Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist

2010 . 06 . 14 - Comments / Commentaires (18)

In the art world, there are two kinds of artists: those with a Master of Fine Arts degree and those without.

I’m one of those without, and I’m trying to understand where exactly the MFA comes into play.

It’s not that I’m confused about why a person would go for one. I went for a BA without expecting the degree itself to be helpful, and I’m glad I did it—both for the learning and for the satisfaction of completing it. What I don’t understand about the Master of Fine Arts degree is the system that has grown up around it. I suppose it’s something like the system surrounding a Bachelor of Arts degree, only more insular and elitist.

The Master of Fine Arts degree reminds me of a pyramid scheme. Or a cult. Or both. The professors who decide whether or not a student can receive an MFA are not qualified to judge on that matter precisely because they have their own MFAs. They have a vested interest in perpetuating the system on which they built their careers. And the system surrounding the Master of Fine Arts degree becomes more important the more MFAs there are, especially when some of those MFAs find themselves in gatekeeper positions in the art world.

From my vantage point on the outside, it looks like vicious cycle that spits out artists buried in debt and bent on making their degrees—and not the learning involved in acquiring them—seem worthwhile.

portrait of a Taiwanese-American Richard Nixon

Gwenn Seemel
Nixon Returning Home Robed In Embroidered Silks (Taiwanese-American)
acrylic on unmounted canvas, grommets
24 x 68 inches
(For more information about the making of this painting, visit this post.)

As far as I can tell, the most important thing about being an artist is just being an artist: showing up, doing the work, putting in the time, living the passion, and listening to the audience to gauge if I’ve managed to be meaningful or not. When it comes right down to it, I might love the peer acceptance of an MFA, but all I really need is for my work to make a difference to someone in the wider community.

And that’s the crux of it. Unlike some members of the art community, most people will never ask for my qualifications as an artist. Art isn’t brain surgery or physics: a certificate won’t encourage my audience to trust or value me more. Viewers will look at my work and decide for themselves whether or not they think I’m an artist.

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(18) Comments / Commentaires: Having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist

-- Lesley -- 2010 . 06 . 14 --

Love it! Your segment in bold is so true, and important to remember.

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-- Allie -- 2010 . 06 . 14 --

When I was deciding on an advanced degree, I looked at several MFA programs.  Things I didn’t like:

-I looked at several slide shows of graduate work and it was kind of a lot of dismembered doll paintings and blocks on the floor.  I felt like someone like me, who loves color, humor, and beauty, would not fit it.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem except ...

-All but one of the schools I looked at had some sort of internal competition in the structure:  faculty gets to pick who gets coveted TA positions to help pay for school, and who gets a private studio their second year (often that was just one or two spots.) 

So I got the MEd instead.  I decided that I wanted to do something joyful and constructive with my creativity.

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-- joshua -- 2010 . 06 . 14 --

I’d go further. I think your BA (And I have one in painting)is BS. It makes me physically sick to think of PNCA (I went and got a BA, too).
It does NOT make artists! I’m recovering from what I heard there. I wont say learned there ‘cause besides some illustration classes(where crap was called crap and you couldn’t get away with laziness), I was taught nothing!
I vaguely remember my peers non-stop praising(totally fake) each others lame work (mine was lame,too)during critiques.
And teachers who are good artists but crappy teachers, throw out some random words here and there about my paintings.

And now MFA’s! Pathetic.

But be careful constructively criticizing these things. They even like and need that kind of attention, too.
Just Fuck Them and forgive me for not being polite. It’s hard to when I was young and trusting and now give them a chunk of my paycheck every month (And have for years).


What next? degrees in snowboarding?!
Who are your favorite music groups?
Do any of them have Masters?

Thanks for writing about the elephant in the room.

I hope some poor fan of yours reads your blog and thinks twice before blowing his parents or his own future money on this “pyramid scheme”.

