A Method of Search For Reality: Art Research and Research Degrees in Art and Design


After all one’s art is not the chief end of life but an accident in one’s search for reality or rather perhaps one’s method of search.

WB Yeats to Ezra Pound1


This essay surveys the recent development of research and doctoral research degrees in art and design and discusses some key emergent issues.

Higher Education in art and design has changed rapidly over the last decade and thinking about research is fundamental to this change. In spite of the subject of where and how research thinking sits in art and design it is possible to suggest that a new research paradigm for artistic production and art education is emerging. However, any contribution to the debate has to be recognised as provisional and conditional since no comprehensive overview has yet been published. The need to review and revise the modernist project in terms of the principles of enquiry leads to a topic too large to be encompassed by this short chapter, however, I intend to tease out key issues emerging from my own experience and knowledge of a field in which a great deal needs to be done. This first attempt at an overview, therefore, is a work in progress.

Only fifteen or twenty years ago, the idea that the generation of new knowledge in art and design might be deemed research seemed novel even though there are many historical precedents for the idea in the modern period, of which Yeats’s is only one. The idea of art or design practice as research can still be said to be monstrous2 and the credibility of research degrees in art and design still seems open to dismissal.3

Most art schools and art and design university faculties in the UK, Australia and New Zealand have or are developing PhD programmes, many with funded studentships, (only the USA and Ireland remain in the English speaking world to do so and there are already some significant initiatives in both of these countries). Doctorates are also well developed in a number of European countries. There is, then, already a significant and growing number of art and design doctors in circulation. Recent graduates no longer think it strange that a doctoral programme might be an option for them on graduation, or completion of a masters, and many of them recognise that the doctorate is conventional amongst their peers in other subjects. This is significant: the doctorate has had a crucial position in university level education in the last five centuries.

In examining these issues in some detail I draw upon my own engagement with promoting, overseeing, managing, supervising and examining doctorates over two decades at Stourbridge College, the University of Wolverhampton, the Wimbledon School of Art, and the Glasgow School of Art. I draw widely on discussions with colleagues from these institutions and from those with my associates at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Art, Budapest, the Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing, the DRS Symposium4 the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, USA and the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Art and design practice considered as research

The problem about regarding creative practice as research seems to centre on confusion about the place of knowledge in practice when seen in distinction from that in theory. That art and design as well as the performing arts are practical is self-evident, but that does not mean that they are not also and simultaneously theoretically based in ways that go beyond know how. The idea of the reflective practitioner as developed by Donald Schön5 involves a distinction between: ‘knowledge on reflection’ and ‘knowledge in action’. Knowledge on reflection involves stepping back from practical activity in a way that is widely recognised in the art and design undergraduate curriculum, conventionally in a ratio of practical work to theory (80:20%). But the idea of knowledge in action supposes that practical activity is itself intrinsically intelligent. It supposes thinking through art. It also stands against the absurdity of the theory/practice dichotomy which seems to imply that you must switch your brain off in order to make art or design (or whatever) and then switch it on again in order to reflect on what you have made. In his pursuit of an: ‘epistemology of practice’, Schön argues that:

universities are not devoted to the production and distribution of fundamental knowledge in general. They are institutions committed, for the most part, to a particular epistemology … that fosters selective inattention to practical competence and professional artistry.6

He goes some way to theorising intuition in arguing that the mental buzz that is constant throughout creative activity – what he calls: ‘the dialogue with the situation’ – is itself crucial to the generation of new knowledge obtained through practice. This is what makes practice creative practice. This is what distinguishes: ‘knowledge building’ from ‘knowledge use’ as Paul van der Lem demonstrates. 7

That some practical activities of art and design are eligible to be counted as research activities in the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) can be attributed in part to the sustained arguments of Colin Painter, the former Principal of the Wimbledon School of Art. Painter’s social constructivist argument8 was essentially that if research is a process of enquiry that generates new knowledge, then any such process of enquiry in a subject that performs that task is eligible for consideration as research, even if it appears dissimilar from research in other subjects. This could be seen as an argument for the equivalence of art and design to research and rather sidesteps the identification and analysis of this research field. Painter’s position, however, does provide a basis for reconsidering what is understood to be research in its constructivist requirement that we take research to be what we find it to be rather than the embodiment of a methodological formula taken from the natural or social sciences. In this context, Christopher Frayling’s9 distinction of three kinds of research ‘into’, ‘through’ and ‘for’’ art and design provided some valuable research distinctions, and his survey of the key issues cleared important ground. 10 However, it is not fully clear how ‘practice-based’ research should be articulated in relation to ‘theory-based’ or ‘history-based’ research, or research based on other approaches. It could be argued, that practice-based research is too loose a term to be useful. It might be more useful to recognise that those differences in doctorates in art and design should be valued by researchers in other subjects – an idea to which I return later in this chapter.

