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.

No comments: