The Career Myth

As was the express goal in certain feminist circles of the significance of placing women in higher status among administrative personnel, publicly and privately, and the same with persons of color, it should be seen that such gains towards greater inclusion have yet to move the balance of power or the dominion that male whites and their corporate agendas still prominently retain.  What can also be attested is the degree to which those women and their minority counterparts who achieve higher positions give in or are forced to become complicit with the dominant order. Breaking the glass ceiling by select individuals does nothing for those who do not seek status within the order but rather seek permanent change and more secure welfare for all from the bottom up. Nevertheless, careerism, particularly among educators is promoted as the primary route for anyone seeking any form of social change, for themselves or as representative of a group. Having prominent names appear on a resume is the key to every step of success. Position is equivalent to economic status is equivalent to public visibility is equivalent to leverage. The problem is that those in power rarely cede status to anyone without promise of conformity. (1.) Under the institutionalization and corporatization of western business and the laws of capitalism demand that competition either be subsumed or destroyed – subsequently, just as independent businesses are hijacked or absorbed by corporate interests, independent careers fade more quickly than they appear.  

Yet, careerism remains the de facto motivation for anyone with a talent who wishes to enter into the arts. Where once it was rather clear that being an artist was more of a vocation than a means of support, freshmen students entering art school are solicited with the very idea of achieving a well-paid well-recognized career. All that is required is to compete at every opportunity… never mind having just entered into a lifetime of debt for their tuition (2.)  Four years and three additional loans later the prospective artist receives a certificate, a diploma, signed by someone they’ve never met, and a title to add to their resume; B.F.A., signaling the start of their ‘career’. Well, almost. You see, as tens of thousands of aspiring artists graduate with a bachelor degree in Fine Arts every year its value decreases and alone rarely if ever opens doors or qualifies by itself as a career resume. Even to teach art as a part-time, minimum wage adjunct requires a master’s degree at the very least and previous teaching experience in addition to that. Further career strategies at this point are limited.

The cost of art requires an underlying investment that doesn’t simply appear from a singular talent or from thin air. To begin, a workplace or studio must be maintained, preferably in or near a high-rent metropolitan area close to a viable art market with supportive institutions and active art community. (The alternative here is to be labeled an ‘outsider’, a ‘regionalist’ or ‘folk artist’.) Tools and materials must be readily obtainable. Work hours must be critically optimized, not only for production but for the various grants and solicitations that need be applied for and extended. If an artist’s family cannot provide support, then a secondary income must be found that doesn’t compete profoundly with the requirements of an art career, such as working for an art institution, teaching art at a lower level, or working with a socially acceptable non-profit organization that allows for a variable schedule or from home. Budgeting time and income will be critical, especially since hundreds of other career-seeking artists will be in active competition for the very same opportunities.

The other option, and the most common, will be continuing education for two more years, and two more loans with the goal of an M.F.A. degree to add to the resume and open the possibility of finding a teaching position. It’s a step upwards, but once again, not uncommon. A master’s program offered at a State-run public institution is easier to qualify for and generally less expensive, though a Masters in Fine Arts from a dedicated art school or Ivy League school is far more prestigious, but also the most competitive and arguably the most expensive.  An M.F.A. degree from Yale ($45,700. /yr.) or Rhode Island School of Design ($57,726. /yr.), for instance, will certainly make an artist competitive in the college teaching profession. While that doesn’t necessarily qualify as a full professorship, it’s a foot in the door, an income with perks – and the ability to begin paying school loans without having to fear bankruptcy. The tradeoff here however is committing oneself to be a career educator rather than an independent artist.

There’s another problem with the choice of teaching art to supplement income and support a working studio; it’s a problem inherent to the teaching profession as a whole. That is one of the value and relevancy of recycled knowledge. It’s fair to say that anyone having spent six years of their formative years as a student will have only limited experience with the current condition on the subject outside of academia. Moreover, that person on becoming a teacher will be more likely to repeat information that they received from their teachers along with their own choice of career alternatives as advice to their students, without critical inquiry or relevant information, who will then become teachers in a never-ending cycle, the alternatives being realistically few and far between. It must also be mentioned that with the rapid growth of M.F.A. programs in colleges and universities in the last several decades and the numbers of M.F.A graduates comes both its devaluation as a noteworthy achievement and loss of competitive edge. Never mind, currently one can apply for yet another level of academic and career status; The Doctorate of Fine Arts; a D.F.A. (3.)

A less expensive career strategy that doesn’t incur endless debt is to secure an income that would help support one’s vocation as well as oneself by sacrificing leisure time; in essence, keeping two careers, one supporting the other. Again, budgeting time and expenditures is critical – and in both cases in direct competition with those who can afford to focus solely on one or the other and maintain a normal life and potentially a family. For women who choose this path invariably means the decision to forego having children. (It must also be noted that much talk of career goals in the arts rarely if ever addresses the basic long-term essentials and rarely if ever speaks of the requirements for health care, disability and retirement programs offered under normal employment.) For those who choose both having a job as well as an art career the possibilities for employment depends on additional skills one can cite that apply to a given position. For those with a degree in studio arts, finding employment at an arts institution such as a museum or arts foundation is ideal, however, most clerical and research positions are generally given to people with degrees in art history, museum studies and arts management. Otherwise, the options are limited to part-time and minimum-wage support staff such as maintenance, security guard, front desk or shop clerk. Being an artist, or having an art degree is rarely considered a skill despite one’s level of education.

Whereas once an artist gained esteem for the level of independence and individuality they had achieved, conformity and complicity are now standard procedure for a successful art career:

Conforming to the belief that a successful career is measured in marketing and public recognition.

Conforming to career values as held by educators and educational institutions that promote their corporate interests.

Conforming to and advancing the model of entrepreneurial values and prerogatives.

Conforming to a public view of art and the status of artists as given by unqualified “experts”.

Complicit in tacitly participating with and advancing narratives, programs and motives that routinely exploit artists’ labor for profit and gain in exchange for vague benefits.

Complicit with the broad view that western culture is a universal given and that non-metropolitan, regional and local culture is somehow of less or limited value.

Complicit with the view that art is a competitive activity.

Complicit with the Institutional and corporatized management of culture and cultural artifacts and as such is the prime beneficiary of ‘support for the arts’.

Complicit in the marginalization, stratification and compartmentalizing of artists in groups such as; ‘emerging artists’, ‘women artists’, ‘artists of color’, ‘indigenous’, etc  

Complicit in the tacit acknowledgment that artist’s welfare is contingent on select prizes, awards, charitable and philanthropic gestures.

Complicit in the exploitation of properties and gentrification of long-standing neighborhood community cultures.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-disclosure agreement

2. Women hold an average of $31,276 in student debt not including interest or penalties, leaving them with a monthly loan payment of $307 the year, or 8.5 plus years after graduation for the principal only.  https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/deeper-in-debt/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor of Fine Arts

BR

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