My husband shuts me down when I mention fine arts grad school

I put my arts education on hold for work and family. Now I'm feeling a powerful pull.

Published January 13, 2006 11:13AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I earned a bachelor's degree in fine art 11 years ago. I was a good student, and intended for a while to go to graduate school, just not immediately. A year or so after graduating, I got married. This was followed by the adventure of self-employment (my husband and I working together as entrepreneurs), then two children (and No. 3 is on the way).

During these almost 10 years of marriage, I have managed to do a little here and there with my artwork. I've exhibited a couple of times in small galleries and I received a grant once, but it's not much to write home about and it's spread out over many years. Over the past year and a half, I have had some breakthroughs, and am now producing more and better art than I have in a long time. I've exhibited twice in our small town, with positive feedback. I am finally getting on track with balancing the family stuff and being true to myself. I am even pretty confident that having another baby won't disable my momentum entirely.

So here's the dilemma. I still would really like to go to graduate school. I think a lot of my reasons for it are somewhat emotional, or at least not necessarily entirely rational, but I still want it. My husband, on the other hand, does not think it's a good idea at all. I've brought it up to him occasionally over the years, and always got shot down. Though he's by far the most intelligent man I've ever met, he chose not to go to college. He says he isn't against higher education in general, and would probably want our children to go. But he just shuts me down when I bring up the idea.

We're currently contemplating a move to a new city, primarily for business reasons. This new city happens to have a very appealing university with just the right master's program for me. I looked over their information and I really think I could get into the program in a year or so. He feels that in the field I'm working in I should just continue with what I'm doing, i.e., paint as much as possible and try to get gallery shows whenever I can, to build up a résumé.

He makes some good points. It's not like this is medicine or law or something that you simply can't do without a degree. And I do have a bachelor's already. How helpful is an MFA to the career of a fine artist anyway? Part of me sure thinks it would be helpful, both for the education itself, and because having that credential boosts you in the eyes of curators.

So if I'm right, and grad school would be beneficial, how do I go about convincing him? It's not the kind of thing I could do without his agreement. Where we left it after our last conversation on the subject was that I still wanted it, and if I found ways of articulating why I found it valuable I'd bring it up again. In the meantime I'd stay the course and work sans degree, which is what I should be doing to prepare for school anyway.

I could probably make a go of it and be satisfied with the degree I have. I've just always put a very high value on academia, and being told basically that I can't go just grates on me. I think I'd get accepted, and I think it would cost little to nothing with all the stipends grad students get. Does this seem like a sensible goal, and if so how do I convince my husband?

Needing Justification

Dear Needing Justification,

I find it troubling that your husband will not support you in your desire to go to graduate school in fine arts unless you can demonstrate why it is beneficial. And you don't just say he disagrees with you. You say he shuts you down. That carries a good bit of emotional charge, that phrase.

Why would he want to shut you down?

Sometimes things are valuable to us in ways we cannot articulate. One of the benefits of being married to a sympathetic and compatible person is that they will support us in our quest even when we cannot articulate what it is we are searching for or why it is valuable. This is particularly important for creative people. Creative people must be allowed to follow their hungers; sometimes they have nothing else to go on.

It is possible that your husband is indeed highly intelligent but does not understand this. If he cannot see, on his own, why further schooling is important to you then perhaps he simply lacks insight into your nature. If he lacks insight, that is unfortunate for him -- but his shortcoming should not be allowed to interfere with your creative life. Perhaps he sees your artistic career as just another kind of business, one that has no bearing on education. He may not understand that for you, the education is an end in itself.

I suspect there is also an emotional component that he has not revealed. Perhaps your desire to go to graduate school strikes him like a desire for flight. Perhaps he would prefer that you stay on the ground with him, tending to the business. Perhaps he feels that he already spends all his time on the ground while you roar about in the sky with the crowd below waving up at you in admiration. (He stands in the shadow of the hangar, greasy in his jumpsuit, holding a wrench, bitterly watching, wishing you would shut it down and land.)

But if he has certain feelings of that nature, he ought to lay them on the table. That's the decent thing to do. As it is, he is being rather cunning and controlling. On the surface, he seems to be making a reasonable request: "Explain to me, make me understand." And yet he is actually proposing an impossible task, one in which you undoubtedly will fail. For how can you reliably demonstrate the future practical benefits of a fine arts education?

If every artist were required to articulate what concrete benefits he or she will gain before embarking on further education, the arts would be in serious trouble. Sometimes hunger is the artist's only compass.

However, I know this is not the kind of argument likely to gain favor with a pragmatic, realistic sort of person. So if you are interested in trying to make a rational argument, there are a couple.

One is a sort of macroeconomic audit of the emotional Zeitgeist: You could argue that the costs and benefits of the two choices are widely asymmetrical. That is, if you do not go, you will be seriously deprived of great personal benefits, while your husband receives no particular benefit. But the reverse is not true. If you do go, you will receive great personal benefits, while your husband is not seriously deprived. He may be inconvenienced, but he will not be deprived of his dream. Therefore, the costs to the emotional Zeitgeist are greater if you do not go than if you go.

There is another argument, closer to the ground, which is simply that school is a good social investment. It increases one's status and credibility. It opens doors. It brands you as serious. It has a whole host of socioeconomic benefits that you could probably back up with research.

But arguing with him on his own terms may only lead to failure. If you say "macroeconomic audit of the emotional Zeitgeist" he will probably burst out laughing and ask you where you got that nonsense. And it is nonsense, in a way: The simple truth is that you're an artist and you feel the need to go for more education and that should be enough right there. What you are craving is not a pragmatic thing, not a product, but a kind of experience, a way of being that cannot be quantified or monetized. You're an artist. End of story.

So I would say simply that if he wants you to be happy as an artist, he must allow you to make your own decisions about your artistic career. And whatever effect that has on the family and the family business you will just have to deal with.

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