Open Enrollment

Do artists need PhDs?

Open Enrollment

I suspect most people today would agree that making art involves more than technical skill. By the seventeenth century, the intellectual and philosophical side of artistic expression had already been institutionalized in “academies,” which broke from the guild system of instruction. Even the word “academy” asserted that art was a serious mental pursuit that deserved schools like those of any other humanistic discipline.

Unlike other disciplines in the humanities, however, visual art has carried on without doctoral degrees, at least until recently. When George Smith founded the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) in 2007, the program had few peers. While the number of PhD programs in art has grown significantly since then, IDSVA remains unique for its emphasis on theory and philosophy. Notably, the program does not include any studio work. Instead, reading, writing, and on-site discussions in the world of art form the basis of the low-residency school, which convenes for intensive sessions in Europe and the United States. I recently met with Smith at his home in Portland, Maine to talk about IDSVA and the basic question of whether artists need PhDs.

George Smith

George Smith at his home in Portland, ME. Background photograph by Jocelyn Lee.

Oliver Wunsch: I understand that IDSVA offers no studio instruction, but theory plays a major role in the program. As a way of beginning, could you talk about the reasoning behind this format?

George Smith: If the way an artist sees the world changes, if her range of perception broadens and deepens, then her artistic ability, her ability to represent history, human consciousness, the history of aesthetic discourse, this will change for the better because she will have changed for the better. In other words, the studio practice gets taken to the next level because the artist who goes into the studio has developed intellectually, spiritually, and as a citizen of the world. In my experience as a teacher of artists, the rigorous study of theory and philosophy can make that happen. But IDSVA is not just about making better studio artists; we’re trying to produce artist-philosophers.

OW: Does that experience need to be called a PhD? Why not just invite qualified people who want to do this sort of thinking, reading, and writing, without the doctoral degree?

GS: The PhD requires a measure of rigor that cannot be imposed upon people who are just stopping by for a conversation. For one thing, you have to write a dissertation and that dissertation has to be submitted to professional review. Writing to an audience of that kind is a tremendously important aspect of the experience. But more to the point, we want IDSVA graduates to go into universities and colleges and teach. We want them to lead the discussion that is shaping the future of American intellectual discourse, not just in visual arts, but in the humanities and in other disciplines as well. And to do that, they have to be credentialed.

OW: Right now, you can become a professor of studio art with an MFA. With a PhD, your graduates presumably would be able to teach not just studio practice, but also theory, philosophy, and so forth…

GS: Exactly.

OW: Why shouldn’t those artists simply get a degree in the subjects that seem relevant to their work? For instance, if psychoanalytic theory means something to your art, shouldn’t you just study in that field?

GS: The answer to your question is partly practical. If you have an MFA and want to go to someplace like the University of Chicago for a PhD in the history of psychoanalysis, they’ll probably say go back and do your MA first. IDSVA grants credit to the MFA for a humanities PhD. More importantly, though, we’re putting together an intensive collaboration. Most IDSVA students hold an MFA and many are studio faculty. Maybe half are tenure track, many are full-professors, and some are department heads. About a third are adjunct professors looking to strengthen their academic position. Others are curators or creative intellectuals with an MA in cultural studies or art history. We love the dialogical mix. The common thread is that most everybody at the table sees the world through the relationship of the hand, the eye, the body, and space, and they resolve abstract problems from that experiential standpoint as opposed to a purely abstract view.

OW: All of that makes sense, but I wonder if there’s a danger that you won’t ever really be in dialogue with the traditional scholars who specialize in the subjects that you’re studying. Do you worry about separating yourself from the people whose ideas you’re borrowing?

GS: We want to cultivate a space in which artists and creative thinkers can grow and develop as artist-philosophers, but also where all kinds of artists and scholars can gain from the process. For instance, someone like Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Renaissance scholar from Harvard University, comes to lecture for us at Spannocchia Castle in Tuscany and leaves deeply affected by the experience. We’re not looking to balkanize ourselves as some group of artists who are now going to take over the world from the standpoint of theoretical advancement. The point is to open up a discussion in a way that allows people like Greenblatt to hear what an artist-philosopher has to say about the Renaissance. Of course the artist-philosopher has a pretty wide-eyed appreciation of what Greenblatt’s saying, too, and it’s the exchange that makes the conversation so rich and productive.

