College Art Association (CAA) Conference.
The first day at the College Arts Association (CAA) conference in New York offered a promising panel discussion: MFA? Ph.D.? DVA? Determining the Terminal Degree in Studio Art Practice for the Twenty First Century. Unfortunately CAA continues to disappoint as a forum for leading the debate about the problems and potentials of post MFA art education in this country. Although there are always instances of intriguing projects being undertaken by individuals that are profiled, the overall tendency in any discussion continues to highlight issues that are rather peripheral to the important topics that need to be addressed. Whether the possibility that an advanced degree in Visual Arts can indeed advance the field in the U.S. is not going to be seriously considered if we continue to see these moves as merely as credential creep or to see programs currently in place in other countries as merely exercises in economic opportunism.
A more substantive concept that was seen by one of the panel members as a problem yet to be faced by those advocating advanced research degrees in studio art was the ongoing difficulty in justifying the outcomes as “repeatable knowledge.” With a commonly cited goal of research being the “production of knowledge,” the expectation that outcomes of research can be repeated and independently replicated is a long-time gold standard of scientific research. The belief that all research should yield “repeatable knowledge” and that visual arts therefore has to address this criterion comes from arguments made over twenty years ago when the possibility of studio-based Ph.D. degrees were first mooted. The task at the time was to demonstrate that for artists who worked in the academy, what they did in their studios could be seen as “equivalent” to the research undertaken throughout the wider university. Understandably this raised considerable debate and some curious attempts to fit square pegs into round holes. It was also an initial step in opening the debate and got us a seat at the table.
But ‘equivalence’ is a rationale that is not sustainable. Acceptance into any community, such as a research culture, where acceptance is determined by those who currently control the conditions for inclusion or exclusion will always yield an unequal alliance. Unless artists whose motivation and expertise takes them into the academy are able to claim a seat at the table in terms of what art ‘does’ then we are destined to remain marginalized. Being on the edge is, of course, a great place from which to see “in and out’ at the same time. But if there is a belief that artists have a critical and creative role in the larger debates and dilemmas facing institutions and communities, then there is a crucial need to take control of the language of change.
There is no better place for this to happen than in art schools within university settings. Re-imagining the role of visual arts in these ‘institutional artworld’ spaces is already changing the landscape in many places. It can be seen in the slowly evolving, but adventurous work of students who have decided that a degree beyond the MFA is a place where ideas can be given a mature, rigorous work out that enhances rather than limits their creative capacities. And it is also evident in the questions posed and post-disciplinary attitudes present in the young generation of art students who are currently re-visioning the MFA itself. And this is global, not merely local. It seems to me that they deserve better leadership in opening up opportunities to continue to shape what it is that artists can do in the 21st century, and it is certainly not terminal.
PS: To read more about the background to the emergence of practice-led research degrees in visual arts see Chapter 3, Practice and Beyond, in my text, Art practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts. A brief summary can be found in the Menu Bar>From the Book.
For more discussion about issues such as ‘equivalence’ and other arguments mounted to support practice-based degrees university settings see my chapter, Making Space: The Purpose and Place of Practice-Led Research. In Hazel Smith, H. & Dean, R. (2009) (Eds.), Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts (pp. 41-65). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. A PDF can be downloaded for Menu Bar>Resources.