFA (or whatever other painter in the mega-canon) is a straw-man argument. Of course they don't, but that doesn't say anything interesting. There weren't many MFA programs, and the complete standardization/professionalization of the visual arts hadn't yet occurred.

Also, let's face it: talent and ambition have nothing to do with getting an MFA. Education takes all comers and tries to make you better than you were. If that's important to you, get an MFA. If you want to strike out on your own, more power to you. I've done both (professional artist for 10 years before going back to school), so I can appreciate both sides.

1/16/2011 10:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What I don't understand from any of this discussion is why we assume a higher-ed degree has anything to do with making money."

This was a constructed correlation (artificial of course) that was related to the idea that, in order to "make it" in the art industry (i.e. be in the gallery system, being collected, showing in museums, etc.) one had to have an MFA -- it wasn't postulated to be an assurance of success, the postulate was that *without* it, one was *unlikely* to achieve success due to the bars/walls (artificially placed) by gallerists and museum directors -- that an MFA is often considered a hurdle that must be jumped before an artist warrants consideration by the art industry.

1/16/2011 05:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blogger Edward_ said...

"don't fool yourself on that account either...there is a lot of bad art that doesn't get promoted."

LOL! Yes, I know, I've seen it! :D

Thankfully sometimes the visual will trump the celebrity-style personality -- it totally depends on who is doing the gate-keeping.

1/16/2011 05:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There weren't many MFA programs, and the complete standardization/professionalization of the visual arts hadn't yet occurred."

No no no..... the "complete standardization/professionalization" has NOT occurred at all -- or else we would have Board Certified Artists or some other form of State/Federal licensing in order to protect the public from "scam artists" (pun actually cultural... not my fault -- lol).

The fact that more options for higher-level education exist now is much more a product of commercialization of the educational industry than an altruistic urge to give artists a better and more productive venue for learning.

More and better learning occurs through apprenticeship, which MFA programs sometimes attempt to model themselves after, but in reality they just can't -- the stakes just aren't there (who will care more about your progress, someone with a personal stake in your quality and product, or someone hired by a University to publish/show and in their extra time teach?).

Back to the original question of "whether or not getting a MFA was essential to having a good career as a fine artist" -- if the gatekeepers (gallerists and museum directors) say so, then it is truth, whether we like it or not.

1/16/2011 06:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I'm going to need some convincing that da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt "innovated in the market." That sounds like a strange assertion but maybe you have something in particular in mind.

1/16/2011 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger grovecanada said...

Thank you "Anonymous", that is a refreshing & thoughtful answer which helped me to clarify my own path...I guess in my own mind, now, after 18 years of working on the outside, outside of a university system, I am not sure that going to school now would be didactic for me...There is also the trade-off of what I could be producing to what I would be producing inside a system...I guess I left that cave many years ago & going back in would be wrong for me...The attraction of learning more is interesting, but possibly obsolete once you have been a professional for too long...Perhaps the cave analogy is wrong-for some, an MFA is coming out of a cave, for some, like me, it is going back in...Depends maybe on how you do within systems...I am hoping that the internet will broaden a little bit more significantly in offering higher education online for those who are so inclined...In the studio arts...I am hoping at a better price...

1/17/2011 06:32:00 AM  
Anonymous JP said...

Not all mfa's are the same.
fur-real y'all.

One will actually get you a teaching gig, one will be navel-gazing art-speak clap-trap for rich kids who don't want to work at daddies law firm, and yet another will give you a balanced education in the formal, theoretical, and social rational behind why and how you make visual art.

Be careful if/when you choose to pursue a degree. It helps form your world view from there on. Your art will never be the same after going to school.

As for selling work and if the mfa makes you more sales-worthy, you are buying the network that goes with the school. Make sure the school's network matches your goals.

1/17/2011 07:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Anon 10:55 -
"talent and ambition have nothing to do with getting an MFA."

and, as is being argued by several on this thread (and I tend to agree), increasingly talent and ambition have less and less to do with achieving recognition in the art world.

That aside, one can succeed as an artist without an MFA. My recollection is that Hirst, who is today seemingly everyone's idea of what art success looks like, was far from a stellar student, was originally rejected for art school and succeeded through his own accord via his now-famed warehouse shows. Another fine model would be Tony Fitzpatrick, whose "credentials" may be less than stellar to the so-called "professionals," yet he consistently produces some of the finest work out there and, for some, serves as a kind of beacon of hope on how to navigate the art landscape independent of an academic track.

1/17/2011 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

The problem with this discussion is that there is no simple answer that's right for everyone.

