Christina Rees: I come across a lot of young artists in Texas who have their BFA and are trying to decide whether they should go on to get their MFA. Ten years ago this wouldn’t have been a question. They just would have done it. But in the last five to ten years there’s been a major national discussion about student debt, and real-life experience, and hustling, and the grind of adjunct teaching and the disappearance of stable jobs in academia. Basically a set of arguments against getting an MFA, because it saddles one with crippling debt and the artist can’t even make a living teaching anymore.
You got your MFA. Who would you recommend grad school to, or would you?
Michael Bise: I know we agreed to have this conversation, but I’m probably a terrible person to ask. Most of the major decisions in my life have been made on the heels of a single-minded impulse to avoid working, and make art while avoiding it. I enrolled in the seven-year undergrad plan, spending three of those years drunk, painting, going to shows in Deep Ellum in the middle ’90s, and paying for community college courses with a job at a video store called Mickey’s Movies in a Dallas suburb. One day I was staring at the gum-ball machine at Mickey’s with a terrible hangover, and I think I realized I couldn’t live that way anymore. I applied to UNT, took out all the federal loans they’d give me and split.
I bought into, and still do, a romantic vision of what it means to be an artist. I didn’t want to teach. I just wanted to get out of that shitty suburb and keep making art. My parents instilled in me the idea of going to college at any cost. My dad dropped out of forestry school right before graduation and my mom spent about 15 years going to night school to become a teacher. So getting a BFA was the path I chose. My parents hadn’t been able to save for my or my sister’s college. We took out loans. Repaying the loans was the last thing on my mind.
The decision to go to grad school was a little more calculated. But I have to be honest and say I didn’t research schools or think about it in career terms. My political awareness of the fact that certain schools look for certain kinds of work was pretty dim. I was accepted at the University of Houston. My dad died during my last semester at UNT and I couldn’t afford to move far. I more or less fled the claustrophobia of a chaotic family life. I came with my girlfriend who was also accepted at UH’s MFA program.
I go into all this personal detail because I don’t really believe in thinking of artists as a class. The phrase “creative class” or “creatives” makes me nauseous. Artists are individuals and everyone has their own path and they have to make, and live with, their decisions. I suppose I can say that I think a “stable job in academia” is a pretty terrible reason to get an MFA — mostly because they’ve never been all that plentiful. But I do think — although I can’t predict the future — that the future of art does not lie with the MFA program.
CR: I love how you just get to the brunt of actual, lived human experience. As though “getting an MFA” or “not getting an MFA” were the only two choices left for artists, and that one of these things is the right thing to do, and one is the wrong thing. When do we stop to take the individual into consideration?
I know a very young artist here in Dallas who’s finished his undergrad, and he also happens to be extroverted and a bit of a hustler. He’s getting shows around here. He’s collaborating, too. He’s selling work. He’s networking, at least as much as one can in Dallas and Texas. And more so than a lot of his older peers here who got their MFAs. When I’ve asked him if he’s going to grad school he just kind of shrugs. Right now it would actually interrupt what he’s getting done on his own.
I don’t know what that means for his work. I don’t know how much grad school really helps the artists with the work anymore. I know some programs are better at that than others, but it almost seems like grad school represents this “You better get your MFA for the networking factor” — or else. Or else you’ll be isolated and gallerists and collectors and critics and curators won’t have any reference point for you. People are going to grad school to get plugged into a network as much as anything else.
This kind of reminds me of people who think of frats and sororities at college as crucial for future business connections. If you’re getting a business degree, being in a frat with a lot of other future titans is probably a good idea, right? Not my bag, but hey. Higher education is for the connection leg-up as much as anything isn’t it?
I have another young artist friend in another big Texas city who I think feels a certain pressure or expectation to go on to grad school soon, and I think more varied conversation around the work he’s making now would be useful to him. But he would HAVE to choose the program really carefully, and go primarily because of the quality of that dialogue. He’s sort of already getting networked in on his own steam.
MB: I had this 17-year-old kid in a design class at the MFAH’s Glassell School over the summer. He had dropped out of his last year of high school. He wants to be an artist. He has 2,000 followers on Instagram and he sells tiny paintings for something like $10 or $15 bucks apiece through some platform — maybe Etsy, I can’t remember. I can’t say he’s an amazing talent yet, but as far as the networking side of the art business goes, he lives in a different world than I did when I was 17. I was hiding in a corner drawing my own jerk material. Art survives. It existed in the caves of prehistory, in the more or less totalitarian societies of antiquity all over the world; it adapted to the domination of Christianity and the Catholic Church and it slid just fine through Marxism into democratic capitalism. Art always finds the money.
