Defending my M*ther F*cking Arts (MFA) Degree

As schools across the country wade knee-deep into classes, I offer some words to those pursuing advanced degrees in the arts. WE NEED YOU. BAD. We need you so fucking bad.

Last summer there was chatter about the value of higher education in the wake of rising tuition costs. Yes, rising tuition sucks. For everyone. And then a couple of boneheads gave kids $100K to NOT go to college. Yeah, okay. It’s their choice. But let’s not write off higher education and, for the love of Dada and Postmodernism, please don’t write off higher education in the arts.

I graduated in May with my MFA in Writing for Performance from CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). My school was named this Summer by Newsweek/Daily Beast as having the most “artistic” students in the country. And, I’m sorry, but it damn well better. We’re the only school in the country that exclusively offers BFAs and MFAs in arts programs: film, music, fine art, theater, dance, animation and writing. All we do is art. My entire school is built on the collaboration of these arts under one roof. We better be good at it.

I’ve read people disputing this “Most Artistic” list and the 25 schools mentioned. The clear absence of powerhouses like Yale and Juilliard rankled some folks. But we know this kind of shallow reporting is a by-product of our A-D-D news public. Seriously, the entire article is under 500 words. It’s like journalists talking on a VH1 special as if they actually know those rock stars personally. Is this news or just culture filler to, as usual, pretend we are a country that thinks seriously about the arts?

I like what Newsweek/Daily Beast says because my school is on the list, but why don’t we have a real conversation if we’re going to talk about art and education? If we cared so much, why do we have football coaches at UNIVERSITIES making more than the presidents of the same institutions…but the first thing most public educational institutions cut are arts programs? We are getting to a point where most of us can’t remember a time when funding for the arts was increasing.

Aren’t we all on the same artistic team here? Isn’t the constant lack of arts funding across the nation hurting ALL OF US THE SAME no matter what? No matter what you think of this “Most Artistic” list, isn’t the important thing that post-secondary schools out there, maybe ones you wouldn’t expect, are fostering outstanding creative/artistic environments? I think it’s a damn good thing. You go, Emerson College (#2 on the list).

I am proud to have CalArts on my resume and, indeed, in my blood. And I will boldly say that while my student loans are steep, I don’t know how I can put a price tag on what happened to me as a person and as an artist in the last three years. My school gave me an environment to explore and make progress in giant leaps rather than baby steps.

We know we need new voices. We know we need artists putting themselves out there who are willing to fail. But we need more than that. We need artists who are THINKING about their art and where art fits in the world. We need artists who can make the case, write the kick-ass proposal to get the funding, deliver creative insights worthy of a TED presentation that enlighten the general public. We need creative thinkers attacking their art with the passion of a warrior and the courage to invoke change. Now more than ever, we need artists capable of transporting art to a level that is vital while also accessible to the world.

Without a rigorous school environment, it’s much harder for emerging and young artists to pursue this task. Inside the walls of a school, you are king (or queen) of your own creative castle. The process of making the artistic vision in your head a reality can be more fully supported and developed in the right educational setting. And once you get the feel for it there, you’re much more likely to do it anywhere. You’ll accept no other way of doing business. And if you can also talk and write intelligently about your art, if your critical mind can match the fervor of your inspiration, you’ll have a better shot at continuing in the arts once you graduate.

I see nearly 100 plays a year. And the difference between how I see a play now—how I understand what is working and not working—I clearly credit to my MFA. (I also did my undergrad at the University of Iowa, which had an amazing writer-centered theater department.) And I’m not talking some snobby, scholarly bullshit analysis. It’s just the opposite. I see the difference between work that is passionate and inspired…and something that looks like homework. My time in school responding to the art of others and hearing people talk about my work was invaluable. I wrote. I created. I changed. I debated. I grew.

Do we need another Hollywood movie turned into a Broadway musical? Can we step it up a little?

We artists need to be smarter. We need to be tougher and more versatile; smart with money, marketing and sustainability. We have to talk about our work and dissect what we do without the academic bullshit. We need ideas beyond what we think possible. We need the mental tenacity to execute bold visions. Art has more possibility of truly changing the world than politics but it has to burst from the head of Zeus not a corporate business plan in Las Vegas.

So those of you out there in arts academia right now—or those of you thinking about going back for that MFA—this IS brain surgery. We should approach it with the same seriousness as rocket science, curing cancer, fighting for the rebel cause against the Dark Lord of Mediocrity. The arts will never move forward if only the intellectually lazy play the game. If you’re going to art school to smoke pot pretending it’s “research” and blow off writing outstanding term papers because you’re going to be a famous actor or you don’t have to know grammar to be a designer—you’re not being a good soldier for the arts. You’re not only wasting your time, you’re wasting ours. And you’re not helping our greater mission of a vital artistic future.

