Thursday, January 16, 2020

Photography MFA Programs

Lucy Soutter, a commentator about whom I have no opinion, has written a piece which you can find on her Writing page, entitled "Should I do a Photography MA?" It has a bunch of discussion and some advice, with which I find no quibbles. I know almost nothing about the topic, and she is, obviously, well versed in it, so I shall hold my peace.

What I found interesting about the piece is the world she sketches. Set aside her use of the phrase "the photography world" to refer, obviously, to a vanishingly small slice of photography, and focus on what the nature of that world is. This is the world into which the Photography MFA is supposed to grant you entrance.

The photography world is a network, a set of interlocking institutions with their own specialist language, attitudes and activities. Most MA degrees are structured to support students in developing original, project-based work that relates to a context of established works.

This is maybe the clearest expression in the piece, but the theme is constant. The world you are, as an MFA candidate, seeking to enter is a hermetically sealed environment of self-referential work. Its functioning is as much social as it is work-based, and there is a specific envelope of artistic output that's going to be acceptable. You can't just show up making wildly original work which does not particularly relate to established works. You have to know the language, you have to understand the attitudes, you have to take part in the activities.

This is no surprise, and in fact it is not unprecedented. One could describe the world of research mathematics in much the same way. It too is hermetically sealed by its own secret language, incomprehensible to outsiders. Mathematics by its very nature is building continuously on the works of others. There certainly are social conventions which it is profitable to observe, and so on.

Still, one could be forgiven for imagining, naively, that an MFA in photography might focus mainly on helping you to do photography better, in a larger sense. According to Soutter, this is not the goal at all. The best it might be said to do is to help you do a very very specific kind of photography better.

Now, pure mathematics as noted is also pretty hermetically sealed. We do not pretend to make better basketball players, or even better physicists or even better applied mathematicians. Much of pure mathematics is simply blundering around in a private world doing private things. Still, there is a narrow channel outbound. Every now and then some applied mathematician will find some bit of pure mathematics that can be exfiltrated to a more real-world situation. In general, pure mathematicians encourage this, and find it pleasing. Not always, but frequently.

Pure mathematicians are generally forced to spend some time teaching more or less applied mathematics courses. Not in the applied math department, but as a topologist (oh so pure) I did need to understand and to teach differential equations (pretty damned applied, it's practically engineering.) While my research work will, most likely, never really impinge upon the real world, my knowledge and duties most certainly did.

Pure mathematics views itself as a sort of balance between purely mucking about in abstractions for the sheer joy of it, and serving as a source of new ideas and tools for applied mathematicians and other real-world practitioners (physicists and the like).

In a similar way an MFA program in writing, while potentially a bit abstruse, sees itself generally as serving the needs of the writing and reading communities at large. An MFA program allegedly will give you the tools to finally finish that novel (the reality is a little different). MFAs in general, at least in the USA, are seen more as a Teaching credential and less as a Doing credential, but someone with an MFA in Theater is going to try to teach people how to do, you know, actual theater that normal people will attend. Someone with an MFA in photography seems to be, largely, in the business of teaching people how to be an MFA in photography because this is all they know.

So, the graduate degree, and more generally the academic research program, usually provides some sort of abstruse and theoretical basis for real work. Making nuclear bombs that will flatten real cities, or airplanes that real people will ride in, writing books and poems that normal people will read, putting on actual plays that normal people will attend. The distance between grounded reality and the ivory tower may be large or small but there is in general a connection between the two.

I have this vague notion that literary criticism may have led the way here toward a new, brave, future. Academic Photography, as nearly as I can tell, is actively engaged in crawling up its own ass. Collectively, there is no interest in photography outside of what the insiders call, invariably, "photoland" or what Soutter refers to as "the photography world." Their interest appears to be entirely about various European Photo Festivals in which they attempt, with some success, to bilk wealthy patrons into buying their work.

There is no channel to the rest of photography. Nothing these people do will ever inform commercial photography, or vernacular photography, or any of the photography that either sells or is done for pleasure except perhaps by accident. They often don't even seem to be much interested in photography, in much the same way that modern literary critics don't seem to much like literature.

As long as this is the way these MFA programs operate, they will continue to dominate the Museum/Collector circuit, because those people do adore a credential. A board of trustees, which consists of billionaire businessmen and wealthy socialites, wants to hire people with degrees because they have no other tools for evaluating a candidate.

This does not mean that MFA photography is universally bad. Sometimes pretty good stuff shows up!

Sadly, I have to point out, they can't even manage to be that obscure. My adventures in reading the output of these dweebs suggests that their work is not all that inaccessible. They try very hard to mystify, but they're simply not very good at it. You can usually boil their "texts" down to fairly simple language, although many of the sentences actually disappear because they carry no meaning whatever.

I am pretty sure that I have observed in the past that when you attempt to translate technical language into plain language, one of two things happens. In one case, the word count rises, because the concepts are actually complicated and you need to insert material to explain them. In the other case, the word count shrinks because the concepts are simple and the technical language exists not to compactly explain, but to mystify.

The actual photographic output of MFAs is, when not meaningless gibberish, usually pretty straightforward. The technical language is mostly mystification, not compact explanation.

Their last stand, as it were, is to claim that the gibberish photos are actually very profound, but that it's impossible to explain why they're so great and you wouldn't understand, because you haven't got an MFA in photography. This is a flat out lie.

Give me an hour and a six-pack of beer, and I can explain, at least in a metaphorical way, pretty much anything regardless of how abstruse from the mathematics I know. If you can't at least talk around why someone's boring-ass pictures of nothing are great, but only say over and over that they are, "of course," very good, then I call bullshit.


  1. I thought Soutter's article (a few years old now) was pretty good in laying out the cost/benefit of doing an MFA these days, as in very high cost, dubious benefit, at least if you are expecting a viable career as a photographer (whatever that means) out of it, unless you mean to into teaching, which is competing for one of few places in what is quite frankly a cutthroat industry, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

  2. This seems apropos to your last paragraphs:

    "Where does this artspeak come from? Believe it or not, it does come from somewhere and that place is often very interesting, if you're into art theory. In the 1970s, an increasing quantity of French philosophy was being translated into English, and a number of American and English universities incorporated this material into their research, reading lists and bibliographies. What came to be referred to as poststructuralism overtook the more formal, modernist forms of art theory and criticism that scholars such as Clement Greenberg had been writing. As a result, a way of writing about art emerged which read the way French philosophy (translated into English) does."

    1. The ever green triple canopy article on IAE asks "why does this stuff sound like inexpertly translated French?" and answers "because it is!" albeit in slightly more serious language.

    2. A most valuable resource! After posting my previous comment, I realized the quote (and linked article) was penned by none other than Mister White Blight, apparently during an earlier, more lucid episode.

    3. Small world, innit? Blight can write in normal words, too. But he's not very clever. Note that in your linked piece, he thinks that artspeak is meaningful and appropriate in Academia.

      The fact that it isn't very meaningful eludes him. I don't think he's unusual, but he literally seems to not really know what meaning and original thought and arguments actually look like. He's been steeping in this muddle of endlessly rehashed bullshit for so long that he thinks that's what thinking, researching, writing, is supposed to be.

    4. He may be a guilt-tripper, but he's not a bridge-burner.