Some thoughts on the PhD artist

At a recent conference on art in the academy, the artist Lucas Ihlein provocatively asked a panel of “experts” – “Are artists producing better art since the introduction of the PhD practice-based research degree?”

This seemed like an intriguing question to ask of the panel of artists, curators and critics that sat in a semi-circle on the stage. It was the last session of the conference – the annual Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS) Conference held in Melbourne from 2- 3 October, 2014 and was jointly hosted by the VCA and RMIT University. The theme, The Future of the Discipline sought “to report, discuss, disagree, collaborate… and to consider the future of what we do in all its forms and in all its potential scenarios”. The final roundtable panel addressed the question: “What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art?”

The introduction of the practice-led PhD – a relatively recent phenomenon in Australia, although well established in Britain since the late 1970s (although not the USA[1]) ­– is part of a larger phenomenon of growth and expansion of the arts, including the growth and merging of art schools with the university, thus creating an academic/art pathway. The explosion of art production across all fields of art began slowly in the post WWII period and then escalated during the political disturbances and rise of various liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s. In a recent article in Broadsheet Paul Gladston cites some fascinating figures which gives a hint of the numbers we are talking about. “…during the 1940s there were a mere handful of galleries exhibiting modern art across the whole of the USA with little more than twenty artists of any stature regularly showing work there.” Yes. TWENTY!

He goes on.

“By 1986…the USA had over two thousand modern art galleries with around six hundred and eighty of those galleries and one hundred and fifty thousand artists of non-amateur status producing modern works of art located in New York City alone. If one estimates a production rate of ten works of art by a single artist each year, […](an arguably conservative projection), then the number of modern artworks produced in NYC in 1986 would have been around 1.5 million compared with perhaps two hundred per annum in the early 1940s; a prodigious increase of well over seven thousand percent in less than half a century.” (Paul Gladstone, “in awe of the new: china’s entry into the global cultural-industrial complex,” Broadsheet 43_3 2014) (my italics)

These figures are sublime and could happily be applied and scaled to the Australian context, leaving no doubt that the “global cultural-industrial complex,” as Gladstone calls the contemporary artworld, is expanding, exponentially.

As a graduate of these programs myself, I have to say that contrary to the descriptions of the PhD process as “torture” and “agony” for artists, I thoroughly enjoyed my “journey.” For me it was a tremendous boon. For the first time in 20 years I could read without worry, anxiety and dread that I was wasting time and avoiding more important stuff, like making money, making work, and other essential duties that life as an artist entails without a secure income. Life had been precarious and full. There was never a spare minute to read quietly and deeply. With the time and money generously donated by the Govt/Academy I could read in peace and follow up on ideas and authors. I could relax, contemplate, think quietly about the world, even daydream! — all luxury pastimes that I couldn’t afford before, and I was surrounded by like-minded people. Surely these are all good things for an artist to be experiencing.

Rather than the older hierarchical Academy with its guild-style methods of training through copying and mimesis (thinking here of the French academy of the 18th and 19th century) today’s academy is not overtly rule-bound with disciplines loosened and untethered from their previous narrow parameters. In today’s art school, practices with ‘transdisciplinary’ methods and ‘open studio’ practices are encouraged. Research and the making of work is open-ended, criticality is encouraged, discussion is fulsome. And significantly there are a lot of people doing it. Art is no longer the sole preserve of the knighted (usually male) “genius” with its accompanying narrative of tragedy and mad creativity.

The upside of this expansion means that more people can engage with the artist’s work, rather than a few specialized connoisseurs, taste-makers, cognoscente, aesthetes. One could liken this moment of art’s expansion to the mass education policies of the 19th century when a whole lot more people were enabled to participate in the public sphere of democracy through mass education.

Of course the escalating numbers of arts graduates has created some anxieties for people worried that it will lower the standards, or create simply “zombie” automatons with students being churned out of a sausage factory. These may all be valid worries, yet call me a crazed optimist, I can’t help but see the other side of this growth of artists and art graduates, and that is that it may not create better art, but what it does create is a larger, more exciting environment for art and artists. The arts landscape has benefited and grown with this injection of artists who enter and leave the academy with a much broader exposure to art, with a more complex knowledge of the many issues, ideas, movements ways of knowing and doing.

As one of the artists on the panel said with clarity and force –- what is driving the uptake of artists into the academy is the PhD scholarship, that is, it’s the money! And this of course can suggest a cynical attitude towards these artists/students. “you’re only in it for the money” or other accusations of self-interest and gross materialism. However, the panelist went on to say that that may be the initial reason, the initial opportunism of the artist seeking time and money, (and why not!) but by the end of the candidacy period it is no longer what artists say about the experience. Rather than a cynical ‘take the money and run’ attitude, artists have taken up the challenge with great enthusiasm and most work hard, learn a lot, go on a precipitous journey and come out the other side, profoundly changed – and yes perhaps better artists. It is a wonderful opportunity for artists and it is a gift of the best sort.

What does this all mean for artist-run initiatives? In a counter-intuitive consequence of the introduction of practice-based research programs, the PhD is part of a generally more democratic move, rather than a narrowing and specializing of knowledge that is often associated with ‘higher learning’ of past eras. The practice-based research degree has created a larger arena, altering the broader arts ecology through the sheer numbers of arts graduates that are out there. More people are becoming artists, more people are studying art, more people are visiting the official institutions of art, more people engage with ‘art’. Yet as Gregory Sholette reminds us in his 2010 book Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, the number of artists who attain success in terms of money and status is extremely small, minuscule. Rather, the majority of art graduates are destined to become ‘dark matter’ – invisible, unacknowledged and exploited, yet absolutely necessary for the whole apparatus of the artworld to exist. Like the actual celestial ‘dark matter’, which is 5% of the known universe, it is their existence that holds the thing together.

In this scenario art-run initiatives can have a vital role to play. They are spaces and places where artists can continue their work ‘outside’ the demands of the art market and art world museums and institutions. An artist-run has the possibility, (although not all may do so) to keep a small crack open for artists to take hold of their own work and futures; it can give artists an independence that is necessary for vital work and engagement. Artist-runs can create communities of artists, which in turn enable artists to continue making work, to continue to engage, they enable a sociality that is crucial to art practice. They are also the place where the most exciting, I think,  and vital art production is occurring with artists dodging the bureaucracies and status oriented art market, they can be a refuge and a space of powerful creativity.

Over the last year I’ve visited many different sorts of artist-runs, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single model. Artist-runs serve the needs of those who participate within them, they can be whatever the participants want of them, but there is one key factor that they all seem to share, and that is their size. The artist-run is usually a small operation. It is small in terms of numbers of people involved in its operation, in terms of the space and exhibitions or projects that it is involved with. This gives the artist-run a nimbleness and responsiveness to the world around them that is distinctive and vital.

[1] It was reported that one of the reasons for the resistance of the PhD model in the USA is the cost. Unlike in Australia where artists/students can apply for a scholarship to help defray costs, the added expense of 3 -4 more years of study, for an American student would be out of the question.

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