I didn’t play the game right

Going to grad school for art is a performance. I come from an unconventional place I went back to grad school. I had been teaching abroad for a decade now, and the position I held required an MFA. I had a choice to uproot my family, or stay abroad and complete an MA there. I figured finally getting my MFA was a good decision because I’d be able to have more opportunities to continue my teaching career in the US should we ever decide to move there. I say this because it’s important to understand that I had already seen the other side of the curtain for a decade before I became a student again. In this regard I know that professors are also just people, and their opinions can vary from day to day. I know that mindless bureaucracy is soul crushing and nonsensical, and that political rivalries within art schools can destroy friendships. I’ve seen countless accounts of young female students run out of crits crying, or freaking out to the point where it doesn’t even phase me any more. More like “oh, she’s crying. This is happening again” . I only say “female” students because I’ve never seen a male student cry, However I’ve seen them get angry, and throw tantrums, and walk out of a crit and never come back to school again. I think this is an indication of just how deep seated and strange art school is. It gets at your core, when facing a crit it’s not just about your work, and your research and how successfully you’ve integrated the two. It’s about you. About your family, about where you were born and what socioeconomic status you hold. I can’t think of many other advanced degrees which are so focused on the person, rather than the work itself.

Art grad school is a performance, and with any performance there are certain parameters which must be adhered to. This often creates work that students only do in grad school. The reason why the work doesn’t continue is simply because the student was trying to fulfill the requirements of the performance. The grad school “art speak” is something similar to legalese. A language which is only employed within the confines of academia. And the result of all the theory, and research essentially becomes a one paragraph artist statement on the wall that perhaps a small percentage of those who look at the work actually read. All of the talking is essentially just part of the performance which you are embarking on.

Which brings me to the idea of “I didn’t play the game right”. I was having a conversation with a final year student near the elevator, and we were lamenting about the fact that two of her lecturers remained speechless while two other lecturers essentially tore her to shreds. The two lecturers who were quiet had previously met with her individually and expressed their admiration of her work, but when it came time to defend it in front of their colleagues, they remained speechless. The two who didn’t like her work were seeing the work for the first time, and therefore, had more to say about it. This could have contributed to why the two lecturers who liked her work were quiet. They had said what they wanted to, and so they were quiet when she was challenged. I’ve actually done this as a lecturer as well. I’ve spoken with a student on their own, and then when the big review of the work came, I made the student fend off multiple attacks. But this is what it means to really “play the game” of art grad school. When you meet with a teacher, or give them any insight into your work you are carefully crafting a narrative which will give them a framework with which to see the work. If you overplay your hand, you can give out too much info, if you underplay it, you risk looking like you aren’t taking a position. That’s what it means to “play the game” of grad school. As I said, you are performing, and if you’re not sure of yourself, you’ll fall, but the most important thing to take away from these initial meetings with your lecturers is that you are crafting a picture of who you are. And let me tell you, teachers love trying to figure out who it is that you really are.

“I want to see more of Jacob in this piece” or “I think it’s painted beautifully, there’s no doubt about that, but where are you in this piece?” is a question which will come up at basically every crit, for every semester that you’re at school. And because you need to situate yourself to the work, you’ll need to come up with an answer. About 75% of those in your class will say “Well, as someone born and raised in North Carolina(insert state here) I think like this”. Everyone does it. So you probably should too, even though it’s bullshit. Figure out what it is that you like about the work that you are creating. If you like eating lasagna, then think about what it is that really makes you like lasagna. Is it the cheese? The tomato sauce? What’s the worst lasagna you ever had in your life? What’s the best? And how do they differ. Think this way about your art. What is it that really intrigues you about the artists that you look up to, and really ask yourself if you are doing anything more than just biting off a few of their techniques.

While navigating the strange world of the art school remember that there are politicians scheming around every corner. Many students are simply jealous of the students which are better, so they try to give them a harder time in crits. If you’re dealing with big philosophical ideas, and you’ve got a Phd on your faculty you’ll be amazed at the way she challenges you at every turn, while someone with a simple idea that isn’t anywhere as near as complex as yours gets a pass. This is part of the inconsistency of the entire affair. The way professors react to certain students work is largely arbitrary and you shouldn’t look for any sort of thread between how they speak from student to student. It’s constantly morphing and this can be disorienting if you don’t see it for what it is. And there really isn’t some standard which makes something “good” . You may as well be two people arguing whether Tax Driver is better than The Godfather.