The UK Research Assessment Exercise, RAE2001, was more concerned by how the research content of practice is made explicit than in the RAE96, which seemed less analytic of outcomes. The issue of how new knowledge may be embodied in or represented by art and design objects (by which I mean objects-of-attention rather than exclusively material artefacts) remains an alternative way of giving account of practice outcomes as research outcomes. Gilbert Ryle’s distinction of ‘know how’ from the knowledge described as ‘know that’11does provide for works of art to be seen as evidence of the generation of knowledge, however, we still need to engage with the object itself and its meaning. Paul H Hirst’s idea of: ‘knowledge-of-the object’12 goes a long way to propose an account of knowledge appropriate to works of art and design, and such a distinction is necessary if we are to understand them as art or design and not as circumstantial evidence of something else. Recently, there has been increasing recognition that the characterisation of knowledge embodied in or represented by an object needs to be made explicit within a developing research culture,13 and more needs to be done.

Whilst much has been published on the epistemology of art, both from the perspective of education theory and philosophical aesthetics, and authoritative texts such as Wollheim’s14 are often embedded within taught courses, this material has yet to be fully drawn down to the developing art and design research paradigm. There is a need for an authoritative literature review to map this: we should be explicit about how knowledge may be generated and embodied within the practical dimension of artistic and design production. There is a need for more theory about practice coming out of what artists and designers actually do methodologically. We need to know how we think throughart. The requirements of the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB)15 that research proposals be specified in terms of humanities and social sciences style research questions, in ways that tend to exclude open-ended curiosity, is one indication of how research in our field is being distorted. We need to look further afield than the humanities for useful comparators, the natural sciences and their predisposal for experiment and blue skies research offering many useful points of reference. If the UK’s Engineering Sciences and Physics Research Council (ESPRC) can be comfortable with this open approach to research then so should the AHRB.

Art practitioners have been slow to recognise the need for art works to have to embody or represent new knowledge to count as research. Design might seem to be ahead of art in this respect, with the Le Clusaz Conference of 2000 and the DRS discussion list16 having clarified many of the necessary distinctions. The need for such a forum in fine art is immense. This distinction between research-based and market-based practice takes us right to the centre of the longstanding problem of how value judgements are made in the production and evaluation of works of art and design. An enquiry-based perspective on creative practice will have much to contribute to our larger understanding of art and design; a new paradigm for research in our subject is necessary.

Relationships of Research and Practice

Over the last decade there has been a much argued differentiation of research and practice in which the latter is taken to imply either the conduct of a professional service in the manner of a medical or legal practitioner, or the character of art and design as being intrinsically practical as distinct from being scholarly.

Just as research implies the generation of knowledge, practice in the former sense implies the application of knowledge, a distinction that should hold true across disciplines be they artistic or scientific. Here the distinction is clear and meaningful and the idea of the professional designer as practitioner as distinct from researcher is well founded, indeed it is supported by the establishment of professional bodies such as the Chartered Society of Designers in the UK in a way that begins to be comparable to the medical and legal professional bodies. That fine art be considered professional in this way is less straightforward.

In fine art the latter meaning of practice serves to both confuse and enrich the issue. Here the idea of practice is widely seen to be innovative and seldom routine, an idea supported by Schön when he deliberately inter-relates and conflates ideas of practice and research in dealing with ‘knowledge in action’. Here practice can be seen to fulfil many of the criteria of research and it is in this respect that an important distinction between fine art and design emerges.

The term practice has been adopted, however, by many visual artists since the 1980s in a way that mimics the professionalism just considered, but without adopting its standards or norms. When a fine artist talks of professional practice the standards of the professions such as medicine and law do not apply in any direct sense. This professionalistic creativity seeks to adopt the respectability but not the operational reality of professional conduct. This phenomenon has an historical basis in which fine art’s purportedly radical paradigm of avant-garde bohemianism often meets and sometimes elides with that of bourgeois aestheticism and its patronage. This would seem to be a class specific phenomenon that might be better understood were a sociology of artists, artists’ audiences and artistic patronage to be developed – an argument best developed elsewhere than here.

Research and Art and Design Research

In considering the problematics of research development it is worth considering the early days of physics or medical research when the idea of scientific method was worked out over a long period of time, borrowing and transforming ideas drawn from the world of letters and when minimal research ethics were sufficiently elastic to allow systematic grave robbing. Even now scientific method is not unproblematic.17

Such a comparison validates the apparent shortcomings of art and design research as being reflective of the current state of development of the field rather than as being intrinsic to weaknesses in the subject. In this early stage of development we need to clarify what is not yet known but necessary to the further development of art and design research. Such an agenda for development, in my view, could usefully include the following: a full literature review; a review of examples of enquiry through artistic endeavour in modern history; a sociology of artists; a theoretical basis for intuition; an advanced theorisation of how knowledge may be embodied in or represented by a work of art; an aesthetics of artistic method as distinct from one of artistic style; a comparative methodology of artistic production across cultures; and an international consensus in the definitions and boundaries of those subjects loosely bunched as art and design, so that debate of specialism and interdisciplinarity might be better facilitated. Such an agenda for thinking through art and design (as distinct from thinking about art and design) is more an indicator of the relevant state of development of art and design research than of any unsuitability of the subject as a field of research.

