I sold cars for seven years. I was surprised at the number of people who came into the dealership on a daily basis to look at the fully loaded Escalade or BMW 5 Series. These people believed wholeheartedly that this was the car for them. But within minutes I’d ask them a few standard questions—generally around budget and other practical concerns like space and gas mileage—and it was clear to me that what they actually needed was an entirely different vehicle. Believe it or not: it wasn’t my job to throw them into anything for a quick commission. Rather, my job was to renegotiate the customers’ fantasy vis-a-vis their actual needs, and put them into something that both made good sense and made them happy.
Most MFA candidates today remind me of this customer. I think most grads decide to go back to school in hopes their degree will do something for them, will better prepare them for something, will help them network with someone—and without having any concrete notion of what they actually want or need and why. And there is something comforting about nestling into the type of incubator a graduate program promises: it provides a sense of community, studio space, mentors, time, and even teaching experience. But even though there’s often some emphasis on professionalism (like artist statements and documentation), the reality is that an MFA is designed for students to focus on the quality of their work. All that time and effort (and money) culminates in a thesis show, after which some kind of vague future lurks, and very few MFA grads are prepared for it.
There are staggering statistics out there, and I’ve heard this one flung around more than once: 90% of MFA grads stop making work about a year after they graduate. It might be a questionable number, but it poses the question of why so many people—after dedicating between two and three years of their lives to intense art making—quickly give up on it.
A common refrain I hear from colleagues is that new grads quit making art because they aren’t really artists, i.e., they were just young people seduced by the fantasy of being an artist, and they lacked the fortitude to deal with the real-life consequences of being a working artist outside of school. An MFA for these “artists” is little more than purchased time to piddle around while they figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
This is at least partially true. There are a lot of MFAs who don’t grasp how difficult it is to build and sustain a viable art practice outside of a graduate program. Some young would-be artists don’t understand how to manage their time, how to manage their finances, and a good number aren’t self-motivated. They need a school schedule that revolves around someone else’s critique date, and that’s not how the real world works.
But my problem with this 90% argument is how dismissive it is. It lumps together individuals in a mass exodus of art makers and claims that as a group they can’t hack it. And after all, the amount of people that give up on art seems to exceed any natural rate of attrition. But are that many people really that dumb to waste their time and money on a pointless degree? Or is something else going on?
To be clear: I don’t think an MFA degree is useless. I believe the opposite, and as someone who chose to get one, I can say I’m a vastly more curious and thoughtful person than I was when I started my degree, and I’m much more dedicated to my work than I was when I started, and because of my graduate experience, I also discovered that I like to write. The most valuable aspects of my degree are unquantifiable. But an unquantifiable value produces a lot of young would-be artists who, like my Escalade customers, have a some unrealistic expectations about the outcome.
But I don’t think that’s their fault. Today, participation in the art world is akin to auditioning for American Idol; it’s no longer grounded in reality. Every day, young artists buy into and feed the burgeoning cult of art celebrity by toiling away in their studios hoping that with enough hard work, her or his genius will be discovered. The Millennial generation dedicates itself to living a life that’s “meaningful” while longing for recognition and the appearance of being successful to others. The desire to be an art star is an exploitative and insidious trap for young people.
Oddly, this strange new world was never addressed by the professors at my graduate program. In fact any kind of rubric for what constitutes “success” in the art world was hardly discussed at all. I suspect that if I sat down and asked each of my former professors about the importance of becoming an art star, they would laugh. So to an impressionable student: if the professors weren’t talking about art stardom, were they silently condoning it? I think for most students, an amorphous idea of success in the art world looms like one or two elephants in the room, as in: 1) although not probable, it is possible to make a living off one’s artwork or even shoot to mega-success, and 2) while not likely, it is possible to become a tenure-track professor right after completing one’s MFA.
I don’t think most art students are naive enough to think they will become rich and famous. But I believe that most of them would want to make a living solely off their work if they could. So let’s explore this business model a little bit further.
Most galleries take a 50% commission of all sales. Most artists with gallery representation get a solo show about once a year, maybe once every two years. Therefore, in order to make the beginning of a livable salary in Houston—let’s say around $40,000 per year—an artist would need to produce $80,000 gross in sales of artwork in one show, so about ten works priced at an average of $8,000 each. This gross profit doesn’t account for cost of materials, taxes, insurance, and retirement planning. Remember also that in the U.S., visual artists don’t receive royalties on the secondary market; they only receive payment on an artwork’s first point of sale, which is often that work’s lowest value.
I see a lot of shows around town, and while some works are pricey, most do not exceed about five to six thousand dollars. Most galleries are not selling out their shows. Often when I walk into a gallery, even to see veteran artists’ shows, I see about four or five red dots, out of a possible ten-plus. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that money from gallery sales doesn’t produce a sustainable living for most working artists, much less a new MFA.
It really isn’t sustainable for galleries either, though that’s another topic for another time, and we know most galleries don’t solely rely on straight exhibition sales. But if galleries are supplementing their income via the secondary market and art fairs and commissions and consulting, why do we believe artists should depend on only one source of income, as though that’s some kind of real-artist gold standard?
