Generating PhD’s in the Arts

Nieuws | de redactie
25 maart 2009 | “The artist-as-researcher has become a familiar phenomenon.” Janneke Wesseling, lector aan de KABK en PhDArts-director in Leiden, besprak in Oslo hoe promotietrajecten in de kunsten tot ontwikkeling komen.

Zij deed dit bij het Research Fellowship Seminar en stelde de vraag aan de orde: what is artistic research? Zij begon met een quote van John Baldessari: ”When I am doing art, I am questioning how to do it.”

A new phenomenon

In the Netherlands, artistic research, especially on the PhD level and within academia, is a new phenomenon. It is not yet defined as a field. This is a situation that may have its disadvantages, but also has many advantages. We are in a position to learn from the experiences of art institutions in the field of practice-based research in other countries. And we are in the position to shape, to create, a new practice and a new discipline.

We have started with two PhD candidates. Their projects are vastly different, the one on the issue of difference and repetition in relation to monochrome painting, the other on the representation of fear (in imagery). Point of departure for us is the nature of artistic research within art itself (and not artistic research in relation to other disciplines within academia). In other words, research and development in art and design features unique characteristics that must be preserved and advanced on their own terms. The artistic result is the main thing. This is the most important way in which this PhD differs from regular university PhD’s: its profile is strictly artistic.

Based on changes in the development of art

This new PhD is not only the result of the Bologna agreements; it is, to my mind more importantly, the reflection of changes or developments within art itself over the past decades, starting with Conceptual Art in the 60ties. The artist-as-researcher has become a familiar phenomenon over the past decades.

To think as a visual artist or designer is to think in a special way. It means thinking in terms of matter or of raw material. Every artist is familiar with the phenomenon that during the process of creation there comes a moment in which the material with which he is busy begins to work along with him. The material influences the creative process and forces the artist to make decisions. This reminds us of the old Classical word poiesis, which meant: making as knowing. According to Plato (and, much later, also according ot Martin Heidegger), all activity that transforms something from not-being to being is poiesis.

Art works are materializations of thought. Thinking, thought, is transformed, or transfigured, into art.

The PhD in visual art and design is a special type of PhD

In research in and through artistic practice, the concepts of knowledge, meaning and sense are closely interwoven. The discursive, verbal component of the research is important in gaining insight into and examining this knowledge. Research in art is characterized by interaction with artistic practice: it is an inseparable part of the work of the artist. With research in and through art (as opposed to research about art, such as art history, for instance) there is no set goal or expected result, any more than there are predetermined general procedures.

Regarding the written or discursive component of the dissertation, there will be an account of the research trajectory, its results, and the artistic development that was enhanced by the research, as well as an account on the eventual answers to the questions raised. However, the outcome of the research is completely open. However, in Leiden we do not impose a strict format, or even any format at all, on the dissertation. We regard this openness as a condition for conducting research in art and design.

Although there was a lot of resistance to this position at first, lately the mood seems to be changing in this respect. I quote from a recent lecture on artistic research by the Belgian philospher and culture critic Dieter Lesage: “The insistence of academics on the obligation to produce a written supplement appears to demonstrate a lack of confidence, either in the capacity of the arts to speak in a meaningful, complex, and critical way in a medium of their choosing, or in their own capacity to make sound judgments on the meaning, complexity and critical potency of artistic output as such. What might happen now is that, because it complies with the long-standing format of the doctorate, juries will base their assessments primarily on a reading of the written supplement, as if it were the doctorate itself, at the same time being tempted to consider the artistic portfolio as merely its supplementary illustration.”

“The evaluation of a doctorate in the arts should focus on the capacity of the doctoral student to speak in the medium of his or her choice. And if this medium is film, or video, or painting, or sculpture, or sound, or “new,” or if the doctoral student wants to mix media, it will obviously require from a jury ways of reading, interpretation, and discussion other than those required by an academic text. To impose a medium on the artist is to fail to recognize the artist as an artist. An artist who wants to obtain a doctorate in the arts should be given the academic freedom to choose his or her own medium [that is, also for the dissertation]. Even then it would still be possible that he or she chooses text as the most appropriate medium for his or her artistic purposes. Therefore, one should be prepared for the moment when a writer will present a novel in fulfillment of the primary requirement for a doctorate. According to the currently prevailing format of the doctorate in the arts, however, the writer would be asked to supplement his novel with another text, a written supplement. Would anyone seriously want this? What should that written supplement say?”

