Last week I was catching up on some podcast listening while I worked on some fabric pieces in my living room (sewing is easier when you have a soft, well-lit place to park your backside). Episode 191 (4/26/09) of the Bad at Sports podcast featured an interview with art historian James Elkins about a growing international trend in art education: the PhD in Art.
During the discussion, Elkins pointed out many of the problems created by forging ahead with this new degree, such as lack of standard agreement on what should constitute the Art PhD or the regular old MFA; and the class-like split that might occur between MFAs (makers) and PhDs (thinkers). He also outlined the different approaches to this degree that he has encountered at various institutions. One sounds a lot like an MFA: intense studio time and critique that results in a body of work and a dissertation-length artist statement. The second approach is more philosophical or critical, asking degree candidates to focus their research in a discipline that may lie outside of art (anthropology, sociology, computer science, etc.), and to produce a dissertation in that field while also producing a body of studio work.
Elkins advocated for the second approach, at least in cases where an artist’s work necessitates expertise in an outside field (he mentioned Mary Kelly as an example). But the greater questions he seemed to be struggling with were these: what is the role of research in art? Can the production of visual art be considered research, that is, productive of new knowledge?
A lot of this questioning seemed to center around the key component of the PhD: the dissertation. And this got me to thinking about my own thesis (a mere 20 pages) and the role of language in the visual arts. I keep this blog because I want to exercise my writing skills and give the wordy part of my brain new thoughts to chew on, such as expressing connections like what I am doing now or trying to articulate my thoughts about an art show I have just seen.
However, when I am working in the studio I am not using that wordy part of my brain. Sometimes when I am working I realize later that I have been thinking with a different part of my brain, one that doesn’t put its thoughts into words in the same way that the part of my brain that worries about the laundry piling up or the unpaid bill on my desk does. This part of my brain thinks in pigments and marks, it tells me what to do next by showing me a picture of how things could be. These pictures are dark and fuzzy around the edges, so that I can only see a step or two ahead of myself at a time. I must rely on intuition to follow through on the ideas from this part of my brain, trusting myself to figure things out as I go along.
I have lately been thinking that we make art in order to express ideas that are outside language. We create sculptures or symphonies because we want to share thoughts that are hard to put into words, that come from this pigment/mark/intuition part of our brains. But does this count as research? Does relying on my intuition to put red next to gray create new knowledge? And how can a dissertation on DNA sequencing lead to a PhD in Art? Why not a PhD in Biology instead?