And how often are MFA programs talking about this? If grad programs aren’t providing practical tools for students to sustain an art career—beyond aspiring to what amounts to a fairly shitty business model for them—what difference does it make if you do or don’t have an MFA degree?
While I was getting my MFA, my partner was a student at the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at UH. On that track, the school focused on students generating viable, practical business plans tailored to each of their needs. Some students do end up running large businesses, some aspire to small ones, and some realize they don’t want to run a business at all. But one thing they all have to focus on is developing a solid plan so they can thrive beyond graduation.
To be an artist is essentially to be a self-motivated entrepreneur, but we throw young graduates into an unsustainable cash-flow system and are surprised when they give up making art and seek other employment. Instead of saddling young artists with crippling debt and funneling them into the dead-end adjunct-professor machine, we should be asking students—while they’re still in school—to devise and articulate a practical alternative for themselves once they graduate.
A few young artists really will become art market darlings, and some really should go on to be art professors. But many could or should be welders, or grant writers, realtors, curators, designers, head waiters, project managers. MFA programs should be asking students to think long and hard about how they’ll manage their time and money in order to make work outside of school, and if they aren’t developing entire classes around this planning, MFA programs could create or collaborate in some kind of larger, ongoing think tank focused on all aspects of the arts in their cities. So instead of feeling overwhelmed and confused, students graduate feeling empowered to contribute meaningfully to their communities, even if not as working artists.
How many artists or would-be artists are giving all their income to a landlord in Montrose when they could be investing in land outside the loop and cultivating their own opportunities? Who will build the next Box 13, the next She Works Flexible, Notsuoh, Itchy Acres? The next Alabama Song or Project Row Houses? Could it be an art colony in Huntsville? A residency in Dickinson? One thing Houston has that Manhattan never will is space.
A talented teacher of mine once told me that if she could make a living just off her work, she wouldn’t teach. I thought that was sad. Would her artistic contribution be more important, more meaningful if she were only an artist and not a teacher? Maybe. But I doubt it.
When I started school way back in 1981 I enrolled in the studio art program at Texas Tech because I did not know exactly what I wanted to do at 18 and my parents were just happy that I was going to college. I felt I had a little bit of talent for drawing and I especially had a talent for making and putting things together. After a year of struggling to understand just exactly what I was there to do and after seeing what the Architecture students were doing next door, I switched majors. About the best decision I’ve ever made. Architecture fit me to a tee and has provided a pretty good living ever since.
But, in about 1999 the art bug began biting again and I started painting. Down right dreadful I was for a very long time but I stuck by it. Digital photography and the internet came of age during this time and for someone self taught these tools became an absolute godsend. By 2012 I was showing modestly at non profits like the Fort Worth Community Arts Center and the LHUCA in Lubbock. Gallery representation was still very elusive although not for lack of trying.
The next year 2013 I went so far as to sit down with Cam Schoepp and Susan Harrington at TCU to talk about applying to the MFA program there in painting. A stretch for someone pushing 50 with a family and a well established career outside of art. They both were very kind and did not discourage me to apply. I got in that year but was not successful at one of the full scholarship slots in painting. So, I declined as the tuition for the program would have been $72,000.00…crazy money.
Early in 2014 Cam and Susan emailed me to encourage me to apply again. I thought long and hard about it and what it would do to my career in architecture, to our family and to our finances. Ultimately, even though I knew a scholarship was more likely this time, I declined again. About killed me…as it can be a siren song to someone who has worked creatively for a lifetime.
But, gallery representation in Tulsa and some small recognition through Saatchi Art came soon after. My work continues to develop and I’m beginning to sell. No way I can make a living yet…but I’m having a good time, made some interesting friends and have made enough money to renovate my studio. I’m not a full time pro and I’m not an amateur anymore…there was an article in The Guardian recently that summed in up best…”Side Hussle”.
Painting is a ton of work, there are more people along the way than not that are very discouraging and it takes a lot of love and dedication to craft late at night and on the weekends. My goal is modest…to retire already an established artist and to enjoy working at it full time when the pressure to make a living is no longer a concern. Not going to school for art in the end was the best thing for me.
Great article. Love the section about artist as entrepreneur, I talked a little about that in my last interview at http://freedomthinkers.com/artist-ty-clark/ I think that this is one discussion that should absolutley be discussed and shared more with young artists. I have done business accellorators as an entrepreneur around the US and the need for artists to learn the same skills are vital to sustaining or starting a career in the arts. Thanks for the piece!
Speaking of selling cars, I think we need that flagship sedan guy to show up again and tell us how to be successful.
Pretty sure this article is begging for him to return, and for that conversation to continue (hopefully with lots of controversy and comments to drive clicks). Why don’t you just hire this mystery poster to glasstire if his writing is missed this much?
