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Doctor Doctor: The emergence of the practice-led PhD


Sophie Knezic, The Shadow of Conquest 2013, extruded and cast acrylic, dimensions variable

The amalgamation of art schools into university frameworks over the past decade has meant a new development in advanced degrees; the birth of the studio-based Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In many ways this was an inevitability, part of the increasing tertiary accreditation of visual arts/studio arts courses over the late twentieth century. In Australia, initially existing as diplomas in the 1970s, these studio-based courses evolved into the Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) degrees during the 1970s as the baseline qualification for aspiring professional artists, supplemented in the early 1990s by the development of the Master of Fine Art (MFA). For the last 20 years across the country, the MFA has been considered the definitive qualification for the practising contemporary artist; a two-year postgraduate degree with variable components but essentially leading to a final exhibition accompanied by a short exegesis or thesis (approximately 10,000 words), both externally examined. The MFA has acted as the default ‘terminal’ degree; the last academic exit point before artists enter the professional sphere. But in less than 10 years, the ground has shifted once again, making way for the studio PhD, often referred to in contemporary nomenclature as the ‘practice-led PhD’. More than previous tertiary qualifications, this new degree is mired in a raft of issues pertaining to academic concepts of research, knowledge, and the generally ambiguous relationship between contemporary art practice and academic institutions and discourses. It is perhaps with this degree, that the chequered and mercurial relation between contemporary studio practice and academia is most lucid.

The PhD first emerged in the universities of the Middle Ages but its current paradigm as a structured research enquiry only developed in German universities in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth-century doctorate fostered a model of research based on a specialised discipline, opposed to the notion of common erudition.1 The legacy of this model is that in academic disciplines such as the sciences and the liberal arts, the PhD exists as the forum in which to stage an inquiry into a specialised field of knowledge: to research—gather and analyse data in order to trial hypotheses, test theorems or develop new perspectives on extant knowledge—with the singular aim of creating an original contribution to a defined research field. How does this translate into the field of art practice? Firstly, there are greater variations with the practice-based PhD model, in terms of percentage weighting between the exhibition and dissertation, the length of which can range from as few as 15,000 to 50,000 words, (unlike the standard length of 90,000–100,000 for traditional academic PhDs). Such discrepancies in thesis length may raise eyebrows as to the equivalence between doctoral degrees. Of more gravitas, however, is the studio doctorate’s whole raison d’etre.

One of the achievements of the practice-led PhD is that it represents an acknowledgement of the research inherent in artistic labour; that it validates art as research. This is a recent perspective; partially influenced by the Bologna Process—the policy framework developed in 1999 standardising higher degrees conferred by European universities. Before the 1990s, creative art activity taking place within art schools was not explicitly recognised as research. It was only with the amalgamation of art schools with universities (taking place in Australia from the 1990s onwards) that art practice, framed within the context of higher degrees, was recognised as research activity. With its new status as research, art began to accrue academic benefits, not least funding (more on that later).

According to British artist and academic, Judith Mottram, doctoral study in the studio arts is essentially about forging new disciplinary territory—a knowledge base specific to art and design that is not art criticism, history or theory proper.2 The jury is still out on what ‘practice-led research’ might mean; a discourse charting experiments into materials or studio procedures, a historical or theoretical discourse that is motivated by studio activity, or both? In his discussion of creative practice as research, Timothy Emlyn Jones refers to artist-scholar Donald Schön’s distinction between knowledge on reflection and knowledge in action.3 The idea of knowledge through action posits intelligence in the act of making which collapses the practice/theory divide. The development of a kind of specific artistic research forged through the amalgam of thinking-making and post-work analysis elaborated in relation to relevant research fields represents a new type of knowledge and may well describe what the practice-led PhD attempts to do.

