2020’s MFA Grads on What It Means to Be an Artist Today

Artsy Editorial
Jun 16, 2020 9:52PM

It’s never easy for artists to finish school and pursue their careers out in the world, but now is a particularly daunting moment. Young and emerging artists today are honing their practices in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a critical reckoning around racism, spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the many other victims of police brutality and racial violence. These artists aren’t just working within weakened economies and a more isolated way of life, they’re also pressed to consider their roles as artists amid urgent issues of social injustice.

Earlier this year, when MFA art programs transitioned to remote learning, some students called for tuition refunds, while many also saw the MFA thesis shows they’d been working towards for years postponed indefinitely, moved online, or canceled. In light of this, Artsy reached out to several art schools to host their MFA shows online. You can now see the thesis work by students from four schools on Artsy.

We asked a group of 2020 MFA graduates for their thoughts on what it means to be an artist today. Below, we share responses by 13 artists from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Parsons School of Design, and Studio Arts College International.

Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)

Hong Kong

See the online exhibition of 2020 graduates from CUHK’s MFA program.


Being an artist today is about persistent confrontation with one’s own fears of all kinds. We create to reveal the fascination and the beauty of the buried and repressed. Being an artist is nothing heroic; instead, for most of the time it involves self-loathing and narcissism. Art is not magical either; it is a fallacy that it carries the ability to cure or give new life. Nevertheless, I do admit at times, it mesmerizes and reminds us that it is alright to cry when you feel sad, and laugh when you are filled with joy. Unfortunately, this reckless voice of the artist is always unheard and ignored. However, this should not stop us from performing our innate creativity, especially in times of turmoil.

Before I am an artist, I am a human being. Actually, I am not used to defining myself as an “artist.” There is no doubt that I am an artist in the contemporary art scene. However, when I leave the exhibition space, I am still a normal person. The role of artists might always bring out the impression of romance, privilege, or even authority of aesthetics. The mindset of artists conferring knowledge to the masses results in an inequality of power.

My fine arts training and creative experiences help me to understand the world in an alternative way. It is also related to knowledge and human civilization. I am obsessed with sharing my creations and research outcomes, but I am also curious about everybody in society, since I believe everyone in this world can have their own unique point of view and is able to influence the world in their own way. I am simply one of the humans in this world.


Being an artist today means I need to face many uncertainties. I think this is a constant process to be an “artist.” I keep questioning myself, who I am, and what in life made me the person I am today. All my thoughts and stories are reinterpreted in a visual format to share with my audience.

I think an artist is the diarist of their own city, searching for inspiration in daily life, seeking to bring the ignored and forgotten back to life through art. We can record important changes, imaginations, and longings for life and incorporate them into our work.

The role of the artist is varied among different situations and individuals. Some might think artists are responsible to tell the truth, to document human history, or to express emotions. Artists have the ability to express their unique thoughts about the world, the environment, and the self by using different creative means, which can be interacted with and deeply experienced. Most importantly, art can connect people no matter their races and languages. I believe that the role of the artist is to provide the public and society with alternative ways to see the world; to respond to the current situation; and to find the self in everyone’s inner soul.

Art is awareness, complexity, and enlightenment. As an artist, I believe it’s my job to arrange these things to tell a story. I believe it’s a responsibility to dissect the things we want to understand and uncover what many have tried to ignore.

The role of the artist today has shifted in the last three months. I have personally become more reflective, and with the trauma of no longer being able to interact with people the way we’re used to, pre-COVID-19, it’s about reorganizing and adapting. Artists have made efforts in staying connected with the community, the world, and giving voice to the marginalized. And now, with the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, it’s about staying in the fight. We have been affected by a virus we cannot see at this current moment but have ignored the underlying conditions of this country for far too long. And the artist has the opportunity to help bring it to light. As a Black woman artist, I choose my artistic practice to share my story, and the stories that have shaped my life and home, and how those stories matter.

To be a responsible artist during this current social and political upheaval requires me to possess a deeper engagement and examination of how current societal systems affect the physical manifestation of space and the objects that exist within it. It is my responsibility to reimagine alternate cultural realities that are more equitable and inclusive. With this revision, spaces and functional objects emphasize the importance of empathy and how we can better collectively participate within our communities.

As an artist, my current body of work engages in the language of everyday designed objects. These objects redefine their roles in the domestic landscape, which, in turn, alters our human relationship to these objects and to each other as beings. Oftentimes objects are culturally codified to simultaneously reflect and directly serve the needs of a person and/or community.

It has always been the artist’s role to mobilize the aesthetic field in order to reveal how certain values or systemic cultural conditions can have an immense impact on our physical and psychological well-being…for better or for worse.

To me, it is about how artists in different fields contribute to connect history, now and in the future, as well as shared cultures.

The privileged position of being an artist today is to have a platform that allows me to share my personal ideologies through artmaking. It is a means to give visibility to cultural and political experiences that are specific to me, but that may (hopefully) also resonate with others. I think that the role of the artist today is to ask questions, to challenge, to complicate, and to provoke, rather than to simply provide possible solutions and answers. Our role is to be experimental with materials, critical with imagemaking, and to lay foundations for concepts that are yet to be imagined. My hope as an artist is to make work that is transformative (in some way) for the communities and people with which I identify, and to contribute to postcolonial discourses with radical thinking.

