September 27, 2009


In typically focused and detailed analyses, the 2009 Stone Summer Theory Institute wrapped its final day of closed seminars with Jim Elkins leading us through both “The Concept of the MFA” and “The Concept of the PhD in Studio Art.” His introductory summation of existing Master of Fine Arts models (aptly and ironically referred to as a “terminal degree” in studio art) was that the same influences of the “First Year Program” were mutually historic sources for the MFA – the “Academy,” subjectivity, rudiments, 2D-3D, Bauhaus, etc. Evidential documents such as the 1977 College of Art Association definition of “Standards for the MFA” reinforce that fact with wording that “the profession demands from the recipient of the MFA a certifiable level of technical proficiency and the ability to make art.” The 2009 CAA document also refers to a “mastery of medium.”(1)

The ensuing discussions touched again on the issue of “skills.” Jonathan Dronsfield, Director of Postgraduate Studies in Fine Art at University of Reading (Great Britain), spoke to the necessity of “project-based curricula.” As the acquisition of skills is (obviously) not tied to the MFA as a way to “pass on” skills, Dronsfield insists that “skills” would be about what is best for bringing visual projects to fruition.

Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, offered his view that “skill is a language – the discipline embodies a type of thinking. Painting is not producing this or that – you are thinking in a very practical way. When you talk about ‘de-skilling’ it’s not to abolish it.”

The conversation moved on to issues of student-professor relationships. Marta Edling, Senior Research Fellow in Education, Culture and Media at Uppsala University (Sweden), recounted Howard Singerman’s observations(2) about how student-professor interactions involve an identification process and that they can be cruel, and also argued that they are “gendered.” Marta had shared a clip from You Tube where Getrud Sandqvist of the Malmo Art Academy discusses the policy of the school and was an example of the kind of argument Marta had in mind.

Jonathan pointed out that this situation is “patriarchal as such, that is regardless of whether the professor is a man or a woman.”

Marta: “Yes – and this situation can be negative.”

Stephan: “The second part of that is professors say ‘We have to mistreat the student so that he will react to us – first, the moment of admiration [of student for the professor], then the ‘hammering’ – to provoke the moment that student begins to fight.”

Jim: “This contradicts the ‘Academy model’ of a ‘master-student’ relationship.”

The oppositional definitions of “deskilling” are capable of obtaining at least two results. On the one hand, if an art student’s skills are perceived as problematic, i.e., “Academic” (with a capital “A”), then the responsible professors are charged with de-emphasizing that nature, to “abolish” the skill set associated with an older model to foster access of contemporary media and practices. On the other hand as Stephan expressed, “de-skilling” might be better approached with a view to understanding the potentialities of the “language” of visuality. That is, how students might be encouraged to use (or not use) skills such as drawing or painting to embody their individual “expressions” or “ideas” within the visual language. I believe this can be referenced to Stephan’s earlier comment that “technique constructs identity” and to which I suggest the addition of the word “helps” to clarify the position: technique helps construct the identity of an artist through its use, dis-use or abuse.(3)

In the latter part of the day, after five days of closed seminars, we were finally able to address the concept of PhDs in studio art. Jim’s topic introduction expressed his hope that we would particularly address the relationships of the dissertation and “research” to the artwork, and vice versa. Mention was made of Victor Burgin’s essay which was in the preparatory readings for SSTI, “Thoughts On ‘Research’ Degrees in Visual Arts Departments.” Burgin says there is already a history of research in art programs in agreement with acknowledged definitions of research as “scientific or scholarly investigation.”(4)

Jim wanted to know whether these words make a difference. Do we need to define what “research” is in studio-based PhD practice? There was general agreement among the faculty and fellows that PhD art programs have been re-defining research to make it independent of “the Sciences.”