But, for the American art historian James Elkins, the idea that studio work produces new knowledge is problematic. He observes, ‘In order for “the production of new knowledge” to make sense as a justification for PhDs in art, it would be necessary to have a university-wide consensus about the expression “new knowledge”.’4 But I’d surmise that the concept of new knowledge is being continually contested and debated in other disciplines as part of the general discussion of what constitutes good research. It seems that Elkins is opposed not to studio-based PhDs, but rather to the loose bandying of the terms ‘research’ and ‘new knowledge’, which he believes are an awkward fit for most studio artists. The impetus behind the usage of the terms ‘research’ and ‘new knowledge’ is simply economic—that universities receive institutional revenue based on the hierarchy of degrees, with more money directed towards faculties with PhD students than with undergraduates. Implementing PhD programs is a way of faculties generating cash. Elkins believes that studio art faculties or schools have adopted the lexicon of research as a means to this end. This is a cynical view, one which may describe Australian university art schools that enrol large numbers of PhD students; but it’s not the case for faculties that enrol only a few, where the costs of administering PhD candidates far outweigh the departmental revenue received. But the pragmatics from the artist’s perspective are advantageous: as a concomitant of art viewed as research, practice-led PhD candidates are eligible for government scholarships in the form of Australian Postgraduate Awards (also available at an MFA level, but as a three-year stipend ideally suited to PhD research). For artists accustomed to low and erratic incomes, this is an undeniable dimension to the attractiveness of the practice-led PhD.

In the sciences, the supervisory model of the PhD is hierarchical; often with a chief researcher who nominates multiple PhD candidates as well as their topics, gathered under the aegis of a broader enquiry, each researcher part of a collaborative project. Often questions of authorship are blurred, with chief researchers or investigators claiming credit for the research outcomes, or published research papers credited with up to hundreds of authors. A Melbourne-based artist and academic we shall name Dr X believes that, although this model would not be a good fit for artistic research, a mode of PhD research that occurs with a level of collaboration between several artist-scholars investigating related topics under the supervision of a chief researcher would be a more effective model than the present one.5

This would certainly work towards resolving an existing problem with the current mode of supervision; the hiatus that exists when the supervisor’s realm of knowledge and studio practice are too far removed from the PhD candidate’s burgeoning area of research knowledge for them to offer anything more than basic references, editing of chapters or mere encouragement. Several candidates I have known have been extremely frustrated with their supervisor’s inability to offer them much more than this. Building a research cluster would create opportunities for more consolidated multi-faceted kinds of artistic research and sophisticated dialogue.

One of the principal reasons for embarking on PhD research in traditional disciplines has been the desire to enter academia, and some at the helm of administering practice-led PhDs view this motivation as the fundamental one. More than half of the artists I have known who have enrolled in practice-led PhDs also teach in the tertiary sector part-time. Others would like to. This vocational urge is understandable, and in one way it is ultimately validating that a doctorate finally exists to mark the advanced research degree equivalent to other disciplines: the conferral of recognised academic status. However, the irony remains that the practice-led PhD has emerged precisely at a time when the broader tertiary climate is more constrained than ever. Since the introduction of student fees through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme in 1989 and successive reductions in federal funding over the last 30 years, especially the Howard Government’s savage cuts in 1996, the tertiary sector has been shorn of an adequate and stable funding base.

In April this year, the Federal Government announced a decision to slice $2.3 billion from the higher education budget, redirecting these funds towards what it regards as more worthy sectors, namely primary and secondary education. As a result of this, over the next four years, the University of Melbourne (the institution with which I am affiliated) will see approximately $100 million in research funding scrapped, as well as $50 million withdrawn from teaching support. While undergraduate numbers in art schools have steadily increased over the last decade, academic positions have not. PhD enrolments across the academic spectrum have also surged; between 2000 and 2010, doctoral enrolments across all Australian universities expanded by 68%, from 27,966 to 47,066.6 The trickle-down effect for art schools is not appealing: it’s likely that there will be scarcity of secure academic positions along with intensification of workloads, enlarged class sizes and increased numbers of advanced degree enrolments, inevitably impacting on the nature of supervision: the frequency and depth of dialogue established between candidates and their supervisors.

According to Dr X, another problem is the way in which artists—especially young artists—enrol in a BFA, then an Honours year, then an MFA, which they either complete or upgrade to a PhD, in one straight trajectory. ‘You see these students who refuse to leave the place—they might be 28 or 30 before they finally graduate and their art career has never been outside the institution.’7 Associate Professor Barbara Bolt, also an artist and academic, agrees this is of concern: ‘These people never get out and test themselves. There’s always a sense in which they’ve been cosseted within an institutional framework. That’s a very undesirable thing.’8

Bolt thinks that the ideal PhD candidate is someone who has been out of an art school for a long time, has developed a mature practice yet has found an emerging desire to frame it in within the parameters of a specific research enquiry, often in order to challenge their practice and deepen it in ways beyond what may be possible within a more conventional gallery-based career. Another ideal candidate, Bolt suggests, is someone who has straddled both studio art and another discipline gained through separate academic experience and wants to situate their research at the intersection of both.

