Every now and then I look at my life and wonder, "how did I get here?" Not that the level of drama, intrigue and adventure hasn't far exceeded my wildest dreams, but if someone had told my twenty-one-year-old self, "You will end up as a massage therapist in Brooklyn, living with cats," I would either have dismissed that person in total contempt or pegged them in the jaw, depending upon my state of mind at the time. Particularly in times of confusion and economic struggle, I wonder, "what was I thinking, during those carefree college days when I was Big Girl On Campus? How did I plan to make a living?"
After a few seconds of reflection, I remember the answer. I had what seemed like a solid, practical, realistic plan: get a BFA, get an MFA, get a gallery or two dealing my work, and teach. That was what our professors did; that was the assumed trajectory. This plan seemed realistic even in its humility; of course I wasn't counting on being an Art Star by the age of twenty-seven, just a professor by the age of thirty. With my acknowleged talent, discipline and 'cum laude' GPA, I didn't see how this could be a problem. Certainly I didn't count myself among the slackers who mumbled, "well, I like to draw, and I like drugs, so why not be an art major?"
Lordy, lordy, lordy.
Every so often I get an email from a stranger who has found my website and wants the inside scoop on SFAI. They never pay attention when I tell them "DO NOT DO IT. DO NOT GO TO THAT SCHOOL." When I tell them about the politics, the pettiness, the squabbles and backbiting and lack of practical assistance of any kind, they always think it sounds like an interesting challenge. They think, "I'm the talented one; I'm the one who will triumph. Lemme at 'em."
But lately I got hold of the one piece of information that convinces them of what I really mean. A very talented friend of mine from SFAI recently re-entered my life; she finally finished her undergraduate degree there, after a long set of detours. She is bright, holy, works like a maniac, and achieved more worldly recognition in her undergraduate days than a lot of SFAI professors ever will. She applied to some MFA programs and went to the SFAI faculty, of course, for the necessary recommendations.
One of those faculty members was the chair of the painting department, who for some reason, during my student days, always made me uncomfortable. I took a tutorial with her, and found that after one of her critiques I would destroy whatever piece I had been working on, and be unable to continue working for a week or two. Finally I started avoiding her, just so I could get something accomplished. She was nominally supportive of me only after I proved that I was not someone who fades into the woodwork when patronized, slapped down or ignored; we were on superficially good terms at graduation, but whenever I dropped by campus afterward, she didn't seem to recognize me.
Other former students, though, particularly the successful ones, spoke highly of her. "I know you don't like her, but she's been a second mother to me...". I wondered if I was just being an asshole.
Then my friend told me, "Chairwoman X has been on a lot of medication lately; that's probably why she said it. She came to me and confided, 'Darla, you don't realize it, but you're my competition now, and there aren't a lot of places for women in the art world. So I'm afraid I can't write you that recommendation.'"
I ask you, what kind of an institution hires someone who thinks like that, let alone makes them head of a department? "The San Francisco Art Institute: We Specialize in Career Sabotage." A degree from SFAI guarantees nothing except that you will be qualified to operate an espresso machine for a living, provided you had the sense to do work-study in the student café.
What I see is that higher education, particularly in "soft" disciplines like art and literature, has become a sort of pyramid scheme, trading on the unconsidered, antiquated notion that a college degree always helps you get ahead. Colleges and universities have become economic entities that exist to sustain themselves, not the students they purport to be educating. A quick look at the numbers can show you that. An MFA from SFAI costs $40-60K; for every three tenured professors who retire, schools are hiring one part-time, non-tenure-track flunkey to replace them. The chances of making a decent living as a university art professor after graduating with an MFA are nearly nil--let alone paying off your monster debt.
This fact is borne out among my immediate acquaintance. I do not know a single person within twenty years of my age who holds an MFA and a teaching job which pays the bills. They're stocking groceries at the co-op, working in libraries, temping, doing short-term, exhausting and thankless teaching gigs in inner-city public schools, designing textiles, pumping espresso, or sponging off their spouses. Some of them were wise enough to learn a technical skill of some sort, and are eking out a living in web design or carpentry. Most of them have either settled down permanently at the bottom of the economic ladder, or have made a complete career change and are no longer making art at all.
The cold economics of the situation, moreover, are conflated with a not-so-subtle implication that poverty equals moral and artistic virtue. "How do we pay for this?" asked a freshman student, at SFAI's beginning-of-term assembly. "Learn to live on almost nothing," was the perfectly straight response, from the director himself. And it is true that practicing thrift and learning to prioritize has made my life infinitely richer and more enjoyable than if I were pulling down $100K a year in a profession that bored me.
But that was the sum total of practical economic advice or assistance we received from the institution as a whole. Trivial, sordid subjects like marketing, career management, portfolio presentation, accounting, taxes, contracts, negotiation, and intellectual property law were never mentioned; still less did we make any of those useful, much ballyhoo'd "career contacts" that are indispensible in the 24-7 schmooze-a-thon that is the 'art world.' On the contrary--should a professor or another student happen to have a close personal friend who was opening up a new gallery, or know a dealer who'd be interested in a certain person's style of work, that person kept mighty quiet about it.
All schools, of course, are different. Whenever I meet someone who is enrolled in an MFA program, or has graduated from one, I pick their brains. So far the only program I've heard about which provides genuinely stimulating assignments, adequate studio space, assigned faculty mentorship, career assistance and top-quality technical instruction is the California College of Arts and Crafts. All the rest of them seem to consist of marathon sessions of arcane rhetoric and emotional abuse, masquerading as "critiques," labyrinthine ego politics, and very little else.
This business of "critique" needs to be addressed as well. "Critique" is the institutional trump card, the biggest rhetorical power play they undertake to manipulate students into dropping $13K per semester. "You need to be able to talk about your work," they say. "You need to learn to think about your audience, to think critically, to learn the vocabulary." Tommyrot. The greatest artists I have known have, most of them, been completely inarticulate. They do what they do, regardless of the army of academics following them around and telling them that they're irrelevant.
Moreover, too much analysis, too early on, can kill a creative idea faster than a gallon of Raid. Truly powerful visual art is rarely a product of intellectual construct; it emerges from a different part of the brain. The verbal rationalizations and explications of a work of art generally take place long after the act of creation. Rare is the artist who can think and paint at the same time.
This all goes partly to explain why I emerged from SFAI, 'cum laude' BFA in hand, in a state of creative, financial and emotional shock. I hadn't given much thought to MFA programs at all; I just instinctively knew that I needed some time to regroup. Financially desperate, I took the first full-time, temporary secretarial job from hell that presented itself. Three months later I stormed out of the job from hell and showered Bank of America upper management with irate letters, exposing their corporate archivist as a fraudulent bully. Then I sat down and figured out the minimum income I needed in order to survive, and calculated how much I had to earn per hour to survive on twenty hours paid labor a week, so that I could spend the rest of the time in the studio. After that I just followed my nose, to Mexico, massage school, and Brooklyn.
So, to anyone out there who is considering going into an MFA program, I offer this advice; don't. Go to the library if you must, and check out every book on critical theory, technique, composition and rhetoric that interests you. If you need to learn something like stonecutting, casting, welding or carpentry, take classes at a community college. Read artist biographies and go to museums. Then take that fifty thousand dollars that you were going to spend on an MFA, go to a country whose economy is one order of magnitude cheaper than the United States, rent a studio, and work for two to five years. Come back to this country, get a website and a blog, and start networking.
You may never become a Famous Artist, but it will be a lot of fun.