Christopher Frayling views this as a “thorny” issue “where the thinking is, so to speak, embodied in the artifact, where the goal is not primarily communicable knowledge in the sense of verbal communication, but in the sense of visual or iconic or imagistic communication.”(5)

Perhaps then, as Jim suggests, PhDs in studio art might involve research within its embodiment of “New Knowledge.”(6) However, as he has previously written, “[...] for most studio artists, the operative words research and new knowledge are an awkward fit. These [new, proposed PhD] programs deserve better: they deserve a language that is at once full, capable, accurate, and not borrowed from other disciplines.”(7)

James Elkins, Professor of Theory and Criticism, Visual and Critical Studies, New Art Journalism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
Frances Whitehead, Professor, Department of Sculpture; founder of Knowledge Lab (KLab) at SAIC
Christopher Frayling, Former Rector of Royal College of Art, London
Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen, Rector of Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria
Roy Sorensen, Professor of Philosophy, Washington University, St. Louis.

Hilde Van Gelder, Associate Professor, Art History Department, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Ciarán Benson, School of Psychology, University College Dublin
Frank Vigneron, Associate Professor, Fine Arts Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Barbara Jaffee, Associate Professor of Art History; Faculty Associate, Center for Women’s Studies; Faculty Associate, Museum Studies; Northern Illinois University
Doug Harvey, professional artist, critic, curator, educator in Los Angeles
Miguel González Virgin, Chairman, Digital Art and New Media Business Program, Centro de Estudios de Diseño de Monterrey, Mexico
Daniel Palmer, Senior Lecturer, Department of Theory, Faculty of Art and Design, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Marta Edling, Senior Research Fellow in Education, Culture and Media at Uppsala University, Sweden
William Marotti, Department of History, UCLA
Jonathan Dronsfield, Director of Postgraduate Studies in Fine Art at University of Reading, Great Britain
Christopher Csikszentmihályi, Director, Computing Culture Group and Director, Center for Future Civic Media, MIT
Areti Adamopoulou, Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Plastic Arts and the Sciences of Art, University of Ioannina, Greece
Ann Sobiech Munson, Assistant Professor, Architecture/Art and Design and Director, Core Design Program, Iowa State University
P. Elaine Sharpe, PhD Candidate (ABD), Media Philosophy, European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland and Course Director at York University, Toronto
Saul Ostrow, Environmental Chair, Visual Arts and Technologies and Head of Painting, Cleveland Institute of Art

Elena Ubeda Fernandez, Fulbright/MICINN/FECYT Postdoctoral Research Scholar, SAIC
Keith Brown, Department of Art Education, SAIC
Mark Cameron Boyd, Professor of Art Theory, Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington, D.C.
Fernando Uhia, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Columbia

Andrew Blackley
Rebecca Gordon

Kristi McGuire
Linlin Chen

Howard and Donna Stone, Chicago.

Image: Harold Washington Library, Chicago; cell-phone photograph by MCB; © copyright 2009.

1. It was suggested that “these are effectively empty documents.” In response to a query of whether the CAA documents actually “have teeth” with accreditation boards such as NASAD, the apparent answer was no. “[The MFA] is a license to practice.”

2. See Singerman's “Toward a Theory of the MFA” in Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, Berkeley, 1999, 187-213.

3. It may prove helpful for further definitions of “de-skilling” if we include an analysis of the critical evaluation of conceptual artists of the 1960’s whose photographs were viewed as “de-skilled.” These artists use photography only to document work that was often time-based or situational and therefore not “embodied.” Thus, in critically evaluating these photographic documents after the fact, theorists suggest that the de-skilled “look” of those photos projected a lackadaisical approach and disdain for photographic “technique” that affected the reception of conceptual art.

4. Burgin, Victor. “Thoughts On ‘Research’ Degrees in Visual Arts Departments” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (James Elkins, ed.), Washington, DC, 2009, 72.

5. Frayling, Christopher. “Research in Art and Design,” Royal College of Art Research Papers Vol. 1, No. 1, 1993-94, London, 5.

6. See Frayling’s ideas on the “contributions to knowledge” issue and my speculation on what that might entail here.

7. Elkins, James. “On Beyond Research and New Knowledge” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, Washington, DC, 2009, 116.

September 23, 2009


On day two of the Stone Summer Theory Institute conference, Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen gave his presentation on art education in Europe and the “Bologna Accords.” The Bologna process is a endeavor to unify art education curricula in Europe, to gain consensus among all of the European countries on what comprises education in the visual arts.