The Fields of Enquiry of Art and Design Research

Once it is accepted that art and design are capable of generating new knowledge or new contributions to understanding then the question arises as to the subject of which kind of knowledge is generated. The answers differ for art and for design and these differences may prove significant in clearing much of the confusion in the theorisation of creative work in a field which is not unified.

Crucial to an epistemology of art is the way or ways in which art, like literature, theatre, cinema and philosophy, expand and extend our understanding of ourselves and the ways in which we know of ourselves. It could reasonably be argued that the subject of art research is human consciousness, or ‘reality’ as expressed by W B Yeats in the frontispiece to this chapter. Happening upon the emerging university discipline of consciousness studies, David Lodgeargues that: ‘The idea of human nature enshrined in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition,’ and: ‘the Enlightenment idea of man’ are being challenged by the appropriation of enquiry into consciousness by newly emerging scientific subjects.18 Rather, he suggests, the highest level of understanding of consciousness that we have to date comes not from this emerging scientific discipline, described by the editors of The Journal of Consciousness Studiesas being at: ‘a chaotic, pre-paradigm state – somewhat akin to nuclear physics at the beginning of this century,’ but from literature. 19 By extension this can be said to apply also to the other arts. The: ‘richest record we have of human consciousness,’ Lodge argues, is in literature. He supports his claim through reference to the writing of Dickens, James and the Amises as well as to Kierkegaard. The claim could be extended for art through numerous examples in the modern period, Monet, Seurat and Signac, for example, having researched perception in ways that extend far beyond the physics and psychology of perception but which, nevertheless, depend upon them. Lodge argues for the complementarity of consciousness research through literature and the sciences, and Proust’s enquiry into memory in Research Into Lost Time can be seen as distinct from scientific understanding of remembering, yet dependent on the idea of memory as a subject of enquiry drawn from the sciences. Similarly, James Joyce’s concept of stream of consciousness in Ulysses gives us a deep and unique understanding of the mind whilst based on William James’ engagement with consciousness.20 Artistic knowledge and scientific knowledge emerge as necessarily intertwined. It may be that neither has the better claim to providing an intellectual base to consciousness as a discipline, the cause being lodged with neither but with the distinction of art and science as a limited methodological distinction of enquiry. 21

Design may be seen as diverging from art in its epistemological basis. If art research is associated with the exploration and understanding of consciousness, then design may be seen as active in a different way, associated with knowledge of and through use, and with the understanding of utilitarianism. Both art and design research can be seen to have a procedural dimension that lends itself well to formal enquiry once the Romantic paradigm of inspired action is sidestepped, but they are contextualised in different ways. This differentiation of art and design may prove helpful to their mutual support and engagement as distinct disciplines with a shared interest in aesthetic knowledge and the principles of making and doing. In this way art and design might emerge as a unified and enriched subject field rather than the homogeneity of historical circumstances.

The Place of The Doctorate In Higher Education

The problem posed by the doctorate is not that it is a doctorate, but that it is relatively new to our subject. Across university education, the doctorate is the key to understanding research-based education at both postgraduate and undergraduate levels as it distils many of its issues. This may not yet be obvious in art and design, for largely historical reasons.

Historically, the doctorate is probably the oldest degree to be awarded in European higher education, having been a licence to practice law or medicine since the thirteenth century, and in many of the ancient universities it has long been a licence to teach. The PhD developed in Germany in the nineteenth century as a research training, and it is now regarded as a pre-requisite to teaching in most Higher Education subjects world-wide. The training of teachers of undergraduate and postgraduate courses through the research methods of the PhD, with the expectation that they will then teach a simplified form of those methods, means that taught courses are imbued with an essential research flavour.

