Paint It High and Deep

(Photo by Flickr/CC user muffinn)

Most working artists in America (certainly most who teach at colleges and universities) hold a Master of Fine Arts degree, established by the College Art Association, more than 50 years ago, as the terminal degree in the fine arts. As Dan Berrett writes in this week’s Chronicle, however, that may be about to change. The College Art Association is now tiptoeing around the idea of embracing the studio Ph.D. as the new terminal degree in the fine arts. Recently, the CAA hosted a workshop entitled, “Ph.D. for Artists: Sense or Nonsense?” The title tells you everything you need to know about how differently people in the art world view the idea.

On one side are those for whom a Ph.D. in studio art can’t come too soon. It would address the needs of internationally active, postmodern artists who are prominent in the contemporary art world and strive to stay competitive with their international counterparts. These sorts of internationally oriented artists do not so much make objects for aesthetic contemplation—or even make objects at all, for that matter—as make theoretical and research-based connections, many of them imaginary, among disparate disciplines ranging from genetics to engineering, and including references to everything from Kafka’s stories to personal narratives about hybrid sexuality.

On the other side of this debate about the “proper degree” for artists are those for whom the aesthetic object or experience remains the essence of art, and for whom the purpose of earning an advanced degree is to give artists a rigorous studio experience (continual critiques about the meaning and structure of the work produced) in order for them to develop mature, personal aesthetic styles. For the first group of research-oriented artists, the Ph.D. would permit them to delve deeply into scholarly disciplines that inform their art. For the second group, the studio Ph.D. would turn the M.F.A. degree into a meaningless scrap of sheepskin (institutions would no longer hire artists with only an M.F.A.), and worse, drive the final nail into the coffin of aesthetic objects.

Barrett quotes James Elkins, professor of art history at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who says, “I agree with every objection [to the studio Ph.D.] I’ve heard, every single one,” but then adds, “The thing is, it can’t be stopped.”

According to Howard Singerman (in Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, 1999), between 1990 and 1995, more than 10,000 M.F.A. degrees were awarded. That’s a lot of artists earning advanced degrees demonstrating mastery of a very imprecisely defined kind of knowledge.

For the most complete and incisive account of what the M.F.A. is, and how American universities, by virtue of supporting artists who would otherwise not make it in the marketplace, became the contemporary version of the Medici, Howard Singerman’s Art Subjects is a must read. Singerman traces the rise of the M.F.A. degree—in particular, how the various art programs that offer the degree ended up shaping and molding the kind of art that eventually showed up in the form of “hot art” in the contemporary art world. More importantly, Singerman shows how the university, which sees words as the foundation of knowledge, fed the postmodern art movement, with its emphasis on “cerebral” as opposed to “retinal” art, and its preference for “research” over manual skills and traditional ideas about aesthetic style.

While I remain a hard-core “aesthetic-object” artist, my taste is catholic enough that I’m open to the new, vast terrain where artists explore not new forms of “the beautiful,” but rather track down and explore what are, at first glance, seemingly random connections. Moreover, the “aesthetic object,” as it mostly shows up nowadays, is frequently—well, just plain boring.

Even so, it’s easy to see the pitfalls lurking in making the Ph.D. in studio art the norm. Instead of wholeheartedly devoting their most productive years to their own creations, artists earning a studio Ph.D. will spend a good part of their time doing research that specialists spend all their time doing. Exactly how, then, will they avoid ending up half-baked versions of their specialist counterparts?

Leonardo da Vinci was the first to bring the fine arts into the university. He argued art belonged in the liberal arts because it was an intellectual, rather than a manual endeavor. He confidently argued the case for art as a philosophical enterprise—more powerful than all the other liberal arts, more powerful even than nature, and ultimately resting on deep mental cogitation. Today’s proponents of the studio Ph.D., by contrast, reveal a profound insecurity. They seem to show a kind of word-envy and science-envy, and to be afraid that art, on its own, is weak and meaningless.

Every age invents art that fulfills its desires. Our age—an age marked by deep insecurities—is now inventing an art that requires advanced certification. But no matter how many advanced degrees an artist piles on, it’s hard to see how any of them will help any artist with the unsolvable problem that haunts any kind of art—namely, how to make art that’s any good.

A few years back, the late ceramist and sculptor Ken Price observed, “I can’t prove my art’s any good or that it means what I say it means. And nothing I say can improve the way it looks.” Poor Ken Price. He never could have earned a studio Ph.D.


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