You’ve gotta be careful how much you tell your professors

“Meeting your adviser is like a first date” this was actually said to me about the school picnic at the beginning of the year. And so the relationship meanders, and it blossoms, and in a few weeks you’ll feel comfortable opening up to your adviser during one of the many studio visits you’ll have together. So during that moment when you think “should I tell my adviser this?” during the first few months. Just don’t. Keep your mouth shut. You’ll have plenty of time to talk about your work still and there’s no reason to give up too much information all at once.

Now, this is a tricky balance because you also don’t want to appear that you’re withholding information. These visits can resemble a mash up between a police interrogation and a psychotherapy session. But the difference is, there are no repercussions if you stay quiet.

I was having a beer with a ridiculous amount of other art grads I had invited out (another tip. Invite everyone out for drinks or karaoke at least once a month!) and I was sitting next to a friend, and I asked her how things were going. She told me the ins and outs of her situation and then said “You’ve gotta be careful how much you tell your professors” and this really rang true with me. You really do.

I think a lot of people come into grad school with the idea that they need to have everything ironed out on day one. You don’t. A lot of teachers just want you to experiment, and make new work that has nothing to do with the old work that got you into the school. So don’t be afraid to simply say “I used to do this stuff, and now I’m just playing around, and trying to find a new path”. Which really, is what you should be doing anyway. Grad school is a great opportunity to try something new and go a new direction. These forks in the road come at opportune times in an artists career so cherish them when you can.

I don’t care what your opinion is

I don’t care what your opinion is about my work. Really. I don’t. I don’t care about “the audience”, and I don’t really care about artist statements. I like to make my work, and I’ve been rewarded with gallery representation as well as sales without caring.  At some point you’ll probably hear about this book called “The subtle art of not giving a fuck” , and I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard a lot of people bring it up. The gist I’m guessing is that you can’t really care about other people’s opinions. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t listen, and get feedback and think about it. That’s fine. But when I say “care” I mean you shouldn’t let it effect you, or stop you from creating the work you want to make.

I was sitting in my studio and a knock came at the door and a fellow grad student came in and asked me what I thought about what a professor had said to her. What I said visibly shocked her a bit, but I just blurted out “I think it’s a load of bullshit” I continued on saying “Look, do you listen to death metal?” to which she answered “no” and I then said “well, do you think that the lead singer of Doom gives a fuck about your opinion of how his vocals sound?” She smiled, and said “no”. And that’s pretty much it. Look, we all are going to be bombarded with questions about our work, and we are going to be challenged on certain issues.  It’s ok to stop listening, and just go into performance mode at times.  Listen, and respond, and even challenge what your professors are saying at times, but don’t let their opinion push your work into directions you don’t want it to go.  Inevitably you’re going to get a lot of differing opinions about your work. This can literally happen within minutes of one another. Many times, you’ll find that your professors are contradicting themselves from the start of a studio visit to the end. Like I said before, just think of this as a performance. It’s not about you, no matter how much your professor will want to make it about you, it’s about your work.

Stephen King is a machine when it comes to making work, and he’s one of my heroes for various reasons. But think about this, when you read (or more likely watch) a story made by King are you thinking about who he is? Or are you experiencing his artwork? Now, that’s not to say who he is doesn’t influence his work.  There’s a legend that he saw his best friend killed by a train when he was a kid, and this trauma inspired his dark works, but lets be honest. King loves HP Lovecraft, and other supernatural writings and wanted to make stuff like that. He’s also a great example for other reasons I’ll talk about later. But it’s also refreshing to know that after King gained fame, he immediately wondered if he could gain success writing a different style of fiction, and so he created Richard Bachman who was his pseudonym.

In this case King cared so little about what others thought of him, that he actually created a fake name (complete with a fake photo ) of someone else. The art could stand on its own without him, as Stephen King, and he could be artistically satisfied simply by writing.

So when you’re listening to people about your work, don’t take it too much to heart.  You can discard opinions as you see fit. Maybe if something really sticks in your craw, then that’s because there could be something essential that should be looked at, but what a professor says doesn’t immediately give it some sort of legitimacy. They get stuff wrong all of the time.