Why would anyone want to be an artist in the first place? In spite all the so called professionalism and commodification it's not going to be an easy life financially. No matter what they tell you, a MFA degree isn't going to change this.

Regarding talent and ambition. I disagree and think that are both very important but secondary to desire, do you really want to be an artist no matter what? If someone came along and offered you a $200K a year job would you take it? Or decline to make art? This isn't a hypothetical question, it happened to me and I've read of similar situations with other artists.

If one can answer the desire question with a yes, then buying time studying for a MFA might be worthwhile. If not, you'd be better off investing the money to learn some other profession or skill.

1/17/2011 01:31:00 PM  
Anonymous An Artist said...

"The problem with this discussion is that there is no simple answer that's right for everyone."

But there is and that is my point - judge the work based on the work, not on the degree or connections. That is the right answer for everyone. Everyone deserves the same chance. And IMO, it is the job of dealers and galleries to make sure that happens.

I'm not naive, I know how things work. I just don't think it's right. It is the injustice of the system that irritates me, nothing else.

1/17/2011 02:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Joanne Mattera Art Blog said...

The art world is not a democracy. It's a network of personal relationships--like high school (with some of the same odious personalities), but a greater range of interesting possibilities. So, yes, it is whom you know--and who knows you. It makes perfect sense that a gallery would consider a referral from one of its artists or from another art professional. Networking is the social flip side of what artists do along in their studio, or dealers do behind the desk in their galleries.

The reason Facebook became so popular so fast among artists is that it does instantaneously what we'd all been doing much more slowly. I'm not saying FB is perfect, but as a model it perfectly illustrates the kind of networking that brings artists together, as well as curators, critics and collectors. Though I'm not a fan of the FB timesuck, I enjoy the social network and I love the way it can translate into a more tangible web of art acquaintances and friends.

I agreed with Ed about chips. The energy it takes to carry them around could be used more productively. As a woman, a lesbian and an artist who has passed the 50-year mark, I can tell you that once you drop the chip, it's much easier to propel your work and your career in the direction you want it to go.

1/17/2011 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous An Artist said...

For God's sake - I'm not carrying a chip. My art sells, I am an entrepreneur and a very good salesperson. I also happen to know some of the "right people" and I have been offered a show - just because of that. I have no problem making whatever I want to happen, happen. I do believe that you should do whatever you need to do to make your dreams come true. You only live once. Like I said, my problem is the emphasis on degrees and connections and the lack of emphasis on the art.

I don't know Ed, nor have I been to his gallery and I have intentionally not done any research on the type of artists he does business with - this isn't personal. It's about the state of the art world in NYC. I think the system is unfair and it doesn't have to be that way.

There are a lot of people out there that can't afford to go to school, don't have any connections and couldn't be an entrepreneur if their life depended on it - what does that have to do with their art? Is that really what art is all about? I don't think so.

1/17/2011 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You might be at an disadvantage here with regard to that fact that many long-time commenters, including myself, discuss such matter with a well-established "everything else being equal" presumption, particularly when it comes to networking or "how the gallery system works" type discussions, "An Artist."

In other words, we have long discussed that you need to have good/great art for the system to care about you. It's a given.

The trick (and the essence of many such discussions) becomes in getting a leg up on those artists who are making work as good as yours. The system isn't fair, so discussing it in those terms is an exercise in philosophy, not practicality.

Franklin, still looking up the cites regarding Leonardo et al. that lead me to that conclusion. Will form a future post.

1/17/2011 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/17/2011 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

I think getting an MFA, dependent upon your choice/quality of school/professors, would help you hone your art speaking and writing skills. For so many artists, when you listen to them try to describe what they are doing, it makes no sense whatsoever. For the artist that wants to get grants, residencies, teaching gigs, etc having those writing and speaking skills is extremely important. If an artist with a BFA (or no degree at all) cannot speak about their work (thus theoretically propelling their career forward) then obtaining a higher degree would be a logical solution if self-teaching/learning has not produced the desired results. It also affords the artist in question a larger amount of time that is dedicated solely to their art which means a higher level of concentration, focus, intensity, etc. For the artist that is feeling stuck, having that level of work intensity may be just what the art-doctor ordered. I have my BFA and an MA in art education. I feel like my MA was completely unnecessary with regards to what I learned, but I had to get the degree in order to teach (which I am no longer doing because of many factors, including how I didn’t have the mental energy to work on my own art when I got home from work.)

