How to pass the sight test

Keep it visual, asserts Peter Hill. It is imperative that candidates for studio-based arts PhDs present their research using the physicality of their chosen medium

July 15, 2010

Since America finally entered the debate about studio-based PhDs in the visual arts, books, magazine articles and conference halls have been filled with discussion on the topic. Every conceivable point of view has been put forward: some urge a total rethink of the whole university system, in addition to the art school's place within it; others urge an expansion of how we define research; and yet others, such as Robert Storr at Yale University, deny that artists do, or should do, research at all.

Most of us know what it is like when a department or school goes through that death by a thousand cuts known as a restructure. Every faculty member puts forward his or her utopian vision of how an art school should be run, but in the end nothing is agreed, which is usually just as well because management has probably decided already.

It is a little like that with the whole PhD debate. Many, although by no means all, who lead the debate in print come from a "theory" background and see theory as making up a large part of the studio-based PhD submission. However, many of those theoreticians have never fully understood that art is a language in its own right, like music or mathematics, and arguments can be made in paint and through drawing and photography, or in the physicality of matter (sculpture, installation art) without recourse to words.

The new knowledge produced is contained within the physicality of the artwork, and in the idea of the artwork, not in the text that accompanies it, although the text is useful (particularly to the examiner) as an explanation or exegesis of the research carried out in the studio.

The revolutionary work of the Impressionists, for example, was argued out in paint on canvas, not in text on paper that at some later date would be translated into taches of paint on canvas. Indeed, it was imperative that words be kept out of the artist's head as much as possible so that visual thinking could occur.

Significantly, the methodology of the artist is driven by trial and error and is profoundly reliant on process as well as speculation, or asking the question "what if?". Art historians and theorists generally arrive after the messiness of the primal event and are thus well placed to apply a disciplined methodology to the interpretation of not just the artwork but the society through which the artist lived.

Artists should of course be exposed to these theories while at art school, but most, in truth, go well beyond the confines of post-colonial theory, or deconstruction, or queer theory, in the search for inspiration. They feel themselves free to construct artworks from any and all aspects of this strange universe in which we find ourselves, from biochemistry and animal behaviourism to systems theories, the psychogeography of the city, or the vagaries of the stock market. All are grist to the artist's research mill and should be encouraged.

Our language is visual. Some carry out research through the language of mathematics and others through the language of text or music. My mantra for artists, and for research programmes, has always been "Keep it visual". We are artists, not scholars, or musicians, or mathematicians. Some say our studio research has more resonance with the scientist's laboratory than with the interpretative studies of the art historian, yet our outcomes are not scientific - they are poetic, or socially reflective, and relate to the human condition in its entirety.

Artistic production is often at its most exciting and subversive before it has been named or had theories built around it. As an example of this, I often cite a book by John A. Walker, Art Since Pop (1975). It described the work of minimalist sculptors, performance artists and conceptual artists, a new breed of thinker/maker that included Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Beuys. These new and not yet understood movements were thus initially defined by what they were not, that is, they were not Pop Art. So, in a weird Rumsfeldian way, when we are talking about artists undertaking doctoral research, we are talking about unknown unknowns.

Even more important than artists developing a disciplined methodology is that they discover and develop their own visual language, or what could be called a "personal methodology" disciplined according to its own internal structure (as Cy Twombly, Imants Tillers, Emily Kngwarreye, Douglas Gordon, Hany Armanious and Rosalie Gascoigne have done). This, in a moment, will take us into the realm of "originality" and its importance to the doctoral process.

My own journey into the PhD debate began in the mid-1990s. At different times, I have been a sceptic, an evangelist, a candidate, a supervisor and an examiner. Now, I see myself as an optimistic realist and like to think that the bottle is at least half-full and acceptably drinkable.

Australia led the way in studio-based PhDs; the UK followed a few years later. And now the US is eyeing the water nervously. There is a wide range of books available on the subject, but one of the most interesting and satisfying aspects is the contribution that Australia has made to the international debate.

The recently published Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art is edited by James Elkins, professor of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago. The first part contains 11 essays taking a wide range of positions, from Timothy Emlyn Jones' "Research degrees in art and design" to Charles Harrison's "When management speaks ..." and from Hilde Van Gelder and Jan Baetens' "The future of the doctorate in the arts" to Elkins' "The three configurations of studio-art PhDs".

Part two comprises excerpts from PhD dissertations from around the world. Of the eight reproduced, five are Australian candidates: Jo-Anne Duggan, University of Technology, Sydney; Sue Lovegrove, Frank Thirion and Ruth Waller, all from Australian National University; and Christl Berg, University of Tasmania, Hobart. The remaining three come from Chelsea College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London and Slade School of Fine Art.

Turning to Graeme Sullivan's Art Practice as Research: Inquiry into the Visual Arts, we find contributions from staff of the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, including Joanna Mendelssohn, alongside the late Nick Waterlow, Anne Graham (Newcastle University) and Jayne Dyer.

In Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD, and the Academy (2010), we have a book that is totally international in content, edited by Brad Buckley of Sydney College of the Arts and John Conomos of the University of Sydney. Other contributors include Su Baker from the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Music and Edward Colless from the same institution.

Many contributors to these books, and to the 2007 edited volume Thinking Through Practice: Art as Research in the Academy, understand what visual arts research is. Others show that, twinned with the danger of not understanding that art production is a form of research, is the danger of not understanding what a PhD is.

