[iDC] Praxis-based Ph.D.s

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Tue Jan 16 07:13:46 EST 2007

A quick response as at this time I am overseeing the move of 56 (practice
based) PhD's from one building to another.

On 16/1/07 03:04, "Christiane Robbins" <cpr at mindspring.com> wrote:

> This debate  has revolved around questions/responses such as:   What
> is the purpose of a PhD within the context of the arts and the
> university structure? Why is ithe PHD only being considered for
> digital media artist sand not for artists in general?
The situation in the UK is very different. Practice based PhD's across the
creative arts are now well established, with painters, sculptors, dancers,
choreographers, musicians, landscape architects and all sorts pursuing
research degrees in a range of institutions, from older research led
Universities through to the new Universities (ex-polytechnics where, due to
historical reasons, many art schools had been located since the 1970's).

So far as I am aware this is also the situation in Australia, New Zealand
and perhaps Canada (is anybody from Canada participating or lurking in this

I am not sure how many creative arts PhD's have been completed in the UK,
although I did see some figures a year or so ago. I seem to remember that
there were approaching 200 currently registered with 600 completed - but do
not hold me to those numbers. These might only be the numbers that have been
funded by the research councils. Othr PhD's would not have been auditted at
a national level.

An aside to this is that many UK practice based PhD candidates are from
outside the UK (and more commonly from outside Europe, with the new
economies of Asia especially well represented). There is of course a subtext
here concerning the value of knowledge and post-colonial patterns of power.

> What research  
> or ³practice² will create the expertise required for a PhD? And, will
> this be the only benchmark of future professors of art who are deemed
> experts in their field of research and inquiry?
As I mentioned in a prior post, in the UK many academic posts in University
art departments now require candidates to have completed or nearly completed
a PhD. This is not for Professorial posts but relatively junior lectureship
positions (probably equivalent to Assistant Professorships in the USA - in
the UK only full Professors, in the US sense, are known as Professor). For
Professors it would be assumed you hold a doctorate (or equivalent
experience) and significant senior research experience beyond that.

For the research oriented art schools here around 50% of income can be
derived from research funds whilst the traditional stream of teaching
related income can be below that. Institutions are also funded relative to
the doctoral candidates they host, and this feeds down to subject areas.
Thus there is a perogative to have a healthy PhD cohort and to have this you
need resources. A key resource requirement is supervisors and generally
supervisors need a PhD. Thus we have a (virtuous) circle of dependency, with
departments hiring practice based post-PhD's to supervise the next
generation of practice based PhD supervisors. "It's the (knowledge) economy,
s****d" (Clinton).

>How does this PHD 
> allow for an artist to evolve throughout a career that is constituted
> by a diverse body of determinate factors other than the University?
I don't think it does allow for this. Gropius's arguments, which you quoted,
support this position. The PhD is a degree for academics, allowing them to
progress to the higher rungs of the research career ladder. It is not a
degree for artists, nor should it be. This would be a waste of time for the
artists and a corruption of what a PhD is and what it is for. However, this
does not mean that artists cannot do, nor gain from doing, a PhD.

> My interest in the sites and practices of art is not only personal Š
> it is professional in that I have long been fascinated by the system
> (s) by which the arts are offered:  the compilation of
> representations, values, beliefs that are embedded into curricula,
> class assignments, studio crits, visiting artists, panels/
> conferences, and role models (otherwise known as faculty,)Š. how the
> identity of the artist is constructed by the discourse of the
> University system.  In this case it is the implementation of the PHD
> ­ in which I clearly see merit as well as some reasons for concern.
> This may ring true for a number of us.
Professionally I perceive myself as an artist, first and foremost. However,
I have this other hat I wear which is an academic research hat. Happily my
practice and research concerns generally overlap. If they didn't then I
would leave academia. Within the institution I imagine I am perceived as
both an artist and a research academic. I wonder which one garners more
respect? I have a suspicion it is the artist's hat. Other academics perceive
this as a very particular and socially quite special role. On the other
hand, the visual arts are not held in the highest academic esteem and whilst
the research councils now recognise creative practice as a form of research,
and will fund it as such, it is also the case that many academics in the old
research subjects take a dim view of this. Many, I suspect, would consider
this a waste of good money. Thus they wouldn't take the idea of a Professor
in art very seriously (Professor in the UK sense, which conventionally
implies a research leading post). Nevertheless, I find plenty of academics
in the "old" subjects (physics, anthropology, chemistry, maths, medicine,
etc) very open to art practice as research as well as to interdisciplinary
debate and even research collaboration. That there are specific research
funds available for this type of thing in the UK does function to focus
people's attention.

> What becomes a salient point in our current debate is that we are now
> confronted with a relatively nascent arts discipline ( digital media
> arts ) which harkens back not only to the notion of  ³manual
> dexterity of the craftsman² as currently epitomized by programming,
> digital imaging, etc.
An interesting and very specific example of the inverse situation could be
enlightening here. I was working with a physicist at Cambridge on developing
some new "smart" materials. These were theorised using maths and then
synthesised in a chemistry wet-lab. As part of the latter stages of the
development process significant amounts of time were involved in physically
manipulating the stuff (with your hands). He got a real kick out of doing
this and we discussed, at the time, the physical "craft" skills he had
developed in this research. I have also observed this sort of practice in
other hard science areas, not least computing. Therefore I see craft as
something practiced in many professions and not something that is definitive
of or particularly related to arts practice. Thus the implicit duality in
your argument above might not hold.



Simon Biggs

simon at littlepig.org.uk
AIM: simonbiggsuk

Research Professor, Edinburgh College of Art

s.biggs at eca.ac.uk

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