The MFA: Pyramid, Ponzi or not?

Dollarnote siegel hq
A number of bloggers out there have given serious consideration to the proposition that the MFA can be considered as a kind of Ponzi scheme. And it’s not just bloggers; articles and even books have been written on this subject, apparently.

While the majority of the writers seem to hail from Creative Writing departments, their arguments are I think generalizable to Visual Arts MFAs as well. In fact, one of the best and earliest arguments along this line that I’ve come across was all about the Visual Arts, but it predates the blogosphere and is unfortunately behind a paywall: Karen Kitchel’s “The MFA: Academia’s Pyramid Scheme”, published in New Art Examiner back in 1999.

“Pyramid Scheme” is probably a better metaphor than “Ponzi Scheme” although they both point in the same direction. Pyramid or Ponzi, it’s not a difficult argument to make. Just about the only decently paying gig available to artists of any stripe these days is in academia as a college or university art prof (although the really good jobs are becoming increasingly rare as the work is farmed out to low-paid adjuncts and sessionals). Apart from a brief period of rapid expansion in the 1960s and early 70s academia has consistently graduated far more MFAs than it can possibly hire. Even a painter can do the math: my alma mater UBC probably graduates more MFAs every two years than it has hired in the past 20. If a sufficient number of other schools are doing the same, the field would have to be growing very rapidly to accomodate all these grads. It isn’t.

PyramidDatePalms

So, the argument goes, you have this army of hopefuls lured by the promise of something resembling gainful employment in their chosen field, only to find upon graduation that their chances of achieving this are essentially no better than before they enrolled. What’s the point? Cynically, one could argue that the economic function of art schools is to provide employment for art teachers, operating just like a pyramid scheme that funnels money up from the hopefuls at the bottom to the lucky few at the top.

(Of course, some artists do make a decent living as artists, but very few and it’s basically a lottery, like making it big as a Hollywood actor. And interestingly, having an MFA doesn’t seem to be a pre-requisite for that kind of success. So we can ignore those folks for the purposes of this discussion).

On the surface this does appear to make sense. But I believe it’s not quite that simple. Ultimately it all comes down to the question: what’s an MFA for? There are two aspects to consider:

  1. What do individual students expect going into the program, and
  2. To the extent the program is publicly funded, what do we collectively want the outcome to be?

Addressing #1 first: Expectations are important. It’s one thing to invest money and time expecting a big payout, and it’s another thing if you don’t. There are plenty of things on which people consciously decide to expend time and money even though they have little to no prospect of monetary gain. This would include everything from charitable causes to hobbies to amateur sports. So it is at least possible to imagine a scenario where someone enrolls in an MFA programme because their art is important to them, and they think that the programme will help them make better art. If “better art” is the expected outcome, rather than gainful employment, the pyramid/ponzi argument falls apart.

And it doesn’t even have to be one or the other. When I enrolled in the MFA programme at UBC, my expectation was that I would make better paintings going out than I did going in, and that’s how it did turn out. I also hoped that I would be able to parlay my credential into some sort of teaching gig, but realistically, I knew my chances were limited by the abundance of competition and the scarcity of opportunities. So my ultimate failure to land a teaching job, while disappointing, was not unexpected. I moved on.

The second question, what we collectively want the outcome to be, plugs into a whole debate around the nature of universities and post-secondary education in general, and sorry to disappoint but I won’t be able to resolve that debate here. On one side you have the folks who think publicly funded education has little purpose apart from job training and applied research, and should be guided primarily by the economic imperative. On the other you have those who believe society is a much richer mosaic, and that the economic imperative, while important, is only one aspect of what it means to be human and that scientific, political, moral, philosophical and aesthetic studies have an important place at the university as well. So clearly the pyramid/ponzi argument would be powerfully convincing to the first group, but not so much for the second. I know which side I’m on (the side that writes painting blogs), but there are lots people lined up on the other side. La lotta continua, as they say.

While we’re on the subject of outcomes, a while back I made reference to a cynical observation that art schools could be said to exist to provide employment for art teachers. But that doesn’t have to be a cynical observation at all. Assuming we want a certain level of artistic production going on in our society, it’s actually perfectly reasonable to employ a certain number of artists to make artwork and teach, just as we employ a certain number of philosophers to philosophize, or historians to write history. And it’s not hard to think of reasons why having our culture be entirely market-driven or run on volunteer labour would be a bad thing. Of course that doesn’t answer the question of how many artists we should employ, or which ones, but that’s a different blog post. And I think I’ll let someone else field that one.

I don’t want to imply I think all is roses however. I think many MFA programmes probably do operate more or less unethically, feeding off and encouraging unrealistic student expectations. I also think that many of them charge far too much: it’s OK for students to have some skin in the game, but incurring huge debt loads for a degree with little practical benefit can’t be a good move. I was privileged to do my degree in a time and place when tuition was reasonable and work/study jobs were available (and winning a major drawing prize also didn’t hurt, for which the estate of B.C. Binning has my undying gratitude). I like to think I would have been savvy (or cheap) enough not to dig myself in too deep a pit had the situation been otherwise, but who knows. The move away from public funding of post-secondary education and the off-loading of costs onto students in the form of soaring tuition fees, particularly in the US, puts a whole different spin on things and is, I suspect, the real reason for the proliferation of ‘ponzi scheme’ blog posts.

Ponzi

2 comments

  1. Thanks Karen! Very useful indeed. It’s an excellent article and I’m glad it’s more accessible than I thought. I agree about the probable larger numbers, but I have to say it’s puzzling why the numbers keep moving in that direction as you’d think by now the escalating tuition costs would be having some sort of deterrent effect. If I was an economist I might think some sort of hyperbolic discounting effect was in play.