Perhaps the most useful book is How To Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors by Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, now in its fourth edition (2005).

It is full of good practical advice for candidates and supervisors on topics such as "managing your supervisor", but it is in the wonderfully titled chapter "How not to get a PhD" that we find section headings that relate to some of the mistakes made by some of the contributors to Artists with PhDs. "Not understanding the PhD by overestimating what is required" is followed by "Not understanding the PhD by underestimating what is required" and the next (sadly quite pertinent) section, "Not having a supervisor who knows what a PhD requires".

Many candidates overestimate the problem of originality. This book puts it into perspective and at the same time eases much of the stress felt by the candidate and his or her supervisors. It says: "The aim of this section is to help you get used to the idea that it is easy to be original. As you read further and realise the different definitions of originality that are acceptable, you should begin to feel more comfortable about your ability to be sufficiently original to satisfy your examiners."

It goes on to list 15 separate ways in which candidates can be original, and they need to satisfy only one of these (even in an otherwise pedestrian presentation) to be awarded the PhD. These include:

- Setting down a major piece of new information in writing for the first time (or, for painters, I would include "on canvas for the first time"; "on a cave wall for the first time"; "in a new material for the first time").

- Continuing a previously original piece of work (think of Damien Hirst extending Jeff Koons' use of objects suspended in glass tanks).

- Showing originality in testing somebody else's idea (Michael Landy revisiting Jean Tinguely, for example).

- Being cross-disciplinary and using different methodologies (the i-cinema collaboration between the College of Fine Arts and the Faculty of Engineering at the University of New South Wales, notably in the work of Dennis del Favero).

- Taking a particular technique and applying it in a new area (for example, Gary Carsley laminating images on to Ikea furniture for the 2009 Singapore Biennale).

It is worth repeating that a candidate need be successful in only one of the 15 ways of showing originality to satisfy the doctoral award. You can find the other 10 ways in this remarkable book.

Elsewhere, Phillips and Pugh caution: "You may hear people telling you about the 'ideal' length of thesis. Pay no attention. A thesis should be no longer than it needs to be in order to report what you have done, why you did it and what you have concluded from the results of your work. Don't be impressed by theses that run to two volumes: it is often (correctly) said that a lot is written to obscure the fact that little has been achieved."

I once asked a research scientist what was the shortest PhD he had seen. He replied: "About two or three pages. There was an equation and its justification - in fact, the examiners' reports were longer than the PhD itself." So although the PhD is a universal award, it is presented in many different ways. The written component for a studio PhD may be as low as 10,000 words or as high as 40,000. The studio component may be as large as a Christo-wrapped coastline, or as small as an Indian miniature. It is the rigour of the PhD combined with the new knowledge, and the conclusions drawn, that are important.

This book states quite clearly that a PhD is a research training exercise, the outcome of which "should allow you to examine the PhDs of others with authority". It is the start of your research career, not the culmination of a lifetime's work.

There is an extremely useful chapter in which the form of the PhD is examined, using analogies with music.

"The university regulations for a doctorate, for example, have to apply in all subject fields from Arabic to zoology. So they are inevitably formal and are not able to catch the particular requirements in your field at this time ... There is, however, a certain form to doctoral theses - clearly at a high level of abstraction, since it has to be independent of the content and apply to all fields of knowledge. We may think of the analogy of the sonata form in music. This is a structure of musical writing, but it tells you nothing about the context. Hadyn wrote in sonata form, but so did Lennon and McCartney. The range of content covered is therefore enormous, but the sonata form does not cover all music. Neither Debussy nor Britten used this form. In jazz, Scott Joplin used sonata form but Bix Beiderbecke did not. The same is the case with the PhD. It has a particular form and since not all research conforms to it, you have to be aware of what the elements of its forms are."

I first entered the debate 15 years ago when I wrote an article called "Is there a doctor in the art school?". I received requests for photocopies from overseas, from academics in Canada, the UK and the US. And I was challenged to undertake a doctorate myself by Terry Batt at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, one of several institutions around the world that were already offering doctoral programmes. I have now been through the process as a candidate, as a supervisor and as an examiner. In almost all cases I have been impressed by the extraordinarily high standards of not just the studio research and studio supervision but the quality of the writing found in the written component or exegesis.

One piece of advice I would give all candidates is: "Don't expect your examiners to be mind readers." Tell them upfront what your research questions are - maybe list them as bullet points in the introduction - and return to them in the conclusion.

It is quite proper that these questions will change during the course of your project. The examiners will see that your research has evolved between the start and the finish and that, importantly, you have not been trying to predict the outcomes of your research.

It is also useful to state near the beginning what your research is not about. Sketchbooks and journals are important ways of showing the development of your research. You will spend much of the first third of your PhD collecting information and doing a thorough library search. For visual researchers this means looking at what exhibitions have been mounted, globally, in your field as much as it means being aware of texts published in books.

In the final third of your PhD you may feel overwhelmed by information and source material. Try to have a mental cut-off point as to where this project ends and the next one(s) begin. As someone once said, the sign of good research is that two questions now exist where only one existed previously. So keep a box file or sketchbook for "future projects" and look forward to the continuation of your research career.

Keep it visual. Be curious. And, as Samuel Beckett said, "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."

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