In his detailed analysis, Stephan pointed out some of the major issues of the Bologna process. For instance, art degrees should be uniform throughout Europe. Currently there is little comparative relationships between colleges; French BA's are three years, other countries’ are four, etc.

Not surprisingly, some European art schools have resisted the process, saying art training should be individualized, without modules, or courses, or even rules. Just complete freedom – no theory – and no professors telling you what to do. The skeptics say: “We need to keep an open space – it is impossible to compare student A to student B!”

To establish a standard educational norm in Europe, qualifications of Bachelors degrees under the Bologna process have been focused on “artistic practice,” “judgment” and “social context.” Stephan then shared his ideas of what these qualifications should be and they are much different:

First, artists must learn to work alone but also in collaboration with a team. Second, they should learn how to work with the public, i.e., be able to change their personal standpoint to meet the public’s expectations. Third, artists must be trained to reflect upon and be able to evaluate both their own artwork as well as the works of others. Lastly, artists would learn how to be “inventive in a systemic way” through both practices and methods.

One of the resources that Stephan has drawn from is Thierry de Duve and his infamous “When Form Has Become Attitude – and Beyond.” De Duve’s scheme develops a “trilogy” that explicates the history of art education something this: First, the “Academic” model of teaching art concentrated on talent, métier (technique) and imitation. Later, the Bauhaus School’s initiative decides art education is about creativity, medium and invention. The implication that these oppositional strategies merely reject the other’s contentions is both chronologically and ideologically clear.

I have a particular fondness for this Duve essay as I have taught it in my advanced theory classes for a few years now. I began introducing it to Corcoran College of Art + Design undergraduates as a way to begin a dialogue about their perceptions and thoughts on “how” they were being taught art. But the best part of the essay as pedagogical tool for me was its revelation that the final methodology of the “triology” Duve proposed, heavily influenced by continental theory of the 1970’s, would also function surreptitiously as a way to introduce some of the ideas associated with postmodernism; those three categories Duve used as evidence of the new plot in art education, i.e., attitude, practice and deconstruction.

To paraphrase Stephan’s remarks from my notes from today: practice denotes an abstraction from the object, from “form” and is a result of dematerialization. Instead of creativity, Duve’s “attitude” is a product of social conditions. It re-thinks the role of the artist.

In the discussion that followed, Jim Elkins expressed his feeling that Duve’s “third” module's categories were polemic, that Duve has admitted this, and that the use of these “magic words” like “creativity” are in need of more explanation. Christopher Frayling supports the inherent possibilities of an “attitude” that can be analytical or a sociological concept. His preferred categories: “Normative, critical and expressive.”

As Stephan concluded, “We [artists] are trained to research ourselves.”

Image: Renzo Piano's Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

September 20, 2009

Stone Summer Theory Institute: 1

Later today, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor James Elkins will give a lecture on “What Do Artists Know?” and launch a week of discourse concerning the imminent (some say over-due) arrival of “studio-based” doctorates in the United States. Prof. Elkins’ talk is first on the agenda for the 2009 Stone Summer Theory Institute conference; seven days of seminars, lectures and round-tables, featuring Sir Christopher Frayling, expert on PhD research and author of a frequently cited essay on “research into, through and for art and design,” and Roy Sorensen, professor of philosophy at Washington University.(1)

I am here because I occasionally reference Prof. Elkins’ scholarship in my essays and admire his critical writing. I discovered SSTI last year; the 2008 conference topic was “What is an Image?” and featured a diverse selection of seminars and readings. When I learned that this year’s conference topic was going to be “What Do Artists Know?” I decided that I must attend.(2)

Ostensibly, the conference will busy itself with debate over the necessity of such advanced degrees in studio arts. The MFA has long been the terminal degree for practicing artists – those who make art – in the United States. Doctorates are traditionally given here for art history and though there are some art schools and universities where PhD’s in studio art are possible (Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond and UC San Diego, for example) studio-based doctorates are rare stateside. Not so in Great Britain, where PhD’s in studio art have been around since 1976.(3)

To begin a conference on the efficacy of PhD’s in studio art with a lecture on “what we know” is an interesting tack. Granted, we want to educate artists thoroughly in both practice and theory yet it seems as if graduate-level programs in studio art suffer from a paucity of actual research. The possibility of extensive and continued research in one’s field (studio-based practice) would hopefully provide the doctoral-candidate with the ability to use that research to expand our knowledge about art (studio-based theory).

