If you’re thinking about studying fine arts at the graduate level, chances are you already have a pretty good sense of what area you’d like to specialize in. But among the broad academic disciplines of art—among the fine art subjects of creative writing, visual art, drama, etc.— there are many specific concentrations, and as you begin the application process, or even begin to simply ponder the application process, a quick run-down on what specific options are out there will go a long way toward helping you parse your options correctly.
At first glance, the choices for fine arts concentrations in graduate school for a writer may seem fairly limited, even restrictive. The MFA in fiction and the MFA in poetry are by far the oldest disciplines in creative writing, and together represent the two main spheres of influence in academia. And of course, by the time a writer’s glance has turned to graduate school in the first place, he or she may already identify primarily as either a poet or a writer of fiction.
But outside these two spheres, and even, in some sense, within them, there are a host of subtle distinctions, and a wide variety of different paths that a writer can take. Many programs now offer an MFA in screenwriting, while other fiction programs offer screenwriting classes as part of their core curriculum. The teaching of creative non-fiction, as a self-contained genre, has become more and more prevalent in recent years, and several schools now offer a non-fiction MFA.
In some universities, a playwriting MFA is offered under the aegis of the English department, while at other schools it is available as part of the theater or drama school. If you’re looking to study across several genres and concentrations in fine arts, it’s important to know which classes and programs are offered under which department—many universities will allow a fiction MFA candidate to take an additional workshop in poetry, playwriting or screenwriting, and vice versa, while others are more strict in their genre demarcations. Still other programs demand that a candidate take at least one workshop in a field that is not his or her specialty.
The walls between mediums—between, say, painting and sculpture, or graphic design and photography—have been steadily lowering in the greater art world for years, and graduate schools around the country have, for the most part, followed suit. Traditionally, specific fine arts graduate concentrations such as the MFA in sculpture or painting or photography have ceded much ground to more generalized courses of study, typically defined with an MFA degree in visual arts.
If you’re looking for a program that will let you hop from canvas to clay to a classroom discussion on the history of art without leaving your concentration behind, than a non-genre-specific MFA would be perfectly suited to your needs. If, however, you intend to focus on one particular area of expression, or are interested in one of the more esoteric disciplines such as fiber arts or metalsmithing, and are looking to work under a knowledgeable master on a fairly long-term basis, than a more specialized MFA may be in order.
It’s worth noting that some programs, both genre-specific and not, emphasize and sometimes require some study in more traditional aesthetic courses such as art history, architecture and archaeology, while other programs seek a more insular and work-driven environment. Additionally, a fair number of larger universities collapse all of their MFA programs into one department devoted to the arts, lowering the walls between mediums even further, and giving studio artists, creative writers, actors and directors the chance to collaborate with ease, both in and outside of the classroom.
In contrast to the broadening fields of fine art graduate concentrations in visual art, theater as a fine art graduate subject has become increasingly specialized. Whereas once the academic study of drama focused almost entirely on the three pillars of acting, directing and play-writing, now many aspiring MFAs specialize in more esoteric concentrations, such as dramaturgy, costume design, stage management and lighting.
With this increased specificity comes increased collaboration inside the department, so much so that many—if not most—graduate theater productions are entirely self-sufficient, with student actors working with student directors, who are in turn working with student costume designers, student dramaturges, student stage and lighting designers, etc.
If you’re looking to apply to an MFA theater program, the breadth of choices might seem at first rather overwhelming, and even a bit odd—after all, the aching desire to act is perhaps a bit more common than the aching desire to light—but keep in mind, as you gather information on fine art graduate programs and on fine art graduate subjects in general, that a variegated program, offering a variety of theater MFAs, is, more often than not, a
More choices mean more chances to thrive
This is true, in the end, for all departments offering MFAs, all across the board. And so, as you begin your search in earnest, don’t be shocked or intimidated at the diversity of study you find. Be happy—it most likely means that whatever you do, there’s a fine arts concentration out there somewhere, waiting for you. And if there’s not, there will be soon.