Open Enrollment

Life After MFA…The PhD Option?

Open Enrollment

After reading my fellow blogger Oliver Wunsch’s interview with George Smith, the founder of the Institute for Doctoral Studies in Visual Arts (IDSVA), I began thinking about a PhD in Visual Culture, especially knowing that in few months I’ll be wrapping up my MFA.  I’m still looking for ways in which I can make my post-MFA life practical.  So I’ve been looking at my options, studying and researching them.  One of the ideas that I’m currently entertaining is the pursuit of the doctorate degree where I can get feasible support from SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), which offers Canadian candidates fellowships between $5,000 to $35,000 that is renewable per annum to research and create. This doesn’t sound like such a bad idea to be funded to go to school, considering the economy is still perturbed and finding meaningful work in the art world is not easy.  Plus, Canada has two relatively new programs at York University and University of Western Ontario that bring together a studio practice with a theoretical component, which sounds ideal for someone like myself who writes and makes things.  However, I remain hesitant about this subject matter, because I keep asking myself whether I am willing to commit to another four to five years of school?  I’m certain that a PhD might make me into a more well-rounded human being, but what about experiencing the art world from a first person point of view?  In this increasingly economically driven culture what will a PhD do for me?  Do I need a PhD to be a better artist?

The recent publication of the book, Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art; EARN (European Artistic Research Network); Manifesta 8; Collaborative Project: As the Academy Turns, a soap opera about the “academization” of art education; it is clear that there is a growing concern with regards to the changing identity of an artist.  The instigation of PhD programs marks a transformation of what was originally an exploratory artistic  practice into a more theoretical and research-based model, which closely mimics a scientific methodology, largely founded on hypotheses and answers that need to be validated through reason, testing, and the collection of evidence.  However, the making of contemporary art has never been about one absolute answer, rather, an investigation of many ideas and concepts and using suitable materials to articulate these ideas.  There have never been straight answers or easy ones, giving artists reasons to constantly push boundaries, looking at the world from different angles.  Art after Duchamp was everything and anything.  How will having a PhD change that?  Who will these new artists with PhDs be? Who will these new artists be making art for? The public? The private? The commercial? Or the educational system?  How will they divide their time between making things, writing, and publishing — justifying their work within the framework of critical theory, art history, philosophy, literature, and every attainable interdisciplinary subject matter applicable.

Truthfully, we no longer live in Oscar Wilde’s time where we can make “art for art’s sake,” especially not in an art institution.  Perhaps an MFA is not that different than a PhD, considering every piece of work that an MFA student produces has to congeal to some sort of critical thinking.  Just recently, I found myself sitting with Gaston Bachelard, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Marcel Proust, and even the odd Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with each book blatantly staring at me as I incongruously tried to hammer out an artist’s statement.  The artist statement is an essentially personal manifesto, the blending of your current artwork with ideological concepts.  It may be the hardest piece of writing that an artist has to do because we have to look within our belief system in an honest and sincere way, while trying to articulate our views of the world using the language within the academic milieu.  There are days where I keep asking myself why do I have to continuously justify my work with ideas that belong to someone else? Especially with the works of scholars who have died how many years before I was born?   Truthfully, I have mixed feelings about what I write; sometimes it no longer sounds like me and I’m just reiterating a Deleuzian idea. How did the simple pleasures of making art become so systematized?  Or maybe it always was?  At times, I’m tempted to start my statement by saying: I made this because I wanted to and felt like it!  However if I say that, I will have to properly quantify it with some post-structural thought. Being a student, it is imperative to establish a balance between who we are as artists and who we are as scholars, to find those little crevasses of happiness that we enjoy when we make things and that we enjoy when we read books.

Perhaps the PhD was always the next phase for an MFA student, considering the MFA educational pedagogy doesn’t seem to be that different than the one being offered at the PhD level, as it already combines studio work with critical theory.   Either way, whether we choose to pursue MFAs or PhDs, Charles Saatchi said that “being a good artist is the toughest job you could pick, and you have to be a little nuts to take it on…”  And that is a fact!!  Will having a doctorate degree make my life as an artist a little less demanding, less challenging, less crazy, and more practical? I don’t know.


  1. Nettrice says:

    I see the future of art (and artists with a Ph.D.) as the intermingling of narratives, theories, histories, realms and awareness; the paradoxical existence of contemporary art form in material and virtual spaces; the immersive intelligence of the viewer/observer and sometimes collaborator in the art work; and the constant shifting & pushing of boundaries. This becomes the art of inclusion and possibilities. I’ll end with a quote by Vaneeesa Blaylock who sent me this in virtual 3D space. It foreshadows the new phase in my life as a newly enrolled Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech.

    “The Research Artist’s job is to ask questions. To do the meta. Whether the scenario is as small as an individual spending a year in a dead-end, destructive relationship, or as large as a nation going off to war and turning a budget surplus into the largest debt in the history of life on earth, the Research Artist’s job is to ask questions and offer perspectives up front… so before we expend so much blood, sweat, and tears running hard in one direction… we ask if our true cultural goals aren’t actually 180° from there.

    The Research Artist doesn’t necessarily make pretty paintings.
    The Research Artist doesn’t solve problems.
    The Research Artist asks questions.
    It’s the most important job I can think of.”

    Reply

    Coco Reply:

    The Research Artist…I like the sound of that.