The research basis of taught courses in art and design is less easy to identify since the history of art and design research is virtually the inverse of that of the subjects conventionally identified with the ancient universities. Art schools in the UK largely (but not exclusively) grew out of the industrial revolution to meet the craft, design and drawing needs of the emerging industries in the nineteenth century. The initial development of art schools in the USA (as distinct from liberal arts colleges) and several European countries was not dissimilar. Ours was initially a vocational education; a craft, and many of the objections to art and design doctorates are informed and limited by that craft perspective on the subject. Initial training in art and design was given degree-equivalent status in the UK only in the 1960s, this having been a turning point as it locked art and design in the UK and the USA into university education in a way not taken up throughout Europe. I think there is no turning back. The British BA (Hons) and the American BFA in studio art and design date only from the 1970s, and postgraduate courses did not proliferate in the UK beyond the London Three Schools and a smattering of provincial centres until the mid 1980s at which time the first PhDs began to emerge at the CNAA’s behest. In the USA doctorates in studio art were developed at the University of Ohio and at NYU much earlier but were subsequently abandoned after the MFA was determined by the College Art Association of America (CAA) to be the terminal degree, equivalent to other terminal degrees such as the PhD in 1977.22 The validity of this position is now under question given the emerging generation of studio-based doctorates in a number of US art schools in response to developments elsewhere in the English speaking world. These are clearly of a different order of academic award from the MFA. Curiously, from a European point of view the American debate has been largely based on the principle of credentialising art teachers in higher education rather than those of research development and it will be interesting to see whether a credible academic debate can be sustained on that premise.23 A further American initiative, Re-Envisioning the PhD, unfortunately bypassed this debate and the opportunities that exist within it, but established national norms comparable to those of Europe.24 The first cohort of ten studio-based PhD students enrolled at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in autumn 2003, with a strongly national orientation it its research methods training which takes aesthetics and archaeology as its key components. Norway too is advancing cautiously, with the state funding a pilot scheme of two doctoral students in each of the three third level art schools, at Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, for three years. The first UK PhDs to be examined without a substantial written thesis emerged only in the late 1990s and a DFA that is substantially different in more than name from the PhD has only recently materialised in the UK at Goldsmiths College, London, although the DFA and the DLA has developed in Australasia and in some European countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic. In several European countries, such as France, art and design education remains outside the university system with a different provenance, different expectations and different possibilities.

The French model is possible in the English speaking world given art and design’s integration in university education and there is no turning back towards a craft-led education; it is only once the doctorate is commonplace and doctors abundant in art and design schools that the development of higher education research culture within art and design education will become mature.

The Practice-Based PhD

This section of the chapter deals with issues that seem insufficiently known by many within our subject community. Until there is truly widespread common understanding, however, the PhD in art and design will remain misunderstood, and so it seems appropriate to recapitulate these points.

The PhD provides a training in research methods and methodology that is achieved through a programme of enquiry, a project, that leads to new knowledge or understanding. That is to say, the learning of how to do research is as indispensable to a PhD as the new knowledge that is generated by means of it. More specifically, I would describe the project as a self-reflective supervised programme of enquiry leading to new knowledge. Every PhD has at least the same standard four elements or ingredients: a research question or topic; a programme of study enquiring into that question or topic; supervisory arrangements whereby the student’s research is undertaken under the supervision of a senior researcher; and the examination of the conclusions of the programme of research. Conventionally a PhD concludes with a thesis or argument which if persuasive is agreed to represent new knowledge, whatever form it may take. For art and design a particular issue arises here, for whilst it may be possible to explain how an object embodies new knowledge of the knowledge-of kind, it is less clear how an object can be said in itself to embody a thesis or argument. It may be appropriate to consider the objects that constitute the conclusions of the project as equivalent to or in lieu of a thesis rather than as a thesis in themselves. Alternatively, it might be possible to argue that an object, particularly in fine art does have such an active capacity, but such a case has yet to be argued and won.

It is worth considering in some detail the issues emerging for art and design from each of those four elements. Firstly, what is meant by a research question? A research question may enquire into a problem to be solved; a creative opportunity to be explored or exploited; or an issue to be examined, whether any of these be technical, procedural, philosophical, theoretical, or historical. Whichever of these a research question may be it must also take the form of a query such as: what; what if; how; when; why; why not; for whom; by whom; or any other form of question. How the question may be framed is the real challenge for art and design since there has historically been in taught courses a conservative separation of theory and practice, and where the idea of intrinsically intelligent practice, or praxis, is still relatively new, even if the idea of praxis goes a long way back to Gramsci.25 The need for clarity in the early definition of the PhD student’s registration of a project becomes subsequently apparent at the time of examination when, for that process to be fair and equitable, that benchmark for the measure of success is required. This should not be difficult in a subject in which most undergraduate and postgraduate learning and teaching is project based, and research degrees could well learn from and refine the idea of working to a self-set brief that is already common in taught courses.

It is also worth considering critically what is meant by a PhD programme of research. Here too there is a fairly standard set of ingredients.


A review, sometimes called a literature review, is a scoping of the knowledge current within the field of enquiry undertaken to confirm that the research has not already been undertaken and the PhD therefore unnecessary. This is particularly problematic in art and design, notably in fine art where it is simply not possible to determine all that has been done, because not all creative practice of this kind has been externally referenced let alone refereed. We need to develop a consensus of the kind of review that is most appropriate to our subject.


Research methods, which are ways of doing something, and research methodology which is the study of methods, both being equally necessary to the research student. Often the two are conflated as if a methodology was a super-luxury method. This is especially problematic in our subjects since, whilst there is a great deal of literature on quantitative and qualitative research methods in the humanities and sciences, there is little consensus in art and design and other creative and performing arts. In my view this is one of the most fertile areas for development in art and design research. If we are able to devise explicit ways of describing and analysing how artists, designers, dramatists, choreographers and performers generate new knowledge from both primary and secondary sources, then we may have developed a new research-based theorisation of, not only artistic production, but also intuition. In this way there is the possibility of constructing the much needed new paradigm for art; a new aesthetics of method.


