Skip to main content

Talking Art

The Culture of Practice and the Practice of Culture in MFA Education

Talking Art

The Culture of Practice and the Practice of Culture in MFA Education

In Talking Art, acclaimed ethnographer Gary Alan Fine gives us an eye-opening look at the contemporary university-based master’s-level art program. Through an in-depth analysis of the practice of the critique and other aspects of the curriculum, Fine reveals how MFA programs have shifted the goal of creating art away from beauty and toward theory. Contemporary visual art, Fine argues, is no longer a calling or a passion—it’s a discipline, with an academic culture that requires its practitioners to be verbally skilled in the presentation of their intentions. Talking Art offers a remarkable and disconcerting view into the crucial role that universities play in creating that culture.

288 pages | 32 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Art: American Art, Art--General Studies

Education: Higher Education

Sociology: Social Psychology--Small Groups, Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“Alternately engrossing, distressing, and hilarious—a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the inner machinations of cultural production in the United States.”

The New Criterion

“Sure to be recognized as an essential text in the sociology of art and the sociology of higher education. But its implications for thinking about contemporary work and culture reach far beyond its specific focus. . . . Fine’s book offers more than a reflective description and analysis of a new site of art patronage and occupational socialization. . . This book should stimulate thinking on aspects of contemporary culture whose import reaches far beyond art and higher education.”

American Journal of Sociology

“Valuable for its description of how the art world and the university have grown entangled. . . . Talking Art offers us an ethnography of visual-arts education: a dispatch from MFA island. Art school, Fine finds, is a subculture, with an austere patois and peculiar rites of praise and humiliation.”

Chronicle of Higher Education

“Fine once again works his ethnographic magic by taking something that may otherwise be overlooked as everyday or simple—in this case, the critique. . . . Talking Art offers interesting insight into the tensions that derive from the ongoing development and maturation of the art world. It serves as a reminder that disciplines are also group cultures, with both localized and shared traits, and which are always shifting shapes in accordance with broader societal changes.”

Symbolic Interaction

“Thoughtful and comprehensive. . . Often deliciously wry. . . Fine is an excellent observer of the peculiar dance of the academic artist, with a distance that he insists on with the lightest of touches throughout the book.”

The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“Fine, a seasoned veteran of ethnography, has written a number of seminal and inspiring works over his distinguished career. Talking Art strikes me as the crown jewel of the corpus: a complex, multisited ethnography, rich with in-depth interviews and detailed field observations. Fine has produced a work of scholarly importance, which overturns romantic notions of the sui generis genius working in isolation. This book demonstrates the power of a veteran eye for interactionist approaches to everyday life, coupled with prose that is simultaneously probing and filled with a sense of curiosity.”

Black Hawk Hancock, author of American Allegory

“The MFA in visual art is one of the least defined degrees in the university and the art critique the least conceptualized form of assessment. Yet the MFA is encircled by an enormous literature—in art history, art education, assessment, administration, and criticism. Talking Art adds a very welcome new voice. This ethnographic study of four MFA students uses Fine’s extensive field notes and photographs to explore the nature, content, and purpose of the contemporary MFA in North America.”

James Elkins, author of Art Critiques: A Guide

“This brilliant book takes us behind the scenes to explore how today’s artists are trained. The art world, as Fine shows, is now an occupational and academic community, and his ethnography illuminates that in fascinating detail. Talking Art should be indispensable reading for anyone who enjoys viewing art or intends to become an artist.”

David Halle, author of New York’s New Edge

"Rich and insightful...Talking Art is a well-crafted and well-conceived work that extends and enriches both interactionist traditions in sociology and performance-oriented ones in folkloristics. My copy is heavily marked noting key insights and finely wrought sentences. I wish I could share them all with you but instead I urge you take up the text yourself."

Journal of Folklore Research

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Brave New World of the MFA

Chapter One: Producing Practice
Chapter Two: Sharp Genres and Blurred Boundaries           
Chapter Three: Painted Words
Chapter Four: The Reason of Pure Critique
Chapter Five: Community as Praxis
Chapter Six: Preparing for a Hostile World
Chapter Seven: Disciplined Genius


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press