    Reply

  2. Justin says:

    Vency, I think you’ve asked some really good questions here, and I think in particular the idea about SSHRC + two new studio-based PhD programs in Canada really begins to provide the start of an answer about whether or not to pursue a PhD in studio art. One can imagine asking if we even really have a choice but to pursue a PhD after an MFA, if we want to have an artistic practice as a career in academia or even in the biennial-informed art world (that is, outside of a commercial system).

    However, I’m curious about the soft dichotomy you initially set up around exploratory art-making in an MFA and a “research-based model” of artistic practice in a PhD, as I believe there has always been room and arguably encouragement to look at artistic practice as research at the former graduate level. I’m hesitant to think that this is the major difference between MFA and PhD programmes of study for a couple of reasons. First, and perhaps most practically, all major art and humanities funding bodies (in Canada) look at artistic practice as research, maybe especially those grounded more rigourously in formal academics (such as SSHRC), and second, I believe that some schools (admittedly more than others) are already looking at artistic practice as a truly engaged form of research at the MFA level.

    As you go on to point out, developing a critically-informed artistic practice is arguably the goal of any graduate level studies in art (whether one sees themselves destined for academia or a commercial gallery career), and while I’m confident that the PhD curriculum requires a different level of engagement, if for no other reason than the duration of a PhD program, I think it can be dangerous to look at MFAs as being a different kind of art education, as doing so will only continue to devalue the MFA. It may be that we start to look at other models entirely for an MFA (certainly, models developed out west around social or public practices begin to help to articulate the more immediate possibilities), and truly look to reinvent what that degree can and should do, before taking it as a necessity and a given that we must pursue a PhD to be artists today.

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  3. Stacey Ward Kelly says:

    My first practical question is

    How did you find out that the York and West Ont schools offer programs that bring together a studio practice with a theoretical component?

    I just spent 10 minutes looking at both of their websites and couldn’t find any mention of studio art making..plus West Ont had a number of links on their program that no longer worked (pardon my comment being partially a venting). But this isn’t the first roadblock I’ve come up against when trying to research programs online. I’m looking into the studio art phd and art ed EDd’s and it’s been very challenging to firstly find them, and secondly figure out what they are about. Very few have links of any note to professor bios and all of them give such broad overviews of what they are about that they all sound the same and focus instead on how to get in, instead of why you’d want to.

    I’m an artist and an art educator, and perhaps I’m looking for a program that doesn’t yet or may never exist…one that combines studio practice with theory and history AND an approach to teaching art (to art teachers). My goal is to continue to make art and learn about art and have that inform my teaching of art and my teaching to help and inspire other art teachers. I really like the idea of IDSVA’s program and love where it takes place, but it’s missing two important components for me–art making and the art of teaching art. I came across a studio based phd which combines art making and theory at UCSD – Sand Diego. It’s a Ph.D. degree in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and their “dissertations, combine a shorter written component with a completed art project (film or video, exhibition, public work, etc.).” Sounds wonderful and for me has at least 2 out of the 3 things I need, but unfortunately you have to be fluent (reading comprehension) in TWO other languages besides English. Woomp, woomp woomp (the sound of my hopes getting squashed).

    My second question is more idealogical

    WHY is there so little cross-over in our worlds of art making, art criticism, art theory and history and art education? When did the division of lines get created? Who created them and can I have their phone numbers? I think they have some explaining to do. Haven’t we now come to a moment in our art worlds’ history, a time of post, post modernism (how many posts are we up to now?) where we see art making/teaching/criticism/study as being and needing to be interwoven as they help shape and inform one another on a continual basis? Ok, maybe that’s more then one question…

    Reply

  4. Pingback: Dr. Art | cablegram

  5. Jason says:

    MFAs create the art that the PhDs discuss.

    Maybe MFA programs have dumbed down since my time, but I remember them being extremely excruciating in pressing originality, innovation, and questioning (yes, questioning) into one’s creations.

    The MFA in America is on par with a Doctorate of Fine Arts, or DFA, in other countries. Truthfully, I think that the CAA and NASD should simply call any MFA from a research university (YALE, UCLA, RISD, MIT), where the MFA required both an exhibition and written Thesis or Dissertation to also be labeled as a DFA.

    The PhD in Studio Arts simply seems to be a money maker and has little valid use for an artist who wants to develop new ideas and push boundaries. Of course if they want to talk about how their work relates to culture and differs from similar works then maybe they need the PhD, but I remember having to do that as part of my MFA.

    I must know, what types of questions would you have as dissertation topics for a studio artist that goes beyond the MFA? Mine was the investigation into time manipulation in media and possibilities for interactions of life within environments where time makes it impossible to interact, and how do I show this in one of my works.

    Reply

  6. Libby Walkup says:

    Isn’t this the dilemma! I’m in the MFA writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After taking some studio classes I’ve delved into some text art making and not only am I wondering if I should pursuit a PhD, but after many years of “writing school” do I choose a writing PhD or a studio art PhD to further develop that new part of me.

    Basically what I think we’re asking is: how do we continue to be artists after school and feel worthwhile in the art community while also surviving? Or at least that’s the question I’m asking myself. I might take a year or two off from school.

    Reply

  7. Steve Essery says:

    Remember
    Vitruvian Man
    That “was” plan “A”.
    We as a life form can not get there with current culture. The PhD is what will get us there.

    Reply

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