Spannocchia Castle

Spannocchia Castle, one of the sites where IDSVA regularly convenes. Photo: Nil Santana

OW: Could you say more about the locations where the program meets, what goes on, and how these activities relate to the setting?

GS: I mentioned Stephen Greenblatt because his participation as IDSVA Visiting Faculty typifies our pedagogical approach in an important way. When Stephen lectures on the transition from Feudal to Renaissance to postmodern consciousness, for historical context he’s using Spannocchia Castle, which has been restored to its origins as an agrarian estate, and he’s using the art and architecture of Siena, which is a nearby medieval banking city. Then we go up to Milan, where we look at Da Vinci’s Last Supper as a visual dramatization of Stephen’s cultural critique, and afterwards we go across town, to a little-known cathedral that houses a Dan Flavin installation, and ask ourselves, “Okay, what’s the relation between Stephen’s lecture, Leonardo’s representation of Renaissance thought, and Flavin’s projection of light in a fifteenth-century Milanese church?” From there we go to Paris, where Étienne Balibar, the preeminent French Marxist, picks up the thread with John Rajchman and they talk about their new book on postmodern French philosophy and what they and others are calling “the contemporary.” In Januar,y it’s on to Harlem and Manhattan, where Jim Elkins, Julie Mehretu (Art21 Season 5), Simon Critchley, and Avital Ronell will push the question of the contemporary from within the framework of post-industrial urban space. Next June, we’ll be at the Venice Biennale. In years to come we hope to be in Berlin, Beijing, São Paulo, and Cape Town.

OW: The second portion of the program involves the dissertation, which I wanted to ask you about, but in a somewhat roundabout way. I read that you started out pursuing poetry. Since poetry merges textual communication and artistic expression, I wondered whether this early experience influenced your interest in seeing artists write PhD theses. Specifically, how do you see the dissertation in relation to creative expression? Do you consider the writing that comes out of the program to be art? Or is it totally separate from the artistic practice of your students?

GS: From writing poetry, I learned how to write prose criticism. And what I learned was that it’s arduous labor. It’s not a matter of inspired spontaneous expression. I don’t ever want a search committee to say of a job applicant from IDSVA, “Well, they’re writing on their own art,” or, “this creative expression of the artist’s relationship to the work of art lacks theoretical rigor.” Hence IDSVA students refrain from writing on their studio practice, especially in the dissertation. We have a lot of artists coming in who see their relationship to language—particularly abstract, philosophical language—as their weakest link. Through a very tough transformative learning process, they make their weakest link as strong as their strongest one, which is the studio. What they come away with is the inspiration to give those now inexhaustible powers to others—through their art, their teaching, their critical thinking and writing. If we said, “You’re not going to be like other scholars; you’re going to get the easy version where you can write about yourself or write non-critical prose,” we’d be selling everybody short.

IDSVA students

IDSVA students with Professor Sharon Hecker at the studio/archive of Luciano Fabro in Milan. Photo: Nil Santana

OW: I’m surprised to hear you say that many of your students enter the program thinking that they have a weak relationship with language. Somehow I just assumed that you would only attract artists who already felt very confident about dealing with theoretical texts. What type of student makes a good match for IDSVA?

GS: It runs up and down the spectrum. Those who come in thinking that theory and philosophy are of less interest than career development often get drawn so deeply into the program of study that they wind up in a very different place. There’s no one type. I’ll say that there’s a general consistency in that even those who are “up” on theory make it plain that they’re not at IDSVA to primp their version of theory and philosophy. Most everybody comes wanting to know more and to share what they learn. It’s an amazing, incredibly generous, and intelligent bunch.

OW: If a student applies to the program and doesn’t feel especially grounded in theoretical thinking, then I wonder how do you figure out whether this person has potential. Do you see it in their studio practice? Do you find intelligence in works of art themselves?

GS: You figure out whether a person has potential through multiple interviews, writing samples, and looking at the work. But that’s hardly to say that every artist with an MFA should run out and apply to IDSVA. There are some, though—a tiny fraction of the total population of artists—who really want to understand theory and philosophy in relation to art and to themselves as practicing artists. IDSVA is a place in the world where artists and creative thinkers can go and do precisely that.


