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Rant #460
(published November 12, 2009)
For MFA Candidates: A Warning
by Michael Andreoni
We've been watching you for a while. On the way to our jobs each day you're hustling along the sidewalk, all portfolios and backpacks. There's been an intensity to you lately that we think we understand. It's that time of year again. We know you're excited and we're happy for you. We wish, in fact, that we could gather you all into one of the lecture halls for a few minutes to tell you just how happy we are about your graduation, and maybe a few other things.

Of course you don't know us, and there's little reason you should listen to what we'd like to tell you. We're not authorities on what you've been studying. We're just the older folk you thread your way through on the way to that early class. We'll understand if you're impatient as we hem and haw our way through a few false starts, because we're not used to speaking to a crowd. It will only take a moment though, so if you'd be kind enough to humor us. . . .

The world awaits your imminent. . . wait, that's wrong, sorry. We'll try again. The world is unaware, oblivious, to your imminent disgorgement from this year's uncomfortably distended academic gullet. That's better. Certainly more accurate, and really, oblivion is probably your best bet because we're a bit hazy about the nature of your achievement. You say: "Master of Fine Arts," we think: "Advertising." You say: "Artist," we think: "Flashing Google Graphic Creator." "Filmmaker?" "Endless, numbing, sequels." "Writer?" "Oh Christ!"

Maybe we're unfair. It isn't your fault the degree has been somewhat debased. You've suffered for your talent, have you not? Gritted your way through school at those odd jobs, odd hours, with no money. Stared glassily into the glowing maw of the Great Devourer, your fingers frozen over the keyboard, praying for something, anything, to inspire them. We understand. We've done some of it ourselves— at least the odd jobs, no money and staring glassily stuff. We're thinking you might feel it's your time to cash in, to get PAID. It's time for the horse to get the carrot and that's what we wanted too. We all want that carrot.

The difference, though, between you and us is we hadn't any artistic talent. We can't draw. We can't even hold anyone's attention with an amusing story or two. And setting up camera shots? Forget it. Not a clue. We're grinding away at our careers, those evolved odd jobs, and if the money's better then it was, the carrots fat, well, that's all we're ever going to have in our lives. We won't know the joy of creating something greater then ourselves, a work that lives beyond our last breath. Our only crack at immortality is children.

We're not complaining. We came to grips with our destiny a long time ago; out- lived a certain amount of envy for those who could do what we couldn't. People like you, for whom the Muses come to attention and dance on cue. It's your self-expression we'll be spending money on the rest of our lives, your view of the world we'll talk about at work. We're cool with that. So if we demonstrate a little exasperation with you from time to time, it isn't because we think we can take your place.

If you should notice us fidgeting in our seats fifteen minutes into your new film, our faces betraying something very much like tedium, don't worry that we're plotting to re-shoot your scenes. Or maybe, waiting for our flights, sitting on the bus, you'll see us leafing restlessly through your novel, putting it back in our bags, unread. Don't read too much into it. You might catch us leaving the gallery quickly after a cursory look at your show. It doesn't mean we're unhappy with your work.

Because that would be complaining, and that isn't what this is about. We want you to know we love all of you, including the folks who will go on to bring us more of those television "Reality" shows, or whatever exciting new genre they ultimately morph into. We have a soft spot, too, for poets and painters whose work defies penetration. Also, of course, the writers: freshly baked in huge batches, uniformly browned and sweet, all made from exactly the same ingredients. Filmmakers of the "Death by a Thousand Cuts" school tickle our fancies as well; all those flash-edited tidbits, pixilated diarrhea, squirting across the silver screen.

Even the worst of you mirror us to some degree. We have to love you because anything less would dredge up a lot of uncomfortable stuff about ourselves that we're not ready to deal with just now. You're what we have at this point in time. Let's leave it at that.

What we're doing today is giving out gifts. We have something for every student as a token of appreciation for your elevation. After thinking long and hard about what would best help your careers along, we're pleased to be able to offer a few things you might find useful.

Let's start with what seems to be the largest group: those of you who chose the MFA path for the career opportunities. You could have pursued a business or law degree, but the artistic life looked better then harnessing yourself to the kind of work we have to do. You're talented, after all, and talent gets to pick.

We're confident you'll make a killing in the fine arts, but we've heard that path to the private jet, the million dollar pied á terre, can be arduous. We thought you could use a leg up right from the start to cut out the competition, so our gift to you is an idea so boffo, so money-in-the-bank sure, that it must be whispered: To the best of our knowledge, no one has done a novel or film about bocce ball.

Remarkable, isn't it? And it's all yours. But if you decide to do it, do it right, please. Don't cheat us out of what we've come to expect from the arts. Writers, remember to keep it positive, life-affirming, and warm—oh so warm. And while we're talking of warmth, don't forget to put some pets in the book, with lots of cute dialogue from master to mutt. We love those puppy-dogs and kitty-cats, you know. They're such non-threatening characters. We're not against a few dark moments in your work, so long as there are plenty of hints that success is the order of the day. We like our successes to be readily apparent, too. Don't give us something drawn out, incremental, ambiguous. We can read about Iraq if we want to explore the pleasures of that kind of success. Write something we can give as Christmas gifts.

