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posted by Linda Downs — Nov 16, 2011

Notes on the Panel “The Reluctant Doctorate: PhD Programs for Artists?”

Debates about PhD programs for artists should be welcomed, the artist and educator Ellen K. Levy declared, as a way of addressing several pressing professional considerations that artists face in academia. To help advance the discussion, she moderated a panel called “The Reluctant Doctorate: PhD Programs for Artists?” and hosted by the School of Visual Arts in New York. Held on November 3, 2011, “The Reluctant Doctorate” was not organized to debate the pros and cons of such programs, though the participants did bring up several of each. Instead, the event focused on how such programs can expand opportunities for artists, from the intellectual advantages of philosophical explorations of their own work (and that of others) to the practical concerns of academic status.

Levy, who is completing doctoral work on the art and neuroscience of attention at Z-Node in Zurich, Switzerland, in collaboration with the University of Plymouth in England, spoke first. She believes that the development of PhD programs in the visual arts is inevitable. She also noted the recent discussions at the CAA Annual Conference on the topic, such as an Education Committee session in New York earlier this year and an upcoming panel at the 2012 conference in Los Angeles, as evidence of increasing urgency to validate the academic credentials of the artist’s doctorate. Levy cited CAA’s MFA Standards, last revised in 2008, noting that the organization continues to endorse the MFA as the terminal degree for artists. As to whether the MFA should retain this status, she said that a change will likely be decided not by a vote but by the momentum that PhD programs in the United States for studio artists might gather in forming a critical mass. Other panelists concurred.

Levy clearly stated that an artist does not need a PhD to make art, nor is a PhD program appropriate for many artists. For some—and here she included herself—advanced study has offered numerous benefits. Because of their art, some practitioners have been able to develop special skills and gain access to expertise and to equipment that grants cannot cover. Another benefit is the validation of artists’ writings.

George Smith, founder and president of the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, based in Portland, Maine, described his program as a philosophy degree that does not challenge the MFA. Students carry out research and write dissertations on a broad spectrum of philosophical concerns that inform contemporary art.

Mary Anne Staniszewski, a cultural historian and associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, described the ten-year process of developing the PhD program in the Department of the Arts at her school, which provides artists with similarly broad academic resources enjoyed by students in other fields. She compared the development of the PhD in music, established in 1945, and how many other institutions now offer doctoral degrees in music composition and practice in addition to history and theory. Staniszewski also addressed the degree’s practical advantages to artists. She recalled a study carried out in 1972 in which 59 percent of artists with MFAs who wanted to apply for the position of dean, or for comparable jobs in higher administrative, were barred from doing so because they lacked a doctorate. She believes that the PhD will bring greater heft as artists move into important decision-making positions in the academy.

Ute Meta Bauer described her European academic history at the New Bauhaus (now the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago) and at the University of Vienna in Austria, where she taught before becoming an associate professor and head of the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Since academies in Europe perceive the arts and artists more positively, the need for PhD programs to help advance artists’ careers has not been pressing. Artists are free to take postgraduate courses, and the academy supports an interdisciplinary approach reaching into many fields as well as the practical application of artistic production. Another major difference between American and European institutions for artists is the price of education: European students pay little for their undergraduate degrees, but tuition increases dramatically for graduate school. The opposite, Bauer noted, can be true in the US. She views MFA coursework as leading to a PhD, with the curriculum for each being complementary, not necessarily in competition.

Tim Gilman-Sevcik characterized the PhD program at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where he is a doctoral candidate, as the most inexpensive and expansive program he could find. The goal of the PhD there, he explained, is to be a catalyst for creative work. The dissertation is a philosophical thesis that adds to the intellectual disorientation, risk, and eventual potency of an artist’s future work. At the same time, this research is a discourse based in text and situated in extensive research, as opposed to a studio practice.

After the presentation, Levy engaged the panelists in a Q&A, asking “What are the most valuable reasons for artists to pursue a PhD?” Smith responded by saying that a doctoral program provides a rigorous study of philosophy, sharpens the eye and mind, and eventually contributes to the visual dynamism of the arts in the US. Staniszewski underscored the value of artists collaborating with scholars in diverse fields and providing an alternative to the drive to create work for galleries and the market. Bauer countered with her own question, “Why not? Why wouldn’t artists want to pursue research and have the opportunity to expand their investigations in an academic setting?” Gilman-Sevcik agreed that programs for artists expand the limited opportunities currently available to artists: teaching in the academy, showing in galleries, or designing practical applications.

Levy posed two more questions to the panelists: “Does an artist perusing a PhD need the MFA? What will the PhD do to the status of the MFA?” Smith asserted that no MFA is required for the PhD at IDSVA, since his program offers a degree in philosophy. The other speakers, though, confirmed that the MFA is a precondition for all other PhD programs for artists.

The panelists dispelled the concern that artists generally have less ability to carry out research and write. While the speakers acknowledged that the MFA has fewer research and writing requirements than other master’s level graduate programs in the visual arts, they indicated that PhD programs provide just that opportunity, for artists to better develop these skills.

The last question from Levy was, “What utility is given to the institution with a PhD program for artists?” Staniszewski emphasized the value of the PhD to reposition the visual arts as a valuable intellectual endeavor. In the past few years, some groups have promoted the economic impact and service function of the arts to gain higher esteem by the public and governmental entities. She also claimed that the PhD in the visual arts will restore academic and public standing without placing art in service to the economy or commercial design. Bauer stressed the relatively small size of PhD programs in the US and abroad, in which the average number of admissions is one student at a time. The panelists generally agreed that the PhD program was not for everyone, but those who wish to enroll in one and are qualified to do so should be given the chance to pursue this degree. Institutions that offer PhDs are highly selective in admitting students and have an obligation to help to place them in positions once students complete the degree.

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