  1. I am interested in learning more about the program. I have a package ready to mail the IDSVA I already have my official transcripts and my letters of rec. I just need to see if I would qualify for any sort of grant money or financial help.

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  2. B Guttman says:

    I thought that you might be interested that here in Hungary the doctorate studies for artists combine theory and practice: theoretical and practical courses, thesis writing and 3 years of studio work. It is not called PhD but DLA (Doctor of Liberal Arts) program, but in our school system it is considered equivalent to PhD. DLA programs are also offer in design and music, and are always combining theory and practice.
    Personally I find this combination a good idea, and if a school offering such doctorate program is providing very good courses,teachers and very high standartd, it can be super benefitial for artists. Naturally, I expect that the doctoral program mentioned in the inetrview will also find students who are interested, but it would be even better, in my oppinion, if beside theory and philosophy, artists would be offered practical courses as well, such as new technologies, techniques etc. and support in their studio work, maybe open discussions about the artwork they make or many more. (When I graduated slides were still the main way to document and show pictures…and ten years later they give you a coplete retro feeling!)
    Being aware of all advantages and disadvantages of my DLA program, I still feel very happy and grateful I have taken it. Both theorerical reserch and studio work gave me tremendously precious learning.
    I wonder what do other doctorate students in Art think of this toppic?

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  3. Nettrice Gaskins says:

    I enrolled this fall in the Digital Media Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech. My areas of interest are visual art and emergent information technologies.

    A year before I applied and got accepted I got sound advice from the director of an interdisciplinary art Ph.D. program at a midwestern university. She told me that, as an artist, I should be extra careful when selecting Ph.D. programs, to be sure there was an emphasis on “praxis” (practice and theory). The programs I was finding (very few in the U.S. combine art and new media) placed more emphasis on theory and it was discouraging but I never gave up.

    My work this year crossed over into virtual 3D/augmented reality installation spaces which revealed a new visual language that I felt needed to be further explored on a doctoral level. As my thesis touches on untrod areas I need to be around faculty and students who can accomodate me/my interests. Even more important to me was being able to share what I was doing with a broader community, i.e. communities of color. I was able to do this after being at Georgia Tech program for only two weeks!

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  4. Pingback: Life After MFA…The PhD Option? | Art21 Blog

  5. As a practicing artist and PhD student in this program, I have found that my practice has radically changed (for the better) due to the theoretical study required. Coming out of my MFA, I had been educated in how to produce an art object but I knew there was another level of thought required in the generation of the production. Through the variety of ideas this program directs the student toward, one’s studio practice cannot but be changed. Also, I have found my instructors curious as to what goes on in the studio and always willing to review my current projects.

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    Cameron Luft Reply:

    I’m curious about the IDSVA program. I have two questions for you: Where did you get your MFA and what did you do for your writing samples on your application? I’m a current MFA student and none of my classes demand much writing so I won’t have any writing samples from my classes.

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  6. I am a second year student at IDSVA and admittedly have ambivalent feelings about the lack of praxis. As a painter, my studio practice is (currently) all but abandoned because the pace of study, reading and writing precludes dedicated studio time. I support myself as an adjunct without any other means of financial support. Anyone who knows what this is like, understands that an adjunct’s low pay means teaching (at least) twice as much as a full time professor to make ends meet. (Not to mention time lost commuting to multiple campuses.) That said I know that my current studies are a short-term commitment and I will resume my studio work within a few years. What I am learning now will be a major component of the art I will create in the future. It definitely impacts how I see art now. Meanwhile the concentration I apply to my writing and research has become my creative practice. I am confident my writing abilities are flourishing and while I frequently struggle with difficult philosophical concepts, the breakthroughs of insight are tremendously rewarding. IDSVA work can be just as impossible and exciting as the application of paint to a panel. I have been enriched as a student and scholar by the residencies to New York and abroad where we talk with and learn from terrific international faculty. I have made life long friendships since any sense of competition is superseded by a dependence on my cohort for intense and insightful discussions of the material. When I earned my MFA the emphasis was on studio and I always felt unprepared in art theory. This program isn’t for everyone, though. Currently there are no teaching assistantships available, something traditional academia provides grad students. Artists’ considering any doctoral program should ask lots of questions to make sure it is a good fit.

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    Arlinda Reply:

    So eloquently put and spot on in its entirety.

