In response to a blog by Canadian artist Shary Boyle, someone with the avatar “Wrongtable” wrote, “I think that young people shouldn’t hedge their bets by getting a Masters of Fine Arts. MFA doesn’t imply talent. Talent comes from dedication and often desperation. Art funding spoon-feeds artkids, and the result is often wallpaper.”
This response is typical and makes a comment on the changing face of professional arts. Common questions I’m asked these days are, “Should I go for an MFA?” and “Will any art degree help in my professional career?” The evidence is out there. There are now enough MFAs to fill the Astrodome, and most of them are doing anything but art.
Our world is coming down off a prayer-rug that faced New York, London and Berlin. For decades, a lot of poor quality art has emanated from these centres, and the world of art schools and University art faculties have encouraged the worship. This mass delusion has undernourished countless echelons of idealistic “artkids.” Sure, some make it, often for the reasons Wrongtable mentions.
Don’t get me wrong, academia has done a remarkable job of prying open the gates of imagination and broadening artistic literacy, but many of the artkids I’m talking to these days are asking for something else — how to create light, how to handle shadows, how to compose in traditional manner, how to draw. “I want to draw like Ingres,” said one.
Fact is, there’s a rising class of home-workers and plein-air painters whose aims are the old fashioned ideas of quality and life-enhancement. Whether or not they have a MFA is immaterial. These days, people don’t walk into galleries and ask if there’s anything by someone with an MFA — although there are still many who would like to see it happen. Even in this distressing recession, art sales in many areas are strong, and young people who have dedicated themselves to developing advanced skills are thriving. In desperation, perhaps, these artkids decided to get good. Their reach may not always include the haughty halls of New York, London or Berlin, but they can be mighty celebrated out here in the backwaters.
Is this not enough? To be happy in our work and produce daily and freely? To be relieved of price one-upmanship, star-jealousy, the welfare of grants, and the poisonous-pens that hinder progressive careers?
Though we may hop in a small puddle, through the Internet we are still part of the great Brotherhood and Sisterhood and, who knows, little tads can sometimes — if they’re not grabbed by the crows — become quite remarkable frogs.
PS: “If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.” (Old English idiom)
Esoterica: Of all of the advice I’ve dished out over the years, perhaps the most effective and commonly remarked upon has been “Go to your room.” Aspiring artists, credentialed or not, who find it within themselves to do this are the ones most likely to get the “talent.” Sticky word, “talent.” But it’s out there. We see it every day. And it makes for a great life.
Do more work
by Frank Gordon, Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, England
‘Go to your room.’ Yes, excellent advice and can’t be beat. When I was still doing painting schools and workshops, etc., I naturally had people asking me how they might improve their paintings. My reply was always the same: ‘Do more work.’ Occasionally I would vary it by saying ‘You’re not doing enough work.’ (But then, who does?) I remember seeing Augustus John being interviewed by John Freeman on the old ‘Face to Face’ programme on BBC TV when I was still a baby art student. John had had a notoriously colourful life, of course. When Freeman asked him if he had any regrets, John answered wistfully, ‘I wish I’d done more work.’ That made a big impression.
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MFA doesn’t promise commercial success
by Julie Kaldenhoven, Edmonton, AB, Canada
When you say that MFAs are useless for ‘professional art careers,’ I suspect you mean ‘commercial’ art careers, i.e. art selling; therefore, perhaps you are not understanding the purpose of MFAs. If you want to “draw like Ingres,” then by all means, find a nice private school whose narrow focus is on replicating the old masters so as to foster the “old fashioned ideas of quality and life-enhancement” that you mention. Or better yet, there are plenty of artists who will take you through the ropes of becoming a successful commercial gallery artist if your aim is nothing but selling art. I can’t recall any of the MFA programs that I’ve researched ever promising such things, nor would I expect or want them to. MFAs, at least the good ones in Canada, teach a broader view of art history, contemporary art issues, and critical thinking, which are useful for artists wishing to show in public galleries, pursue an art-teaching career, or, who may actually decide to become “home-workers and plein-air painters.” Please note that the latter would then be by choice, not by default due to a lack of art education. Besides, there are infinitely more people in the world making “poor quality art” without an art education than with one!
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Art Students League
by G. Jarck, Annandale, NJ, USA
A place like the Art Students League in New York City is the kind of place one might consider if serious about being a painter. No degrees, no fake rewards… just studio space shared with other serious artists. A couple of times a week a recognized accomplished artist comes in and will critique your work. Some great artists have come out of this place. Everyone at this place is really into their work… no wannabe clowns hanging around. This is different from your typical college atmosphere. My teaching at a college taught me that it can be very frustrating because many of the students are not really into being serious artists.
