My latest article on BITTER LEMONS…

BITTER LEMONS: 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.

Another Writer Defends the MFA HERE