Trigger Warning: anti-blkness

The role of an artist hasn’t changed because the system hasn’t changed. Simple. Indeed, there have been historical pivots; but at this point, you gotta understand reformism is not liberation. At most, it stretches elasticated margins. So at the least, redistribution to all blkfolx should be met with speedy attention and accountability, and blkfolx should never have to work for anyone ever again.

The fine arts canon relies on an anti-blk ontology that covets reduction. Listening to Howardena Pindell, Toni Morrison, Norman Lewis, and other artists who believe/d that presenting oneself to the ~center to be rationalized or recognized foments stagnance and/or peril towards one’s liberation, inspires me to speak for me, instead of as a representative. As such, my process integrates abstraction via an anti-disciplinary viewpoint that allows me to create in manifold ways beyond.

While in the studio, I often refer to this question Fatima Jamal posed in an Xtra interview: “Representation and visibility is given to us by larger power structures, but what do we give ourselves?” Well, I can’t reveal what I’m building for myself, but know it’s for me—and that’s enough. If I tell you my plan for living, what will I have left? I refuse to continue trading my secrets to survival and life under anti-blkness for empty gestures ensconced in reduction and feigned care. I won’t be killed with sympathy.

Personally, being an artist is the deepest engagement with the world that I can conceive. Art absorbs all of our theories, structures, and humanity, unspooling them into an infinite quantum entanglement through which we might better recognize the conditions of our time. I believe that now and always the role of the artist is to delve deeply and honestly into the experiences and questions that permeate our individual and collective lives in order to engage with the issues that pervade our existence. For myself, I like to imagine the potential that art carries akin to a poetic hypothesis through which to comprehend the oftentimes incomprehensible. That through this seemingly incongruous, abstract, and freeform language, we can voluntarily cast ourselves adrift into challenging and changing spaces.

As an artist today in this current climate, there are so many unknowns and plenty of uncertainties in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest. I believe that we have a responsibility and an extraordinary opportunity to speak up and use our work as a tool to dig deeper. We are called to pose questions, critique, inspire, translate, and present propositions that move others to think and reflect. The work we create often becomes a vehicle for unheard voices and messages, and it often reflects the pulse of our world. For me, as an artist and as an African American woman, I feel my role is to stand up, speak clearly, and use my work not only as a tool for expression, but as a tool for creating change. I am interested in telling the stories of the underrepresented; engaging the lives, history, and lived experiences of those throughout the African Diaspora and our connections with one another throughout all societies and cultures.

Being an “artist” is a marker of my discursive body—which is to say it is a sign I have been written by—it also assumes I exist. If signs, both adopted and put upon us, have a corporeal impact, being an artist is as internal as it is external. The signifier provides the music of my lived experience: the artist is a part I sing, it is a role I play. For me, the symbolic function of the artist involves a kind of perceptivity. Artists unearth truths of the society they inhabit, with an aesthetic insight and sensitivity that transcends current knowledge forms, and I would even say goes beyond the artist themselves. The artist is a channel of force by which art comes to be. Unfolding meaning in the moment of creation, whether it be intended or not. They gauge the temperature of the moment, and sometimes the future, by being present with the past. There is also a manner of childlike play and curiosity the artist involves themselves with that allows for this perceptivity, but not without an awareness of the knowledge/power systems they are entangled with. It is a balancing act between wisdom and tomfoolery. The artist corresponds with an audience, giving them something to engage with and the audience responds to the artist with their interpretation, and in turn their myth. The artist never acts alone, even in their solitude.

Studio Arts College International (SACI)

Florence, Italy

See the online exhibition of 2020 graduates from SACI’s MFA program.

“Today” is a very relative term. Four months ago, I felt a lot of momentum being involved with shows in Florence and Paris and graduating from SACI’s MFA program. Change has been so fast and manic that the general meaning of today is compressed. Today everything is different and today means now. With the uncertainty of the future it is difficult to move forward; still, we do move forward, realizing that we have always been going through change and will continue to. So as artists, we remain purposeful. The quarantine time was helpful to question: Why are we artists? This self-examination fits well with artists today and causes us to understand an artist’s role in times like these. As I review my goals, “seeking truth in my life and art” seems to be the most important factor for me. So, when truth is hard to find amid all the confusion, I find the best way forward is being true to myself and the processes I use to make art. We will learn new ways to create and share our work, our passion may increase, and we will find our place in a changing world.

Artsy Editorial

Header and Thumbnail Image: Mingdong Sun, “When I was talking to a straight man,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Portrait of Iv Tsz Man Chan. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Henry Chang. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Hoi Shan Fung. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Sze Wai Wong. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Laura D. Gibson. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Karen Lee. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of GE Liu. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Caroline Garcia by Alex Wisser. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Java Jones. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Josephine Lee. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Laurel Richardson. Courtesy of the artist. jess saldaña, “Self Portrait with Surveillance Dome,” 20. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Wayne Stoner. Courtesy of the artist.