This ‘dual ability’ seems to characterise the artist who pursues doctoral studies. According to Bolt,

‘In order to do a PhD, you need to be operating at a high level in your practice and you also need to be operating at a high level in terms of your ability to read and theorise in a discursive form. The way people get considered into a PhD program is based on their ability to do both. A traditional scholar, say an anthropologist or scientist, just has to be good in their field—they only have to research, test their data then write up the results. Whereas practice-led PhD artists have to be incredibly literate in both realms.’^9

While that may be stating the obvious, the dedicated and close engagement with academic discourses such as fine art history, theory and philosophy, and the framing of a studio practice within that, focused on a singular research topic, has consequences. Dr John Abbate, the first artist to graduate with a practice-led PhD from the School of Art, VCA, University of Melbourne, in 2004, believes it’s been an important way of giving intellectual credibility to art: that the studio doctorate has served to change a common view that artists lack the potential for intellectual rigour. Looking back, he describes his doctorate as ‘the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life’.10 I’m sure most artist-doctors would concur, but I’ll wager that this is not just because of the scope of the project. For myself and for other artist-PhDs I have conversed with over recent years, it is because such labour necessarily entails a kind of subjective splitting; doing a practice-led PhD means continually shunting between the thinking/making artist; the active academic researcher; and the somewhat detached analytic observer of both. It is this last persona that is perhaps the hardest to assume and yet the most pivotal to drawing conclusions from the period of research. Then there’s the articulated topic of research itself, which may commence as a finely chiselled question but inevitably shifts, proves elusive or decomposes into something else altogether. The obligation to produce a new contribution to knowledge hovers as an intangible pressure. As a friend and recently conferred doctor remarked, doing a practice-led PhD ‘was analogous to trying to hit a moving target’.11

This is what makes the practice-led PhD such a complicated project, and, in many ways, schizophrenic. Personally, there’s been more than one moment when I’ve lamented enrolling in a studio PhD, believing a PhD in art history, although demanding, would have been much more straightforward than the peculiar and somewhat undefined hydra that is the practice-led PhD. But then I wonder if that’s because a considerable period of my candidature has been gobbled up by the demands of lecturing, necessitating separate research into a plethora of topic areas unrelated to my PhD, leaving less time overall for both relevantly directed research as well as the kinds of freeform rumination that extends and dallies in unexpected areas, forming webs of associations quintessential to inquisitive artistic thinking.

But I am certain that the niche area I am in the process of carving out is one that would never have emerged if the PhD had been built around an a priori topic situated in the field of art history. The unbidden permutations of topic—the wayward digressions—are a rich part of the unanticipated trajectory that forms the practice-led PhD. The development of a doctorate that puts art practice in dialogue with other disciplines, that creates links with other research communities, and most importantly, delineates a space for art to generate new kinds of knowledge and new zones of research is, I think, in the final analysis, a progressive thing. It’s early days yet; the practice-led PhD is still in its infancy, but with adequate resources and enthusiastic minds it’s likely to develop in robust ways. With its bipartite structure of exhibition and dissertation, however, the degree will always be irreducibly complex: for the hybrid artist-scholar a pressured and exhilarating though at times ambivalent undertaking.

Sophie Knezic is a practising visual artist and academic. She lectures in Critical and Theoretical Studies in the School of Art, VCA, University of Melbourne, and is enrolled in a practice-led PhD that she is hoping to complete in 2014.

1. See Mick Wilson, ‘Four Theses Attempting to Revise the Terms of a Debate’, in Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, James Elkins (ed.), (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2009).
2. See Judith Mottram, ‘Researching Research in Art and Design’, in Elkins, ibid.
3. Timothy Emlyn Jones, ‘Research Degrees in Art and Design’, in Elkins, ibid., p. 33.
4. James Elkins, ‘On Beyond Research and New Knowledge’, in Elkins, ibid. p. 115.
5. This artist and academic wishes to remain anonymous.
6. ‘The Changing PhD: Discussion Paper’, The Group of Eight, ACT, March 2013.
7. Interview with Dr X, May 2013.
8. Interview with Associate Professor Barbara Bolt, May 2013.

10. Interview with Dr John Abbate, May 2013.
11. Sarah CrowEST, An Unaccountable Mass: Bothersome Matter and the Humorous Life of Forms, PhD, Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University, September 2012.