Assuming the SSTI conference attendees and faculty can agree on what “knowledge” is then we may move on to how to structure proposed studio-based doctorate programs. However, I expect that the entrenched animosity towards the perceived threat of studio PhD’s will surface quickly, if not today then probably at tomorrow’s roundtable.

The idea of a PhD in studio art is threatening to some art educators. Various reasons have been cited: it’s an unnecessary “waste of time” for artists to extend their study; art students “can barely write a short Masters thesis” let alone a “50,000 word dissertation” and artists don’t do “research like scientists.”(4) But Prof. Elkins feels that we better get ready for it because “it is best to try to understand something that is coming.”(5)

One viewpoint that caught my eye already in the readings was a point Sir Christopher made that the results of one’s doctoral research should “make a recognisable (sic) and communicable contribution to knowledge and understanding in the field of study concerned.”(6)

It occurs to me that this has the undeniable potential to invigorate debate over studio-based doctorates in a number of ways. If we allow that studio-based doctoral candidates might actually extend the knowledge about art then there is a real possibility the practice of art might be lifted from its current marginalized social position. Artists with PhD’s would be perceived as leaders in their field, inaugurating new ground in visuality and discovering “new piece(s) of information.”(7)

Studio-based research would have both practical and theoretical components and it would actually have a measurable and quantifiable goal of making contributions in art that would be unique. This would make advocacy of studio-based doctorates essential, not just for what it is that we “know” but for what it is that we “do.”

Image: School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


1. Prof. Elkins has provided the SSTI participants with extensive readings in preparation for this week’s conference - 900 pages worth. I will be quoting from various selections from those readings during my week in Chicago but am not able to share the SSTI links with readers of this blog. Prof. Elkins has said “do not disseminate this list: most of this material is copyrighted, and is available here only for the private use of the Seminar.”

2. I applied for and received a faculty development grant from Corcoran College of Art + Design where I have taught art theory since 2004. With their generosity and support, I am attending this year’s SSTI.

3. See Judith Mottram’s essay “Researching Research in Art and Design” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (James Elkins, ed.), Washington, DC, 2009, 3-30.

4. Elkins, James. Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, Washington, DC, 2009, viii.

5. Ibid., ix.

6. Frayling, Christopher. “Research in and through the arts: what’s the problem?” (Conference at Guildhall School, London), SSTI documents, 2009, 13.

7. Op. cit.

September 10, 2009

Critical Fragments: Autonomy

“Instead of assuming responsibility for culture in concert with the producers of culture, the state and its political functionaries, citing a strained culture budget, have delegated that responsibility to an antiquated patronage system (which, to make things worse, is often confused with sponsoring). Offensive or aggressive art-sponsoring campaigns, which bring tax benefits, offer a cost-effective means of exploiting artistic production to which many institutions and artists now find themselves compelled to resort. […] My concern relates rather to the fact that we need to identify the circumstances that surround this situation and to make the complex relationships involved transparent to students engaged in art studies, in order to encourage reflection about the circumstances in which we operate under the influence of such developments.”(1)

Artistic autonomy, hard-won since the nineteenth century, has undergone continual erosion in recent years. With the advent of these art-sponsorships, museums have partnered, at times covertly, with international conglomerates to mount large-scale exhibitions. The idealism of the Modernist era - artists free to succumb to their “inward gaze,” to take “ownership” of their work, to make art for themselves, not Church or State – has disintegrated rapidly as artists of the postmodern era have formed uneasy alliances with the capitalist enterprise.

This enterprise itself is an ironic confluence of disparate power structures, all operating under the vague mission of cultural “production” and “education.” Bourdieu’s take on this is well-documented as evidence that culture is “not a democratizing force, and individual artistic expression is condemned to play a part in the field of artistic production in terms of buyers, sellers and critics.”(2)

Thus, autonomy becomes another critical element for practicing artists to re-consider. In essence, we do have permission and freedom to explore whatever we want, to engage in a wide and ever-expanding range of practices made even more accessible with our “pluralistic” fascination.

