We Need to Reconsider Art School

An MFA student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo: AP Images

A year ago today, I wrote about the almost criminal cost of most Master of Fine Arts programs. It’s a year later, and things have only gotten worse, making these highly pricy, upscale programs all the more galling, as more and more students graduate owing this much money at this young an age — the financial damages done by these schools has to be addressed.

Below is the text I wrote last year about this subject. There's not much to add except maybe to say state the obvious: A lot of the timid, judgment-averse writing afoot in criticism, as well as the snark adopted by those who were turned cynical in critical programs before they even had a chance to exercise belief, can be traced back to these posh programs. We need to find a way to stop dogmas from being taught and teachers from inculcating students with ideas that were fashionable 30 or 40 years ago, when the instructors were the student's age. Not to mention that too many of those who teach in the actual art departments everywhere have these privileged positions based on doubtful credentials, long-ago, onetime accomplishments, or, in the case of a lot of men my age, only good-old-boy connections. These teachers get into these places, never leave, and rot institutions and unsuspecting students from the inside. Something's got to give, and not just by axing older teachers in an ageist purge. I hope that my griping doesn't just stem from my own teacher envy, never having gone to school or never having had a tenured job offered to me. Still, I say, students, beware: MFA programs are wonderful, possibly important things, even temporarily necessary in the art world we live in, but pay exorbitant tuitions at the peril of your artistic lives.

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In her excellent essay, now out in Modern Painters, artist Coco Fusco pulls back the curtains on the risky business and chancy racket of the Master of Fine Arts degree. Fusco deftly addresses, among other things, how M.F.A. programs are "discursive battlefields." Whatever that means, she's right; I often have no idea what some teachers and students are talking about in group critiques. Her chief argument is financial: Fusco calls out skyrocketing tuition costs, massive student debt accrued — more than almost any artist will be able to repay in a lifetime — and shitty job prospects.

Amen. I'm a dead-ender with no degrees, but I have been lucky enough to do a lot of teaching. I think it's great for young artists to go to grad school if they've got the time, inclination, and money — whether it's Mom and Dad's money or a trust fund. Artists seem to thrive during these two years of enforced art-making, staying up very late and learning things with each other long after the professors have gone home for the night. New languages are incubated. But I've also witnessed — and may have been responsible for — a lot of bullshit. Iffy artist-teachers wield enormous artistic and intellectual influence over students, favors are doled out in power cliques. Zealous theoreticians continue to scare the creativity and opinions out their third generation of young artists and critics. Too many students make highly derivative work (often like that of their teachers) and no one tells them so. A lot of artists in these programs learn how to talk a good game instead of being honestly self-critical about their own work.

All this may be the same as it ever was. What's different now is that MFA programs are exorbitantly priced luxury items. At the top-shelf East Coast schools like Yale, RISD, SVA, and Columbia, the two-year cost can top $100,000. This doesn't include room, board, materials, etc. Add all that in, and you're hovering near a quarter-million dollars. No matter how wonderful the M.F.A. experience, that’s straight-up highway robbery. If well-off parents can handle it as one last extravagance, sure — but we're now at the point where only the offspring of the very rich can attend these schools. All current grad students should ask their regular teachers a question: "Do you know what the base tuition for an MFA is in this program?" It borders on the blithe and unethical for them not to know.

Those of us who teach usually do so because we need the money; most of us also genuinely love the job. Still, if these programs are too expensive, we are a part of the problem, and need to change. (Although the larger issue may be that the schools treat M.F.A. students as cash cows.) This semester I took a one-third cut in salary and workload at the school where I teach, and it hurt a lot. Yet I think more schools have to consider doing this, and cutting tuition fees, and put a lot more grant money at the disposal of their students. Something's got to give.

I used to teach regularly at three schools. I now teach at one, having resigned (amicably; I didn’t have the time for all three) from Columbia and the School of Visual Arts. These are great schools, places where I got more from the students than I ever gave them. Yet my sense is that a lot of us teachers stay on the job for too long. I'm all for wisdom, experience, and providing models for lives lived in art. Yet I'm also struck by how often teachers get stuck in the era that they emerged in, valorizing that past to impressionable students as a better, purer time, often pooh-poohing the present and sniping about other, younger teachers.

Longtime instructors — like me — might have their hours cut back to make room for newer teachers to take the stage. (This idea has been floated in several schools that I know of, and agreed to in principle with no follow-through.) Call me conservative, but it's also time for grad programs to stress courses in craft and various skills — from blacksmithing to animal tracking, if these are things students need to learn for the visions they want to pursue. There should be a lot more art history in addition to all the current theory. Add all this to the secret knowledge that students are imparting to one another, make more grant money available, and grad programs will serve students rather than teachers and administrations. Especially if they can get the cost down.

Not only is it time to rethink the most expensive M.F.A. programs, it's time for applicants to bite the bullet and consider the enormous benefits of less expensive, less sexy-sounding schools that will leave them with much less debt. I've taught at institutions across the prestige spectrum. Truthfully? Students who go to high-profile schools get a subtle eighteen-month bump after they graduate, in part because dealers and collectors (oy) see their M.F.A. shows. However, once this short-term advantage dissipates, the artist becomes one in a crowd, with a mountain of debt, and may need to have a full-time job indefinitely to pay it off. There’s no surer way to throw away that early advantage than getting a job that saps their art-making energy.

I believe that many of the less-expensive, non-marquee schools now have parity with — and are sometimes better than — the sexy top tier. Trust me; I've taught at them all. And should be fired.