I don’t believe you can predict the future, so I can’t say if the MFA will disappear, but I think that as a prerequisite for a career the MFA is more and more one option among others for networking. Art dealers scan social media platforms looking for work (and cute artists) they think they can sell. I’m sure the artists you mentioned put on their scraggly charm online. I can even imagine the apprentice system coming back in some weird digitally mediated form — it never really went away. For a long time the secret of a successful academic career has been a three-tier process: first the BFA, then the MFA, then a job as an assistant to a well-established artist. It’s really that last step that plugs an artist into that part of the network with the most connections. But that’s all on the career side. The art could all still be terrible.
In an ideal world the MFA is meant to guide students in more than the pursuit of money. Artists who teach are examples to their students. The academy is only as good as the teachers in it. There are a handful of tenure-track university jobs available across the country at any given time. I never seriously considered pursuing a tenure-track job because I had a sense of the massive amount of bureaucratic bullshit involved. I also knew that I would have to keep my mouth shut. I liked Houston, it had a lot to teach me and I didn’t want to move to the middle of nowhere for a teaching job if one was even to be had.
I’ve paid a whole variety of prices for those choices. And I’ve reaped a lot of rewards for them, too. There are a lot of very visible activist-types who complain about adjunct jobs, but believe me, there are worse jobs. The pay is $20-30 an hour, you don’t have to carry 50 pound buckets of drywall mud or work in a machine shop without air conditioning. It’s hard to get a full slate of classes but that’s what bar-tending and submitting reviews to Glasstire and hustling to sell work is for. There’s no security, but has there ever been security for artists? Some artists work hard and get lucky, most artists just work hard. Who knows, maybe the academy reconstitutes in a real way in the community college systems. There’s actually a lot of freedom for teachers there. That could be cool.
CR: I like couching the would-be ‘necessity’ of getting one’s MFA as merely a trend or cycle — one that we’re still in but may be receding — rather than an immutable truth going forward.
The monstrous debt incurred by most artists when they get an MFA certainly locks them into a more vulnerable position, possibly for life. They either get trapped in the academic/adjunct cycle, or they start making art that collectors or curators want and stop trying to make anything else, or they stop making art (for the most part, except as a hobbyist) and get a day job that helps them pay not only current bills but old college debt. The hustlers may be better equipped to deal with this form of exploitation or capitalism and be happy to make art that the market seems hungry for, but a lot of artists didn’t start making art in order to become wage slaves (or collectors’ pets) for life. We’ve talked about this before.
For that matter, I think it’s become very trendy lately to tell artists to screw the MFA system and try to be professional artists through just about any other means.
But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of whether, for the art’s sake, the MFA degree is worthwhile. What exactly can an artist get from a good masters program, and how often do you think it leads to an artist making better art? Much better art?
MB: In retrospect, getting an MFA, as far as I can see, doesn’t lead to an artist making better art. I think it can lead them to make worse art. For artists of my generation, at least it was a way to buy time and hang out with interesting people and work. And time is not cheap. Real artists have to work too, success or no success. And working for a living prevents you from doing your actual work. Kafka complained all the time about never having enough time to write because he was always selling insurance. An MFA is (for broke kids) a government-financed training course in how to navigate the art industry, but it won’t turn you into an artist. If you are dumb and without talent going in you’ll still be that way coming out.
CR: Okay, fair enough to all that. So, if taking MFA studio classes isn’t going to really help one’s art (as opposed to art history classes which may help), I still circle back around to the networking aspect of graduate school. Yes, thinking you’re on the path to being the rare artist who gets to make his whole living off of art is akin to trying to be a rock star, risk-wise, but there’s certainly a large contingent out there who say that if you can get into Yale or SVA or Cal Arts or MICA, you’re halfway there just from the connections you make while you’re getting your MFA.
I’ve truly heard people say that a suburban middle-class white boy who gets his MFA from Yale and still doesn’t become an Art Star is an artist who threw away his opportunity. That his future as a big deal with Zwirner was practically guaranteed. I’m only being slightly hyperbolic here.
What do you think of that?
MB: Honestly? I don’t give a shit. I tend not to care about the kinds of artists who have those kinds of discussions. Art is the visual representation of an empire’s moral and intellectual power. I don’t see a bunch of back-stabbing strategists yammering on about which Ivy League employment agency will get them into the right living rooms, kunsthalles and biennales fastest as contributing much aesthetic moral fiber to a cultural bulwark against ISIS, Xi Jinping, or Donald Trump himself.
