Why MFA Critiques Are Futile Exercises
Keywords: Brad Troemel
If you are applying to an MFA program to enlighten yourself through radical experimentation with likeminded peers please stay home; you’ll be happier there. In my experience, MFA programs do not serve those purposes. Instead, MFA programs are finishing schools, diving boards best suited for those who have honed in on a style or subject matter in specificity and are hoping to take the next step in their career toward gallery representation, college-level teaching, or American Apparel employment. MFA programs are productive if you have a brand to promote, not if you’re looking for one. Attaining an MFA degree is by no means altogether pointless. On the contrary, these degrees can be exceedingly helpful for those who want to build a rapport with faculty members, do studio visits with famous members of the art world they’d otherwise not have access to, or intensely focus on cranking out new work. But for all of the above there is surely no aspect of their education as frustratingly futile as the MFA critique.
The premise of the critique’s dialogue is that you, the creator, have been blinded by your lack of distance from the art that you make, and as a result, you choose to engage a group of others for their emotional detachment and diversity of subjectivities (not to mention their investment in the betterment of you, a peer and colleague). It’s true that critiques are masochistic by nature. Telling a person their “work is really successful” un-tethered to a more analytic offering in a critique setting merely serves to take up air or nakedly act as social maneuvering. MFA students should be ego-emboldened enough to believe what they are doing is worthwhile, making such fluffy praise unnecessary.
MFA critiques aren’t merely a place for constructive criticism, but one for ideological refinement as well. Questions of intention, contextual placement, and visual or material decision-making are integral to pulling artists outside of their presumably limited intuition and into a place of hard-earned self-reflectivity. It is also helpful to address these questions in anticipation of offering any advice for an artist that is actually relevant to her individual interests as opposed to blindly projecting your own tastes upon her. At the root of the critique is an aim to and desire for change above all else—principally change in the thought processes and works of the artists participating. Oppositely, many MFA programs aim to concretize their students’ interests and insure the ability to consistently create artworks reflective of those stated concerns, standing in contradiction to the critique’s own underlying drive towards open-ended change. Such a pairing of functions naturally makes MFA critiques self-defeating by usurping their transformative potential in exchange for the professional steadiness of the environment through which they occur. The futility of MFA critiques must first be qualified by the idea that MFA programs do in fact encourage artistic and professional consistency rather than sweeping transformation.
One structural aspect of why MFA programs encourage, and more importantly, require their students to be artistically consistent is simply the matter of time one is engaged in this educational process. A stint averaging from 2-3 years at a cost of $30,000-$50,000 a year (usually), MFA programs have a sense of immediacy built into them. As soon as an MFA candidate has completed the first year of her two-year MFA degree, she and her colleagues begin planning their thesis exhibition with the program, placing the perspective of finalization on all that they create from that moment forward up until the moment they graduate 9 months later. There simply is not enough time or money for the average person to meander in search of her interests while attaining an MFA degree; experimentation and change can happen in far less time-restrictive environments for a much lower price. This is to say that during the process of being an MFA student you are pressured to become consistent so as to validate the intensely brief time/cost ratio endured, though it can just as easily be argued that to gain acceptance into an MFA program you must already be creating a steady type of work in the first place.
MFA admissions boards often attempt a kind of dual diversity, seeking a variety of students of different genders, races, and ethnicities, but also a group who are invested in separate artistic mediums and subject matters. The scale of difference varies from program to program, though larger MFA programs that have a number of departments separated by medium more often cater to related subject matters within those departments (think of Yale Photography) while smaller MFA programs tend to pursue diversity on a person-by-person level. I call this approach the ‘Real World’ model of diversity both for its methodological similarities in cast finding to the MTV show and because the actual amount of diversity achieved through it is often on par with any given Real World cast. The spicy identity artist. Check. The sweet landscape painter from The South. Check. The salty bad boy. Check. The admissions recipe is deliciously categorical.
Students who apply to MFA programs directly after their undergraduate degrees’ completion often endure light objections that they haven’t had the proper time to develop long-term artistic interests. The (however vaguely defined) requirement of past accomplishments in your respective artistic field insures a degree of professionalism as well as a set trajectory of artistic intention. The selection process for MFA programs is thus an alchemic routine of judging the quality of one’s past works relative to those works’ potential to correspond with a consistent future of art making. It is inferred that past works will be replicated or form the foundation of the future for MFA students because unlike many academic masters programs which allow their applicants to indicate if they intend to take on a new source of study, MFA applicants don’t need to submit an outline of what they intend on studying during their time at a school.