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  7. Maggie Davis says:

    Now in my second year in a non-studio PhD in Art Theory, Aesthetics and Criticism through IDSVA, I can say that my studies have had a huge impact on my thinking about my own studio practice s well as that of other artists. This was what was missing from my MFA program, the important and diverse philosophical thinking that has always been essential to art production. I have a small group of professional artists who meet regularly in each others studios for the purpose of dialogue. Our conversations have been deeply enriched by my studies, as well as the conversations with my faculty advisors in IDSVA. And I have become a much better writer!

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  8. Arlinda says:

    I am also a current student at IDSVA. In my search for PhD programs in the visual arts I was impressed with what IDSVA had to offer and I am thrilled to find the program has exceeded my expectations. In my opinion any structured studio course beyond the MFA amounts to not much more than buying time to practice art. Why buy time when I can make it? IDSVA offers an extremely demanding program but well worth the effort.

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  9. EL Putnam says:

    Currently I am in my third year of studies at IDSVA and preparing for my dissertation. I am also a practicing artist and an educator. Through its non-studio approach, IDSVA has helped develop and mature my thinking about art and the artist in our current historical moment. My studio work has changed because I as an artist have changed. Being an artist/philospher I am able to perceive my practice through a comprehensive lens that is not limited to the creation of art objects. Also, this degree has afforded me with the language and knowledge to think about and discuss art critically, as well as educate up-and-coming artists in the rich world of aesthetics.

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  10. Gregory Steel says:

    I am a first year student in the program at IDSVA, I have long searched for this kind of experience as a working artists and always felt as though I was missing important intellectual information about the world as it relates to art and it’s making. This opportunity bridges the gap between the functions of making art and the intellectual impetus behind it all. It is an all important step for the arts and for humanity to reinstate the arts in the discourse at the levels it deserves. I am very proud of the program, the founders and my fellow seekers in the program for blazing this trail.

    GS

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  11. Amy Cook says:

    IDSVA facilitates artists’ participation in conversations with the larger academic community, from which they have heretofore been excluded; however, there are as many ways to be an artist as there are to make art. Academic study is but one route, and the non-studio PhD is a welcome addition to the various bifurcations within that route. I am currently writing my dissertation at IDSVA on aesthetics and the ethic of hospitality. I embrace differing avenues of exploration and development for artists and discourage the tendency toward competition in our field. While debate over studio vs. non-studio programs or whether terminal degree status resides in the MFA or PhD can provide rich intellectual fodder and suggest educational reform, it can also stifle and erode the larger point of what contemporary art has to offer and thus, what it means to be an artist.

    For me, the companionship of the artist-philosopher way provides a broader view and a solid purchase on the core of my artistic and teaching practices alike. For someone else, the object alone may suffice, and the responsible creation, manipulation, and critque of it are valid endeavors encouraged in many venues. Together our paths strengthen the field.

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  12. Jessica Doyle says:

    Over the years since receiving my MFA, I had this pulsing feeling that I still needed to research further into art theory. My MFA experience consisted of primarily formal critiques in regards to my work. For some time, I researched the possible options for furthering my education as an artist. The options for a PhD program in Visual Arts were overseas. I looked into PhD programs in Art History, Visual Anthropology, Cultural Studies. When I discovered IDSVA, I was shocked that there was a program that was so perfectly formed and planned for artists such as myself. Since I began the program in June, I have changed for the better as an artist, writer, and thinker. My studio work is flourishing as well. I see my work with more clarity and I am collaborating with fellow artists in a new and thought-provoking manner. Situating myself within artists and writers of the past and present has formed my vision so that I am not just looking within myself, but thinking about how to progress the idea of art further. The set-up of IDSVA is most certainly advanced in that it is utilizing technology to further education. The online aspect certainly is a benefit, as I am still able to work, while continuously communicating with classmates and professors. In addition, the intensive residency in Europe was life-changing as an artist and human being.

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  13. Bruce Mackh says:

    Where are the graduates from the program. Who are they?

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    Linda Brown Reply:

    The program began in 2007 so the first graduates are just beginning to emarge. Keep a look out for them!

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  14. Bruce Mackh says:

    It will be good to see them graduate! The success of any program can only be measured by the success of their graduates. At present, without graduates, the program remains only a great idea, but it is a great idea!

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