Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Artists don't need PhD's but PhD's need artists. Perhaps.

A while back there was a heated exchange within the letters pages of Art Monthly, involving Peter Suchin, Elizabeth Wright and J.J. Charlesworth. I wrote the following over the period of the three months during which the letters were published. I then submitted it to Art Monthly but it wasn’t published. In hindsight I was relieved about this as I guess the argument had been going on too long and also I was worried about sticking my head over the parapet, and maybe it just didn’t make much sense. Nevertheless I think it may be of interest to some artists who are considering doing a PhD, or actively considering NOT doing a PhD.


The dialogue between Elizabeth Price and Peter Suchin concerning Suchin’s article, “Rebel without a course” in AM 345, appeared to have come to and end. However, JJ Charlesworth’s contribution in AM 353 expands the field further in his conclusion that the challenge lies in “reclaiming the academic context in order to remake it”.

I couldn’t agree more. For my part, while it might be generally acknowledged that some of the divisions between what would traditionally be understood as an art practice on the one hand and research on the other may have become more permeable in the last decade or so, what is frequently revealed in this more open environment is the lack of institutional capability to respond effectively to these new complexities and dynamics.

Although much work has been done to look at multi-modal tools and/or non textual tools for enquiry and representation at Doctoral level (for example, through the ESRC new forms of doctorate seminar series 2008-10), these welcome innovations rarely touch upon, never mind disrupt the institutional/political status quo.

The co-existent, yet distinctly uncomfortable relationship, between the ‘cultures’ of research-as-knowledge and art-as-practice still often provokes debate, sometimes in the pages of the art press, often in the seminar room and in the studio but, I suspect, perhaps not often enough within the higher echelons of the Higher Education sector. It is this lack of impact of the complexity and fluidity of some cultural practices at policy and management level (Research Excellence Framework pun intended) which leaves art, education, knowledge and research the poorer.

Despite these difficulties however I’m not convinced that PhD students are as fixated on institutional validation as Suchin suggests. When Suchin illustrates his position by citing Patricia Bickers’ comment, “I am not opposed to a PhD in Fine Art per se”, but that “in order to fulfil the criteria for a research-degree in any meaningful way, the fine art researcher will almost inevitably be drawn away from meaningful practice,” there is a suggestion of a lack of a nuanced understanding of what is really going on within practice-based PhDs in many art schools in the UK.  Many PhD students/artists work in or across areas which may be unhelpfully termed as art, art research, criticism, teaching, creative practice, writing and/or curation in some way or another. This is a fertile environment; to imply that artists occupying multiple roles and positions automatically risks a dilution of meaningful practice is plainly odd. These interstitial operations and blurrings of positions may have come to the fore precisely because they provide a more complex and rich ground from which to work in whatever form or method that is, in the context of a response to increasingly limiting and reductive instrumentalisation; a response which occupies a place or places where such work becomes a field of operations, critical positions, strategies and subjectivities which prove harder to gather, or master, than any one method, position or discipline.

While Suchin rightly points out that there is a “danger of submitting one’s practice to the bureaucratic and critical scrutiny of an academic institution” which may “distort or radically re-inscribe the candidate’s practice” he perhaps misses the crucial point that the institutions may also have to accept the ‘danger’ of submitting their bureaucracies and formulaic methodologies to the candidate’s practice. In other words, perhaps in an engaged art school it would be a two-way street. To some extent what might be at stake in a PhD via art practice could be seen more as a collaborative and continual re-thinking, through practice, of what might constitute knowledge and artistic research in the first place, rather than a weak (or optimistic) desire on the part of the candidate for institutional validation.

What seems to be missing from much of the discussion around art/PhD/research anxieties is the question of the capability of the institutions to work with art’s work, in which it might be possible to tangle with the question of how an art practice can affect a relationship to knowledge as well as the other way round.

Realistically speaking, I suspect many artists who also work within art schools may not consider the PhD as the most appropriate vehicle for the purpose of a highly advanced art practice. However, as it stands, if artists inhabit the PhD rather than submit to its institutional force, then perhaps something will emerge which can accommodate and do justice to the multifarious and inter-connected forms of practice and knowledge production which surround us. The implications of positively encouraging or even insisting on active institutional engagement with art practice as an on-going, yet productive, series of predicaments rather than as a progressive drive towards knowledge, might result in a re-thinking of what artists and art educators mean by the conceptual and practical frameworks of art practice, research and knowledge.

Seen in this light, perhaps an artist’s intention when approaching a PhD is often less a means of achieving some form of academic validation than of contributing to the increasingly amorphous, awkward and fluid practices which might constitute an art-practice in the first place. One might even go as far as to suggest that such a contribution has significant implications for how we understand and work with, in, without, and/or against the institutions and cultures which produce us and are produced by us.

Written Feb 2012


  1. Andrew Stones:

    A fair bit of my own PhD thesis ('What Art and Science Want'- 2011) is about the questions you raise, Steve. In writing about why artists and scientists might be interested in an explicit engagements with each others' fields I have to tackle the following questions:
    • Does the ambiguousness that makes art appealing to those of a certain affinity also become a source of frustration for artists interested in widely consensible knowledge outcomes (as distinct from agreements produced within the social field/s of art)?
    • Do the protocols of knowledge authentication in many sciences restrict the participation rationalists who are not scientists – despite the sciences' need for social legitimation?
    • Does the presence of art in the academy produce (or exacerbate) the need for the outcomes of art to be presented as knowledge gain? If so, how tenable is this project, given a post-scientific consensus around what a body of knowledge is; to what degree it should be, say, progressivist or consensible?
    For me, these become very specific questions when comparing states of play in conventionalised arts and sciences, coexisting as they do in the academy and in wider society.

    Although I carried out my PhD under the auspices of an art school, I avoided many of the issues you raise by choosing to suspend what would probably be called my 'art practice' and produce only a written thesis. I was quite happy to seek what you call 'academic validation'. Whatever the vagaries of particular institutions (and the work involved) producing and defending a written thesis can be a more straightforward process than presenting and seeking authentication for artworks, with all the social manoeuvring, self regard/denial, and selective disavowal that the latter entails. After all, why not face the strictures of academic validation, given the occupation of academic space by the arts; and given the big ideas to which art often lays claim?

    Reading around various relevant views I noticed the Art Monthly regulars periodically huffing and puffing about artists' undertaking PhDs. I began to think that there might even be an atavistic aspect to their reactions: if more artists forswear the ambiguousness of art practice and become articulate in language, then a territory (the intellectual culture of art), hitherto occupied by a very select few in the UK, becomes vulnerable to encroachment. (Of course, it's an easy territory to defend if you control one of the few publications in which the relevant arguments might be presented. But how many, really, are interested in these territorial squabbles, especially in the small social field around contemporary art in Britain? Mobs are hardly storming the ramparts Art and Language, however much that movement is held up as a talismanistic sign of the true intellectualism in art practice).

  2. May I? :-) hi prof Dutton, I'm from China (Mainland), I'm gonna apply for a Ph.D study and research in Lincoln University. I'm interested in both art and literature, may I have that chance to have u as my supervisor? :-)

  3. Francina Randolph12 August 2013 at 00:48

    It would really be hard for artist to write their phd because of the way they work. It would be easy to formulate ideas for thesis abstracts, but when it comes to writing what they do, it would be harder to put it down on paper.