Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about all the faces she makes while painting faces and other things.

Having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist

2010 . 06 . 14 - Comments / Commentaires (12)

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)
2008
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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(12) Comments / Commentaires: Having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist

Lesley...

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

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Allie...

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...

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).

So…

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...

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...

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...

So true!

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Kelly in AK...

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...

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)...

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...

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...

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...

@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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