Artists with PhDs

Edited by James Elkins, New Academia Press, 2009, £17, ISBN 978-0-98 18654-5-4

Artists with PhDs

Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art is a pro-active book, coinciding as it does with the inception of the Artist PhD in the US. James Elkins gives us an urgent critical audit of the debates engendered by the programmes implemented here in the UK. The amount of typos—I stopped counting after 50—suggests it’s a little too urgent, but we must let that lie, because this is a genuinely dialectical volume, with sceptics of artist PhDs (Victor Burgin, James Elkins and Charles Harrison) pitted against advocates (Judith Mottram, Mick Wilson, Henk Slager, George Smith, Timothy Emlyn Jones, Hilde Van Gelder & Jan Baetens), several of whom have instituted variations of the UK models. The difficulties of evaluating visual art research in an academic context have never been laid out with such candour; Part II of the book is devoted to samples of Artist PhDs, an important document for those considering practice-based doctoral study.

We begin with Judith Mottram’s survey of visual arts PhDs from 1957 to the present day. According to RAE and doctoral statistics from the period 1996-2005, fine art was the only art and design subject in which there was both significant research activity and parity between the number of RAE outputs and the number of PhD completions. The ensuing critiques of the relation between visual art theory and practice are well framed by Elkins’ disarmingly simple question: does art produce knowledge? Mick Wilson’s essay is the most balanced deconstruction of art’s epistemic basis. For him, practice-based art research epitomises the 'tension between knowledge for its own sake and knowledge directed towards a given end'. This tension between ‘autonomy’ of research and ‘utility’ of research must be maintained, he suggests. However, ‘[t]he institutional imperative—to reproduce and conserve the institution—must not be overlooked’. Of course, it’s this same institutional imperative, with its demands for ‘quantifiable’ research, that allows bureaucracy to flourish—as demonstrated by the late Charles Harrison’s tale of how his seminal research project Art in Theory was dogged by the RAE’s insidious accountability culture.

Sceptics of artist PhDs feel that criteria used to evaluate the quality of research compares unfavourably with that used in other university faculties. Advocates counter that artists are expanding the meaning of the term ‘research’. The more rigorous advocates—Mick Wilson, Timothy Emlyn Jones and George Smith—do so with caution and meticulous glossing of the history of visual art research. The legacy of the conceptualists’ conflation of studio and study is emphasised by several contributors. Douglas Huebler’s documenting of all stages of a work can be seen as proto-practice-based research, and George Smith’s claim that the Artist PhD could produce ‘a different kind of philosopher’ is not outlandish when seen in the context of the poststructuralist methods of, say, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Martha Rosler. These artists have certainly expanded our understanding of ‘research in the field’, their synthesis of image, text and object demonstrating art’s intellectual mandate to intervene in a world governed by visual rhetoric.

The more sanguine advocates of Artist PhDs presuppose that artists hold some moral mandate to expand the meaning of research. ‘The most intrinsic characteristic of artistic research’, writes Henk Slager, 'is based on the continuous transgression of boundaries in order to generate novel, reflexive zones.’ This is stale avant-garde propaganda, a reheated platitude beamed through the data-projector of management speak. Even if we agree with the boundary-hopping jargon, with its unquestioned belief that artistic research is ‘intrinsically’ trangressive, how does that research ‘generate’ rather than simply inhabit ‘novel reflexive zones’? The choice of verb is important, because it describes the nature of art’s mediation between these zones. Art is too often seen as a natural agent of interdisciplinary mediation, an institutional ‘upsetter’ with a mandate to roam as it sees fit.

The belief that art research must be subject to the paradigms of utility inaugurated by the sciences and humanities is easy to overturn conceptually, but difficult to achieve institutionally, and this is what unites Burgin, Elkins and Harrison. Burgin reminds us that art’s academic autonomy is traceable to the Middle Ages, when painting transcended its status as a mechanical art and took its place among the liberal arts. To do so, it embraced the analytical disciplines of geometry and anatomy. Of course, just because art’s academic autonomy is founded on its accession to accredited principles doesn’t mean it has to go on perpetuating them. But what does it erect in their place?

Artist PhD candidates are usually autodidacts rather than aspiring academics, eschewing the comprehensive citation of sources for a system of idiosyncratic crossreferencing. They map thetic archipelagos, taking what they need to get from one island to the next. Many are happy to subsist on the ‘breadfruit’ theories (différance, hyperreality, take your pick of the received discourses), while some can lay claim to producing new interpretative schema—not through the algorithmic processing of the bibliographies, but through the heuristic agency of their studio work. How do you devise a system that grounds this vernacular in the lingua franca of academia, so that the research is not read as an iconoclastic shortcut through the bibliographies? It’s a difficult challenge, one met with only partial success in the UK, usually through the lottery of good supervision rather than through systemic institutional protocol.

Sean Ashton is a writer based in London