The Enquiry is the core of a research programme. Many artists will have problems with characterising what they do as enquiry rather than expression, or social intervention, and whether it is in any way programmatic. However, if our subject is to have a place at the higher levels of higher education then it would seem a necessary pursuit to identify in what ways art and design do generate knowledge through enquiry. This issue is an extension of what I have just said about methods and methodology, but on a larger scale, what Schön calls ‘an epistemology of practice’. It seems to me that the challenge is to make explicit that which is unique to art and design. We need to be more explicit about what is meant by an enquiring mind in our subject at university level, and this need is in itself an indictment of the subject’s conservatives who argue for a tacit knowledge of theory amongst artists – seemingly an argument for the unintelligence of art.


Recording the process is also a standard element of the PhD and the log book or journal is a conventional means in research yet not one immediately obvious in art and design. The term journal in its eighteenth century literary sense was a day-book, or diary – a literary convention. If we return to that age of letters then the sketchbook, as a means of recording a journey such as the grand tour, may provide away of getting to grips with this idea. The purpose of the record in a PhD is to facilitate a dialogue between researcher and supervisor and a point of reference in reviewing progress and reflecting on further development of it. It enables the meta-enquiry, the way in which the process of research becomes a means of learning about research. The challenge here is to make academic rigour explicit within our subjects in ways that have not always been the case.


The conclusion of a PhD presented in appropriate form is crucial to the examination regime. Conventionally an argument or case is described as a thesis, but that the term thesis can also mean a large number of words typed double spaced can confuse the issue. There are many precedents for the submission of practical outcomes that embody or represent new knowledge or understanding for examination demonstrates. Whether practical material should be submitted for examination as a thesis, or in lieu of a thesis is a moot point, but it should embody or represent the new knowledge or understanding in whatever form. What has been achieved should be capable, however, of being described if not summarised in text that together with the documented outcomes is presented in some form that can be accessed by future researchers. Conventionally, such a supplementary text has been described as a summary, and it may be necessary to use that term rather broadly in the case of art and design.

Once the programme is complete it is subject to examination and the way in which the processes and outcomes are examined is reveals some key issues. Three elements of the PhD examination process may be apparent:

  – Value judgement
 – Fulfilment of previously specified criteria
 – Defence of a thesis

These three quite different forms of engagement might easily be confused. There has yet to develop sufficient custom and practice for there to be in art and design a consensus of how these elements inter-relate in a PhD examination. The connoisseurial value judgement would arguably seem out of place as in any criterion referenced educational process, yet a decision as to whether a PhD programme has attained doctoral level does need to be made, and through the opinion of experts in the field. The risk that such a judgement could revert to one of taste does exist and such a value judgement needs to be moderated by an examination for the fulfilment of the criteria specified in the initial registration of the programme of research, that is to say examination of the outcomes against the benchmark of the initial intention. The PhD student be required to defend his or her thesis: here the autonomy of what has been achieved by the student is tested for its robustness, and the judgements of value and criteria-fulfilment are set into the context of the project outcomes in their own terms. Thesis defence, therefore, puts the viva-voce examination into a crucial position in the examination process. A proper understanding of what is being examined in a PhD should resolve the perennial dilemma of the relation of material outcomes of artistic or design production to written material.

Early practice-based PhDs, in many universities and colleges gave students some dispensation in the word length of the written thesis that had to accompany the work. The second generation of practice-based PhDs, such as those initiated in the mid-1990’s at the Wimbledon School of Art, did not prescribe a word count as such and envisioned a sliding scale of portfolio and text, whilst retaining a requirement for the written element. This resolved the duplication of effort previously required (and still required by some universities), and it made the PhD feasible in the same sort of timescale and with the same sort of workload as that expected of PhDs across other disciplines. Nevertheless, some ambiguity of the purpose of the written element remained: is it examinable research content, or evidence of the research content for the use of future researchers, or both? The conflation of the two purposes tends to compromise the epistemological character of the new knowledge generated by a PhD project.

A third generation of practice-based PhDs emerged in 2000 at the Glasgow School of Art, based on the distinction of a number of different possible relationships between material outcomes and textual outcomes, and the different purposes that might be expected of the text. A distinction was also made between the material submitted for examination and the documentation of it for the purposes of future reference to the research content. In this third generation it was possible to say that the difference between an art and design PhD and any other PhD is not in the type of doctorate, but in the ways in which the research outcomes are presented for examination.

