Friday, September 29, 2006

Higher Education in Art: Does The MFA Make You a "Better" Artist?

Through the years I have spoken with many artists who seemed disgruntled about having not earned a Master of Fines Arts degree. Many of them feel that their art careers have suffered since they never obtained a higher education in art. They often complained about artists who have earned an MFA when we conversed about this issue.

It was common for them to claim that artists who have an MFA are treated "better" because of the degree they hold. What do you think about this issue? Does a degree in art make someone a better artist? Does it 'pay' to earn an MFA? Do you think people favor artists who have an educational background in art? Should they even consider it when considering the value of the artist as a whole? Have you ever experienced anything negative in your art career due to not having a degree? (Or having one?)

Once, over several cups of coffee at a cafe, a fellow painter ranted for over an hour about the "elitist mentality of galleries and museums". He ranted, "They only value the degree you hold... not what you are doing with your art!" (Needless to say, I made him pay for the coffee after enduring his lecture.). This associate felt that "untalented hacks" were being chosen over him simply because of their degree.

How true is his experience? Could he have just been paranoid or trying to find an excuse for his failure? Has it happened to you? I'm sure we all have examples of it, but do you think it is a widespread problem? If it is, are these professionals wrong for 'raising the bar' as to who they accept and who they turn away? Are the professionals making a grave error as to who they select for representation? (Remember, there have been many famous artists who never attended a school of art).

I highly doubt that every museum/gallery decides the art they are willing to represent on a degree alone. However, I can see why an inexperienced collector would choose an artist who has an MFA over an artist who does not. Our society values higher education so it may be easy for someone new to art collecting to think that only artists with a degree are worth investing in. After all, when you need something fixed do you call the guy down the street or do you call the certified repairman?

In truth, Average Joe down the street may have more experience and knowledge of the repairs needed, but the certification gives the other guy a sense of credibility. It gives the customer the feeling that he is getting what he paid for. Is this fair? Not necessarily, but how can you change the mindset of the general population? How can you make them feel secure in their purchase when their security is often rooted in the credentials that you have?

This topic is a two-sided coin. I've also spoken with artists who are unhappy with the MFA they have earned. Some have stated that the degree is, "Nothing but a waste of money." or that they could have "learned all of this on my own.". A few have even claimed that the MFA "Held" them back as artists. They felt that the art they do would have been better accepted by others outside of academia had they been 'outsider artists'.

How ironic... some of the haves and the have-nots both feel "held back' over the same degree, but for different reasons.What do you think about this? Do you think an MFA degree is a necessity in regards to having a successful career in art? Do you think it is just a piece of paper that brings with it much debt?

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Balhatain said...

I think a lot of it has to do with natural determination with a dash of business savy. A college professor can't really teach you how to be 'driven' in your field of choice.

However, if you want something bad enough you will get it... or at least grasp some aspect of that dream. All the complaining in the world won't help to accomplish your goal.

Art is a business. That is more true now than ever in the sense that there are so many
opportunities for artists to take. The same tactics that apply to major business can be applied to your career as an artist. Sadly, colleges rarely teach art students business skills. However, there are some 'survival' programs out there, but you could probably learn the same material from a book.

I've known art students who stopped creating art within five years of graduation. I've heard that most businesses either become successful or fail within the first five years. Do you see the correlation here? Art is very much like a business. Without enough PR and dedication... both will fail.

What would happen if the employees of a retail store decided to all go on vacation for a year? Well, the boss would either hire more workers or the business would simply go under. The artist is her own boss (In most cases.). She does not have the luxury of a dozen workers in the studio (In most cases. ;P ). To stop working on art for a year would have the end result of damaging or halting an artists career altogether.

I think most of us agree that it can be hard to get back into the swing of studio work once breaking the routine. However, I suppose any 'business' can start from scratch in order to make a come back.

These disgruntled artists would come closer to a realization of that dream if they would spend less time complaining and more time in the studio or library. Bill Gates did not have a college degree. If he can make it in his field... you can as well in your field. You just need the drive.

I think it is about time that artist start seeing themselves as a business. Nothing is going to be handed to you. Waiting around for something to happen is the easiest way to keep your 'shop' closed. It is time to open shop!

(Before anyone says anything, I know Bill Gates is VERY smart, but remember that there are different areas of intellect. I've met some very 'smart' artists on this site.)

SueC said...

I think those that can - do....and those that can't moan about it.