Great points made. I thoroughly enjoyed my MFA experience. Coming from a working class family, I knew then that I was affording myself a once in a lifetime luxury by earning art degrees instead of those degrees that supposedly were more market friendly. While I now paint and draw, I did spend the last semester of my MFA looking at, experiencing, and researching socially engaged art, which really opened up the greatest can of worms I’ve had the pleasure of meddling with. It was messy, it was uncomfortable, and I think it really provided me with some insight as to what I’d be doing once I had completed my degree. How could I still be an artist, think like an artist, exist like an artist while at the same time sustaining my work through job security, health insurance, etc? When art became a way, instead of a thing, it really changed my outlook on what my success as an artist would be. Now I get to work in job I love, helping people that come from similar places as I do, and I have the resources and time to be able to maintain my studio practice as well. I think more people could have similar experiences if they forge their own notions of success instead of clinging on to notions put forth by others.
Rather than the American Idol analogy, I think a better one for the arts may be sports. The sports world runs from the professional through the amateur practitioner, from astronomical salaries for a few on down. Thousands practice and even focus on it in high school and college, few can pursue professions. But I suspect most, maybe everyone, learns something of value. I once taught a summer class at a crafts school many years ago and one of my students was a very good potter who in the rest of his life was a tight end for the Miami Dolphins. I told him that his work was really good and with more effort, it could be outstanding. He said he knew what it took to do outstanding work. He just wanted to be good at ceramics, which he enjoyed doing in the off season. It taught me a lot. I had never thought someone might just want to be good enough at what I thought you had to be great at doing.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Betsy Huete’s heartfelt essay on the necessity of an MFA as a prerequisite for success as an artist. I agree with the spirit of so much of what she writes, but I can’t subscribe to the entire package, simply because she fails to see the forest for the trees.
I say this for a number of reasons: I have an MFA myself and valued that experience; I have managed to construct a sustainable career as an exhibiting artist, despite the fact that for all but eight years I was unable to support myself on sales and commissions alone; I have been teaching for more than twenty years, working with and advising graduate-level students; and I currently run the MFA program at SMU. In short, if I were to base my response to Huete’s arguments and observations on my personal experience, I would find them less than adequate. So what basis does Huete have to assume that her experience warrants such a depressing view of prospects for today’s artists?
Times change, and that’s more than a platitude when it comes to the economic structure of the art market and arts funding in general. More than a decade ago, a study was published on the economy of art under the title, “Why are artists poor? The exceptional economy of the arts.” The author, Hans Abbing, was writing from the point of view of a European context, at a time when government support for the arts was relatively generous. Moreover, much of the education received by artists across Europe was absolutely free or nearly so. Still, artists remained impoverished. Abbing’s answer was that the art economy was an exceptional economy; that is, it was neither tied to the market nor entirely divorced from a number of debilitating myths.
I raise Abbing’s work because it exemplifies an approach towards understanding the economy of art that is sadly lacking in the US. While there are studies of art’s importance as an important economic lever for cities and regions — the NEA’s slogan is “Art Works” — there has been little substantial research on the specific trajectory of artistic careers in the visual arts. What weakens Huete’s heartfelt appeal to “get real” about being an artist is her lack of evidence.
One book that did attempt to pull back the curtain on the mythos of becoming a celebrated artist is Don Thompson’s “The 12 Million Stuffed Shark.” (The title refers to the price achieved at auction by Damien Hirst’s “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”,1991.) When I ask art students to read this, I know I am skating on thin ice. Writing of the aspiration of graduating art students, Thompson claims, “what such artists aspire to is the status and recognition of the branded artists, those few associated with the world of high-end contemporary art.” He then goes on to ask “what combination of talent, luck and particularly marketing and branding gets an artist to the very top?”
All this chatter seems to correspond to Huete’s assertion that self-delusion among young artists and students is such that “participation in the art world is akin to auditioning for American Idol”. Indeed, from Thompson we learn the hard, cold facts facing any artist seeking to “make it” in the manner of D. Hirst, J. Koons, T. Emin, R. Prince or any other art star you may think of.
But this picture is flawed. Huete — unlike Thompson and others who have been researching the economics of the art market — provides only a vague notion of the delusional enemy that is market success. Perhaps those professors who did not dwell on art celebrity were right not to do so, since so many of the factors associated with art superstardom are both out of the control of the individual artist and frankly out of reach for those artists who remain tied to their regional homes. This is not to say that moving to New York or Los Angeles or London will guarantee one’s success; but it seems obvious that such a move would improve one’s chances of success, if you crave market success. This is because the branded galleries, the savvy dealers, the collectors, the auctions houses, and the art media are concentrated there. When Jerry Saltz bemoans the fact that, say, London’s art scene is more creative, while New York’s looks increasingly like the trading floor of the global art market, he’s merely stating the obvious. Of course, the market is not the only attraction in London and New York and Los Angeles, but being in those cities opens up many more opportunities.