Living in a much different era
by Joe Hutchinson, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Sure, talent will always come to the top but I believe the MFA won’t hurt an artist’s professionalism. If one looks at the resumes of many four-star artists, one will find a number that have a MFA-Studio degree and many were, or are, teaching. Any art graduate who wants to be a studio instructor in higher education must have a minimum of a master’s degree, preferably the MFA. And a doctorate is becoming the hurdle these days because of the intense competition for appointments. As well, because of the glut of artists looking for employment, the requirement for a MFA is trickling down to the public schools. They, too, have a wide choice of applicants and can be selective.
The colleges and universities that offer art degrees have done an excellent job in producing creative problem-solving graduates. FYI, it’s no longer your old school type of education and we live in a much different era. There are so many excellent artists out there pushing the envelope, looking for new expression, and they can create light, do shadows, compose and they can draw. Some may be doing “wallpaper” but, in a world of freedom, time will decide their fate.
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The Shape of Content
by Bruce Bundock, Kingston, NY, USA
Your letter reminded me of a long ago (1974) article in the New York Times titled “Only a Handful Will Make It.” The article explored the proliferation of MFAs and the lack of teaching positions available for newly minted graduates as a means of earning a living while they worked on their art in their available time. In the article, the idea was raised about introducing trade skills (carpentry, electrical) into the college curriculum so graduates would — if they couldn’t get a teaching position — have some marketable skill. It certainly seemed a viable idea when one considers that even now there are only a small percentage of tenure track teaching positions to go around. Adjunct teaching positions do not add up to making a decent living. They work to the college’s advantage and the pool of candidates is great. For myself, I took a different route. After years of working in the commercial picture framing business, I now work as a museum preparator and paint on evenings and weekends. My day job has clearly fed into my art. Being in the arts requires planning, compromise and the ability to take the knocks when they come. One of the most useful books I have read is The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn. There is a wonderful chapter on the education of an artist and I heartily recommend it.
by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece
When I studied at the Art Students League 1976-1986 many others were working to get their MFA studying part time. Many of my artist friends finally got the over-rated MFA. Now over twenty years later they are part-time teachers, secretaries, etc. Not one of them is actively creating art full time or most even part time. While a student at ASL and for several years after I felt like I had missed the boat! However I have spent my life dedicated to exploring and developing my creative talent full time and now feel happy that I didn’t waste my time with acquiring my MFA.
The art world of the 21st century is nothing more than a business run by museums, galleries and agents. It has little or nothing to do with talent and artistic knowledge and even less to do with real creativity.
If it isn’t shocking, abrasive, dumb or just bad art it’s not touted by the business of art. There are a million realist painters all painting landscapes, still lifes and portraits that are the same style and content as the works of the artists that inspire them. Digital images are now considered fine art as are photographs, piles of rubbish, found objects and crumpled paper, egg crates 1000 times their size, prints of Renaissance masters painted over with cartoons, even gold-plated dog turds and urinals are fine art.
Everyone is an artist and everything is art. The joy of art is in the creating and that joy is its reward, so I continue exploring my own creativity and hope it brings a bit of joy to others and sometimes I feel as if I have created an MFA — Mighty Fine Art!
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Purposes of a MFA
by Rebecca Skelton, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
I have a MFA and have been teaching in academia for about 12 years. You might think I would disagree with you, but I don’t. If you already are proficient at the kind of work you want to do without falling into formula, you are willing to do whatever it takes to make your art, have the confidence and personality to network on your own, and you do not plan on teaching in higher education (where, unless you are already famous, you must have the terminal degree to even be considered — and don’t get me started on that), then you don’t need a MFA.
As I see it, the purposes of a MFA are…
…to be eligible to be considered for teaching positions at the college level, and increasingly, sadly, even at community art centers.
…to have a place to develop your work and intellectualize its process/meaning/etc.
…to network for teaching jobs, shows/galleries, and other opportunities where having a connection opens a door as a “hazing” to show your seriousness of intention.
Individual artists have to weigh what they need/value. The kinds of questions you indicate students are asking used to be answered when high schools taught art. All of those are basic tools that, if not learned in high school, should be part of beginning level college classes in painting, drawing, and design. Drawing like Ingres results from spending lots of time trying to draw like Ingres. Many of the students I see are immature and don’t have the patience, concentration, or self-discipline to delay the gratification of accomplishment.
Reassessment in the business world
by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada
In the business world a few years ago a MBA was the rallying cry. The loftier the institution the higher the price tag. Then after a few years of business they realized that they needed employees with interpersonal skills and they started looking for BAs instead of BComms and MBAs. It was felt that number crunching could be learned on the job but the ability to work with people was not something you could learn in a business focused environment. I guess that talent is much the same. On the other hand one of your earlier missives did indicate that at least a BA would be useful and on that I agree as long as the pedagogical content involved lots of hands-on technique. Trying to figure out the mechanics on one’s own is a horrible waste of time.
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The value of time and focus
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
When I was growing up, my brother was sent to art classes at the local art museum. I, on the other hand, endured six years of piano lessons until my teacher finally told my mother to give me a break for a few years before re-enrolling me in more lessons. I ended up blooming in the visual arts. And we discovered that my brother could play the piano by ear, and ended up taking lessons for a few months from my former teacher. He progressed in leaps and bounds. I have become a professional artist and I can barely plunk out a few simple notes on the piano.
