Just over 6 months ago, after 8 years of being a practicing contemporary artist, I graduated with my MFA. Though I knew my post graduation time would be full of unexpected ups and downs, and the struggle would be trying, I still had little idea of what it be like. Here I am with my degree, job hunting, making work and participating in the arts community like I knew I would, but there were a lot of things I was unprepared for. One of those things is just how shocking, depressing, uplifting, relieving, trying, exciting, lost, hopeful, and full of opportunity it would all feel. I know I’m doing well and trying as hard as I can, but it’s still hard to keep afloat.
So I think what I’m writing about is something that is not openly talked about. How when grad school is over, even though you get a lot out of the experience, somehow you’re also hitting the reset button and starting the climb all over gain. It’s a love/hate experience. I was even hesitant to write about it because maybe if I admitted it hasn’t been that great it will reflect poorly on me. But I was also lucky to have mentors to talk to who know there are many like me, struggling to get by in a depressed economy where the rules just aren’t the same as they used to be. It seems like every job is something I am not experience enough for, or too experienced for, Its like being stuck on a bridge in a traffic jam. I’m going to a place I can’t get to, leaving a place I can’t go back to and the bridge is packed with cars all going the same way.
Many in our modern era look at the pursuit of art practices as selfish, and worthless endeavors. If you went through college as an art major, you’ve already had to face it over and over. The same friends and family that encouraged you to be creative, expressive and a follower of the obscure thing called “your dreams,” then cringe when you tell them you are an art major. You are told that you better make a back up plan, and you’ll never make a living as an artist. Yet I can’t help but wonder, perhaps if we felt more supportive of the arts there would be more support there. The student studying to be an entrepreneur is often told what a brave contributor they are while the artist students are often told what a mistake they are making. To get through it, no matter who you are, you had to face discouragement from friends, family, teachers, councilors, bosses, the government, and in general the world is just not invested in you. Yet despite continuous discouragement for this hugely impactful and important cultural force we call art, you became an artist.
Part of the reason this post-school transition becomes such a struggle is the ever-present stigma of a successful artist. What exactly is the benchmark for being successful as an artist? Others often remind me that the probability of becoming a famous artist is very low. I respond by saying I never want to be a famous artist; I want to be renowned in the art world for what I do in a way where my practice is accepted but not famous. On some level my disinterest in fame has to do with a paradox that affects an artists once they rise to a certain level of fame.
Once in my undergrad while taking an honors art class with Haim Steinbach we were critiquing work and he said we needed to keep experimenting and not get stuck in one way of making. He explained that we were lucky, because he was now what he called a “dead artist” and we were not. As he was a famous and active artist, at first this first seemed like an impossible thing to say. He explained that once your artwork is found, the public/art market begins to push you towards remaking that one piece you became famous for. That even when you want to explore different avenues, it’s very difficult as a famous artist to get shows, funding or acceptance if you aren’t in some way reproducing the work you have become known for. And this is the moment, he explained, when you become a “dead artist”. By achieving the fame his work became constrained to it’s own commodification, killing his practice and in turn his art.
So what do we do when trying to forge our own way and build our careers after school? There are answers out there if you keep talking about it, and I am thankful for those out there who will discuss this openly. Understanding it takes time. You really are beginning again, but know that you are better off than where you began before. Plant seeds everywhere. You never know what is going to sprout and where it will lead. Say yes to everything you can, as you never know where it will go. Keep yourself humble, you’re not too good for any job. Keep yourself proud, no job you take is a shame to have as long as you are keeping your practice up. Keep moving forward every day. Make plans, improvements and goals. Know you are not alone and you are doing the right thing. And how do you measure your success? I’ve got to say when I take everything into account, knowing of course that success is a very personal reflection, I do think there is a clear way to know if you are a successful artist. That after all the pressure, aversions, and struggles you still keep making art. No matter how your practice changes, or where you are, or what job you have, or how stable you are financially, or wherever your life may lead: being a successful artist has nothing to do with that, but rather with you staying an artist. The continuation and advancement of your artwork and practice itself is the mark of a truly successful artist.
Special thanks for thier support and inspriation: Charles Rice, Mark Jeffery, Bradley Litwin and Haim Steinbach
I’m in the middle of working up a bunch of interviews for the coming weeks! Really exciting stuff, I can’t wait to get it all out in the world. This week I just posted some notes I put together about studio arts PhDs. I’m working on a longer article around and about James Elkins’ book Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, but I wanted to collect my thoughts before diving into his. Anyway, if you all have any ideas of how to further my research on the subject, let me know.
While objecting to the PhD studio art program might be as useless as anti-cell phone sentiments in 2002, I wanted to wave a small flag. Off the bat, PhD studio practices seem to add one more step in what (already) looks a little like a pyramid scheme; art schools feeds themselves: students are initiated into a canon, which they then struggle to be legitimized and supported by for an indefinite amount of time after their matriculation. While on the one hand self-reliant circulatory systems are wondrous, the success of a given artist is not an automatic consequence of a scholastic advance. That’s applicable to any project in the humanities, of course, and I think it’s something that every participant is more or less aware of. College doesn’t guarantee success, but you hope a good education will get you that much closer to its likelihood.
The first thing to do, probably, is ask oneself what that vision of success looks like. It’s very likely different for everyone, though, I bet, with a common base of economic sustainability. Every artist (or really, just anybody) wants to be secure in their lifestyle. Obviously it’s impossible for any institution to promise that. The question of how to support oneself as an artist, while also developing one’s practice does not have an easy solution. It never will. I have heard stories about artists in Manhattan who can only paint one type of painting (and have been for the last 30 years) because those are the paintings that sell and they have car/house/child care payments to make. On another end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t have gallery representation, don’t own anything and work for money as little as possible in order to make more artwork. Those are just two examples in a sea of countless scenarious. Everybody knows it’s hard. That’s not the question. The PhD just promises to ease that difficulty, to make it *feel* a little bit easier, without necessarily helping in the long run. It’s a balm.
MFA programs do the same thing. I should know, I went to one and I also loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I learned a lot, worked with fantastic professors in addition to meeting a group of peers on whom I still rely. Furthermore the MFA ensured three years to dedicated to my practice. Bought and paid for, I chose to follow an impractical whim and in so doing, by inhabiting the consequence of that absurdity, began to believe more fully (perhaps by necessity) in myself as someone who could make a legitimate cultural contribution. I don’t know that anyone would disagree—art school is great. It’s amazing. You’re suddenly entrenched in a community that takes your efforts very seriously. It’s kind of like having a therapist, except the therapist is an impersonal building filled with passionate people who more or less share your (largely non-commercial) interests. Once you go to school you are immediately immersed in a creative support system.
While the MFA program has become a predominant feature on the artist’s CV, it was an exception for previous generations. Even while more and more people went on to secondary institutions, artists remained very much on the outskirts of that movement. Instead of school, they used cities, underground clubs, music venues and galleries as educational sites and community oases. Their experience was much more affordable; it was also less conventional. Obviously we can’t go back and in looking back we change what was. Nevertheless, I appreciate that our artistic predecessors operated in the margins of a society—working in an easily overlooked wilderness that was impossible to translate at more conventional gatherings—like family reunions, for instance—where one might be asked what one does. Explaining that you make art and work in a dingy dive bar in Alphabet City wouldn’t sell any obvious credibility those conventional others. Telling a relative that you’re in a scholastic program, even if they don’t agree with it, you’re situating yourself within an institution—something larger than the opinion of any one person. Getting degrees is a way to signify public (albeit purchased) support. It eases the loneliness of a marginalized practice/lifestyle.
And what is wrong with that?
Nothing, really. I would probably be one of the first to jump into another 5 years of a studio practice if I could afford it. Further, in joining those programs, I’d be using my purchasing power to ensure their existence—a kind of investment for my own future given that, probably, what one does afterwards is try to teach at one of those schools. The more college/graduate level art courses, the better. And another point: of all the things that people should do more of, goddamn they should learn more! And please, study art! Study the humanities! The more citizens who care about narratives and critical thinking and historical insight and philosophy, the better!
So there’s nothing really to complain about. My objection only stems from the resultant streamlining hegemony and it’s because I have this idea that art is a means for cultural/political/societal resistance. I want it to push again predominant status quos, to question the climate of its times, provoking and undermining the stability and moires it occupies. I worry that the PhD Studio Arts degree perpetuates an already insulated world, one rife with internal hierarchies, that consequently continues to focus on itself, while necessarily needing to inflate the aura of its authority.
I believe a healthy society needs people working on its boundaries. I believe that such a course isn’t easy, but the world needs outsiders, mismatched and perhaps bedraggled or confused, those individuals are inadvertently called to question the structure of the culture they inhabit, precisely because it does not fit into it. By pursuing such lines of questioning, it becomes easier to recognize other taken-for-granted and, often, detrimental notions, which then create new turns of cultural development. Maybe the PhD art programs could have auxillary, shadow departments dedicated to investigating the authority of the institution in which it lives.
When I was in school I wrote historical plays and will admit that most of them were horrible (except for one where I turned Romeo & Juliet into a rhyming western long before Baz Luhrmann) and every time I pushed the envelope even a little I got shot down. So deep down part of me is so proud of these fudging kids for pulling off a re-enactment of Scarface as a school play?!??
The other part is in abject shock of what is before me and thought it was unrealistic when it happened in a Kevin Smith film, I guess I take it back.
#UPDATE Reports are coming in that the video was a Art piece/calling card by a commercial and music video director named Marc Klasfeld
Grade school textbooks circa 1980, they really talk after you sniff the Elmer’s glue, or as 7 year old Dwayne told me it’s called “Huffing”.