The Studio Art Doctorate In America

In the last few years the debate of studio art doctorates in the US has progressed by a step change, largely due to the interventions of AICAD, CAA, and NASAD.i When I first spoke in the US about doctorates in studio art at the 2003 AICAD Symposium, I encountered the widely held negative response, why do this thing for which there is no place and no demand?ii My response was to suggest that the introduction of studio art doctorates in many countries in Europe, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and China had brought fine art education to its coming of age, on a par with and different from other university level disciplines. Indeed, at that time the US was the only part of the English-speaking world not to have studio art doctorates. Against this, I was told that, as the acknowledged “terminal degree,” the MFA does for art everything that the PhD does for other disciplines in higher education. However, it was apparent that the status of the MFA as a terminal degree was already in doubt in many US universities, where it was well understood that the different academic levels of these two degrees sets them distinctively apart. Conventionally, a Masters represents new perceptions of the current state of knowledge in the subject while a Doctorate represents new knowledge or significant contributions to understanding in the subject: not the same thing at all.

The case against PhDs in studio art in America has rested more on the anxiety of academics worrying that they might need to go back to art school to regain their credentials as teachers than on any academic grounds. Indeed, this was the premise of the session “The MFA and the PhD: Torque in the Workplace”at the 2006 CAA Conference in Boston, where I was invited to act as discussant. (This short essay is based on my comments then.iii) When speaking on this topic in Boston—only three years after my Los Angeles talk [mentioned in the Introduction to this book]—I found a markedly different response. Some universities had already accredited PhDs in studio art and media and many more, including some of America’s most prestigious independent art schools were deeply engaged in their development. The question how? had become the operative one in place of the question why? Attitudes seemed to have changed big time in only three years, as has the availability of published literature on the subject.iv However, despite this obvious progress, the American debate of art doctorates still has one foot in the defensive realm of anxiety and the other in the imaginative realm of progress. As a European it is fascinating to see these two dimensions of American culture in tension with each other and I will be interested to see which prevails.

Rather than dwelling on any negative dimension of the culture of the art world, I would look for the American quality of an art doctorate—for it is on that front that education in American art schools and university art departments may be advanced. How the American doctorate might differ from and surpass its UK counterpart that is strongly influenced by the Research Assessment Exercise, a set formula used to inform state funding of research of a kind that does not apply in the US, is also of considerable interest. The following ten points are offered here as a form of constructive advice, based on twenty years of experience in developing art doctorates in the UK and Ireland, addressed to those contemplating the establishment of an art doctorate in a US art school or university. I hope these comments may assist those who are leading the development of the American art doctorate in their intrinsically worthwhile mission for the emancipation of art education in America.

1. Recognize that different contexts require different solutions to common problems. There is a distinctive American way of dealing with art research and research degrees in art; it may not be obvious yet, but the mission and the methods may differ from what is to be found in the rest of the English-speaking world where the studio art doctorate has now become commonplace.

2. Question the idea of a “terminal degree,” which is unknown outside the US. Employment should normally go to the candidate best qualified overall for a position, not just to the person with the certificate. I understand the idea of a terminal illness, but not a terminal degree. It is worth asking whether it contributes any vitality to the education world.

3. Look to how process has been a distinctive concept in twentieth-century American art and art education, drawing from Bauhaus precedents as distilled by a range of artists from Albert Albers at Black Mountain College to Pollock and beyond. The idea of art as a process of inquiry is the keystone of art research. Process supposes an aesthetics of method as against an aesthetics of style, a concept that has yet to be fully worked through, but one that places educational creativity at the center of aesthetic creativity in a way pioneered by Joseph Beuys. Look too to the place of John Dewey and Donald Schön in American educational heritage: their precedents for learning through activity are the foundations of the studio art doctorate. Art research, therefore, already has a strong provenance in US culture even if it is not yet widely celebrated.

4. Although describing what artists do as research might seem novel, it is interesting to see North American curators of contemporary art normalizing the language of research by describing artists as “inquiring,” “exploring,” and “investigating” in exhibition notes and catalogs. This discourse is widespread and it would be appropriate for the academy to respond to it.

