The Whole Live Animal Dispatch # 2

I have a confession. I don’t have an MFA. And yet I am allowed to continue making and teaching art. Any minute now the gendarmes will swoop in and divest me of my raiments.  I have transgressed against an institution of transgression. I should be excommunicated. Well. Regardless of rank I do operate on the margins without country or banner. So it is from there I shall speak.

By the time I finished my BFA I was 29. I had failed out of the Hartford Art School once. Then I joined the Marines and was kicked out during boot camp. I went back to art school only to drop out mid-semester and give away all my belongings and take a train from Hartford to Albuquerque. I’d had enough with the phonies of the art world (at 21 I had no idea what I meant by the “art world”). I was going to really live life. I put my shoulder into writing poetry and built a kick wheel from plans in a 1972 Mother Earth News article. I constructed a crude raku kiln and started making pots. There are other adventures sandwiched in there. I’ll save those for later dispatches. In a few years I decided to complete my BFA at University of New Mexico at the urging of my girlfriend Tracy. (She decided to stick around and is currently my first wife). I returned to school as a more focused and mature student. I was the polar opposite of my earlier self. I graduated summa cum laude with honors.

At the time I felt the pressure to get an MFA but I was already in debt and tired of school. I’d just spent my twenties in and out of educational institutions. I wanted to begin making art. Tracy and I moved to Portland, Oregon just after my graduation in 1996. Portland is small enough that it didn’t take long to meet people in the art world. Within a few years I had my first article published in Ceramics Monthly, a couple of gallery shows. Soon I was teaching. The tug of graduate school kept at me, some friends insisted I needed it to really move forward. But move forward to what? I would have to disrupt my life, take on more debt and then return to do exactly what I was already doing. By 2001 I was regularly publishing, making art and exhibiting in different venues and teaching at the college level. Yet, like an impostor hiding out in the countryside I had the nagging fear that I was a fraud. I feared all the reading, writing and making I was doing was less legitimate than someone who had gone to graduate school. I would question my own idiosyncrasies in light of intellectual trends. 

The MFA was once a haven for artists looking for a little more serious study or for returning GIs who had other experience. A Masters in Fine Art was by no means definitive of artistic seriousness or talent. Certain programs became hothouses for some of the best artists from the last part of the twentieth century. That intensity and proximity recommends a graduate degree in and of itself. Unfortunately along the way as MFAs proliferated they settled into a mediocre professionalism. The ubiquity of the MFA is a symptom of the rise of the Administrative Institution. MFA’s are now considered essential to getting a teaching job. They are also (theoretically) launch pads into big gallery careers. MFA’s make colleges a lot of money. Unfortunately that money is never channeled back to the faculty that delivers the nourishing meat of the program. So all those young academic hopefuls entering the workforce will find a very dismal scene. Colleges and universities engage in terrible labor practices. The bulk of the money in an institution goes towards administrators and vanity buildings. This is an epidemic throughout the art world. Look at MoMA in New York as they build yet another superstar building hostile to the art it is meant to showcase. By hiring more disenfranchised adjuncts while cutting tenure and pushing out older faculty, colleges treat teachers as if they were interchangeable fry cooks at McDonald’s. And what of the launch pad into international art stardom? Our art institutions seem to be training an army of very polite mid-level professionals. These are the people who keep the dream alive while propping up a ridiculously bloated star system of galleries and artists. If you go to a small handful of grad schools (CalArts, Yale, RISD etc.) you have a leg up. Everyone else is on a permanent farm team. This is an untenable situation. It must change.

How do we shift these institutions? The institution is a many-mouthed giant and it has gone rigid. Rigor mortis has set in. Its joints are locked. It is dangerously fragile though from the outside it appears implacable and monolithic. The giant is simply the housing for the content–the living germ, the leaven that keeps the culture alive. This shell has built itself up thinking it more important than the living thing inside. The architecture should serve the living not the other way around. So– awakened and hungry the giant dreams of gamboling in fields while its huge lump of a body intravenously consumes the surrounding countryside. It feeds off the life force of the culture. It absorbs art forms and freezes them in amber. We must cut off its head. Does it surprise you to learn that you and I are parts of the giant? We live in the Titan’s belly and have imprisoned ourselves. These institutions do serve a purpose, but they’ve forgotten their place.

We don’t need to scrap the whole institution, just strip it down and make it more organic and flexible. It is important to remember that institutions are made up of people and we do have power to change them. One place to start is to not give so much credence to the MFA. An MFA should be one of many legitimate choices for an artist. I don’t mean to discount the life-altering experience of many graduates. Many people grow immensely while in a graduate program. An MFA is the perfect environment for someone who has had other undergraduate experience and wants more formal art training. MFAs as they stand now are symptomatic of the pervasive corporate values of art education. The MFA is quickly becoming something only for a small minority with the requisite capital. What does an MFA give a student now? What is the meat of the thing? Contacts? Legitimacy? I have seen some graduates leave a program with the joy and drive for making art squeezed out of them. Work time is something you give yourself.

And what of me? The fake hiding out in academia without the proper requisites? I have been teaching for 15 years now. I was an indifferent student. I am now a good teacher. My real education came from teaching and working in the studio. Whatever pull I feel between studio and classroom it is clear that one of the roles of an artist is to teach.  

I don’t believe in the system as it stands. What we have now is something that serves vague corporate ideas of a “creative class”.  We need a true pedagogy aimed at the whole person, the complete artist. Early on, my insecurity from lacking an MFA caused me to follow advices other than my own. I tamped down instincts that ran counter to prevailing wisdom. I tried to keep up post-modern institutional pretenses. I kept saying, “Yes this dry saltless wafer is delicious and satisfying.” But hunger intervened. Confidence from experience bubbled over. I can now proudly say that I don’t have an MFA. But dear reader you are thinking that I am still a small town nobody. That is true. And yet I would be whether or not I had an MFA. Where I am has more to do with my own inner compass than chasing the mercurial vapors of institutional fashion.

Education doesn’t need to be so expensive. It needn’t be simply utilitarian– a step stone into a job. Any artist worth your time is constantly learning and challenging herself. Why must the only valid means be an overpriced, overly rigid MFA? How can we create educational environments that happen organically to produce something alive? The world doesn’t need any more middle managers. Residencies, short gatherings, and symposium these are all ways that an artist can connect and learn without the weight of the graduate institution. The pendulum is already swinging. In London several artists are beginning their own schools. It’s happening here in Portland as well. The ideal would be to retool our existing institutions. As Andrea Fraser said in her excellent essay in Artforum from 2005 we need to move from a critique of institution to an institution of critique.

One aim of these dispatches is to propose conditions for a living art– one that has a total environment in which to live. Teaching is essential to this environment because it instills the values of the culture. At the moment those values seem pretty muddy and abject. What is the real role of an artist in our culture? What environment should a school train that artist for? How do we create a real living context for an artist to work in, not just a winner take all celebrity system?

I will write more in the next dispatch about educational reforms for artists.