My sense is that Huete’s complaint has some valid points, but I don’t think cranking up the “professionalism” in MFA programs, through teaching financial management and other entrepreneurial skills, is going to cut it. I feel that if you only look at the trajectory of an art career in terms of the possibilities for commercial sales, you will be disappointed. And that disappointment has been around for a very long time. When Thompson published his studies — 2008 — he reckoned there were 40,000 artists in New York and 40,000 artists in London. Of those 80,000 artists, perhaps 5,000 overall were making some sort of income on their work. Of those 5,000, one can easily parse out perhaps 100 international superstars. The names you see repeatedly in biennials, triennials, and art fairs.
From one point of view, it’s sad to see folks stop making art, after having spent so much time and effort and money preparing for just that sort of life’s work. But then the same could be said for most undergraduates. With the exception of those who go directly into professional graduate schools, like law (though enrollment is way down due to oversupply), medicine, dentistry, etc., how many undergrads do you know who are now making a living at a job directly related to their major course of study? The fact that the most popular option for undergrads is to double major — and I’m talking about those who are and are not studying art — speaks to a broader problem of underemployment. Clearly, the structural changes in the US and world economies post-2008 contribute to the exacerbation of trends that were already a permanent fixture of the “boom” economy. The art market has never been vast enough to accommodate the economic needs of the number of graduates pouring out of BFA and MFA programs across the country. And it never will because it’s not an economic powerhouse of an industry despite the headlines surrounding mega-million dollar auction sales. (Symbolically, the social valuation of art is another story, but with creativity being coopted daily by global corporations, who’s to say that good old fashioned artisanal art will be anything other than a niche, like microbrewing? That’s another story!)
Of course, none of this has stopped people from wanting to study art, for whatever reason. If the parlous opportunities for market recognition —making a living wage as an artist exhibiting in galleries and expecting sales — is a “real” problem, then there are some limited steps to cure the most pressing inequity faced by MFA graduates: the ratio of debt to potential earnings. One tack would be to demand that all MFA programs are tuition free. I’d go further: perhaps fewer students should be taken on in each program. Wouldn’t that be an ethical response to the rather questionable activity of churning out legions of artists in full knowledge that only 0.1% of them will even be working as such in a decade??? Open access to higher education is one thing, but we are talking Graduate School here. So, there is no way around competition at this level of higher education unless all the economic barriers are removed. Similar inequities and lack of employment opportunities exist for those studying philosophy, higher mathematics, and English Lit, and have for some time. The “market” is taking care of that problem, with a great deal of help from professional academic managers who care nothing for knowledge and everything for the bottom line. Undergraduate programs in so many universities are being cut according to the beat of that inhuman neo-liberal cant that shouts obscenely that the market should determine all. This has the chilling effect of limiting the number of “unemployable” humanities graduates: the student entering the university doesn’t even consider such subjects as a viable choice. The result? More students study Business than anything else at my university. I’ll bet that’s the case at yours, too. (Entrepreneurship is not “Business-lite”; it’s got teeth and it is vile, and should be disciplined!)
Not every university will be able to forego tuition for MFA candidates; SMU can and we are privileged in that regard. The state universities that I’ve visited over the past years, while recruiting for our MFA program, increasingly resemble upscale vocational training schools. Video Gaming trumps Printmaking; anything to do with graphic design or advertising or commercial photography sells. And more students are deferring graduate school, even though they can clearly see the benefit of such continuing education.
We all wish to take seriously the post-graduate life of our students. At SMU we do what little we can: we hire recent MFAs as adjuncts (the blight of “casual teaching” is another byproduct of neo-liberal economic stewardship of our universities), we provide post-graduate fellowship opportunities, and school them to apply for residencies and grants. I’m sure many programs do the same. But still that is not enough to entirely ameliorate the problem that Huete is outlining and Thompson is parading.
It is a commonplace to say that there is more than one way to be an artist; still, I’ve learned this from personal experience and from observing the lives of other artists, and find the lessons to have been exceedingly valuable. The gallery artist is but one kind of beast and not necessarily the most contented. Happily, we are adept at dealing with many other sorts of trajectories, of which very few are open to the siren song of art stardom and even fewer are entrenched in the curriculum of most MFA programs I’ve seen. But to say that the kind of versatility required to being a different sort of artist is born of choice rather than precarity would already be to say too much!
So Huete is right to mention those kinds of practices and life-choices that would remove an artist from a rat race they can’t possibly hope to win. Not in Houston, not in Dallas, and not in New York. I can’t help but think that there is no utopia for artists out there, no matter how far away from the urban riot of Houston you care to go. The peaceable kingdom of creative bliss is a fantasy, no less treacherous than the lure of market dominance, just “softer” on the outside. Re-purposing has to start with a purpose, after all.
One final thought: while teaching in the UK, it was clear that there never would be enough to go around, especially in the arts. Yet people studied art and talked about “transferrable” skills. They valued art for itself and fortunately didn’t have to mortgage the house to pay for the privilege. And yes, most of my graduates five years on were not famous artists, yet still they managed to sustain an art practice; they were just not fixated on “making it” in the galleries.
That relative paradise was the United Kingdom in the throes of dismantling a truly impressive and humane post-war social democracy. Our American Cousins are not so fortunate. We are riddled with the free market; it’s in our DNA (forgive the cliché). State universities that used to be really cheap are now increasingly expensive and being defunded at an alarming rate. Consequently, I know of no recent MFA student without debt. If one must borrow, do it at a rate of interest commensurate with the social good gained: an educated, independent citizen. Again, agitate for a reasonable rate of interest for student loans; better still, eliminate the need for them entirely.
The artist out of work needs more channels for the distribution of other than object-oriented work. These socially responsive cottage industries may or may not pay; they certainly won’t if they are not supported by external funds, either from philanthropists or the state. Since we are a long way from “effective altruism” in the US, this is yet another area in which to focus our attention, to organize and agitate.
Betsy, stop wringing your hands about the sad fate of budding artists. We are more self-directed and self-organizing than you can imagine. The problem is, unless the moneyed individuals and public servants who love art recognize this and take it seriously, the reason why artists are poor will remain self-evident.
Thank you Dr. Corris for your response and for pointing out that the moneyed individuals and public servants has to take art seriously as we are, poor artists.
First of all, thank you for reading, and thank you for the thoughtful and thorough comment. I wanted to quickly skip over to a later comment you made about GT screening the comments section. I can imagine after you’ve taken the time to write something like this, and I’ve taken the time to write something like this, that seeing someone talk about pussies and balls of steel would probably feel obnoxious. It can be really frustrating for me too. Now I don’t have any control over the comments section either, and I’ve thought about this as well, but I ultimately think that these kinds of quick, dismissive, even immature comments should stay. After all, he or she took the time to read the article too, and has every right to feel the way (s)he does, and–for better or worse–is probably echoing someone else’s sentiments. Moving on…
I felt compelled to respond because I think really in most ways we agree. I think what I contend with most though, is how you think I’m depicting a depressing picture of young artists. On that point, I couldn’t disagree with you more.
Generally I’m optimistic, and I think there are wonderful opportunities for working artists to make a sustainable living. My problem is that I don’t think these opportunities are being talked about appropriately. I think the art world is purposefully vague, and while full of possibilities, and because it’s so open and vast, so many artists cling to a pretty myopic idea of what constitutes success in their own practice. You yourself in this comments section mention how poor artists are, how poor artists have been. But are they? Do they need to be? Does this same stereotype need to be played out over and over and over again?
You question my qualifications, and rightfully so. I’m not an economist, and you’re right, I didn’t put in massive amounts of research to write this article. But what I think qualifies me to give this particular point of view is that I am a recent graduate who just went through all of this. And Michael, I’m a working artist, and I’m not poor. Must I be an expert to espouse common sense?
There’s not a single thing that’s fancy or special or flashy about me, I’m no art star. But as a teacher, I have a job related to my art practice, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by young artists who sometimes, effortlessly, make great, strange drawings. I get to be inspired daily, and I know my job matters. I may not be rich, but I make a comfortable, stable living. I receive benefits and time to do my own work. My point is that my job and other opportunities like it, while not glamorous, are not–in my opinion–being talked about enough in MFA programs. I can understand why you, as someone who runs an MFA program, might feel allergic to this type of discussion of professional practice. Admittedly, there’s something that even feels a little icky to me about it, like it might infringe on the purity of solely focusing on one’s work. But my problem about keeping young artists in the dark about professional opportunities beyond playing the art market and a tenure-track professor position is that it is stifling impressionable artists from thinking about ways to practically sustain their practice. Like I said in my article: some really should and will make a great living off the art market, and good for them. But as you also said, it does not make statistical sense for most of these graduates, particularly ones that don’t make art that’s marketable.
Michael, I’m not wringing my hands; frankly, I feel like I’m stating the obvious. If more and more MFA programs are being created, that’s because more and more artists are looking for some kind of institutional framework to sustain an art practice. I think you and I both agree that depending on gallery sales–essentially becoming a commission-only salesperson–does not make good business sense for most people. How much talent is being lost because no one’s discussing practical alternatives? I think that’s the question that’s harder to answer.
nice response. thank you
IF YOU ARE PAYING FOR AN MFA (OR ANY STUDENT LOAN) AND WORKING AT A NONPROFIT:
Obama implemented a new program early in his administration where if you pay 120 payments on time while working for a qualifying nonprofit, the rest of your loan is forgiven. It took me a while to figure out all the rules, but I’m about 20 payments into it, and should save about $40K by the time it’s forgiven. Monthly payment amount is based on current income so it stays reasonable on your budget. I constantly encounter people already working in the public sector (including medical centers, universities, government agencies, and DEFINITELY MUSEUMS) who know nothing about this program but are currently paying for MFAs, MBAs, or even just Bachelor’s degrees. I first learned about it in a Glasstire news blurb shortly after it passed, but here’s the official webpage: https://myfedloan.org/manage-account/loan-forgiveness-discharge-programs/loan-forgiveness.shtml
Keep in mind that all debt forgiven after 120 payments is counted as INCOME for that year’s purposes, so while this is a great thing to take advantage of, there are some serious tax implications so anyone close to forgiveness should prepare well in advance for the amount owed on the return. (This is also assuming/hoping it’s not axed/dramatically changed in the near future….http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-lowden/public-service-loan-forgiveness_b_4938429.html)
The way I look at it. You’re either a fucking pussy, or you have balls of steel…which is it?
