Blog / 2010 / Having an MFA Doesn’t Make You an Artist

June 14, 2010

There are two kinds of artists: those with a Master of Fine Arts degree and those without.

I’m one of those without, and I’m trying to understand where exactly the MFA comes into play.

It’s not that I’m confused about why a person would go for one. I went for a BA without expecting the degree itself to be helpful, and I’m glad I did it—both for the learning and for the satisfaction of completing it. What I don’t understand about the Master of Fine Arts degree is the system that has grown up around it. I suppose it’s something like the system surrounding a Bachelor of Arts degree, only more insular and elitist.

The Master of Fine Arts degree reminds me of a pyramid scheme. Or a cult. Or both. The professors who decide whether or not a student can receive an MFA are not qualified to judge on that matter precisely because they have their own MFAs. They have a vested interest in perpetuating the system on which they built their careers. And the system surrounding the Master of Fine Arts degree becomes more important the more MFAs there are, especially when some of those MFAs find themselves in gatekeeper positions in the art world.

From my vantage point on the outside, it looks like vicious cycle that spits out artists buried in debt and bent on making their degrees—and not the learning involved in acquiring them—seem worthwhile.

Taiwanese-American Nixon, painting in acrylic on canvas
Gwenn Seemel
Nixon Returning Home Robed in Embroidered Silk (Taiwanese-American, Roger)
2008
acrylic on canvas scroll
42 x 42 inches
(This painting is part of a series about what it means to be an American.)

As far as I can tell, the most important thing about being an artist is just being an artist: showing up, doing the work, putting in the time, living the passion, and listening to the audience to gauge if I’ve managed to be meaningful or not. When it comes right down to it, I might love the peer acceptance of an MFA, but all I really need is for my work to make a difference to someone in the wider community.

And that’s the crux of it. Unlike some members of the art community, most people will never ask for my qualifications as an artist. Art isn’t brain surgery or physics: a certificate won’t encourage my audience to trust or value me more. Viewers will look at my work and decide for themselves whether or not they think I’m an artist.

Taiwanese-American Nixon
detail image
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