I don't have formal art qualifications but I have a dream and the drive to keep following it. It does rankle sometimes that I have less 'credibility' on paper if you compare CVs...and galleries quite often go on CVs...but there is absolutely no point in dwelling on this. You just get on with it.

I agree you need some business savvy and entrepreneurship (on top of talent) to be successful and I would suspect these qualities far more 'useful' than a fine arts degree.

Balhatain said...


True, as the saying goes, a good businessman (or woman) can sell anything. :P

Basic marketing is an issue that every artist should read up on. There are just to many examples of artists of all types being financially cheated by others.

Balhatain said...

Thanks for your comment.

I think one important part of being an artist that many artists seem to forget is the fact that finding a job related to our field of study is not likely to happen. (Unless, as you stated, the artist is a commercial artist.)

I'm always shocked by the number of people who attend MFA programs because they want to become famous. Those types leave with up to $60,000 worth of debt, or more... I think it would be better for them to just invest that money in their art career. heh.

Personally, I would advise most art students to attend a liberal arts college at a private 4-year institution of higher learning.

The BA will help them to obtain a job that will support the cost of living while providing a source of income for their art.

A liberal arts education focuses on critical thinking skills that span every area of academic study.

Liberal arts programs offer a lot of influence and inspiration to pick through. For example, I remember speaking with business instructors in order to gain knowledge about marketing and investing in the future.

The marketing knowledge has helped my art career and the tips on investing have helped me to plan my retirement. (Which is another concern artists should focus on if they plan to have a career in art.)

Attending a private 4-year college may be expensive, but not as much as attending a major art school. Also, if the campus is small, the art major will have a lot of room to move around in the studio. However, the draw back of the setting is the fact that there is often not that many people to talk about art with. (I suppose this is where blogs like this once can come into play. :P )

I should mention that one of my close friends attended a very well known art school. He told me that the only thing he learned there after two years of study was how to "talk-art".

He transfered to a liberal arts college and claimed that there was actually more of a focus on technique at the smaller college than he had ever had at the famous art school.

He once said, "Here I've learned to paint. There I learned how to talk about it."

Anonymous said...

Brian, let me first thank you for bringing up a great topic.

I'm currently getting a MA in art therapy and am planning on applying for MFA soon. After reading your blog, I can argue for both sides.

MFA, I feel is more of a 2-3 yr independent study studio where you have access to necessary equipment, materials, library, and professors. What you're REALLY paying for is the connection you make in the studio with the fellow colleagues. One of those colleagues may end up being invited to show in a venue, and he/she may ask you to join them, etc. That's how some of the artist's career gets started.

As far as the gallery/curatorial aspect, art world has many factors: The interest of the curator, the potential "sale" for a marketer, the ego of a critic, the list goes on. I founded and curated a gallery myself, and I do know the pain of being on both sides of the field.

Suffice to say that self taught artists are also valid. Some of them have fantastic skill and never gets discovered or recognized. Unfortunately in the heiarchy of the "high art" world, in order to be recgonized, you need proper credentials. Just as a computer technician needing their proper degrees to work in a coroporate world. It's not to say that a self taught hacker in his own garage can't do a better job.

In my undergrad, I've seen the "better" artists get the super treatments while the rest of us "lesser" artists get lesser attention. I had to work hard to make a niche for myself and I don't doubt that so long as an artist works through proper channels, he/she can be great themselves. Hey, look how van gogh got famous. Ok, he ranted and acted crazy around town, but that's another story.

Bottom line is, "high art" is a popularity contest. That's not to say groups of people going against the system of academia can't succeed. Hell, impressionists thrived on that, and gave birth to our fantastic 20th century art history.

There is an anti-academia (or anti-conceptual) movement going on right now. Google "stuckists" and you'll see what I mean.

Emilia said...

I'm one of those people who got an MFA and who now thinks it was a complete waste of time and money. All I learned to do was question myself and the meaning of art. And right now, art seems meaningless. Nothing about art is original anymore and it hasn't been since the Modern artists of the 1950s. Art is dead. It's all about marketing not about talent. Art is a business, a big, international business, and if I wanted to go into business, I would have gotten an MBA not an MFA.

If you want to be an artist, don't waste your time and money getting an MFA. Just make art without worrying about becoming famous because in all likelihood you won't be anyway. You'll be stuck in some second-tier school teaching kids and lamenting that you don't have time to devote to your art practice.

In conclusion, I hate art, art is dead, and I need a martini.