At Glasgow four categories of submission for examination have been identified in regulations. In providing for the different purposes that might be expected of material and text, the range of these categories was also thought to provide for likely differences in projects in fine art, the decorative arts, and design in a wide range of subjects including visual communication, product design and architecture. These categories suppose different relationships between text and material evidence and were subsequently taken up in modified form by another Scottish HEI to provide for music doctorates and may be more widely applicable. They are as follows: A written thesis which may take any of a number of forms including a theoretical exegesis, an historical analysis, or a report of a project, or whatever. That it is written does not mean that it cannot be practice-based since it may be an account of research conducted by means of practice; A dissertation and portfolio which supposes an equal weight given to the visual/material outcomes of practice and the discussion of the knowledge, suited to those instances where the knowledge is intelligible only when considered in the context of what is written, often text of a theoretical character. That there are two elements to the submission supposes that together they represent the new knowledge or understanding (and that they do not each do so separately since that would be a double PhD); A portfolio with commentary in which the new knowledge is presented largely in its own right but with a body of written information necessary to a full understanding of the portfolio, typically an account of procedural or contextual information; and A portfolio with documentation and a summary (all forms of submission requiring a summary) in which the new knowledge is presented in its own right but documented sufficiently clearly, including the use of text, for there to be a record of the research process and its outcomes for future reference.26

One learning point across these three approaches has been that the less text that is submitted the more rigorous the thesis defence A further point to emerge is the problem of supervision by subject experts of whom few are formally qualified to supervise. Many institutions adopt a team approach to supervision and while this does provide for the inclusion of non-qualified subject experts alongside qualified supervisors from other disciplines, it can imply the transfer into art and design of inappropriate methods from other disciplines in the name of academic responsibility.

In my view, it emerges that the PhD in art and design differs from PhDs in other subjects in terms of the way in which research topics may be defined and most crucially in the examination regime being adjusted for the inclusion of a portfolio or exhibition in lieu of a written thesis. In most other respects it is the same; a PhD is a PhD. What is needed is an examination regime that will allow for additional or alternative modes of examination. Indeed, if we were to depend on the face to face engagement of the candidate and the examiners as the primary form of examination, then the whole discussion of text versus object would take secondary place and thereby lose much of its controversy.

In this discussion of the four elements of a PhD, I have outlined some of the key developmental issues for the PhD in our subject. Further discussion relates to the position advocated by Colin Painter and lucidly argued by Andrew Harrison27 with reference to Kant’s theory that the knowledge at stake: ‘the medium of communication (of knowledge) must ultimately be works themselves, not descriptions of them or assertions about them.’ This would seem to represent a basis for considering works of art as the embodiment, representation or lodgement of the knowledge that art has to bear.

Towards a professional doctorate in fine art (DFA)

Whilst the PhD is conventionally thought of as a training in research methods in a subject, professional doctorates such as those in medicine and law are normally thought of as preparation for high level professional practice in that subject. Here, the distinction of research from practice is not simple since processes of enquiry are essential to the conduct of these high level professions, which continuously build knowledge. A professional doctorate in art and design that is commensurate with those of medicine and law has yet to emerge although some notional Doctorates of Fine Art (DFA) that differ from PhDs mainly in name are available in several Australasian universities. Such a degree might have the additional merit of articulating readily with the kind of education by enquiry through action that art and design schools have made their own; the key to such a doctorate being Schön’s argument for knowledge in action as the basis of research.

This thinking informed the PhD in Studio Art (simply a doctorate in the subject of art rather than a different kind of “practice-based” doctorate) at the Burren College of Art.  In conjunction with its accrediting agency, the National University of Ireland, Galway, BCA offers an integrated MFA/PhD programme in which a student may register for an MFA with the possibility of progression to a PhD. Within this proposed scheme, MFA and PhD students will share a common first year in which introduction to the methods and methodology of studio art figure strongly. At the end of the first year students will either continue for one year’s additional study towards an MFA as currently understood, or they may continue to two additional years’ study towards a PhD. The difference between the two is that the MFA represents coherent professional competence as an artist, while the PhD represents the capacity to go beyond professionalism into the innovatory generation of new knowledge of art and human consciousness or new contributions to understanding in or of this field, as normally associated with a doctorate. The difference between the MFA and PhD is one of academic level, the PhD in Studio Art being comparable in level to doctorates in other subjects, and distinctly a research degree. Such a development represents a step change beyond the Wimbledon and Glasgow models of PhD to a doctorate truly based on the idea of thinking through art as distinct from thinking about art.

It is my view, that the PhD in Studio Art, or the DFA, represents the confluence of the thinking of the European doctoral systems with the financial realities represented in American education.

Conclusion: Doctorates and the Search for Reality

If, as a subject community, we are able to establish a shared understanding of how knowledge is generated through enquiry and communicated in or by works of art or design, then we should have grounds for confidence in our developing research culture since it is in the forms of knowledge that our subject differs from other subjects. In fact we have a great deal of knowledge about the knowledge basis of art and design, but much of our knowing about knowledge is operational and anecdotal and under-theorised. This makes many of us apologetic for not being able to define the knowledge simply; this lack of confidence is unnecessary in my view. That the RAE2001 failed to return any of the highest ratings (5*) for any UK art school or department at the height of the world-leading, art school generated, YBA phenomenon demonstrates an aptitude for systemic low esteem amongst those appointed as the assessors and arbiters of British art and design.

