Mark Doty

2019.20

            Most colleges have held their graduation ceremonies within the past week so I guess that I will say, as of now, I have been a professional artist for 20 years. I graduated in 1999. Getting an MFA is probably not like getting a lot of other advanced degrees. Or maybe it is and all college, aside from medical school, is a sham. To be honest, I was given a degree that I do not think I deserved at the time. I was an artist in name only. I didn’t know much and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I worked really hard in school and got a nice participation award. My philosophy in art school (and for about 10 years after that) was that most people are lazy, and I can work more than they can. Granted what I meant by “lazy” was really that people had a balance in their lives, and I didn’t. The majority of the nights of graduate school I painted until 2:00-3:00AM. My wife (fiancé at the time) would call me long distance almost every morning and wake me up. I had a TV in my studio to keep me company. If you didn’t know, in the late ‘90s, the Tonight Show was rebroadcast at 2:00AM. I know this because I just turned on NBC and left it there in the background and heard the Tonight Show twice a night. I had movies on audio cassette. I taped them from my VCR onto a tape deck. Rear Window has been my favorite movie since I was 10 years old. It is a jewel of sound even without the picture. I only remember taking one night off during those two years. I sat down on my couch, I think to watch the final episode of Seinfeld, and for some reason, the plaster ceiling in the dining area of my apartment spontaneously crashed to the ground. No warning whatsoever. It didn’t seem like a good idea to take nights off after that.

            Art school was too focused on talking about the process of making art, which is a nice way of saying that it was about being an art student, not learning how to be an artist. It was camp, divorced from reality that one day you were going to graduate and leave and have to make your way in the world. I had to sit through endless hours of critiques debating what the word “painting” meant. If you’re reading this, thinking, “I know what a painting is”, let me tell you, you do. That it’s debated and never settled at the tune of $60k in debt is pathetic. You’d have a better chance finding 10 theologians that agree on what “selah” means than finding 10 MFA candidates agreeing on what a “painting” is. When you graduate, poof, it’s gone. All of the sudden, no one needs to have that conversation anymore. You’re an artist, making work. Making terrible work. And who cares what a “painting” is? You’re more concerned with the fact you are absolutely terrible at this thing of which you are presumably a “master”.  

            Despite the bitter taste I have in my mouth of art school, I am still very grateful to have received the scholarships that I got so I didn’t carry any debt out the door with me. My advice to all students with a fresh BFA is the same advice I have offered for 15 years: go get a job and make art. If you want a masters, wait. Get a full ride somewhere after you’ve spent some time teaching yourself how to be an artist or go low-residency. This is not worth a lifetime of debt. Your favorite artists probably do not have a masters. I wish I could remember who said something like, “It pains me to think of Herman Melville sitting in an MFA class.” I guess Flannery O’Connor sat in a master class. But did she need it? Not really. She needed a gang. She needed feedback from other writers. Do you need to take a class for that? No. You need a bar.

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            I finished a legitimate drawing this week. If I were in school and said that I finished a “legitimate” drawing, there would have been a 30-minute discussion about that. I put the pencils down for a long time to not have to be that guy anymore. I was going to die sitting at a drawing table. Now, maybe I’ll get to die sitting in front of an easel. It’s a coin toss. The drawing was, dare I say, an enjoyable experience to make. I’m going to keep going for a few more drawings before trying to build a painting language out of it. Making graphite drawings is holding my attention more than it used to. Not having a deadline removes the arbitrary pressure from the situation.

            Thanks to an email exchange with another artist, I got Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon from the library. It’s a memoir built on the idea of objects and their importance to memory and sense of self, etc. It’s about still life paintings and nostalgia. That’s me in a sentence right now. That and listening to almost nothing but 80s pop.

            Game of Thrones ends this week? I have never seen it before and have no plans to see it once it’s finished. I feel like that guy that everyone knows that hates sports and says “Happy Sportball Day!” to everyone on Super Bowl Sunday. I don’t want to be that guy. If you watch GoT, enjoy the finale. It has to be better than the last Seinfeld. But I guess not every show can end as well as Newhart or Justified.

Currently reading:

The Book of John

Revelation

Psalms

St. Augustine: City of God

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware