I began reading Sarah Schulman’s book Gentrification of the Mind and a slow realization crept into my consciousness. I was afraid of my own gayness. I had become afraid of exploring my gayness in my work and people not being able to connect with it. I was afraid of people ignoring me or wanting to harm me if I wrote about being gay. I was afraid of never being reviewed by a major publication. I was afraid of never being published at all. I was afraid of being stuck in the Purple Room in Powell’s. I wanted to be “normal” and I wanted the opportunities of a “normal” person. I would even settle for the opportunities of a “normal” woman.
The part of “The Gentrification of the Mind” by Sarah Schulman about M.F.A. programs
“What counterindicates professionalization programs from real art-making are some key differences:
- One is the homogenization of influences. Students in an MFA program are often exposed to the same ideas and artworks as their classmates. They don’t stumble through the world accruing eclectic influences, based on their own aesthetic interests, impulses and chance. They lose the opportunity to fight to be influenced, to check out weird things and trail after unusual people. This creates homogeneity.
- Second, the process of going to school, the admission selection and the high cost, is itself an enormous filter, reducing who will ultimately have the access an MFA provides. This is further homogenizing the field. Graduate programs are filtered communities, the world is not.
- Third— and most obnoxious—some MFA students and recent grads become focused on a concept of mainstream success that is predicated on the repetition of what is already known. Before they even achieve anything, many are already involved in the lifestyle of being mean to people who don’t have their pedigree and solicitous to those who do. There is an overemphasis on positioning one’s self and a grotesque lack of interest in real discussion about art and art-making, a lack of desire to grapple with something that matters, and to face one’s self realistically in an honest representation of the real world, lived and imagined. I am consistently surprised at the almost complete lack of discussion about the ideology and values of a play. Critics don’t bring it up and artists rarely discuss it. What does each specific play stand for? What is it rendering generic? What is it presenting as neutral? What is it saying about the consequences of experience? The prevailing ideology of the American theater is that the coming of age of the white male is the central and most important story in the culture. Most theaters are rigidly and dogmatically fixed in this idea. And when plays by “others” are allowed to be seen, the etent to which they are praised and rewarded often depends on the extent to which they reflect white males’ desire to be seen in a particular light. While never made explicit, as MFA programs prime writers for reward, the message about what kinds of content and points of view are acceptable is clearly articulated. There is an unartful reliance on the cutes of the exterior world, an engagement with values that place familiarity over expansion of consciousness.
- Finally, the payoff of getting an MFA, the reward for paying that bribe in a sense, is that if the person was obedient enough, they can be helped for the rest of their career by their teachers and mentors behind the scenes. The fact of having graduated from a program creates the possibility of a kind of professional opportunity that a civilian cannot access because the institution becomes invested in their graduates doing well. It gives graduates a false sense of pride because they had certain advantages, and makes them treat people like themselves as though their work matters simply because they went to a specific school.”
The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman
(Schulman goes on to say she still encourages “working-class or poor students with talent” to go to these programs because “there is simply no other way of getting into the system.” She also taught in one for 14 years.
Though I don’t endorse all of Schulman’s views 100%, I might print this out and hand it to the next person who wonders why I didn’t get an MFA, encourages me to get one, or wonders why I don’t support my writing by teaching writing.)