Thoughts about an MFA degree

A couple of years after retirement, I decided in 2013 to take my art practice to the next level by undertaking the two-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. I began the program in the fall of 2014 and completed it in September 2016, at the time of this post, hot off the editing floor! I thought that I would make some notes about the degree and understanding more about what my work is all about, starting with this post.

In a nutshell: I spent two years trying to figure out what my work was really about. What that means is immersing yourself in theories of structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, affect, gender and queer theories, the body in art, montage, modernism, post-modernism, the role of galleries, anthropology (in my case), the fluidity of meanings between artwork and viewer, and so on. In short, a bewildering array of ideas at first, that could inform my art practice. As a result, I think that the MFA degree is about at least three things: figuring out what you want to say, finding a way to say it, and shrinking the gap between what you think your work says and what it actually says, to yourself and anyone who cares to take a look. It is also just as much about building up your ability to work through a problem and learning to engage in self-criticism without self-flagellation.

In a way, the MFA forced me to find ways of describing the material I had already made and was in the process of making. How I edited and put it together to create something that was coherent became an on-going, and agonizing, process of feeling continually that what I was saying and what I was making were quite wide apart. And not just wide apart, but lacking cohesion. Thinking that I simply wasn’t cut out to be an artist after all – nothing was working, the struggle was just too painful- it was at the point where the pain was at its most unrelenting, that a thought would appear, seemingly from nowhere. Like a drop that finally overwhelms a crack to become a flood, a tentative solution was enough to go on to produce a body of work. Making art is partly about confronting this pain and not letting go until something happens. You can’t stop believing in what you’re trying to do.

A collateral benefit, and one not to be underestimated, is that you get practice in showing your work in a gallery setting, with all the issues that implies, and submitting to critiques from instructors and colleagues. And what that means is learning to still the ego and to look at one’s work more critically – that is to say, in a thoughtful way. Why is this working? Why is that not working? What is the work saying versus what it is I am trying to say? The combination of one’s own reflection, putting the work out there, writing about it and it’s connection to art, and hearing the responses of others are what helps shrink the gap between intention and execution.

I knew that my art making would be different at the end of two years, but of course I thought it would be close to what I had set out in my application essay. I had originally wanted to explore sequencing photographs in the form of a photobook. And then a photobook would become the thesis project. What happened was that I wound up focusing on the fragment as the basic unit in my art. I didn’t expect moreover to consider memory, transitions and the city as well. And I didn’t think I would shift my practice from the still photograph to photomontage and then to the moving and sound image as a video artist. In effect, I had taken the photobook and the sequence and added concepts from montage, time, motion and sound that partnered ideas I was exploring about transition, loss and memory.

It was a big risk, but thought that MFA would be the best place to make these leaps. I believed that I would figure out how to make art worthy of a graduate program and meet my own desire to make art that would express what I wanted to say. It was a challenge and exhausting. Learning a new medium, on top of an already demanding academic load, is not for the faint of heart I can assure you. But, you have to be true to yourself and go where your ideas take you. Otherwise, why bother?

MFA Thesis Defence

I completed my oral exam today. Two hours of questions, some tough, all very interesting. Congratulations all around from my committee members. Glad it’s over. Some minor revisions to the thesis and that’s it. Done. Two years. Am wiped. Thanks to my beautiful wife for her attendance at the exam and steadfast support over the past two years.

Martin-Gropius-Bau (R.W. Fassbinder) + Musik-instrumenten-Museum (Chopin Recital)

Took the S-42 to Wedding station and transferred to the U-6 to  U-Kochstrasse / Checkpoint Charlie. From there I walked about .5 km through the Topography of Terror exhibit once more to see R.W.Fassbinder’s life and films exhibit at the magnificent Martin Gropius building. A small show really (no pictures allowed), a 4×4 matrix of screens with random excerpts of interviews join a display of his very careful notes for films. In order to secure financing and work out his films, Fassbinder story-boarded his films very carefully and just as meticulously prepared the budgets. The costumes, mainly for the actresses and especially his muse Hanna Schygulla, are in a room adjacent. It’s always a disconnect to see the implied size of the person through the dress – we are so used to seeing the actors on the big screen. My takeaway: while visual art has an element of play in its creation, the storyboard tool can be really helpful to working out ideas in advance.

I walked from there to Unter den Linden and then on to Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Centre to the Musikinstrumenten-Museum on Ben-Gurion Strasse, a distance of about 1 km. In the sticky, summer heat of Berlin (33C), it felt longer. A fascinating museum of historical musical instruments (no touching allowed) followed by a Chopin recital in the museum by a very talented, very experienced student (e.g., BBC Young Musician of the Year, international prizes and so on). So it was a pleasure to sit back and take in the recital. Two favorite pieces were on the program (Op 55. No 1 and 2) along with a couple of Scherzi. The pianist, Melissa Gore, certainly has formidable technique and her own take on Chopin. It was interesting and a real treat in this city of so many chromatic hues.

Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie: Renaissance nirvana

Rogier van der Weyden, Rembrandt, Cranach (elder + junior), van Eyck, Botticelli, Tiepolo, Rubens, Titian….the Renaissance hit parade. All at the Gemäldegalerie in beautiful rooms filled with northern light, where the paintings are given plenty of space around them. The iphone is not the ideal camera for these  paintings—it tends to add contrast and has limited dynamic range. However, by editing the image in place through a change in exposure (typically a drop), sometimes with highlight corrections, what’s on the screen approaches the painting. We tend to add contrast in photography. What struck me over and over was the extent to which these masters kept contrast well under control, edges are soft, in a way that suggested the light was coming from within the painting.

Rembrandt up close is one thing and further back is another. The former are like abstractions, textures from the brush and colors without discernible form. Further back, the image becomes apparent. This idea of abstraction within figuration is something I want to think about more.

(images coming)

Dark history: A visit to Grunewald Gleis 17 and Wannsee

History is everywhere in Berlin, sometimes a testament to the heights to which mankind can attain and equally the depths of cruelty and horror. Today, more of the latter and the impossibility of understanding man’s seemingly endless inhumanity. Gleis 17 is the railroad platform at Grunewald station in Grunewald where Berlin’s Jews were transported to their death in the camps. Located to the southwest of Berlin in a sleepy, almost picture perfect little town is a memorial that in its subtle simplicity rends the heart and fills the soul with despair and fear.

After disembarking from the S1, steps lead down to a passageway under the railroad tracks to the town.


Just before the end is a sign that says Gleis 17, to the left are stairs leading out onto a shuttered railroad platform.

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A little further, a few steps on the right lead down to another platform.

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On both, at their edge are weathered iron plates. Starting in October 1941 and ending in February 1945, each plate shows the day, month and year, the number of persons and their final destination.


Destinations that ring of unspeakable horrors through the decades: At first Theresienstadt and then as the concentration camp system developed following the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the other infamous destinations of Auschwitz and Riga. peaking somewhere around 1944, is the depressing inventory of those murdered by the Nazi regime. Throughout the war, even when it was clear they were losing, the search for Jews, along with Roma and political prisoners, continued relentlessly. There is madness in man.

To its credit, the German government has not stinted in its acknowledgement of the past, either through the number of museums, memorials and exhibitions that, with great detail, document this horrific period. Nor through the directness of the exhibition text that doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. The trip to Wannsee was the logical next step.

This beautiful villa, with its stunning IMG_8621grounds and view of the lake, became theIMG_8653

the headquarters for SS planning and implementation of the mass killings.


I wanted to see the location, the very room, where senior executives of the Nazi leadership met to develop the bureaucracy for the ‘final solution’, one whose written goal was to kill 11,000,000. The number of men with advanced university degrees, particularly in law, who participated at this meeting, who planned the killings who developed the most sophisticated logistical and operational procedures, defies comprehension and, if it were not shown in images and words, almost too fantastical to be real. In spite of all the words and attempts to understand, to explain, in this exhibition and the Topography of Terror, I am not sure that insanity can ever be understood.

And yet, it is equally clear that great organizational skill is required to plan, harness the resources and implement corporate (public and private) programs, for good or evil. If ideological ends redefine morality and ethics and thus the laws that spring from them, any society can be reconstructed. A new religion is born. Democracy is a fragile thing and easily usurped if taken too much for granted. The power of the state rests on the belief by the individuals in it that no single person has the means to challenge it. And a system of coercion and spying ensure that the individual is isolated unless willing to become part of a new community.

Individuals whose primary desire is to make laws to suit ideological ends, for whom career and ambition trump consequences, is there a difference between then and now? Tragically, it is easy to make a seemingly endless list of contemporary examples. The grotesqueness of the Nazi regime is significant because of the civilization that lay behind it, in particular the number of lawyers at the most senior levels. After all, one must have the law on one’s side and who better to ensure that than a lawyer. But that is as far as it goes. Man’s capacity for cruelty and self-justification continues unabated, from messy divorces to religious beheadings. The differences are merely ones of scale and savagery.

The exhibition includes many, many official documents and an exhaustive chronology of events. The drawings made by artists in the camps, at great risk of torture and death moved me deeply. And in combination with some of the photographs documenting the savagery, I could no longer stay in that place. The perversion I was exposed to was too much. I left very much with the feeling, now more reinforced than ever, that Man will never change.

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