Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art Paperback – 9 Mar 2009
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About the Author
James Elkins is E.C. Chadbourne Professor in the of Department of Art History. Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He writes on art and non-art images; his recent books include On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, What Happened to Art Criticism? and Master Narratives and Their Discontents.
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This is a book clearly written to cash in on a change in the American education market but is based on experience that has mostly been gained in European and Australian contexts. It may be of interest and value to those who wish to reflect on doctoral level arts education in the USA, but as a participant in these debates in the UK I can't really recommend this book wholeheartedly to potential PhD applicants or to those involved in supervision. The first section is somewhat confused in intent - who exactly is the audience for these very various - and in some cases very out of date - chapters. (One chapter was written for a conference in 2002 and promotes arguments that have long been discredited by more recent doctoral work). The second section, made up of extracts from the written element of eight PhD projects (without more than the briefest contextual information), is ultimately of dubious value other than as an indicative sample of writing styles.
My main objection to this patchy book it is that, from where I stand, it comes across as a lazy attempt to cash in on an educational situation that really requires a much more considered and thoughtful approach, put together by an editor who really ought to know better. The choice of contributers to the first section inevitably results in an uneven mixture of disparate views that, to someone whose been involved in this area for over ten years, are as predicable as they are dull. This is ultimately a book for those academic managers and administrators who need to "have an informed view" on the subject before they attend that next all-important committee meeting on updating the curriculum, and not really for arts based doctoral students or their supervisors. If you're in the former category, then you may find in useful in parts, if not, you probably will not.
Hopefully in due course someone will recognize just how far short of what is needed this book falls. If we then get a book that really does take the time to look properly at the historical development of the arts practice doctorate, makes informed sense of the issues involved, and examines the potential this has for helping to reform a higher education system that currently singularly fails to grasp what is at stake, this book will have served one useful purpose.
Art should find it's own place in university not denying its own complexity, by being art and not forcing itself to become anything else.
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But Elkins does not let this phase him. His invited authors ramble all over, they republish older presented papers, they cherry pick to back up dubious claims. Most of the book centers on the attempts at starting PhD programs in the UK or in Europe. The US component is by George Smith, who believes current undergrad and graduate progams do not provide enough theory. I find this odd considering that it appears he has no MFA degree and that his own PhD institute does not appear to be run by any University. But we'll let that go. The main problem with the book was it read more like a ragtag collection of conference papers than any coherent attempt at discussing PhD's in the visual arts and what that might mean. Ultimately the book comes off as the cry of generalists or those with education degrees who have little understanding of how the art world really works or who view PhD programs as a continuation of a little cash cow. What is being discussed in art schools, at least in those I'm familiar with in North America, is the ridiculousness of any PhD in visual arts. A better book will have to be written before they warm up to the idea.