Stop dressing up like a princess in Fantasyland and playing around with your fun little art degree. This is serious stuff. We need you. Our kind is bleeding on the battlefield. Learn everything you possibly can, get mentally tough, know your craft with the dedication of a ninja assassin and become a real risk taker. Then get out here and help us slay some dragons.

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Amy Tofte About the Author: Amy Tofte is a writer/director who worked way too hard for her SAG card that she stubbornly hangs on to. She has her MFA from CalArts (Writing for Performance) and has seen her work produced all over the country and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She is a founding member of Fierce Backbone in Los Angeles (a theater dedicated to all levels of play development) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Visit Amy at http://amytofte.com

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  1. Anthony Castillo says:

    Amy you are awesome. This article hits so true to me and so many out there. Thank you for the call, not only the for politicians and media to take arts education more seriously, but for ARTISTS to take arts education more seriously. Love it. Love you. Let’s fight on.

  2. Amy Tofte Amy Tofte says:

    Thank you, Anthony! I had this brewing in me all summer. Finally had time to get it on the permanent record. Onward!

  3. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    Well said. If the weak could make art, we wouldn’t have so much weak art. Wait. No, yeah, that’s right.

    See, I smoked a lot of pot back in college…

  4. Alice Teeple says:

    Amy,
    I wholeheartedly agree the world needs to cultivate more artists, but unfortunately I think that in the world of visual arts, the traditional BFA at most art schools has become so outdated and tangled up in rhetoric and cliché that prospective artists get the wrong kind of education – a very expensive mistake. Not only that, but with cookie cutter educations and high graduation rates, the jobs markets are increasingly competitive. I went to Penn State’s school of art and later taught there – and the sad stories of so many traditional BFA graduates leaving with no practical education usually ended with them never practicing art again, never working in art fields, and being saddled with tens of thousands in debt and no job prospects. The integrative arts program, which looked at things more practically, was eliminated in May – which is a tragedy, because its focus was on getting artists to succeed independently after school. I think art schools really are in need of huge reform. At the moment, I think many of them are misguiding artists, and ultimately cheating them out of a good education. They need to know copyright information…business…grantwriting, etc, and so many are just wrapping up their classes in theory. That has its place, of course, but I don’t think it really prepares artists for the brutality of “the real world.” When my arts job was cut, I wasn’t sure where to go next. It’s not just about making the art or having the talent – it’s also about learning how to make your talent work for you. I don’t see much of that in art school.

  5. Amy Tofte Amy Tofte says:

    Hi, Alice…thank you so much for your response to my post!!

    I know many fine/visual artists in LA and elsewhere and I do hear the things you’re talking about. I wrote this little post because I had such a positive experience and I’ve had a lot of people talking to me about it. I agree that ALL tuition of higher education has gotten out of control. And it’s turning into a rich person’s luxury, which isn’t fair. But I can’t say much about CalArts because it’s a private school and I chose to go there. I also got in and wanted to be there…

    I do think arts education is different in all areas (i was theater, you’re talking visual) but I think the changes that need to happen must come from US. And we, therefore, have to be smart artists. My main goal was to tell young arts students in all disciplines that it’s up to YOU to get the most out of your program. I think a lot of artists think they don’t need computer skills or writing skills or MATH skills because they’re all about their art. I’m saying…you better be all those things AND an artist. Because we’re dead in the water without it. I can write solid grant proposals, I know excel, I can type 75wpm…no one did that for me. I went after it and keep my skills up. I have actor friends who are creating their own videos to market themselves…they film, edit, write, market…their training is as actors but they go after these other things on their own.

    But you’ve been in the trenches and I totally believe you on rhetoric, etc. It’s hard to change the juggernaut of any institution. And some institutions are rock solid when it comes to the arts. We all know this. But I will tell you that CalArts offers classes in entrepreneurship, grant-writing and critical thinking for artists. They also do a lot to bring in working artists (most teachers at the school are “working artists” in their field) and there is a lot of time spent on the real world. I’m not saying we don’t need reform in our institutions…but I think there are things in these programs to cultivate and it’s a lot of work. There is no hand-holding, whether you are in school or out. And it’s a buyer-beware market for those looking at programs to plunk down money to attend.

    I’m already thinking about ways to petition my own school to get even better at this. All schools should be doing it. You’re absolutely right.

    A :)