It doesn’t matter how long or where someone studies as much as their ability to carry through with the principles they have been taught. This might come from some sort of God-given talent, but it also can come from passion or simply a strong work ethic. Instruction can be incredibly helpful, but today it can come through many different avenues. I racked up a ton of school bills going back to college to study art as a non-traditional student. Given the chance to go back in time I would have found someone whose work I really respected and begged to study with them, or to work for free in their studio just so I could watch them paint.
Degrees are wonderful and they can definitely open some doors, but if an artist doesn’t put time into their work, they never will achieve their full potential.
Hacks who make big bucks
by Paul Fayard, Clinton, MS, USA
I agree that obtaining a MFA doesn’t denote talent or guarantee a job or a future in the arts. Having worked hard for and having learned a lot from “getting that piece of paper” late in life I would like to add that not having a MFA counts for even less. Sure, the population in general is “over degreed and undereducated” but that applies to everything, not just art. Keep in mind that these days, there is a renewed emphasis on traditional skills in the graduate studio. As an art educator, I know that I stress them in my classes. However, I think it is only fair and balanced to point out that with or without a MFA, there are plenty of talented (and by talented I mean those that have worked hard to hone their skills) and determined artists who are not “successful” by current standards and plenty of “artists” that I consider “hacks” who make big bucks in the art biz. Go figure.
Will a MFA be worth it?
by Rebekah Wilkinson, Westbank, BC, Canada
Seems to me a MFA is great if you want a job in a gallery and, frankly, is the only way to go if a gallery job is what you are looking for. Being a “starving artist,” I find myself applying for jobs in galleries to pay the bills. But I have found that my Bachelor in Fine Arts or BFA doesn’t seem to cut it as the competition is awfully fierce these days. My BFA seems redundant and useless. If you are going down the route of schooling, I think you are better off to see it to completion with a MFA. In my experience, I find I am getting beat out for the 20-hour-a-week job at a public gallery because I don’t have a MFA. It does seem ridiculous to me, though, to return for another 3 years of university just so I can actually get that 20-hour-a-week job. I guess, in the long run, it would be time better spent to return to my studio to produce art worth selling.
Before embarking on investing the years and finances it takes to graduate with a MFA, be sure to understand what side of the coin you want to end up on. It will all depend on your end goal. A MFA isn’t necessarily needed to produce your own art as long as you have a person with a MFA to sell your art on your behalf. Go figure!
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Passion trumps a MFA
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
Passion drives a lifetime of creativity. Don’t get me wrong. Education is great but not everything and in some cases, not anything. Professionals have a piece of paper as witness to education but it is nothing without passion for the profession. Many professionals stop learning with the receipt of their degree. Learning blossoms with the degree for the professionals blessed with passion. These people become the true experts in their field and live a life full of wonder. Every day is a chance to learn while practising their profession. That’s why they call their work a “practice.” This is true for the clichéd professionals like doctors and lawyers but also for artists and even especially for meteorologists. Your passion for creativity will spur you to learn, get better and maybe even be appreciated by your peers. Nothing much else matters — except for family.
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Qualifiers for teaching art
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I am in the first semester of a MFA program. It took me a few years of dithering before I decided to go for it. I think there are two different goals here. For someone who wants to just dive into their work and follow their artistic inspiration, a MFA is not necessary. A MFA is only necessary as a qualification if the artist hopes to teach in a college or university level art program.
This wasn’t always the case. You’ll find plenty of people (usually over age 50) teaching without a MFA and they sometimes turn challenging faces to me (I am under 50) and declare proudly, “Well, I don’t have my MFA and look at me!” So, I do look, and each time I see that this person…
…has been “grandfathered in.” They started teaching long before the MFA became de rigueur and are now part of the fabric of the institution.
…has serious connections. They are either from a well-known family or are married/partnered with someone well-known or connected to the institution.
… is famous, or extremely well-known and far along in his/her career, i.e. having museum retrospectives and/or being asked to show worldwide.
Or, in some cases, ALL of the above!
For those of us who didn’t start teaching soon enough and aren’t well-connected or famous, we need to have a MFA — if we want to work in higher level art education. If that is not your goal, of course, no, you don’t need a MFA and get back to your studio!
Enjoy the past comments below for MFA or bust?…
Colour in motion
arcylic painting, 30 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jim Pallas of Detroit, MI, USA, who wrote, “‘Why get a masters?’ ‘It shows everyone that you can hold your breath for two more years.’ But one of the best reasons I’ve heard is, ‘Think of all the time you’ll save in the rest of your life not having to explain why you don’t have it.’ Personally, I pursued the MFA because I recognized that this was a special place and a unique time in my life and welcomed the chance to enjoy it for a few more years.”