Given the theoretical, contextual and practical differences between the wide range of of specialisms in art and design and the wide range of perspectives that may be taken of them, it would seem unreasonable to suppose that any single epistemological position can be taken for art and design. Would it be reasonable to assume that knowledge associated with a designed artefact such as a kettle, a designed system such as a software package, a work of fine art such as a painting, or an architectural design such as a house should be thought to have the same character or basis? I think not; we need a pluralist approach to knowledge and one that allows for situation specific circumstances.

If, as well as a shared view of the communication of knowledge, we can also come to a common understanding of how artistic and design knowledge is formed, that is to say by what processes and with what methods, then our institutional self-confidence should increase, because in that way our subject would have something to contribute to other practice related research fields. We would then have several epistemologies of practice. We would however, be looking at a range of positions and not a single art or design method, although I think it reasonable to say that drawing is likely to figure strongly as a practice-based research method across the board. Because of its explicit engagement with methods and methodology the doctorate seems a most appropriate arena in which to develop such an understanding of what Gramsci calls the patterns of formation of knowledge in art and design. This is the arena for understanding art and design research.

If we are able to engage with the knowledge base of our subject pluralistically as I propose, our subject will finally have come of age with its own research paradigm, equal to but different from other university level subjects. We would also have a basis for practitioner-referenced standards that would be relevant to much of the university sector which is struggling to engage with the principle of learning through doing which is crucial to the idea of a knowledge economy. Would it not be crazy to take art and design in the other direction, to become more like science and technology, just at a time when science and technology are trying to become more like art and design with their valuing of value judgements, intuition, imagination and creativity, and their well established advances into understanding human consciousness and the intelligence of doing?

I conclude, therefore, with the suggestion that what our subject community most needs in developing its research culture is greater self-knowledge and self-confidence in its distinctiveness from other subjects; in its own enquiry based paradigm. If we do not establish our own pluralistic research-based paradigm for art and design we will not be able to resist the coercion to fit into the research paradigms of other subjects that are currently more explicit, whose ways of thinking have led the way in which research grants are conceptualised. This financial dimension may become irresistible, and as the AHRB develops as a research council it is to be hoped that it will accept its responsibilities for recognising and promoting the differences and diversity of practice-based research alongside other forms of research, and for taking a lead for a new paradigm where there is currently little leadership.

Knowledge in all university subjects is intrinsically problematic and contested in our post-modern world. We are no different to other subjects in this respect. That we do not have a unitary theoretical stance on knowledge and research in art and design should be seen as our strength not our weakness within a new pluralistic paradigm of art and design research. We should be re-assured, not frightened by the vigour and rigour of debates and knowledge contests, and the insecurities they generate. The PhD (and the DFA) in art and design provide unique opportunities to get to grips with these issues in building such a new paradigm. In providing a foundation for practice-referenced academic standards we would have created something for the benefit of university education as a whole. What we – as a subject community in art and design, and in cognate fields such as performance, architecture and maybe literature – can most gain here is the ability to give; for it is by our relevance to other disciplines and our generosity towards them that our own disciplines will become valued within university education, indispensable to it and valued by the world beyond.

Notes and References

Publishing History

Presented as Timothy Emlyn Jones (2002), “The PhD in Art & Design”, at ELIA Cómhar Conference Dublin, October 2002, Symposium 6: “‘Monstrous Thinking: on Practice-Based’ Research”

Timothy Emlyn Jones (2005), “The PhD in Art & Design”, in European Journal of Higher Arts Education Issue 1 ELIA, http://www.elia-artschools.org/Documents/european-journal-of-higher-arts-education-issue-1-2005?id=34

Jones, Timothy Emlyn (2005) “AMethod of Search For Reality: Research and Research Degrees in Art and Design”inElkins, James, Ed., (2005), Printed Project No 4: The New PhD in Studio Art. Sculptor’s Society of Ireland, 2005

Jones, Timothy Emlyn (2005), “Method of Search For Reality: Research and Research Degrees in Art and Design”, in Holdridge, Lin and Mcleod, Tracy, Eds., Thinking Through Art. Routledge.

Jones, Timothy Emlyn (2009), “Research Degrees in Art and Design” in Elkins, James, Ed., (2009) Artists With PhDs, New Academia Publishing.

This paper has also been presented at a joint conference of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Brussels and the Department of Philosophy and Letters, Université Libre de Bruxelles in 2003, and then as the basis of a presentation to the 2003 Symposium of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design at the Disney Hall in Los Angeles. With each iteration of the presentation and discussion the argument of the paper has developed and I am most grateful to a number of colleagues who have assisted me in this developmental process.

