In my previous article, I talked about the pros and cons of getting an MFA. I only saw the cons. I didn’t really see any pros. In hindsight though, I think there are five hidden pros that didn’t occur to me that I now think are invaluable.
You become part of a community going through an MFA. You get to know your classmates and their work; you learn how to critique work in a supportive way. The value of this community cannot be underestimated. If you luck out and meet classmates who can grow with you after graduation, hold on to them. I intend to hold on to mine. I’m told that one of the greatest risks for artists is losing that automatic support network after graduation. I can already feel this loss now, and I just graduated a month ago! I can go at it alone, but I think it will be much harder. There is a real possibility that I will stop working. I think having an artist group, even just a small one, after graduation is a must.
While I had a goal of “improving my photography,” what I found was so much more. I discovered topics that sparked my imagination: 19th century photography, mythology, and storytelling. Could I have discovered these without going through an MFA program? Absolutely, and having gone through it, I have ideas on how that could be done without paying $80,000 for an MFA.
Is an MFA necessary to create art? Definitely not, but it doesn’t hurt either. It really depends on what your goals are.
Last week, an AMS Newsletter reader suggested a big benefit of an MFA: structure. I totally agree with him.
An MFA Provides Structure and Deadlines
You can go at it yourself. You can improve your photography by yourself. Just look up Vivian Maier. She was a nanny in the 1950s who created pictures throughout her life. She toiled and improved her photographs seemingly by herself. So it could be done. But for me at least, I now recognize that structure and the constant assignment deadlines and the habit of it were keys to improving my photography. I don’t think I could have done it myself over a long period of time. Without feedback and the structure, I think my enthusiasm would have waned. Determination is not enough.
But is that worth $80,000 though? Only you can answer that. For me, it’s already been spent. It’s a sunk cost now. Make no mistake though, if I think it wasn’t worth it, I would say so.
You Learn Empathy
Art does not make you a better person. However, I did learn empathy. It’s tough to create art and put it in front of people. Creating art is a courageous act. It really is. And so I quickly learned how to give feedback without being too negative about it. Whenever I provided feedback, I was always reminded of a passage from Julia Margaret Cameron’s The Artist Way:
Younger artists are seedlings. Their early work resembles thicket and underbrush, even weeds.
Students’ work, my work, are like weeds. There is no use critiquing students’ work as if they’re grown trees. Those weeds might not look great right now, but someday they might be tall trees. So I learned to be kind. It’s karma. They will provide feedback to you too. I know how it feels to have work trashed, so I became a total fan of the sandwich method of critiquing work: positive, negative, negative, positive. I actually do this at work too. It is so much easier to “eat” and accept the critique if delivered in this way.
You become a philosopher when you get an MFA. Over time, you formulate your own maxims that guide you, not just in art-making, but in life.
I don’t have to be perfect; my images don’t have to be perfect.
Pictures that grab me, that hold emotional power, are usually imperfect photographs. A photograph does not have to be completely focused or have accurate color. Perfect photographs are Dead-on-Arrival (DOA) images to me. They are lifeless, they are not expressive, they don’t have emotion. They are DOA. And so I strive not to be a perfectionist in my art. Surprisingly this attitude has spilled over to my day job as well. I don’t strive for perfection. I do the best job that I can, but I don’t obsess about being perfect. It’s very liberating. I no longer worry about company reorganizations, job rationalizations. I just go with the flow. I am not the job and the job is not me. I learned that by getting an MFA.