Yes, an art colony in Huntsville is coming.
I’m sure it will be seen by the community of Glasstire’s readers to be a waste of time to engage in disembodied conversation via the posting of comments if the editor(s) continue to refrain from exercising good judgment to separate serious discourse from less than auspicious exchanges. (I can hear the collective groans already . . . well, relax and have another beer, mate.)
This would be a shame, given that Glasstire is one of the few opportunities for public conversation about issues of importance and relevance to the community of Texas artists. Or, am I failing to see the obvious; namely, that art is just a heck of a lot of fun, y’all, so f**k you and the white horse you rode in on!!!!
One way forward might be to disallow comments that are beyond the pale of acceptable internet decorum. Such rules of engagement are well known and are practiced by every other significant internet site devoted to art, culture, politics, etc.
So why not Glasstire?
(This comment was inspired by remarks typed by the correspondent identified as “neoshield”, at 21:38, on December 15, 2015. But “neoshield” is by no means being singled out here and he/she/they should understand that they are not a specific target, only an exemplar of a type of attitude towards “correspondence at a distance” that seems to me to be unworthy of Glasstire or any other forum. My comments, therefore, should be taken refer to any number of previous examples of such discourse, that may be said to fall within the category of less than decorous, unhelpful, pointlessly aggressive blogging.)
“disembodied conversation……disallow comments….beyond the pale of acceptable internet decorum….less than decorous discourse….State Universities are vocational schools….One final thought…SMU can and we are privileged……at SMU we……incestuous pretentious grossness bla bla bla…..”
(all of this commentary said with an expensive silver spoon far up the ass, and a bright red nose and pinky finger high in the air)
Continuing this exchange will seem to some as ill-advised, like putting out fires with gasoline. But I don’t disrespect anyone who enters into a conversation, so here goes:
It’s rather crude to tar everyone with the same brush, don’t you agree? It’s also the case, I believe, that sniping is not the most effect mode of argument, unless you are a Republican running for office.
A more productive approach might be to take the time to reveal and examine your own credentials.
Are you a genuine friend of the downtrodden, the working class, or the hard working person who never quite gets what they deserve? Do you agitate for the rights of the disenfranchised? Do you bring anything to the table when the discussion is about the excluded? Who do you speak for? By what warrant do you speak for them?
Lest you think I object to your comments only because they are rude and distracted, think again. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I am denying you the right to speak your mind. Instead, consider this: freedom of speech, writes Chomsky (a professor at MIT, also a privileged institution with mucho silver spoons up mucho arses, rolling in defense contractor $$$, the lot of them elitist, scoring perfectly on their SATs, etc.) is an absolute right. This from a man,who was raised in the Jewish faith and yet has managed to find the moral strength to defend the right of, among others, Holocaust deniers, to speak and publish their hate.
Web chatter may be trash talk, but why not take the opposite tack and demand principled conversation? Why corrupt public communication? To corrupt is to measure something against a standard that is inappropriately low. Why not try to argue from a position other than naked self interest or contingency? Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press . . . all rights I believe in, absolutely.
What happens when this misguided standard of online chatter becomes a paradigm for public dialogue? As The New York Times remarked aptly the other day, the Republican candidates’ solutions to so many of the problems facing the US and the world is, simply, MORE BOMBS. That’s what happens.
I respect Betsy Huete for writing her piece, but that doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with some of her conclusions or take issue with some of her reasoning. With regards to my comments about your patently ludicrous remarks, it is clear to me now that you were initially referring to someone else or something else; but who knows what? You failed to say. However, you were quite happy to jump in at my, what? invitation?
I hope you will understand two points about my response to you and gain some insight into why I take exception to your jibes. Firstly, there is a distinction between saying a work of art, or a person’s argument, etc., is CRAP and giving reasons for such a critical view. It’s not about being “pinky in the air polite” or “down and dirty crude”. It ain’t about manners, but it doesn’t entirely set decorum aside, either. Decorum is not just Downton Abbey pap or “political correctness”; it is about respecting your interlocutor as you respect yourself and taking conversation seriously.
Secondly, Glasstire is, in fact, a mediated site. But, would you not say there is a paradox lurking behind this fact? Every website that is mediated, by whatever means (algorithms, humans reading), denies freedom of speech as an absolute right.
So, if you think that my commentary is uttered from a position on high, then you have done little more than to reveal your distrust of carrying on a conversation in a reasoned way. I’m glad you are happy about the appearance of another art colony. What this has to do with the price of tomatoes escapes me. It certainly has little to offer those who would value a postgraduate experience but can’t begin to imagine being able to afford it. And it says nothing constructively with regard to Betsy Huete’s article.