1. WB Yeats to Ezra Pound (15 July 1918) Yale, cited in Foster, R.F. (2003) W.B.Yeats: A Life: Arch Poet 1915-1939, OUP.

2. Comhar, the 7th ELIA conference, Dublin, Ireland, October 2002 took the theme Monstrous Thinking: on practice-based research, Macleod, K & Holdridge, L. (Co-organisers) as one of its ten conference symposia, reflecting a widespread view that this topic was in some way intrinsically controversial.

3. Thompson, Jon (1999) A Case of Double Jeopardy, in Payne, Antonia (Ed.). (2000) Research and the Artist: Considering the Role of the Art School, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford in an edition of 750. The paper was presented to an invited audience at the University of Oxford, 28th May 1999.

4. Biggs, Michael et al (2002) Practice-based Doctorates in design and the Creative and Performing Arts: a Symposium. In Durling, David, Friedman, Ken & Gutherson, Paul(Eds.) The ‘practice-based’ PhD, special issue of the Journal of Design Science and Technology (In preparation).

5. Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Ashgate, Arena.

6. ibid p.vii

7. van der Lem, Paul (2001) The development of the PhD for the visual arts. In Exchange 2000 Conference, Watershed Media Centre, Bristol, at www.media.uwe.ac.uk/exchange_online/exch2_article2.php3

8. Research Assessment Exercise Submissions may be seen on www.hero.ac.uk/rae

9. Painter, Colin (1991) Fine Art Practice, Research and Doctoral Awards: Part 1. In Proceedings of the National Research Conference Art and Design in Education, Brighton, England, Fribble Information Systems Inc Ltd with the National Society for Education in Art and Design. See also Cornock, Stroud (1991) Fine Art Practice, Research and Doctoral Awards: Part 2 ibid, written in partnership with Painter.

10. Frayling, Christopher (1991) Searching and Researching in Art and Design. In Proceedings of the National Research Conference Art and Design in Education Brighton, England, Fribble Information Systems Inc Ltd with the National Society for Education in Art and Design.

11. UK Council for Graduate Education (1997) Practice-Based Doctorates in The Creative and Performing Arts and Design. Prepared by a working group convened by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling. UK Council for Graduate Education.

12. Ryle, Gilbert (1949) TheConcept of Mind. Hutchinson 1984 edition, University of Chicago.

13. Hirst, Paul H. (1974) Knowledge and the Curriculum. Routledge Kegan Paul.

14. The Research Into Practice Conference 2002 and 2004, University of Hertfordshire consider epistemology and knowledge in art and design. See http://www.herts.ac.uk/artdes/simsim/rtos/. The 2003 AICAD Deans’ Meeting held in the Disney Hall, Los Angeles initiated this debate in the USA and it is to be developed further at the 2006 CAA Conference, Boston.

15. Wollheim, Richard (1968) Art and Its Objects. Harper and Row, New York.

16. The Arts and Humanities Research Board, www.ahrb.ac.uk

17. See Durling, David & Friedman, Ken (2000) Foundations for the Future, Doctoral Education in Design. Conference proceedings, La Clusaz, France. Staffordshire University Press, and the email discussion list of the Design Research Society led by Ken Friedman at www.jiscmail.ac.uk/archives/phd-design.html Also of interest in this respect is www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/RTI.html

18. see Medawar, Peter (1984) The Limits of Science. HarperCollins (and his

earlier The Art of The Soluble).

19. Lodge, David (2002) Consciousness and the Novel. Secker & Warburg.

20. Editorial (1997) The Future of Consciousness Studies. In (1997) Journal of

Consciousness Studies 4, No. 5-6, pp 385-8, see www.imprint.co.uk/jcs.html

21. James, William (1892) The Stream of Consciousness. In Psychology Cleveland & New York, World.

22. Medawar, Peter op. cit.

23.(1997) CAA Board of Directors. MFA Standards, revised 1991.

24. The recent American debate of the development of doctoral programmes in studio art has focussed largely on the effect such a doctorate might have on the status of the MFA as the terminal degree, and the effect of any such change on the terms of employment of art teachers. This debate was re-opened in 2003 by the Symposium of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design and in the CAA Professional Practices Committee debate, Nelson. Kristi (Chair) (2004) Credentializing in the Arts. In CAA Conference Seattle, University of Cincinnati, (not included in the published conference abstracts).

25. Re-envisioning the PhD, at


26. Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited and translated by Hoare, Q & Nowell-Smith,G. ( Hoare. Q. General Introduction) London and New York, Lawrence and Wishart.

27. Regulations for Awards at the Glasgow School of Art, in the (2001) Calendar of University of Glasgow and subsequent issues.

28. Harrison, Andrew (2002) Shared Judgements. In Research Into Practice Conference proceedings. University of Hertfordshire, on http://www.herts.ac.uk/artdes/simsim/rtos/


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