Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
I just finished the first semester of my MFA at [a well-regarded East Coast school]. At the end of last term, I had a disappointing review and my professors said that I wasn’t working hard enough to produce an integrated body of work (I showed them a series of things that were conceptually connected but materially diverse). I get the feeling that what they want me to do is work like most of the other artists in the department, who essentially just make the same painting over and over again. I don’t know what direction to take. Do I stand my ground, or give in?I’m sorry you’re in a glump about your review, and I sympathize. The hothouse environment of MFA programs tends to produce a myopia that can make a discouraging review feel truly crushing. But now it’s time to dust yourself off and get moving again, and—if you let it—your position could be more nuanced than either a fight to the death or complete capitulation.
Without knowing the specifics of your situation (such as your current oeuvre, the stated goals of the program, or the methods for assessing first-semester work), I’m going to throw out a few very general statements: In many MFA programs, the expectation for the first year is that students will push their work in new directions. If you came to the program with materially diverse work, it might have been assumed that you’d use your initial months to explore a different kind of production. Additionally, your professors may be hoping to see your ideas brought to conclusions that are thoroughly considered and explored in high definition; cohesion in a body of work can teach you to self-analyze and develop your intentions. Finally, it could be that the conceptual connection between the works is not at clear as you think. But in any case, don’t just make inferences or “get the feeling”—find out! Inquire directly, and talk to more than just a couple of people. Over the next few weeks, schedule a handful of studio visits from different faculty members, fellow students, and curators outside your institution. Prepare questions for them and listen to what they say as they observe your work.