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.

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