Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MFA-Yes We Can. But Should We? (REVISED-2014)

Yes We Can.

But Should We? (REVISED-2014)

The unintended consequences of the MFA movement  (satire -bitch)

Last spring, I attended the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Design Conference in San Francisco. Ben Kaufman, the CEO of Quirky, was one of the speakers in a conference that unabashedly celebrated consumption (and only had three female speakers, but that’s another story). Kaufman went on at length about the dearth of MFA graduates reaching the marketplace — and how his company was helping to remedy that. Critiques were on the way, examinations and accreditations were on the way, he went on, but Universities were committed to getting as many MFA's to market as quickly as possible, indeed at least twenty a week on average.

Universities have been clever in melding the old-school notion of being an “worker/craftsman” with the new-school notion of being a “artist.” But somewhere in the course of entering the pop culture zeitgeist, the warm and fuzzy self-empowered “artist” idea got turned into an engine for output and profit for the University. No one is too talent-less. Many of the artists that the university graduates are painters, photographers or potters who are self employed like  “Pierre,” while others are seeking work with an a University or craft center. It felt to me that the very purpose of The University endeavor was to get more graduates in the marketplace, or what he referred to as “social product development.”

Not so long ago it felt like we were beginning to recognize that as a society, our patterns of education and consumption were not sustainable. Aritcles like "The MFA Pyramid Scheme" went viral, refocusing our collective eyes on our culture’s stunning education wastefulness. But that period was short, and the resolve for change it seemed to herald has all but evaporated. While many innovative Universities have been focusing on the teaching experience rather than making art, the drive to produce more has only accelerated.

Universities have become not only more sophisticated, but access grants and loans have become relatively more affordable and accessible. With this, ideas around art and making have shifted and sectors of the maker movement have veered from basement workshop projects to the 10,00o square foot galleries for mud slung "installations" where the meaning is completely "interpreted" because the Artist feels that giving a meaning is restricting the meaning.

I won’t point the finger at one University or one discipline but I am struck by the absence of sustainable discourse in the MFA movement. Daily, we read swooning odes to maker as artist, the studio potter and other cutting edge marketing gymics like Farm to Table Shows focusing on unique food paired with unique handmade ceramics but read almost nothing that approaches these developments through a much-needed critical lens. Every art form/venue is celebrated as if it were as significant as the wheel or the printing press.

In Japanese culture, there is a word for this: chindogu. The literal translation is “weird tool,” but the concept is about utility, or lack thereof. Kenji Kawakami coined the term as a way to point out objects that are made under the premise of solving a problem, but which, in practice, only generate more problems, rendering them devoid of utility. Kawakami humorously calls them “unuseless,” which is to say, they have a function, it’s just not one that helps us (and it may be one that harms us). This term can be used to describe the 10's of thousands of MFA graudates- sometimes called "artists"- a "weird tool".

Day after day I read glowing “stories” (aka slightly modified press releases) on egregious programs that just keep pumping out artists who can only collect objects and assemble them into "installations". As artistic commentary on our current cultural condition, such an artist is worthy. It points to the meaninglessness in our lives and our need to find meaning in chaos along side our increasing physical isolation. But the highest purpose of such an artist is in the artist statement. In the internet age, a good concept artist can be made made into a movement in minutes.

In Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner writes of what he calls the “ironic unintended consequences’’ of human ingenuity, ranging from antibiotics that promise the cure of disease but end up breeding resistant microorganisms, to a new football helmet, designed to reduce injuries, that actually encourages a more violent style of playing, thus creating the risk of more serious injury. We’re experiencing some of these ironies now as we use college degrees to solve the wrong problems. We’re in a period where almost anyone has the tools to be an artist – but are they real artists? Or just fakes?


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that university education cost so much more because the student loans have been so accessible, universities do not compete on price, but on services. So, students choose universities with better service, ignoring the added cost. This is shortsighted, because the student is then trapped into careers that must provide adequate income to cover principle and interest on the student loan! So, students that have art degrees, which are inadequate for higher paying positions, seek out further education to compensate. An MFA sounds like a good idea - but does it actually provide value? It may not, because this adds to the total debt. Artists must then develop work that is closer to winning the lottery than freedom of expression - large installations or high end marketable work that will pay off the loans.

Anonymous said...

When I graduated with my BFA ceramics 3 years ago, I had serious thoughts of going for my MFA as well. Lucky for me (and my student debt balance), my professor/ mentor sat me down and asked what I REALLY hoped to achieve with it. After some thought, I realized my MFA plans were fear-motivated ("what am I going to do now? I'm not ready to make a living at this!"), I decided against it and do not regret it, especially as I'm more interested in, and now loving production pottery. BFA show at my school's gallery was a nightmare because they could not accept that I wanted to do a show consisting of dinnerware sets. It also bothered me that many schools I considered seem to have more interest in the one-off statement/installation/unusual pieces (which for most artists don't pay the bills, or student loans).
However, there were many in my graduating class who had no real passion for the art they did or a plan to make it work, only a vague theory that they would "figure it out in graduate school."