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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 07 . 19 --

Just stumbled across a delightful video of a Mike Daisey performance which talks about how artists who are trained in schools tend to retreat into academia.  At around 3 minutes the rant about the ivory tower begins, and it culminates in this very funny bit:

“And, increasingly, people who teach people theater have never acutally worked in theater.  In a couple of generations, no one who is teaching will have been taught by anyone who worked in the acutal theater, and the entire enterprise will dissolve into a kind of intellectual mist that will have no connection to the kinds of things that are happening in this room tonight.”

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-- Phoinix -- 2010 . 08 . 10 --

Dave Hickey has famously commented on art professors. I’m closely paraphrasing but…

“And what are they going to teach you to make? They’re going to teach you to make 89 Dotson’s. If they’re a little older, maybe an ‘85 Dotson. If they could make an 89 Mercedes they’d be in New York… So you’re going to come out here, into this meatgrider of a market with your ‘89 Dotson’s? I mean do you have any idea how suicidal that is?! ... And you graduate with a quarter of a million dollars in debt, you can’t go to the beach and smoke dope - You’ve gotta work in a fucking Apple store… I mean, you’re gonna take all your parent’s hard earned money… [for an art degree] and [also] trade it for some dump in Brooklyn? That’s. Stupid.”

I think a general classical education, which teaches critical thinking, history (AKA: Mistakes-Someone-Else-Made-So-You-Wouldn’t-Have-To) writing, literature, art and sciences, is essential to being truly educated and capable as a citizen. And these days you don’t necessarily need a college to give that to you.

But art school? Take some private studio lessons from good, working, professional artists. Then go out and DO it. The last thing someone who wants to pursue any kind of dream should do is accumulate debt.

Debt = death for your creativity and freedom. That certainly includes higher-ed. In fact, at this point I’m not sure I’d recommend going to college at all, certainly not for a full 4 years.

An MFA isn’t worth it for the vast majority of people. The only exception is if you’re getting paid by a school to be there and you can get time to work on your own thing. That’s smart.

I had a writing/English instructor who said: “There are very very few successful fiction writers who have English degrees. If you’re taking this class to be a successful novelist, drop the class and write until you go blind. Then edit until you throw up. Then take a short break and do it all again.”

True for art too.

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-- Brenda Hinson -- 2011 . 02 . 03 --

So true!

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-- Kelly in AK -- 2012 . 01 . 08 --

I’ve always maintained I don’t have enough angst to be an artist. Just a lowly B.A. and some space in a gallery to sell my not-art. 

I believe most advanced degrees are part of a pyramid scheme.  I wish someone had told me about Vocational School when I was in high school, maybe I’d be a welding non-artist!

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 01 . 15 --

There does seems to be a serious lack of educating about educational possibilities that happens.  It’s so unfortunate!  Also, while I don’t regret my BA, I do wish there had been more practical training offered—stuff that would benefit students in any major like résumé writing classes and the like.

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-- Mike (@artisticdork) -- 2012 . 07 . 29 --

While I have no regrets about getting a BFA I did decide that the worst thing for me was going into fine arts. I would have benefitted much more by going into illustration ( i did take a handful of classes)

I would also like to throw it out there that you are paying for the ability to dedicate yourself to working and making as well as getting critiques from your peers.

Also, I am entirely unimpressed by MFA work for the most part. Most of the stuff I see is too “deep” aka the artist has this tangled web of meaning behind it and the finished product winds up either falling shorter than the artist intended either because there is too much going on, or because they are trying to be too abstract in thought.

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 08 . 03 --

When my partner went for his first MFA residency (he did a low residency program) and called to tell me about the critiques, I was jealous.  That part of the MFA seemed like something I would enjoy!  However, having teachers tell me to give up portraiture or give up my style—which they almost certainly would have done (I’ve seen it happen to others)—would have far outweighed the benefits of any real critiques.

And as far as your comment about MFA work: AGREED!  It seems like MFA candidates get really wrapped up in their tiny worlds.  I’d love to see how their work would stand up on the web if they invited responses through Craigslist or other forums that would access a more general (and anonymous) public.  I’m pretty sure most MFA candidates would be humbled by that kind of critique!  Then again, maybe that’s the point of the MFA.  Maybe people go to school to insulate themselves from the world for a time.

