The MFA debate

The topic of offering an MFA degree (or even a PhD) has long been a subject of debate. Edward Winkleman recently posted about it again, and the comments show that the intensity of the topic is still alive. Contributing to this intensity is the expense of getting a degree in these difficult economic times. I would like to briefly summarize the various points of view on this issue, and then highlight an important topic I believe is getting ignored.

MFA (Pros)
This camp of people have usually received their MFA and have personal testimony about how valuable that time was for them. Not only to have a space of their own, but to have mentors and peers that helped them grow. The point was not to get a job, but to learn. (But having an advanced degree can only help job prospects in the future).

 
MFA (Cons)
Opponents of the MFA degree demonstrate that it is not a professional degree. There are no fixed standards or skills that can be learned. No testing or compliance can give any real meaning to the degree. Further, because graduates are left with a huge debt and no prospects to get well paying job, it is almost a crime to keep taking money from these students. The only job an MFA seems to prepare for is teaching, but that market is so over-saturated it has stopped being a viable job possibility for most.

MFA (Alternative)
Others fall in the middle, recognizing the value of this time, but also recognizing the realities of life after graduation, namely the detriment of debt. The idea is to offer a similar workspace/mentor situation, but without the degree and without the debt.

WHAT IS BEING LEFT OUT
All the viewpoints above make good arguments. In fact, the issue is more complex than stated here and I don’t want to take any sides. However, there is something in all these arguments that bother me.

The artworld (and many schools) act ashamed of people who get an MFA and then go on to other creative careers outside of studio art. This large group of people don’t even seem to factor into the arguements above. Even in school, students are told that "95% of people will eventually quit." Calling this career-change "quitting" is hurting schools and the artworld.

An education is a fertile foundation for an unknown future. Every liberal arts degree has graduates that go on to diverse and unexpected career paths. (That flexibility/adaptability is the virtue of the degree)! Many MFA’s end up in other fields like entertainment, technology, film, industrial design, etc … all important fields that shape the experience of our everyday lives. These people (like myself) are proud of their MFA education, and make good money. And yet these people are too often referred to as "quitters." Why?

So, as this conversation continues about the MFA degree, I hope that the 95% of people that grow into other creative jobs are considered among MFA successes, not failures. Art Schools and the artworld have everything to gain by "owning" these accomplishments, and nothing to lose.

also by Chris Jagers

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3 responses to “The MFA debate”

  1. Traditional disciplines all over the university landscape (not just the Art dept.) have become more porous. The complex set of skills required to negotiate an MFA program (critical writing, debate, research, craftsmanship) can be applied in innumerable ways. Contemporary work often aspires to “go beyond” the traditional white cube gallery space – it makes sense that new career paths will emerge from these explorations.

  2. I agree with Chris and Tom in their thoughts about the topic. I also see the increasing numbers of aesthetically trained people as a boon– an underrated resource from which we could all benefit from in discovering new ways of applying those skills, particularly in the area of making art relevant to every day life again.

    The comment that I wish to share is that the issue of class always seems missing from this discourse about the MFA. As crass as it may be, each degree we buy or otherwise earn takes us one more rung up the class ladder, and this is no less true in the art field. Having that degree has the potential to open certain doors that might not be open otherwise, or which may require more work to get open.

    My teacher Joseph Grigely gave us “Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers” as required reading in his MFA seminar… a lesson that encompasses far more than which fork to use first, and one that remains fresh with me, over a decade later.

  3. Of course artists find work in other areas. Making the most of your surroundings, finishing projects on time, working with limited resources, limited materials, limited money, to please a fickle audience–in other words, art school teaches you to think: how to survive, start a business from nothing, see opportunity where others don’t, reinvent yourself, see the big picture, adapt to change, etc.

    PS: Increase your session length, I was logged out while writing this.

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