To Doctorate or not to Doctorate?

CAA Education Committee
MFA? DFA? Ph.D? DVA? Determining the Terminal Degree in Studio Art Practice for the Twenty-First Century
Wednesday, February 9, 12:30-2:00pm
Chair: Hilary Braysmith, University of Southern Indiana
Ellen Levy, University of Plymouth
James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Margaret Kennedy-Dygas, University of Louisiana, Lafayette


Artmaking as New Knowledge: Research, Practice, Production
Friday, February 11, 2:30-5:00pm
Chairs: Derek Conrad Murray, University of California, Santa Cruz; Soraya Murray, University of California, Santa Cruz
Timothy Emlyn Jones, Burren College of Art
Sandra Adams, Curtin University of Technology
Ignaz Cassar, University of Leeds
Simonetta Moro, Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts
Frances Whitehead, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

During past CAA conferences the issue of the studio practice doctorate has been treated as a curiosity, or as a specialty area. Not so this year, where I have counted no less than four sessions over the course of this year’s conference addressing either the studio practice doctorate debate directly, or exploring the emergence of research-based art practice and theory. As an art historian who has moved into the studio, and using art historian research tools to inform my process and methodologies, I am taking great interest in all these developments!

A couple of years ago, I sat down with a colleague I truly respect, to ask advice about the MFA. To my surprise, he told me to look at the MFA as a stepping-stone, and to sincerely plan on doing the studio doctorate. I was baffled by his request, but continued to research this route. This year’s conference has been extremely helpful in enumerating many sides of this debate, as well as defining and discussing the premise of “research-based” art, or “new knowledge.” In particular, both these sessions succeeded in highlighting, and summarizing, a number of major issues needed to understand the complexities implicit in this debate.

From a theoretical point of view, Timothy Emlyn Jones, from the Burren College of Art in Ireland, and Dr. James Elkins, from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both discussed the base definition of “New Knowledge” and how this forms the foundation of the studio doctorate. Mr. Jones views New Knowledge as taking “information in through the bodily senses,” by way of experience and emotion, and encompasses “abstract thinking and embodied knowing.” Dr. Elkins regards this New Knowledge as rooted in the idea of Tacit Knowledge, or knowledge that is difficult to communicate, and to be understood by others. Visual arts, indeed, is a high form of knowledge, and when viewed through the Kantian prism of aesthetic cognitivism, as Dr. Elkins does here, should exist on the same plane as the sciences. Yet, without the shared feature of repeatable research methodologies to substantiate and communicate this knowledge, art has a built-in handicap.

In fact, Mr. Jones believes that studio doctorates should be considered as a different tradition. He asserts that while artists may employ the use of standard research practices and methodologies, such as those in the hard and social sciences and technologies, they may also adapt relational strategies and creativity theories that are equally valid and present equally valid results. Mr. Jones, in his abstract for this talk, suggests that the “creative processes of art can be understood as enquiry and thus as a distinct form of research, different from yet complimentary to science.” (CAA Abstracts 2011, 96) He further proposes, “The intelligence of fine-art practice need not be shrouded in the mystique favored by the marketplace.” (CAA Abstracts 2011, 96) Instead, “we need to look at what artists actually do rather than at what they are thought to do.” (CAA Abstracts 2011, 96) Once you sift through all the jargon, Mr. Jones and Dr. Elkins actually agree.

The next, and quite volatile, issue centers on how the studio doctorate should look here in the US. Ellen Levy gave the example of her program, Z-Node Zurich, as a European model. With a science and technology focus, it features different interrelating areas, for example ecology, biology, psychology, and artificial intelligence. Z-Node’s particular characteristics as a program, including its emphasis on interdisciplinarity and collaboration, its push to redefine what research is, it rigorousness, and how it continuously repositions art practice within and outside these other disciplines, highlights the transdisciplinary issues of the state of the field, shared influences, key issues and debates, and methodologies and tools. Margaret Kennedy-Dygas provided an intriguing comparison, the Doctorate of Music. As a performing art, sharing with visual art similar concerns about research, understanding, and outcomes, I wonder why I have not heard more about this relationship.

Dr. Elkins enters the US studio doctorate debate as “The Skeptic.” He gives 3 reasons for why it might not be a good idea. Firstly, there is either the need to adjust to the U.K. definition of New Knowledge, create our own, or come to a universally agreed-upon one. Second, we need to consider who is NOT a good prospective studio doctorate student (intuitive/non-verbal, non-theory dependent practice, non-self-reflexive). Lastly, think long and hard about definitions of programs. It was this final reason that caught my attention, due to my extensive work in college administration and teaching, and by association, accreditation. Dr. Elkins commented that the definitions of many MFA programs are “less than a page long,” and speak only to producing students with “professional proficiency and the ability to make art.” He observes that actual programs rarely look anything like they do in accreditation paperwork, yet are still tied to very outcomes subscribed to within that heap of paper. Dr. Elkins ended with the observation that “no one knows what the Ph.D is because no one knows what the MFA is because no one knows what the BFA is.”

Two presentations spoke to me as examples of the potential of the studio doctorate, and how the studio doctorate does not have to be a source of fear or fury. Simonetta Moro discussed her doctorate exhibition, and how the opportunities to pursue different research methodologies and practices has continued to inform her creative process and teaching. Frances Whitehead, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago presented The Embedded Artist Project, a collaboration between SAIC and the City of Chicago. Created as a knowledge lab, or new knowledge-producing initiative, artists are “embedded” into institutions throughout the city, and become part of a larger “cultural entrepreneurialism” creating “knowledge through transdisciplinary engagement.” Its focus was sustainability within the 4-pillar system encompassing Environment, Social, Economic, and Cultural. It is this type of art/science/community collaboration that is an ideal example of what Ms. Whitehead defined as Métis, or craftiness; knowledge emerged in practice.

After attending these sessions, and speaking with the panelists, I am no longer “baffled” by the initial request to consider the studio doctorate. My journey will play out in time. I will continue my inquiry along the lines of Timothy Emlyn Jones: “What’s the most important thing you don’t know?”

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