Sunday, February 08, 2009

Someone I have taught in the past is upset with my position on MFA programs here.

I'm going to repeat a core assertion I made the other day from
this post:

"I am speaking very clearly about the institutional choice to charge tuitions that have no relationship with the craft they are teaching. Individual teacher's complicity with this corrupt system will vary, depending on the specific institution's practices...If a teacher is teaching in an MFA program that charges a tuition its students can never pay through the craft, the onus is on the teacher to justify for his or herself how this can be ethical."

The idea that I'm equating professors with Bernie Madoff is baseless--I am talking about an institutionalized system, not a case of individual fraud. I was speaking about it as a Ponzi scheme because it is requiring future generations (and larger and larger tuitions) to pay in to keep the present system afloat. Ponzi schemes are illegal because they are created in bad faith, and are unsustainable in the long term—I'm floating the possibility that the current system shares some of these issues.

The vast majority of theater MFA programs have very little financial support compared with other type of graduate programs, and the mean tuition is much higher--NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, for example, runs about $40K a year for three years, and that is without incidentals or interest on the loans it will require. If anyone who reads this knows where there are some studies of theater MFA program costs nationwide, post or email me.

I'm specifically concerned with theater training MFAs, and what effect that system is having on the theatrical ecosystem. I don't believe the writing MFA system is terribly relevant, as the connection between what you're taught and how it can be used in direct practice is very different than theater—someone else with more experience can speak to that relationship.

I'm also not talking about the efficacy or lack thereof in these programs, nor am I talking about whether they make "clones" of the artists or anything of that sort. There are great programs and terrible programs I am sure--I am only specifically concerned, in these arguments, with the effect that high tuition is having on theatrical training.

In the post Allison states, and a number of people have said the same:

"I'm angry at Daisey for slandering arts professors in this manner."

There's no slander--it is up to each professor to be aware of the tuition their institution charges, and understand their role in that system. In the case of theater I believe a strong case can be made that the huge footprint of these MFA theater programs is saddling young artists with crushing debt that weakens the future of the form. If you are complicit in that system I believe you have a responsibility to reconcile those facts, and I think it would be healthy if people did their reconciling in public, because then we can actually have some public dialogue about it.

"None of us is owed a living, regardless of our profession. We are not promised top-flight jobs, nor are we owed even subsistence-level salaries. Such is the promise and pitfall of a capitalist society."

I would argue that perhaps one of the largest pitfall network effects of a capitalist society is the tragedy of the commons—in this case it is possible that a universally needed resource (future artists) is being exploited to ensure economic stability for the system today. By telling theater artists today that they must have training, and then making that training out of context to the industry they will be practicing their craft in we hurt the art form as a whole.

I've had some fantastic teachers in my life, and I love teaching myself. That doesn't absolve me or anyone else of the responsibility to call out a broken system for its problems.

2:51 PM