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Quit Grad School.

Well, that title may overstate it a little and perhaps it comes from a sullen mood, but in recent days I’ve found myself ruminating about giving up on grad school altogether; unplugging from the system.  More and more I feel that art schools have nothing to teach.  But, in equal portion to my growing disenchantment grows my satisfaction with how thoroughly I’ve been educated while in graduate school.  I have no use for my education, and yet in two swift years it propelled me from a squandering and teetering artist-hopeful to someone who feels confident about having a legitimate practice for many years ahead.  Nothing can be taught and yet I’ve learned plenty.  So, what accounts for the difference?  What have I learned and how did I learn it?

But first, why do art schools have nothing to teach?  For most artists, being a good one means a tremendous amount of education just as in any other advanced field.  Pointed, nuanced, daily lessons and long hours of labor accompany the slow growth of one’s trade.  Further, just as art production has become granularly nuanced to the desires of individuals, their educational needs are individually specific.  In order to accommodate the growing curiosities of artists, art school curriculum panned backward, increasing scope of possibility while decreasing in details and determined instruction (life drawing in grad school?! Ha!).  Prioritizing inclusivity over specificity, schools abandon skill for cognition, then cognition for validation, then validation for oblique encouragements.  Perhaps rightly so, but the spiral of what not to teach has left us in a place where the only thing agreeable to teach is essentially how to teach one’s self.  Personally, I support that.  But if we are able to teach ourselves, what need is there for the ensconced institution of school to continue?

Yet for every whining lament I make about the system holding us down, my artistic life would not be anywhere near as full and sustainable if I had not attended. The fact is that my grad school experience is helping me to do without it, or more specifically, to want to do without it.  I don’t think that is the case with many schools.  Whether through debt burdens or outmoded lessons (we certainly have our share of each of these), many programs leave young artists at the exit without a clear idea of how to continue making their work.  (That is most definitely not to be confused with “how to make it in the art world.”  That cancerous aim awaits the radiation of my next diatribe.  The last thing we need are expensive art schools telling us how to earn money with our art to pay for the expensive art schools we attended.)  The only truly effective plan that schools give students is how to get into the school, not out of it.

A recent SVA poster advertisement superbly illustrates an art school disguising its total lack of direction for students with bizarrely opaque warm-fuzzies in the form of a motivational quote from President Obama: “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never given, it must be earned.”  Oh yeah, and the quote surrounds a pretty flower.  Again, this is an advertisement for advanced study in art.

SVA advertisements in NYC subways

Yes, the aim of art school should be to write itself out.  And now, three generations into our current structure, we’ve had ample time and example to create a roadmap to swiftly adapt away from the staggering influence of institutional teaching.  So, to balance my gratitude with my curmudgeonly rants, I’ve briefly addressed a couple very basic and important lessons that graduate school has given me and that one doesn’t need graduate school to get.

Geography counts.  Grad school brought me to New York and for me, New York has been an education all its own.  Despite all the vacuity and shallow groping of some arms of the art world, real substantive conversations, challenging ideas, and world class art happen right here and you simply have to show up to take it in, often free of charge.  One could easily stitch together a very meaningful education in a major urban area with such activities.  Another artist will need a different set of geographic amenities to fuel their practice.  Each of us needs a locale that will simultaneously challenge our minds and support our habits and still allow space and time to make our work.

View of NYC from my Queens apartment

Speaking of space and time, Hunter College provides me with a 400-square foot private studio in midtown Manhattan and several hours a day to work there.  That’s hard to beat, but most schools don’t have that to offer.  (In fact, as I type, our large studios are being eliminated by the school’s president, Jennifer Raab, who is moving us to smaller spaces rather than perform basic upkeep on the current building.)  Rather than pay inflated tuition, it is likely that a few artist friends could find a large studio space to share inexpensively or even create a more collaborative environment than most schools currently allow.

Hunter College MFA students socializing at a student-organized breakfast in the studio building

People count the most.  Art schools know this already.  They lure people without jobs to give them $100,000 for a cubicle and a near valueless degree by flaunting the names of Famous Faculty X and Art Star Y who are on their payroll.  The enticement approximates a genie-in-the-bottle sales pitch:  rub against the powerful person and your wishes will be granted.  And while this example of educational ethics bankruptcy is the underbelly of artist relations, it remains true that a community of strong-minded dedicated artists and thinkers who care about your work may be the most useful tool for growing as an artist.  The great heist now underway is the belief that one needs a private education and a 30-year loan to have that community.

Many other things could follow from here — what to read, what to see, who to work for, etc.  But again, all of these details of curriculum ultimately influence an artist’s work and should be individually considered.  As graduate schools become less and less capable of offering nuanced and meaningful instruction, it may be up to the artists themselves to establish the education they need.  That could mean dropping the idea of grad school completely and cobbling together one’s own learning environment, or it could mean finding a way to take what grad school has to offer while not being lead into the wilderness that the schools themselves are in.

Matthew Newton is an artist and attends Hunter College’s Studio Art MFA program in Manhattan. His work includes painting, photography, writing, video, sculpture, and installation. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.

  1. Nettrice says:

    Thank you for this entry and for reminding me of another thing I liked about graduate school: Your world is a classroom, too. I met half of the requirements of my MFA by leaving SAIC (Chicago) in the middle of my 2nd Fall term and returning to Queens, NY to build a computer center in a housing development where I taught computer graphics classes to kids. I think it’s great to be able to create a more individualized path to an MFA.

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    Matthew Newton Reply:

    That sounds like a very interesting project. It’s good to hear that SAIC facilitated that way of fulfilling your degree requirements.

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  2. sambo says:

    Many art schools are gravy trains for self obsessed faculty and timid administrators who flatter students into a false sense of accomplishment. This is especially rampant since economists discovered a correlation between arts districts in towns and small cities and higher real estate values resulting from gentrification. In general, money (or the lack thereof) is cited as the justification for all decisions and there is no challenge to this anachronistic but rampant mind set.

    If arts administrators had any integrity, they would see that there is much to teach. However this would entail redesigning art schools from the ground up. Art is an engagement with culture. Why not make art school about culture – have artists take courses related to the workings of culture, contemporary and otherwise. Have some clearly defined skill based courses (figure drawing for example) but just as many seminars in timely topics and options for courses in other fields. Today artists are more isolated than ever because they accept the premises of the art world uncritically. Art school would better serve them by de-isolating them – giving them tools to think with and opportunities to engage with culture (s) beyond the one they take for granted.

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  3. Nona says:

    Loved this post as well as comments above. I couldn’t agree more with everything written here.

    I did an MFA at SVA in New York and that was such a horrible disillusioning scarring experience for me that I’m only just recovering 6 years later. Yet, I have to admit that being surrounding by and exposed to various art disciplines and having the time and space to think and create was ultimately the best thing in the world for me.

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  4. Matthew, I believe that you hit the nail that all of us have been aiming at since the beginning of this column. I couldn’t agree more with your ideas about what is truly taught to M.F.A. students.

    While research is obviously an important part of many artists practice, even that is not universally needed. As we talked about before, the program I attend is different from many because of its lack of structure (no classes or seminars); but, even that proves more how graduate educators are stepping back their responsibility to teach. With every day, I too take another step in the direction of self-direction.

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  5. Thank You first off. As a recently getting my BFA from the Kansas City art institute, I received a great amount of pressure to go even further in the educational institution by obtaining my MFA, but I saw many faults in that. I am glad to see more and more people frustrated with the system at play. I believe the notion of a MFA breeds a lot of misconceptions about the artists career. Getting a teaching gig, connections, space, and time to grow, but I think all of these things can be obtained on ones own, moving through other systems at play or making your own systems up. By no means I am I anti grad school, if that is the path you want, good for you. Now I am know I am not alone in becoming an Non-MFA artist.

    I found this article to be very refreshing.
    http://www.areachicago.org/p/issues/how-we-learn/can-experimental-cultural-centers-replace-mfa-prog/

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  6. ila says:

    This has been a relief to read as I am awaiting response on acceptance into an MFA program. I Have been hesitant throughout the entire process of applying because it is far too expensive. I like to think that I am a capable and motivated enough artist that I could find a community to work within and opportunities to learn from with out landing 60-100 thousand dollars in debt.

    The only thing I am unsure about if I were to pursue work on my own is time. Would I have enough time to work in a studio while I am working full time in order to pay for it and my living expenses?

    we’ll see what happens…

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