In the preceding paragraphs it was argued that the high-cost-to-low-duration ratio and categorizing admissions processes encourage artistic consistency rather than the critique’s purpose of change, though there are other social aspects of the peer-reviewed critique process that are also contradictory. As a participant, two questions immediately come to mind when assessing the MFA critique’s effacy: first, how can we –as an artistically diverse body of students– speak to each other meaningfully? And second, why would we dare to be honest in our assessment of each other’s work? The first question is a matter of overcoming difference in language, interest, and prior education. There are many art worlds, and the concerns of an artist working for the past decade in fibers rarely match up with the concerns of a process artist deeply invested in Russian politics. Equipping these two people with the tools to begin critically addressing each other requires research and time. Instead, MFA programs’ critiques often begin at the end moment– presenting finished works to groups of artists whose practices may have little to do with one another. Throwing these artists in the pool by no means insures they learn how to swim. And although many critiques take place in studios lined with context-enriching articles, books, objects, discarded works and the like, these things are often ignored or overlooked in favor of the artworks which arose from them. It’s a backwards process.
There may be no good answer to the first question of overcoming difference. Perhaps, after dedicating a couple weeks to understanding the cultural, art historical, and material history of one another every MFA colleague could come to a crystal clear understanding of what the other was doing and serve as an informed, thoughtful critic. But do MFA students have time for this? And is such an investment in each other part of the social contract MFA students signed or does it exceed the responsibilities of just how much students should be forced to care about their peers’ work? MFA programs are individualist by nature; students are accepted to them one by one, not as groups. The studio is an enclosed space, not a commune. MFA students are taught to write their own statements, make their own work, and (fingers crossed) go on to produce their own solo shows. The format is occasionally social but the results are inevitably individual. A diversity of artists in dialogue is only as valuable in a critical setting as its participants are able to come to a common ground for communication.
The result of not addressing these differences is apathy: I don’t know or care about what you do, what I have to say doesn’t register with your presumed intentions anyway, and if I did say something you wouldn’t understand me. The product of apathy is silence. Critiques, with their intention of fostering dialogue, often sound eerily quiet. Politeness is the modus operandi of the critique environment and vague artspeak is the preferable language spoken. Teachers can fill up much of this silence, but how many students are really speaking? How many are not speaking at all? One of the most common rhetorical devices in critiques is to innocuously bring up the work of another more famous artist who shares some similarity with the student whose work is on display. This is an oddly neutral gesture, at once suggesting the work’s relevance due to being part of a pre-existing discourse while the faint ring of saying “this has already been done” simultaneously rests in the background. It is effective in creating the façade of conversation while not espousing any particular opinion about the artist who is displaying work in front of you. Twenty minutes go by discussing Rauschenberg’s paintings from the 60’s– what was it we were critiquing again? Ah, only half an hour left.
The second question concerns honesty. Why would a student desire to say what they really think about an artwork in an MFA critique if it wasn’t positive? The answer to why Facebook only has a ‘Like’ button and not a ‘Dislike’ button is similar to why MFA critiques are largely positive, vague, or quiet affairs. When you are socially detached, being honest is very easy. This is why our government voting processes are anonymous to the public, to insure the most sincere votes possible are cast. It becomes much more difficult to be honest when you are socially at risk, when the polling curtain is translucent and your decisions are made available for the rest of the community to see. The social dynamics of MFA programs are complicated because there is simultaneously a sense of togetherness due to the common interest shared among graduates to reflect positively on their alma mater and one another through joint success, though there is also a not-so-secret competition among them to rise above each other in their displays on open studio nights, to scratch and fight for the limited attention of successful faculty, to achieve individual success in an art world with mind-blowingly few opportunities for steady employment. Colleagues in MFA programs are thus the closest allies in attaining grassroots group exhibition opportunities and also the most directly visible competition they have for gallery representation as time goes on. Thus, the MFA critique takes on a highly diplomatic character, one of delegates from separate aesthetic constituencies coming together to politely banter about possible changes to be made in each other’s work. As a result, diplomatic MFA critiques are about as productive as those of the United Nations’ meetings. Often, the only time this diplomacy is set aside for the type of real talk that creates change are the rare occasions when colleagues have broken the social contract and no longer see each other as viable future allies in later critiques– at which point the revelatory potential for honesty is often corrupted by the personal grudges that got them there in the first place.
The underlying problem with MFA critiques is that they are the byproduct of MFA programs that are proposing to do two contradictory things at once: be a space for radical experimentation and honest dialogue, while also being a launch pad for the successful careers of artists who will go on to make consistent work. Risk taking is at odds with consistency. Honesty is at odds with career professionalism. Unfortunately, these oppositions make the odds set against MFA group critiques being anything but self-defeating.