I was one of those who enjoyed the Oscar Wao book, and then was surprised when it won the Pulitzer. After listening to this Q&A/reading by author Junot Diaz, I now realize the amazing insight of the book: that encounters with racial “others” can be scripted the way encounters with spacemen are written in science fiction.

But I have two new concerns. The first is superficial and it concerns Diaz’s reliance on profanity during his remarks. Many writers don’t speak as well as they write, and so I could discount the reliance on profanity as just this. (But he’s otherwise an extremely effective speaker, so I’m not inclined to say it was hamfisted or accidental.)

Or, it may be related to a second thing I think Diaz got wrong, which is his ending bit criticizing the professionalization of the arts. Briefly, he’s discouraging young artists from following what he sees as the new conventional wisdom of entering a professional degree program (e.g., an MFA) immediately after college. Going straight through means you don’t experience “the real world,” he says, and so you never separate from “the teat” of an academic institution. If you don’t get out of school, into “the world,” and “get your heart broken in three continents” your work suffers. And he suggests that “going straight through” prevents the artist from doing their work, which is “bringing the news of the world” to consumers.*

A couple of quick counter-arguments:

1. Most people live their entire lives depending upon/contributing to large organizations (as workers, welfare recipients, travelers, parents), and so I hardly see how you can arbitrarily say that working in and for one of these (the university) puts you outside of something called “life.”

2. Artistic work clearly fits any conventional (or technical, sociological) definition of “a profession” and has since the late Renaissance. It is nonsensical to describe the arts as undergoing “professionalization,” although I don’t dispute what he means to discuss, which is the increase in the number of arts school graduates in recent decades.

3. Working in and for a university is a great way to get the time and money to go to three continents, but getting your heart broken there seems more like a personal decision.

4. MFA and other arts degree programs increasingly include coursework in business basics for small organizations, grant writing, and provide other training and resources that can provide artists with increased career independence. These skills are much harder to acquire outside of school. There’s an argument to be made that school is the best path to independence.

5. The question of how timid, mimetic, or stunted your art becomes in your 20s is certainly less a function of whether you spend 8 hours per week sitting in a classroom, and much more a function of what you do with the other 160 hours of your week.

6. The idea that artists who go to professional schools make more timid, mimetic, or stunted art is best viewed as an anachronistic stereotype that developed during a period when such programs were few, and the students that entered them had these attributes before they entered.


* I could logically extrapolate from this that Diaz sees profanity as a “real world” way of speaking, and using it is a mechanism to proclaim he is not an avatar of MIT. Additional evidence that he’s after the last can be found in his criticism of Boston universities as the “boot on the neck” of working-class residents of the city, who fail to criticize these truly powerful overlords, and are instead unrepentant racists.



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2 responses to “diaz

  1. SC

    I would disagree with you. The educational system is a very particular institution, and one that is the primary occupation of most people from the early days of childhood up until adulthood. Among most people who I know who have embarked in non-academic, post-college careers, it is generally agreed that the transition from within the academic world into a non-academic, post-undergraduate world is one of if not THE most significant events in their life.

    Among people I know who have remained in an academic realm without making that transition, many have had considerable freedom to travel the world – I have certainly envied that at times when I had less freedom within a job.

    At the same time, I have known enough people to recognize that the type of experience that one has in visiting other continents as a break from studies is fundamentally different from the experience that one has living on those continents and working to support oneself.

    There are separate questions of semantics, aesthetics and preferences that surround the idea that one set of experiences is more “real” than another or creates “better art”, but there is no question that they are different types of experiences.

    If you accept that “more real” doesn’t have to mean “exists more definitively” but can colloquially refer to “more in touch with the experiences of life as most people on earth experience it”, than yes, I do generally feel that time supporting oneself out of an academic context can provide that.

    A small percentage of humans pursue post-graduate degrees. Without any value judgement, that makes those who do part of a small subset of humans. It is a subset from which I have found many of my closest friends and that I personally place significant value in, but that I also recognize has a tendency to be somewhat insular and isolating.

    As for aesthetics, personally, I find that the degree to which ideas and information are shared, analyzed, critiqued, and work-shopped within an academic setting can be problematic. Although they do objectively “improve” work, there is also a homogenizing and centering effect that occurs. Look at the similarities between artists, authors, etc. who have been through similar programs. I often find creative work that is produced outside of these areas to be refreshing, to a degree that compensates for its lack of refinement.

    OK, so guess. Am I a student? Grad-student? Professional? What did I study or do I study?

  2. Jenn Lena

    Thanks for your comment, SC. I hope it is useful if I point out that, on many of these issues, resolving our differences of belief/interpretation would require research that simply doesn’t exist. For example, I’m prepared to consider the idea that training within art schools produces some similarities in style amongst students, but I can also imagine counter-veiling forces. In the post, I mentioned that time spent at school is a small portion of an artist-in-training’s week. I’d add that there’s a premium placed on innovation and independence in art work. So, we’d have to evaluate the aesthetic similarities among many works produced by students in a program to resolve our differences.

    Then there are a few points on which we’re not quite talking about the same issue. I say that working in academia is a good way to travel to other contintents, and you say, “yes, but the experience is different.” Fine. I have no doubt that interviews of those two groups (traveling academics, traveling non-academics) would yield this result, but I’m frankly not sure what it would tell us, except that the two groups have different perspectives.

    If you’ve heard Diaz’s argument, you know his reference group isn’t “all people on earth”–he’s contrasting (presumably) American artists that work in universities to those that don’t. One point on which he and I probably agree is that we need to re-think the current funding model in the arts which does not provide for many artists to live as professionals without also teaching. This is particularly true in some media (poetry, sculpture), and less in others (fiction writing), but true on average, for sure. This funding model does limit the time, energy, and maybe the perspective of artists, and we should be debating if this compromise is necessary or worth preserving.

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