5. Beware the hegemony of the humanities and the social sciences in formulating the best practice for fine art research. This has been one of the pitfalls of research development in the UK. I recommend looking to the natural sciences for comparisons; there, observation of natural phenomena and experimental strategies are normal methods. In the natural sciences inquiry into primary sources is a foundation of knowledge, as distinct from the reliance on secondary sources of the humanities and aspects of the social sciences. In the UK experience of art doctorates there has been much borrowing from the humanities and social sciences, especially when experienced doctoral supervisors have been taken from those disciplines to assist with the supervision of art doctorates, bringing with them paradigms and methods that distort the ways and means of art. Look too to what artists do methodologically, because there are parallels to be made with what natural scientists do when they are dissatisfied with research paradigms; it would be a shame to devalue art’s own standards at a time when they are being increasingly appreciated elsewhere.

6. Take the rationale of the CAA standards for the MFA as the basis for thinking through the relationship of text and artifact at the doctoral level. The standards insist on intellectual rigour without a formula about the writing of text, let alone a formula for a number of words (which is common practice in the UK). This enlightened North American view might be contrary to the formulaic rationale of the English, but it may be the more fruitful.

7. Beware what I consider to be the typically English fuzziness of the concept of “practice-based” research in art, as if it related to research into the practice of medicine, nursing and law; those are distinct fields of inquiry that have nothing to do with the practical dimension of art. “Practice-based” research is all about inquiry into policies, modes, procedures and ethics of professional conduct in formal settings, as distinct from the generation of knowledge and understanding through making and doing as represented by artefacts (in the broad sense widely known in art). In our debate we are talking about doctorates in studio art. I love the clarity of this American term, valid even when artists extend it beyond the four walls of a physical studio.

8. In looking to the UK for precedents, recognize that UK and Irish Masters programs do not normally align with the American MFA, except where there is a two year program such as at the Royal College of Art, the Glasgow School of Art, the Edinburgh College of Art, the University of Ulster at Belfast, or the Burren College of Art in Ireland (where I work). Normally the UK masters is a one year full-time MA, with the lower standards that implies. This means that the MA is a distinctly pre-doctoral program rather than one that can be integrated with the doctorate as may be the case with the MFA. I enlarge on this in the next point.

9. Don’t think of the Doctorate as something an artist does after and separately from the MFA. Many UK universities and colleges require doctoral applicants in art to have completed a Masters prior to a Doctorate, without normally requiring this in other subjects. Instead, you should nest the MFA and Doctorate together in a 1+2 combination just like the conventional PhD in non-art disciplines worldwide. Art is not so special that its Doctorate has to be so much more time consuming, difficult and therefore expensive than other Doctorates. An integrated Masters and Doctorate is the only way to make Doctorates affordable outside an elaborate funding system such as that enjoyed within the UK.

10. Look at the differences of the research doctorate—the PhD—and the professional doctorate—the DFA—before committing to a program. The PhD is honorific within the UK because of the imperative of assessable research activity within the Research Assessment Exercise. Vast sums of institutional funding depend on the RAE in a way unknown outside the UK. In the US, Australia and New Zealand, a studio Doctorate of Fine Art (DFA) that operates within and as an extension to the conventions of the taught MFA might be more appropriate and valuable than the PhD, and already DFAs can be found in Australia and New Zealand. In the US this alternative to the PhD would build on distinctively American strengths, and find a place for the making of art as it is widely understood—undistorted and undiluted—within the pantheon of learning at the doctoral level.

i [That is: Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, College Art Association, and National Association of Schools of Art and Design. The CAA is the principal US professional organization of art historians and artists; the NASAD is the accrediting body for art schools. – J.E.]

ii Symposium of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design 2003 at the Redcat Theater, the Disney Hall in Los Angeles. [This is the conference mentioned in the Introduction. —J.E.]

iii It is curious how so many artists in Europe and the US claim status as ‘professional’ artists whilst depending on their status as academicians for an income (while duplicitously omitting information about this educational practice in exhibition catalogues and the like for the sake of appearances).

iv The AICAD addressed this issue at a Symposium at the Redcat Theater, Disney Hall, Los Angeles in 2003 that was addressed by James Elkins, myself and others. CAA has addressed these issues in several recent annual conferences of which the most recent was the CAA 2006 Conference in Boston where the session “The MFA and the PHD: Torque in the Workplace” included four strong papers by Hilary Robinson, Graeme Sullivan, Susan Roth and Cameron Cartiere, and I was invited to summarize these as discussant in a paper to be published in the Art Journal. That conference session mapped out many of the key issues now are being discussed internationally and I commend the papers to the reader. The NASAD has also addressed the studio art doctorate, notably at its 2005 annual meeting in Philadelphia.