The number of shots in the film should approach that of the known galaxies. Fire them at us, rat-a-tat-tat from your machine-gun lens, nano-second jewels blasting us to orgasmic bliss. We don't like long shots. The scenes end up looking too much like our lives—a little slow. Speed everything up. Make it look exciting and chic and you'll make us exciting and chic; kind of. Pull out all the stops and show us what you can do. Give us the genial screw-up, pulling himself together against overwhelming odds. Think bocce ball as the moral equivalent of war. Give us the slo-mo ending, with everything riding on the last play. And the light—oh please, please give us golden sunlight bathing everyone in butterscotch-hued triumph. We already want tickets.

Promotional art. Nobody does a good book or movie poster anymore. Artists, get in on this gold mine. Maybe you actually would sell one of your paintings occasionally, while boring everyone with how talented your students are at that art school you'll be teaching at. Or do you want to make real money? Your classmates will need lots of brightly colored promotional material for their novels and films. Make their acquaintances. And do we have to even mention the Internet potential? We look forward to cute little bocce balls bouncing cleverly across our screens. Repeat this until its part of you: A lot of good artists worked in advertising, really.

That does it for those of you in the "Career Opportunity" group. Congratulations, and please exit quickly because frankly, your remaining classmates don't have your earning potential. We don't want you to have to listen to the harsh words we're going to lay on them. Good luck.

Well. We thought they'd never leave. Not many of you left, but that's hardly surprising. We hope you said your goodbyes to that other group because you might not meet any of them again for a long time. You're on different career paths—you already know that. They want to make money and you want to make statements. They could have pursued law or business just as we said, but you. . . you could never be anything except what you are.

No other way of putting it: you're a bunch of troublemakers. Your work makes us uneasy. It would be so much easier for you if you could be like those others. They know better then to make us think. We can munch up their stuff and an hour later we don't remember what we ate. Now that's entertainment. Your work stays with us for years. We can't forget it.

It's not a good plan, you know. The others might live in gated splendor, attending galas, their mailboxes full of fans gushing about the new book, new film. You'll be flying coach the rest of your lives, attending pot-lucks. You'll get a few wrenching e-mails from friends asking why you can't write or film something "nice," something that makes them warm. And you won't know what to say except that it doesn't feel right for you. You're so funny.

Not a good plan at all. We have a gift for you too though, if that's who you are, if you're determined to break your hearts by refusing to give us what we're comfortable with. Actually, it's two gifts, but don't get excited because you won't like either of them. The first takes the form of a warning but before you get it, we have to come clean about something. It's whispering time again, so lean in close:

You're who we wanted to be. Not the others. They're merely what we deserve. They'll give us the easily digested stuff and we'll eat it up—we admit it. We don't have to do any work with them, bring anything to the table or take anything from it. We're tired at the end of the day, you know? We need something to perk us up and they're certainly perky. And warm. Puppy-dogs and warmth and butterscotch triumph. We can stumble off to bed with them.

Asleep, we dream of you. Of being you, if we had cutting- edge minds and the guts to play it straight. The others will get our money—only our money, and they're easily bought because they're cheap at any price. When we feel like working, stretching ourselves, we'll be coming to you. We haven't given up on the idea of adding more to civilization then we take. A hundred years from now, we'd like it said that the Western Tradition remained strong during our time, held up by an informed public that demanded the very best of art. You'll be carrying our sword in that fight.

Now you get a present: Don't expect too much from your education. Oh, we know it undoubtedly tightened up your writing. Your brush-strokes gained additional authority. It helped you master some of the technical aspects of film-making. Don't let comfort with technique bamboozle you about why you're alive on this planet. You exist to have good ideas and suffer their consequences. School refined you, made you less dangerous to yourselves, and us. But the ideas were yours to begin with because that's who you are and that's how art works.

Your education was arranged to make your careers easier— we don't want your careers to be easy. You're afraid of not making enough to live on and we feel for you. We're afraid of that too. There are other things we're just as afraid of. We fear the multi-book deal and best-seller lists stretching to infinity. Sequels marching tirelessly over the horizon scare the crap out of us. We fear those wine and cheese art extravaganzas like poison. Most of all, we're scared of art as "Product." It's cruel, but we'd like you to have just enough to do what you have to do. Welcome to the life.

You'll be called elitist. In the near future, reading without moving your lips will qualify as elitist. It will be applied to you by people who haven't found a convenient way to make money from your work. Get used to it. Get used to fighting back. We give you something to fight back with:

In the twenty-first century, when our country has fallen from its customary leadership in too many categories, isn't some elitism exactly what is needed? America re-invented a particular brand of it more then two centuries ago, a kind of preferment the world had not seen since the Hellenic civilizations. It was not the elitism of blood, of tracing family ancestry back to royalty, or Plymouth Rock. Not trust fund elitism either; pitiful nobodies propped up on mommy and daddy's money. It was the notion that good ideas trump blood and purchased status. It was revolutionary then and it's still revolutionary. Yes, a bit of the right kind of elitism might be just the ticket.

You can do this. Good ideas are your stock in trade. They're your double-edged sword and we're begging you to cut us up even as you slice yourselves thin. We go to work every day hoping for someone to startle us, someone whose education hasn't neutralized them, rendered them harmless. You; only you. Put something in your work for us. We promise not to look away, or, if we do, we'll come back to you, we'll keep trying. Don't forget us after graduation. Wherever you end up, we'll still be on our way to work every morning; wishing, hoping, dreaming of you.

Michael Andreoni notes "This was inspired by an editor at another publication saying they were getting way too many submissions from newly hatched MFAs that read the same. It was, he said, as though everyone was being taught the same tricks to 'win' the editorial process, instead of taking risks. I mulled it over for a while, decided he might have a point."

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