I’m for artists making a living. I still feel warm when I sell something, and I like a good night out. But having just glanced online at Yale’s current and second year grads I can’t help but say that there’s a lot of trivial nonsense getting churned out of those studios. I’m just not that interested in those networks anymore. Like you say, I think the networks are online. We’re in a massive technological and economic revolution. I don’t think that means every online “art lifestyle” hustler is really an artist.
I don’t know what the structure of American art will look like in 20 years, but I don’t feel super positive about it. Half the time I feel like I’m walking into the DMV when I walk into a show. The other half the time I feel like I’m looking at paintings by really precocious 4th graders. But I see some good stuff, too. I just don’t see much of it. But I am in desperate need of a vacation. Maybe that would help.
CR: Maybe it would. Because I’m not an artist, and I didn’t go to grad school, and my own lack of a masters’ degree doesn’t seem to have kept me (in any meaningful way) from the kinds of jobs or salaries I’ve gone after (not that non-profit journalism is any big pay day), I don’t approach this MFA subject with any real animosity.
But I have one last big question for you about the possible value of MFA programs, and in some ways about art school, period. You mentioned earlier in this discussion the pretty entrenched idea that a key step in an artist’s trajectory is “a job as an assistant to a well-established artist.” Historically this is true.
I’d say that at this point, there aren’t nearly enough well-established artists who can afford to hire younger artists as assistants to keep up with the increased flood of younger artists. The proliferation of MFA students and programs reflects the idea that an art career is “legitimate” (i.e. obtainable), and so there are many, many more young people pursuing that path with the goal of becoming professional artists. But who are they going to assist when the number of successful artists who could hire them hasn’t shifted that much? This is a basic supply-and-demand problem, not unlike the teaching-job shortage.
Which makes me wonder if, for some of these potentially promising would-be MFA students, the only meaningful or protracted contact they may have with established artists is through going to school, and staying longer in school. Their professors are their mentors. Maybe their only real mentors in their young or susceptible years. In other words, if young artists learn how to be established artists by being around established artists, I wonder if for some young artists, the MFA program is the primary way to come into contact with seasoned, career artists who know how to do it (and who almost certainly learned from the older generation back when they were younger).
For four years I worked and taught at a Texas university with an MFA program. I saw an array of helpful and damaging dynamics play out between students and professors. I also saw students switching disciplines in order to work with the better professors.
Were your MFA professors useful to you? Influential? Even if by teaching you what not to do, if you didn’t like what you were witnessing with them? I feel like the MFA programs have a way of cultivating a kind of child-parent, love/hate relationship between teachers and students — a lot of knowledge is imparted, there are some jealousies and resentment and disdain going both ways, and plenty of admiration and actual wisdom passed along, too.
MB: My teachers were absolutely useful. I don’t regret going to graduate school, I just think you’re either an artist or not before you get there. I met my friends there. I started a seven-year business with a good friend I met in the studios. I met my wife in an art class. The teachers are supposed to be the most interesting of the interesting people you hang out with while you buy time at 5% interest.
One of the more revealing moments for me was when Al Souza took my grad class to his home studio in the Heights. He had a small, mid-century house and a garage apartment on top of his studio. I’m not sure if his studio had been a garage or he had it built, but it could have been a big two-car garage. I remember thinking: “This is doable. Even if I can’t buy a house, I can rent one with a garage and cut a hole for an AC and roll studio rent into house rent.”
But it’s not just the practical things that teachers are supposed to teach. Al was originally an engineer and worked for the government designing helicopters. I remember him telling me the story of how he quit that job during Vietnam. The town where he worked was a short way from Milford, CT where the original John Birch society formed. Many of the clients and employees Al came in contact with were, as he says, nice people but he also describes having seen them happy only three times: when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when Bobby Kennedy was murdered, and finally after the killings at Kent State. After Kent State, he quit his job. The ideological and political conflicts were too great. He was already making art, but when he quit, that was when he decided to build his life around a career as an artist. And it took a long time and he pieced it together. So your grad school teachers can be moral examples as well.
I’m not as grim as I used to be about the life of a working artist. The flood of MFA students thins naturally as they stumble out into the sunlight after two or three years. I frankly don’t see a problem with the fact that only a tiny fraction of MFAs are making work ten years out. I say thin the herd! More resources for the real artists.
Francesca Fuchs, a Houston painter, recently said, “Artists are can-do people.” We were talking about how artists are better prepared for things like flooded houses because their lives are about piecing it together and being adaptive and doing things themselves. And they are. If the MFA is too expensive and too politicized to do anyone any good, artists will find a way to keep learning and making art without it. We’ve been doing it for 40,000 years.