The nature of autonomy in the arts suggests that artists have such freedoms. Yet as art is wholly enmeshed within the “art world” and art-making involves “product,” it is easy to see that we can never be free of the art world’s context, i.e., buying, selling, sponsoring artworks.(3)

Perhaps a pedestrian alternative, one that smacks of that dreaded project called Socialism, can be one possibility for re-gaining true autonomy within the realm of art practice. As artists generally and almost universally make objects, why not create a league or union of art-workers that trade objects for services? Many within the art community hold second jobs; often highly-skilled and professional jobs that provide specific services in dentistry, construction or software design. These artist-service providers could trade their skills for artworks. Art collectors could also be invited to join this league as collector-barterers, offering their skills and services in exchange for works of art. As this network of artist-barterers is paired with equivalent collector-barterers then artworks might be traded for services needed.

This admittedly would not free us entirely from the “commodity” world of the art market, but it may prove to be a fruitful way for artists to “make a living” without having to “match” their work to a commercial gallery. Freeing one’s production from the necessity for establishing its “exchange value” may be the only way to regain true autonomy.


1. Bauer, Ute Meta. “Education, Information, Entertainment,” Current Approaches on Higher Artistic Education, Vienna, 2001, 34-35.

2. Grenfell, Michael; and Hardy, Cheryl. Art Rules: Pierre Bourdieu and the Visual Arts, Oxford, 2007, 177.

3. Ibid.

September 5, 2009

Derivation & Originality

Administrator's note: Earlier this week a young artist sent me some images of recent work and asked if I would critique them. My reply was not brief as I spent some time viewing the images and considering my thoughts about them. I share it here because it does provoke an interesting possibility for further discussion about those old puzzles of "originality" and "derivative work."

Without revealing too much about the artist or the nature of the work, I can safely tell you that the artwork critiqued is text-based. More to the point, text is both "subject matter" and/or "content." Still, to be discrete I have substituted certain words within brackets (like [words]) and eliminated two short phrases by inserting [...] to maintain complete anonymity. Even without knowing who the artist is or specifics about the art I believe readers can access the gist of my argument. Indeed, by removing these critical thoughts and questions from the exacting particulars of a specific critique, to place them in an abstracted context, we might delve into a deeper inquiry of what it means to be "original."

"Interesting work! I'm honored that you are showing it to me and seek my critique. [...] In any case, I'm happy to share some thoughts. I believe I know you well enough to feel you can take frank criticism - so here it is:

First, I hesitate to tell you this but you should go here: [URL link to well-known artist's web-site.]

I realize there are differences between your work and [the artist, who works similarly] but one must be aware of what's occurred before, particularly with specific actions that [use similar materials]. Why? Because actions that appear similar to other artists' work 'in the canon' may either be mistakenly critiqued along similar lines or worse are termed as 'derivative.'

My text work has been judged as derivative by one DC gallery director and although I know he was off the mark it lead me to realize that we're subject to superficial perceptions by those who 'know too much.' Which is perhaps where my own view of your actions with text comes from: I might know too much, have seen too much, or otherwise project my own subjective associations on your work with 'what has come before.'

That said, I have some questions for you. I'm curious as to how you came to the decision to create [work like this]. What are your intentions? Is this, again, 'play' with the abstraction of [...] language? What are the relationships with the [foreign] language that are revealed in these actions? The placement of your [text] in the one installation seemed arbitrary to me: Was there an attempt to block one's access to the space? If so, why? What other methods could generate the same action(s)?

Finally, I think that works you placed out-of-doors will be unfortunately overlooked. Their fragility in the 'big, wide world' makes them seem somewhat trivial; passersby will miss them. Also, the [works arranged like bouquets] become 'precious' objects and I think it lessens their impact.

I'll be going to Chicago for a conference on PhD programs in art practice later this month and will miss various [...] functions. But let me know your thoughts. I hope to see you later this Fall.

All the best,