If you go to school to get an MFA in a place where you really want to live and work after graduating, it is theoretically a smart move because you can more easily get into the network of artists, dealers, gallery owners, etc in your new home due to the pre-existing connections of the school. It is also a matter of you’ll get out of it what you put into it. And if that rings true, then an MFA or plain old networking will eventually do the trick. Personally, I don’t plan on going back to school again. I went to a great school for my BFA and MA and do not feel the need or inclination to go back to that environment. I am not putting in loads of effort into finding a gallery/networking/etc so maybe I would change my mind after being out there long enough and not getting anywhere.

1/17/2011 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Refarding "injustice in the system" - So what's new?

It is questionable to believe that ones judgment of the work is better than someone else at all. What art is good and what isn't, has been an ongoing basis for disagreement for years. Read a selection of critical reviews about any groundbreaking artist at all and you will find some got it, some didn't.

Mid-century the culture decided it wanted abstraction and downplayed or outright ignored a lot of representational artists, fair, hardly. By the end of the century the same thing was happening to those abstract artists. I believe that artists can change things by promoting the kind of work they believe in (artist curated shows) but then those excluded will complain that this isn't fair either.

Remarks like, "It's not fair", "it's all politics", "It's all who you know", "It's crappy art" and a litany of other complaints, up to and including Hirst this or Koons that, are a continuous part of the background noise in the art world. Study art history, read about mid century American art, the critics battled one another at the expense of the artists, no, it wasn't fair but it's what happened.

1/17/2011 05:21:00 PM  
Anonymous An Artist said...

"Refarding "injustice in the system" - So what's new?"

Oh, so it's always been that way means it should stay that way?

"What art is good and what isn't, has been an ongoing basis for disagreement for years."

Yeah but you know good art when you see it. You feel it. You know that feeling you get, it lifts you up, it inspires you, the world is a better place after you've seen it. At least it's that way for me.

"I believe that artists can change things by promoting the kind of work they believe in (artist curate shows) but then those excluded will complain that this isn't fair either."

That's funny, I have been thinking about that since last night. I came across this incredible Hungarian artist. I want everyone to see his work. Maybe I should curate a few shows. I could just have people submit art - no CVs LOL

1/17/2011 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"It's always been that way" says more about human nature than anything else. Get over it, it's not going to change. Artists don't care if it's fair as long as someone is paying attention to them.

In my experience artists don't always know good art when they see it, they know what they think is "good art" and there's a difference. More importantly there is a lot of 'good art' out there which primarily reiterates other art, it has the look, but lacks freshness and therefore interest, it exists in the flower bed of 'good art'.

1/17/2011 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Top Anon, I know artists who make mistakes over and over again no matter if they have a degree or not. This idea that an MFA places a person at the top of his or her game is absurd. If that were the case every person who holds a degree in their field of study would be a shining example of that study. I’ve known law students from Yale who end up working in retail.

I have to agree with George. Artists are not born. Individuals are influenced by their environment. Some more than others and fewer still decide to pick up a brush, lump of clay, or pencil to explore what they have learned simply by living.

You can learn to critique art well without holding an MFA. Do keep in mind that some of the individuals who gave birth to what we know as art criticism today did not study art academically.

It also depends on who the instructors are. Attending Goldsmiths when Craig-Martin taught there was probably a more valuable experience than what it is now.

1/17/2011 08:15:00 PM  
Anonymous marcus said...

I recently read the Times article about hard times/big debt for recent law school grads. I figured that lawyers gripe about their jobs and education but was honestly (and perhaps naively) surprised by the difficulty of securing law employment... Since there are no promises for successes in life and work, I think it makes sense to pursue one's passions. If you want an MFA and don't go into crazy debt, that's enough justification for applying to grad school. The feedback, critique,community and reserved time can be good for accelerating and honing your work.

1/18/2011 01:38:00 AM  
Blogger Aron said...

I do not know how New Yorkers look at the LA art scene (or if they do at all), but all it takes is a quick search to find out that a very important percentage of gallery represented contemporary artists in LA do have MFAs. So, at least for the west coast gatekeepers, it seems like it does matter a little.

I have found that some concepts are better absorbed through human interaction and I have seen first hand how it is really about WHO you know. School does help you get some opportunities that might have taken you way longer to set up on your own. So, I think school can be beneficial for a lot of people.

Personally, I have spent way too much time and money learning. Now I just want to make art.

1/19/2011 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

ED, Didn't the "Art & Money" book you recommended a long way back have some of those artist money innovations you are referring to? I seem to recall it did.

1/19/2011 08:23:00 PM  

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