Chris Kraus: On The Matter of Grad School

Throughout my 20s I lived in New York and never once thought about applying to grad school. Grad school, at the time, seemed to be for people who were not really intending to become artists. I knew all the artists. I even studied with some. But the tuition–sometimes cash money, more often intangible–never passed through an institution. I paid with a loyalty that was often betrayed.  But this is normal.

My real education took place in my apartment. Convinced that to be an artist I’d need lots of free time, I did occasional temp work supplemented by low-level scams and some topless dancing. This gave me lots of free time, but at the time, I didn’t know what to do with it. Sometimes I slept 12 hours a day. I remember looking in the mirror at my too-rested face and realizing the hardest thing I’d have to learn was how to make my own program, how to inhabit unstructured time without getting lost in it. I don’t know if you learn this in grad school. When, in my late 20s, I began living with a tenured professor at Columbia University the question of grad school was tabled. His grad students became my close friends. Before leaving New Zealand, in my late teens I’d unsuccessfully applied to Columbia’s graduate program in journalism. In the end, I attended the school by osmosis.

It’s only at times when I want to escape from my life that I regret not going to grad school. The bios of writers whose careers I envy usually contain the names of the prestigious MFA programs they attended. If I’d gone to grad school I’d have an agent! I would not be virtually self-published by Semiotexte, the independent press where I’m a co-editor. My writing would be reviewed in serious, adult publications. But in order for these things to happen, I would have to write different writing.

As it is, my writing is read mostly within the art world–a field in which virtually everyone attends an MFA program. And I try not to criticize this. Perhaps for the better, grad school has taken the place of my generation’s aimless experience.

I’ve noticed a trend among students in certain liberal arts undergrad schools to move to New York or Berlin or LA after Grinnell or Dartmouth or Swarthmore. Not applying to grad school is very neo-old school. And this is exciting.  What will be even more exciting is if the cultural life of these cities approaches a point where alumni of less elite schools can embrace the same mixture of deep disillusion and confidence.

You can find an interview with Chris Kraus in Volume 1. of Lemon Hound.

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