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-- Andi -- 2012 . 12 . 13 --

I am a BA student studying fine metals and jewelry, in my junior year. I am an older student, and in the course of figuring out what I want to do after graduate, have been considering an MFA. I feel somewhat pressured, because the vast majority of the jewelry artists I admire have MFAs. I’ve also read about gallerists who say they don’t feel that artists who don’t have MFAs are serious about their work.

I’m leaning toward no MFA, because of the accompanying debt, and spending more time in school. But I wish I could shake this feeling that I would regret not going.

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 12 . 16 --

@Andi: Just recently, I met a curator who admitted that he considered artists with MFAs to be more committed than those without.  I knew this was probably the case, but it was at once utterly revolting and a complete relief to hear someone say it out loud!

I think the MFA question is ultimately one of value.  Is the degree worth the sums that universities are asking?  Is it worth that because they’ve decided that asking so much makes the degree seem more important?  Or is it worth that because it will actually help an artist (with their vision or with their career)?  I tend to think that all higher education in the US is way overpriced, but ultimately every artist has to struggle with the value question for themselves. 

Bon courage in the search for your answer!

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-- Shawn -- 2015 . 01 . 09 --

Many of these comments can be applied to education in general and NO, school is not for everyone nor should it be. The problem with Educational Debt (ED) is an American problem and not solely one of learning or “Higher Education”. We also live in a Non-Art-Culture: a very special place where Artists are extremely undervalued—so it’s no surprise we often feel the way we do. All industries are peculiar and Art is no different and perhaps more so. How to teach a thing that may have no “right” answer at a time when everything in every job market is changing so rapidly is a challenge. I recently received an MFA as an older student and there were pluses and minuses—for sure! But I don’t think the Academic side of Art is any stranger than the Commercial side or that the two are vastly separate: I do think they are deeply embedded and entwined. I was at a three year program and there were many things I wanted to learn but did not. Luckily, I’m an aggressive student so I made my way and I had the opportunity and the space and facilities to do things I would not have been able to do otherwise. I grew creatively in ways I could not have imagined because I worked hard and was committed to myself as an Artist and NOT because of anyone else there. Because many of these “Professors” were delusional with EGOS bigger than anything I’d seen. Delusional in that they thought they had all the answers and that their Aesthetic Perspective was Godly. And they could be mean. It was a strange and difficult journey like so many journeys in Life honestly. But please don’t put down the MFA path because it doesn’t work for you—that’s fine. It was intellectually rigorous and that is something I actually enjoyed; this I experienced more from the Art Historians than the Art Professors whose thinking was mostly out of date and out of touch. All schools are different and being an Artist can be tough regardless of how You go about it. Education has become this huge for-profit monster in this country and that’s the biggest problem not that an MFA degree has zero value. The World needs Art Makers wether it thinks it does or not—All The Best! Just Keep Making! smile

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-- Gwenn -- 2015 . 01 . 09 --

@Shawn: I don’t put down the process of getting an MFA at all! In fact I say that I understand perfectly why someone would go for one as well as what they might get out of it by comparing it to my BA experience. You’re the one who puts down the process of getting an MFA in your description of your experience. And, frankly, you make it sound even worse than I had imagined!

All that I say in this article is that having a degree will never make a person an artist and that often an MFA makes a person less of an artist than they were to begin with because pursuing this degree can make people bitter and leave them in a large amount of debt. At the end, I explain what I believe does make you an artist.

Maybe you feel like your MFA made you an artist, but, if you are an artist, I think it’s you and all the work you put into your art while you were getting an MFA that made you one, not the degree.

