Does postgraduate study make for better art?

At the ACUADS conference a few weeks back, the final panel discussion tackled this question:

“What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art?”

There were some interesting responses from the panel which included Tony Bond, Rebecca Coates, Chris McAuliffe, and Kate Daw. But nobody seemed to answer the question in the very literal way I wanted it answered. So I threw a more specific and perhaps reductive question to the panel:

“Do artists who complete PhDs produce better art than they did before?”

(M’colleague Maria Miranda has gone on an interesting excursion with this question at her blog, over here.)

After much humming and harring, the panel produced no real consensus – but if anything, the answer did seem to be tending towards the negative: “No – PhDs in creative practice do not lead to discernably better artists, nor the production of better artworks”. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but really I was a bit shocked (I feel naive even writing that here). So, at the risk of cementing my position as a naive utopianist, here’s my opening gambit:

Surely one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of creative practice based PhDs should be that they result in better artworks. Surely? If not, then what’s the point?

One of the main the reasons many of us enrolled in these PhDs in the first place was the availability of scholarships, which afford the opportunity to spend more in-depth time working on creative projects, rather than toiling in the sort of distracting low-paid jobs that are typical for artists. Shouldn’t this in-depth time, in itself, pave the way to the production of better art?

OK. A counter-argument could be mounted – that the hyper-selfconsciousness inherent in doctoral study ‘pollutes’ the creative process, resulting in overthinking, over-intellectualising, reducing the wildness of the creative act – in effect destroying via analysis the very thing it was intended to enhance.

A related argument could be that the requirement to learn and communicate in an academic language leads to the privileging of some specific kinds of artworks: those which can be articulated in academic language. This, by necessity, excludes the crazy, inarticulable stuff – even if it’s great art – from being presented as part of doctoral ‘research’.

Of course, in some cases these arguments hold true. But I can’t see why they should necessarily be true.

One way of debating the “overthinking” case could be to say that if an artist has a strong creative practice in the first place (which should be a prerequisite for entry to a doctoral programme anyway), then bringing mindful critical awareness to bear on one’s own processes and outcomes is unlikely to “break” the practice. Perhaps it will cause a short-term wobble (like observing one’s breath while swinging a golf club). But that’s the joyful risk we take when we sign up to deepen our expertise in our own field of practice (and not just become ever more efficient producers of “quality artworks” for a pre-existing artworld).

This notion might lead to a more nuanced approach to answering my naive question of whether or not artists who work in postgraduate research environments are likely to produce better art than they did before.

I mean: chances are, if the postgraduate study process does what it should, those artists are not just producing better examples of the same kind of stuff. Instead, their artworks are expanding their remit to perform new functions. Such artworks might begin to contribute to debates beyond the artworld and its standard range of distribution systems (as many of the examples in the new book Material Inventions claim to do).

Or they might not even resemble artworks as such, but involve collaborations between creative practitioners and professionals from other fields of endeavour. In this latter case, the “art” component of this sort of work seems to dissolve, which arguably is a consummation of Allan Kaprow’s aspiration for the blurring of art and life. Such collaborations might walk on the knife edge of instrumentality / commercialism. This was exemplified by Ross Harley in his keynote speech at ACUADS, “The Role of Artists and Designers in Transdisciplinary Research”. Harley offered case studies from artists who produce quite “functionalist”, but nevertheless impressive visualisation technologies (eg, for documenting endangered cultural sites, and re-presenting them as immersive installations; or for allowing medical patients to see inside their own viscera in full 3D animated detail).

Other examples of this sort of stuff include the longitudinal engagement of artists within corporations and government agencies carried out by the Artist Placement Group (APG) in Britain in the 1970s; or the work of Ian Milliss and co. in working within the union movement in Australia during the 1970s and 80s.

In this model, we have moved quite far from the authored “work of art” as an object (no matter how experimental that object might be) and into the realm of the “work that art does” (in a Deweyan sense) in transforming experiences within the flow of life. To embrace this way of working is to relinquish the somewhat romantic attachment to the artist as author – and some might say to relinquish the idea that what one is doing is making “better artworks”. Because, how can you really compare the two categories? They’re both interesting, just different.

Anyway, where have I arrived with all of this? Here’s my executive summary / manifesto:

First: in an ideal world, an already good artist (which should be a requirement of enrolling in the PhD) should, under enthusiastic supervision, be so immersed in practice that a refreshed and mindful, critically aware version of their work arises from the ashes of crippling self-consciousness. Second: in many cases, the work of the curious might take the opportunity to transform itself into something completely different – something that might only be possible by working collaboratively within the context of “academic research”. The results might not be recognisable (yet) within standard artworld frameworks, but there are many frameworks beyond the artworld which are equally worth exploring.

2 thoughts on “Does postgraduate study make for better art?

  1. brogan

    I like the naive, direct question. It occurs to me, however, that the issue is not so much whether better art is produced than whether art itself is improved. You suggest the potential for the degree to produce more thoughtful forms of artistic practiced that explore relationships beyond the conventional art world. Art discovers another space of reflective awareness and expands its horizons, risking its own, narrowly conceived sense of self-identity.

    I take your point, but feel more ambivalent. The Creative PhD represents a new form of artistic patronage with its own particular set of affordances and restrictions. In order to gain access to the academic research system artists must be prepared to position their work as research. They must conceive their work as producing new knowledge. They must adhere to institutional requirements relating to the proper conduct of research – particularly in terms of the protocols relating to ethical research practice. The implications of this alignment with university research are complex. However useful it may be in terms of buying time for artists to think, work and explore new points of association, it also affects how artistic practice is conceived and undertaken. I’m sure it can be regarded positively and experimentally, but it can also appear awkward and distorting.

    What’s important in my view is to think about these implications rather than continue to brush them under the carpet in the political push to have artistic practice accepted as a credible form of research. The notions of both academic research and artistic practice, as well as the various alignments between the two, require close and constant interrogation.

  2. Pingback: lucazoid: does postgraduate study make for better art? | dance practice-as-research 2014

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