Are MFAs Ruining Art?

Francesca Gavin
Jul 23, 2014 8:27PM

This summer has seen another bumper year of MA (Master of Arts) and MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) students. As ever, the work coming out of international art schools is good, bad, and everywhere in between. There is also an increasing professionalization of the artists coming out of the academic system. Degree show presentations can resemble art fair solo booths. Often the work presented is ready to slip immediately into the gallery system. The question remains: Is this a good thing?

Defining the purpose of an MA or MFA is an important place to start. For some, it is a time to progress beyond a BA (Bachelor of Arts) and establish ideas and a working practise—to indulge in the pleasure of education for its own right. For others, it is the way to step into the gallery system. For artist, writer, and recent Royal College of Art MA graduate Susanna Davies-Crook, “the point of an MFA should be to learn skills and grow material, social, emotional, and academic intelligence.” Yet the anxiety over debt is creating anxiety and reluctance to experiment and take risks. “When there are £9,000 fees, who can afford to take a risk and not graduate, or make completely non commercial work? Then you end up with artists who come out of art schools being groomed for collectors and buyers.”

There is enormous pressure on art schools to increase student numbers to secure the extra income. Art is also now seen as a profession. At one point saying you were an artist was as socially acceptable as saying you were a poet. “The focus on professionalisation isn’t necessarily the issue, because to be a skilled artist is a profession and should function as such. It should be valued, and waged. It should also have multiple funding streams,” Davies-Crook notes. “I think the issue is when the work is created for a market, or the artist puts the market before the research or practice.”

There are an increasing number of new models being developed as alternatives to the market-aware postgraduate system. In London, for example, there are spaces like Open School East, School of the Damned, and AltMFA. The Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in New York is a perfect example of an artist-run alternative to the academic system, as the BHQF noted in the past: “We had a lot of friends looking at MFA programs because they felt the need for a critical community to really grow their practices. We felt that there would be a way to do that without putting artists in debt and without reinforcing a ‘professionalized’ approach to what an artist’s life is.” Courses included Brad Troemel’s impressive ‘Chat Room,’ which involve conversations in person with Seth Price, John Kelsey, and Boris Groys.

Interestingly, one of the oldest international MA schools is also one of the most unusual. The Royal Academy of Arts in London runs outside the university system, as current head Eliza Bonham Carter points out: “The vital thing about the RA Schools being free is that artists can apply based on their ability, not their ability to pay. This also means that there is no impulse to increase student numbers. Remaining small means that we are able to create a tight-knit group who we know well and who know each other and work with each other very closely over a three year period; these are the beginnings of what are likely to be lifelong discussions in many cases.”

Deyan Sudjic, in his latest alphabetised book of essays, B is for Bauhaus, writes, “Perhaps the most difficult question that the Bauhaus poses is why no subsequent art school has been able to match its impact.” He argues that part of the reason was the synchronicity between the ideas of the school and the modernism, “the dominant movement of twentieth century culture.” Perhaps when contemporary art has a clearer sense of purpose and identity outside the market, a new model of teaching and student work will emerge.

Do you agree? Do you disagree? Join the conversation with Artsy on Twitter (@artsy), and Facebook (Artsy) via the hashtag #AreMFAsRuiningArt.

BHQFU: Creative writing with Porochista Khakpour; object lessons with Jarrett Earnest; chat room with Brad Troemel; performance with Joe Kay. Images courtesy BHQFU. B is for Bauhaus by Deyan Sudjic is published in hardback by Particular Books.

Francesca Gavin