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-- Ruth -- 2015 . 02 . 09 --

I think it’s important to stress that if you want an MFA, the right school will pay you to go. They’ll pay you a stipend, pay your tuition and healthcare and even pay for you to come visit their school.
I’m no writer, but I’d be encouraging artists to pursue those fully-funded opportunities rather than negate the MFA experience in general. Obviously this is a blog and solely your opinion, but what about sharing the importance of not going into debt (and when I say debt, I include venues like RAW, paying your art “dealer” out the wazoo, etc)? And if the schools you apply to don’t offer you great packages, make a new portfolio or find a better fit for your work.
Just some thoughts from someone going into an MFA this fall. My rule was that I won’t pay a dime. It worked wink

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-- Gwenn -- 2015 . 02 . 19 --

@Ruth: I can get behind what you’re saying! I’m not as anti-MFA as I used to be and removing the debt aspect definitely makes it more palatable.

That said, I do think that the whole art school universe does propagate some problematic ideas about art and money—like the idea that art and money shouldn’t mix. This happens because the profs made a choice to teach for a living and therefore to unmix their art from money for the most part. They can’t help but pass on this way of thinking at least a little bit, and I think it’s an unfortunate way of looking at things. But to each their own!

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-- Lola -- 2017 . 09 . 02 --

Hmmm.  Well, I am in a BFA program at a very good University with a good two year base from another art college with Honors and Distinction.  My two-year program was initially going to be where my academic education would end, and I was fine with that.  I took some time off and opened my own creative business which thrived.  I loved it and I was able to use my talents.  I retired from it and decided to go back to Univerisity to get my BFA for fun, and still, my marks are excellent.  (Not bragging, getting to the point here in a moment). 

Here’s the thing; I’ve met some of the most talented artists who have never had an art education and who are doing amazing work.  One of them is very successful world wide.  Just a while ago I had the art school conversation with her on whether she felt it was important or not to attend art school.  She said that going to school would have taken away from the time that was needed on a daily basis in the studio. 

On the other hand; I have met several students in both the BFA and MFA programs who have been mentored and guided in their journeys, and are pegged as the ones who are going to shake the art world. Who knows they might.  In art school, the word “Professional” is used in a way, that unless you have your BFA you cannot consider yourself a professional artist.  Seriously this is the “word.”  And…so it begins, “the big sale.”  Remember, professors are there to get you to stay in art school because “you” are paying their bills.  Here’s the other truth; Art Galleries are most often funded by big Universities.  It’s a business people!  That’s it, that’s all.  I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.  There’s nothing more romantic about it than that.  If a curator says to you that you need a BFA or MFA to be in their gallery, then run!  Run as fast as you can. Why would you want to give this type of gallery a profit from your paintings, they don’t deserve it.  A good gallery will take on who they think will make a sale for them.  Do you really think that a person with an MFA or BFA that does crappy art will be taken over an artist who does better work that has had no formal education?  NOT!  And guess what else, in the end, it’s not the gallery that chooses your art, it’s the audience.  So….if you want to go to an art school, great, do it!  Don’t question it.  If you get your BFA or your MFA that’s awesome too.  You might find employment in a local art gallery, you might not.  You might get hired on by a big company, you might not.  Maybe you’ll be a teacher.  All of these are great possibilities.  Will you be a professional artist, who knows. 

Bottom line, don’t let anyone tell “YOU” who “YOU” are!  “YOU” decide who “YOU” are.  It’s not anyone’s business to tell you whether you are an artist or not.  What a load of crap if I ever heard it.  No way, no how.  If that’s the way the art world is going to be, then who wants it.  So…go make your own way.  Change the way things are.  Be a maverick.  Show off your talents and work your fingers to the bone.  Do it!

Getting back to my marks and future designation; they mean nothing, seriously nothing.  They are useless in the end.  I can tell you that what counts is good art.  And finally, there are more and more “OUTSIDER” art galleries popping up in our modern world than ever before and they are the galleries that are starting to attract collectors and buyers.  Like I said, a good gallery will take everyone whether you are educated through an academy or other ways. 

There are other means to an eduation you know.  Not just through an institute. 

For me, I have enjoyed art college and university.  Will I finish it, who knows.

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-- Gwenn -- 2017 . 09 . 03 --

@Lola: Thanks for stopping by my blog! More recently, I did an article about choosing between art school, university, and going the self-taught route that you might find interesting.

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