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Artists with PhDs: preliminary report

Post #1320 • April 1, 2009, 8:29 AM

I have recently obtained a copy of Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art by the variable James Elkins. I intend to give this anthology a fair shake despite the fact that it sounds like a patently bad idea. At one point I was considering a PhD in art history - I like to write about art, after all - but it occurred to me that I was already writing about art, as were many of my favorite art writers, without the degree. My mother astutely noted that in the six years it would take to get one, you could become a doctor. I come from an academic family. Between my brothers and my parents, five people total, we have six Masters degrees and two doctorates. So the urge to re-enroll somewhere is strong. But if I do it, I'll pick a less speculative topic. Otherwise I'd just end up sending people home crying every day. Computer science looks good.

This isn't a review - I haven't finished it yet - but I've already encountered a howler that is going to make the job harder. In his introduction, Elkins lists seventeen schools in the US offering PhD programs in fine art as of 2008, and makes a numerically suspect assertion:

That may not seem like too many schools, but when I wrote the first draft of this Preface, in 2004, there were only two institutions on the list. At this rate there will be 127 programs by 2012.

Elkins doesn't share his methodology, but it smells like exponential progression: if there were 2^1 programs in 2004, and roughly 2^4 programs in 2008, then there will be roughly 2^7 (128) programs in 2012. This isn't a good start for a book that sets out to elucidate how PhD Studio Art programs might be made to resemble the rigor of equivalent degrees in science. At that rate of growth, by 2016, there would be 2^10 programs - 1024 - and by 2020, 2^13, or 8192. At mid-century, 2048, we'll have 2^34 of the damn things, at which point the estimated 9.2 billion people on the planet will have 17.2 billion PhD Studio Art programs to choose from. Arithmetic progression would be more sane - let's say four new programs a year, with 32 by 2012. But progression itself is a massive assumption. Maybe 25 programs exceeds demand and growth levels off for a decade. Programs can be destroyed as well as created, of course.

Elkins not unreasonably posits that with the teaching job market as flush with MFA holders as it is, some of them are going to seek out a PhD to increase their competitiveness. And so:

The philosophy of this book is simply that it is best to try to understand something that is coming, rather than inveighing against it. The PhD in studio art has many problems, and if the MFA is an indication they won't all be solved before the programs are in place. (Or, if you're cynical, the problems will never be solved, and the programs will be put in place anyway.) Students will have to pay more, and they will stay in school longer, and write more. There will be new pressures on the job market. Some kinds of art will probably be influenced by the advanced degree, and art as a whole may even become more academic and intellectual - more involved with theory, possibly even more alienated from skill and technique. But it is best to consider the new degree s a potential feature on the academic landscape, and try to understand it, rather than write polemics against it.

Elkins apparently tried this already in a 2007 article for Art in America, entitled "Ten Reasons to Mistrust the New Ph.D. in Studio Art." Elkins neglects to consider, though, that there's already a competitive vector separating out certain MFA holders from their colleagues, and that is career success. In order for the PhD in Studio Art to become popular, it's going to have to demonstrate that someone holding the degree can compete against a strong grant recipient with gallery representation and work in institutional collections. Imagine that your choice is to hire someone who shows internationally and has been covered by the glossies, or someone who slogged through a six-year program, and boasts a 30,000 word thesis, more or less about himself. I know whom I would pick.

So my conclusion, for now, is let's not give up so easily. This phenomenon looks far from inevitable and it's already exhibiting those disheartening characteristics described above. I just got a press release about the new PhD in the field of Artistic Processes at Konstfack, in Sweden, and the school says, "The field of study regarding the creative process should be considered an interdisciplinary field comprised of both artistic intepretation [sic] and theoretical reflection." And not, say, making stuff.

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