Trying to define artistic research: A few key points

Art is a direct interpretation of life, it is a discovering of meaning in, or an imparting of meaning to existence. The artist positions himself in relation to society and gives meaning to things. Art leads us into a domain that opens itself up only through artistic reflection. The artist does not fix realities, but opens up new possibilities of a vision or approach of reality. Research in art does not know a hierarchy of the capacities that come into play in relation to the research subject – capacities such as reason, memory, phantasy, imagination, the senses and desire.

Therefore in artistic reserach there will be no objectivation of the subject. Research in art rather tries to destroy objectivation, in order to try and touch upon the singularity of the subject. Art does not provide information on reality or on the world. Art explores the manner in which we relate to reality. Art invites the beholder (or public) to exercise an original way of relating to reality.

What concerns us here is, as Immanuel Kant put it in his Analytik des Schönen’, “a free interplay between reason and imagination”. The artist tries to find space where there seems to be no space at all. The artists seeks latitude. Art creates new latitude (Spielraum). As the Dutch poet K. Michel put it recently: “I do not play, I seek leeway.” Unfortunately, in the English and German translations the Dutch wordplay of spelen and speling is lost. “Ik speel niet, ik zoek speling”.

Offering artists and designers the possibility of obtaining a PhD at a university is offering them a platform which belongs to them and is just as much their domain as museums or galleries. The PhD in art creates new possibilities for art and its practitioners as well as a broadening of the art discourse. It anchors art in society in a new way, as an alternative to the commercial entrenchment that had gradually become exclusive.

Important questions

Some important questions, and some of the things we grapple with, are, and I am sure you will recognize most of them:

–  What does artistic researchyield for art, in the artistic sense? Does it produce better, or different art? It is not enough to say: it does. Because if it does, how does it affect art? In assessing the research, it is important to keep in mind that the specific contribution it makes to our knowledge, understanding, insight and experience lies in the ways in which these issues are articulated, expressed and communicated through the art work. The artwork itself should remain the main issue. If the art is not interesting, the research won’t be terribly interesting either.

According to Tom Holert, “Within the art world today, the discursive formats of the extended library-cum-seminar-cum-workshop-cum-symposium-cum-exhibition have become preeminent modes of address and forms of knowledge production.” (in: Art in the Knowledge-based Polis,” e-flux journal, no. 3 February 2009) Is this what we want? We may be talking about “Material thinking” (Paul Carte), but the actual, material art work, the physical object, seems to be disappearing from the art discourse. It is in danger of becoming an illustration to theoretical thinking, rather than the other way around. The same tendency, by the way, is present in art criticism, where critics review exhibitions and art works that they have only seen on the internet, not in reality.

–  What kind of knowledge does artistic research yield? Sensuous, sensual knowledge? Intuitive knowledge (from the Latin intueri, meaning ‘to look at’)? Hannah Arendt (in The human condition,1958) distinguished between “thought” en “knowledge”:
“The chief manifestation of the cognitive pocesses, by which we acquire and store up knowledge, is the sciences. Cognition always pursues a definite aim, which can be set by practical considerations as well as by “idle curiosity”; but once this aim is reached, the cognitive process has come to an end. Thought, on the contrary, has neither an end nor an aim outside itself, and does not even produce results. Thought is as useless as the works of art it inspires. […] And not even to these useless products can thought lay claim, for they […] can hardly be called the results of pure thinking, strictly speaking, since it is precisely the thought process which the artist must interrupt and transform for the materializing reification of his work.” (art = process)

–  Artistic research cannot, by its very nature, be standardized. In fact, you want the diversity. In principle there are as many approaches and methodologies as there are artist. How then, may the outcome of an artistic research project be evaluated?

–  Art may be, and often is, synonomous to artistic research (see Baldessari). What is “implicit research’ in artistic practice?  And ought this implicit research be made explicit in the context of a PhD? Is this desirable, or even possible?

–  What is the status and meaning of ‘theory’ in relation to studio practice; the relation between the discursive (verbal) and the artistic (demonstrable) in artistic research.

I started with a statement by John Baldessari. I would like to end with a statement by an old friend of Baldesseri’s, Lawrence Weiner: “The reason one makes art is to start a conversation. And when this conversation starts, one has the fortune that this ends in culture. It is a new conversation. And meanwhile the world has turned on.”


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