Perhaps it is no longer fashionable to believe that you may reasonably assert a critical view without resorting to ad hominem attacks, insults, clever catch phrases, or simple bullying? Perhaps I’m naive to think that such modes of argument might be set aside at times. Perhaps not, because I am familiar with consequences of not setting aside such modes of argument and I am frankly terrified by that prospect. For example, I’ve found that many of my students — NOT all — equate criticism with hating. At least they are more than mildly uncomfortable with the act of giving (and receiving) criticism. Sadly, that leaves them no option but to be discerning “consumers”. In that case, your world consists of two possibilities: what you like, and what you don’t like. And what you don’t like, you can ignore: you don’t have to listen to it, try to understand it, engage with it in any meaningful sense, and certainly you are under no compulsion to try to change it. You may just carry on as if it didn’t exist. Those who subscribe to such conformism are at a loss to understand how traumatized they are by this so-called privilege. They remain incapable of constructive criticism and self-criticism. In that case, more bombs may well be a tempting option.
Happy holidays to all. Really.
a. Didn’t read
b. Nothing personal Michael.
c. Sorry to go after you, I just couldn’t help it, you make it too easy.
d. You will never get it, because you are looking at it in the wrong way. To give you a hint, it’s about a feeling, or what’s inside you. It is about who you believe you were born to be. It’s not something we can identify intellectually in this comment section. If you are right for an MFA program, then you will someday meet success, and it will be worth it to you.
It is not for everyone, it’s very hard to be serious as a poor graduate student, and most will not make it the experience that it should be. The experience should test your limits in every direction artistically and otherwise, and that doesn’t mean it should be changed, or softened in some way. The process of an MFA program serves many purposes that are not recognized right away. It should land you in the middle of a desert with nothing but a jug of water and a purpose. It is undoubtedly a permanent and major commitment financially, and for your entire life’s direction.
No one goes into an MFA program to get rich, and if they do they are a fool. An MFA program is a mental meat grinder, plain and simple. When you come out you should be lean and hungry, razor sharp and savy. For some this is the case, and they become the best versions of themselves artistically. They are ready to become real contenders regionally. Then maybe the blossoming of a career finally happens, and all the naysayers casually flip their scripts, acting like they knew all along that you would be a success. You were either born to make the experience of graduate school into something that transforms you into what you desire, or you were not. No amount of logic or scholarly precision will be able to make sense of it. If you not only welcome, but facilitate a tidal wave of change and pressure submerging your life for three years, all in the hope that you will be able to somehow thread the needle; then you are right for a studio art MFA program. In other words, you have to be a bit crazy, crazy talented, and flush with mental stamina. The program figures out who is special, but more aptly it is you who must also put in the work to become special. This brand of work takes many forms over the length of the program, some of which you have no control. Because the keys must already be embedded inside you.
I’m not sure I believe anyone is “born” an artist. If this is the case, then yes, I will never get it. But that’s OK, because I “get it” in other ways. Mostly, in conversation with other art worlds, where art is not what some folks I’ve read in Glasstire think it is or should be. The problem with pluralism in art is that it mystifies the hierarchy that is self-evident to the top players in the market. Otherwise, why would we be having this conversation at all?
But I agree, passion is necessary for an artist, along with a real focus. We wouldn’t be traveling down the path to art if we didn’t get a lot of encouragement and shaping along the way. You’d be surprised (or not) about why some students go to some specific MFA programs. Places like Columbia and possibly Yale make extraordinary promises about which art stars will appear at your studio door over the course of two years. I’m skeptical, as you seem to be, too, that this kind of program constitutes an adequate education. Jeff Koons is no model, he’s the aesthetic equivalent of a demagogue. Even less heartless than Warhol, but that’s another story.
The fact that artists are poor is no stereotype, Betsy. We are not talking artists starving in the garret poor; we are just talking about the structural difficulties of managing to earn a living wage through the practice of art alone. Anecdotal evidence aside, we tend to take the exception as the rule when talking about things close to our heart. I don’t mean to sound overbearing about this, but sheer will will not create a sustainable solution to how art is made, used, perceived, or exchanged. The odds are still stacked against us; of course, as you point out, that doesn’t mean that we all lose in the long run. The point is, most would be artists don’t get the opportunity to test this hypothesis in the “long run”. For them, the run is short, brutish, and poor.
Artists have been beating stereotypes for some time now; it’s kind of a quick and dirty definition of the Avant-garde. I like to think of my own practice, in the Conceptual Art “milieu”, as just such a stereotype-busting job of work. For all the hairy-chested painters hanging out at Fanelli’s Bar in SoHo, the prospect of making work that was ambiguously text and object was a prospect that was ridiculous and terrifying in turns. But that was then. With the postmodern settlement, we are all “at peace”. Except for those who pull the levers of the art market. We have nothing in common with them.
I do thank you, Betsy and Neoshield, for stepping up to the plate and taking the time to respond in a fruitful way. There is more to be said, but to say more and write more, I’ll need to consider your separate contributions at leisure. For now, I’m in the midst of reading MFA seminar papers and my eyes are falling out of my head. But I mean that in a good way.
An interesting exchange indeed. Not sure it’s necessary to add my two cents since the subject seems to have been covered at length, but I’d like to offer some perspective from someone operating in the world of professional practices training outside an academic environment. I came to my former job with Fresh Arts after a BFA in music and MFA in theater. I don’t think any of my university colleagues had misguided notions about stardom or even reliable income, but what our training lacked in professional development, it compensated with community, space, mentorship, discipline, and time to hone our artistic vision. Could this be accomplished outside an academic environment? Of course. But I think it would be a shame to discount the fertile soil and privilege of focus one might enjoy while pursuing an MFA.
As mentioned above, I think it’s naive to suggest that only arts students graduate without applicable entrepreneurial and life skills… or acceptance of the stone-cold reality of generating a sustainable income. (My next door neighbor- a PhD in Marxist feminist theory in literature- reminds me of this daily as she recounts the horrors of her current job search.) Yet, I think there’s a real danger in embracing professional development and entrepreneurship as the cure for what’s ailing us. (I know, because I tried.) We can teach financial literacy, marketing, grant writing, and business modeling until we’re blue in the face, but being accomplished in these areas has very little to do with having a successful artistic practice by most standards– most importantly, by one’s own definition. In trying to talk about my former organization to people outside the art community, we oftentimes had to boil it down to “we teach artists how to be better business people” in order for our mission to resonate at all. And while I didn’t have the good sense to cringe a little as I was describing our work that way seven years ago, I certainly do now.
After coming full circle on the role of professional development in arts training, I would caution MFA students about the dangers of focusing too closely on entrepreneurship for several reasons. First of all, most successful business owners I know describe their entrepreneurship as a disease– a passion. (Sound familiar?) In speaking with one such individual (who taught entrepreneurship at UT for a spell), his greatest complaint was that teaching entrepreneurship in a vacuum was useless. The students had neither the spark, nor context to make sense of it. This is also why– with all due respect to those pursuing degrees in arts administration (and those offering them)– it concerns me to see so many students jump from their undergrad work right into these programs. Why? Lots of reasons, but perhaps the one which concerns me most is the perpetuation of a system which privileges institution over artist– a system in which, for example, our Houston arts nonprofits can raise roughly a billion dollars for the ‘arts’ in capital campaigns over the last few years, while the condition of our artists (and their payment/stipends) hasn’t improved with that investment. Infrastructure is great. Infrastructure without a fierce respect for its raison d’être is also why we have poor artists. Which leads me to my next point…
Mr. Corris nails it when he says: “We are more self-directed and self-organizing than you can imagine.” I agree. This is why events like ‘charge’ hosted by Art League in early January are so important. (http://www.artleaguehouston.org/charge-2016/) From their website: “Even as our work is used to beautify a city, supplement an industry, provide content for an institution, or convey an idea that shifts our world – the voices of Artists as primary producers, idea creators, and cultural instigators are often excluded from the table. Being Artists, however: We’ve built our own table.” I know there are probably those who snicker at the idealism of it all, but after years of debating the pros, cons, trade-offs and realities of the current system with these artists, they’ve won me over. Betsy argues (and I believe in good faith) that “if more and more MFA programs are being created, that’s because more and more artists are looking for some kind of institutional framework to sustain an art practice.” Possibly. But sadly, it seems artists are frequently coaxed into inequitable relationships in which these institutional frameworks seize their creative capital, but disavow their debt to the makers. (Hello, big nonprofits, I’m looking at you!)
This is where someone could accuse me of getting off track, and they’d be right, so to return to the subject at hand: teaching MFAs how to secure a sustainable living. After almost a decade of trying to teach sustainable (business) practices, I’d argue that’s a nebulous task at best– a fool’s errand at worst. Sustainability means vastly different things to different people. I spent several days in September with a handful of national organizations focusing on professional practices training for artists (Creative Capital, New York Foundation for the Arts, CUE Foundation, Artists U, as well as the Surdna, Kresge, and Tremaine foundations), and our sole focus during those few days was to define what successful professional practices training looks like. About the only thing the room could agree on was that success would be artist-led world domination. But not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we collectively agreed that we have to evolve beyond teaching artists how to build *sustainable businesses* to teaching artists how to build *sustainable lives.*
And now for the TL;DR version: it’s far easier to talk about what may be lacking in our MFA training than it is to pinpoint the elusive answer of what should bridge those gaps. How does one adequately prepare art students for a system that’s broken? How do we empower artists to be their own advocates and to build their own tables? How do we teach practical business skills to those who reject traditional business? After offering financial literacy workshops for 7 years, I have realized you simply can’t make people do what they don’t want to do. I am not suggesting that we don’t try, but I am suggesting that maybe we’re being too reductive in our vision of success. Maybe an artist’s sustainability has nothing to do with a reliable income.
Thanks for the article, Betsy. Perhaps your commenters would do well, as the educated individuals they are, to be reminded of the definition of-
(especially of something written or spoken) briefly and clearly expressed.
Regardless, there is no formula to educating, or providing for oneself as an adult, and certainly not to making art. Cheers.