A post last week on Art World Salon, titled 'What's wrong with "professionalization"?' put me on to James Elkins' new book, coming out soon through New Academia Publishing, a print-on-demand publisher of peer-reviewed academic publications.
Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art examines the studio-art PhD, or practice-based doctorate, described by Elkins as "a hot topic in art instruction in the US".
in the UK there are up to 2,000 students currently enrolled in such programs, and there will soon be 10 universities in Australia that offer the degree. At the moment there are about 10 programs in the US and Canada, and another dozen more under development. It appears that the PhD in studio art will become the next MFA--that is, the expected terminal degree for artists who want to get jobs teaching. In twenty or thirty years' time, it is likely that every major art school and department will offer the PhD. The degree is controversial wherever it exists, and there is a fair amount of resistance to it: there have been some stormy sessions on the subject at conferences. Most of the formative issues, from grading to accreditation, remain unresolved.
The first half of the book is made up of essays about doctorate programmes; the second is made up of excerpts from PhD dissertations produced in such programmes. Elkins describes the book as "as a resource to help artists, teachers, administrators, and students assess and compare the new programs".
This might all sound dry, but in advance of reading the actual books, to me it seems like Elkins is setting the cat amongst the lengthily-educated pigeons. In an interview on Bad at Sports (start at about 6mins in), Elkins talks about his book and research, and his personal bugbear, the body of literature emerging from the UK and Australia that argues that research in the fine arts is the same as research in science or maths, in that it is producing new areas of knowledge. He observes that this argument is made partly in response to funding pressures - in the UK these arguments have had to been made in order to get more money for art programmes, which otherwise would not be funded as they don't produce research outputs.
You can read a draft version of the final chapter of Elkins' book online. Here Elkins predicts that the art PhD will continue to spread - regardless of whether it produces "better" art - as eventually, like the MFA is today, it will be the prerequisite for a teaching position. It's a forthright and interesting piece of writing, which questions whether more education really is what artists need, but also argues that if it is, then that education should be rigorous and meaningful, not half-assed and incompetently overseen. From the final page:
For the small percentage of art students who really need to master some body of knowledge, the PhD is not only a good idea, but an essential one. The art world is filled to overflowing with half-digested theories, bluster, incoherence, and disorganized, impressionistic writing. In a sense that's the status quo, and it would not make sense to critique it: but in some cases, when particular claims are being made about specific concepts and philosophic positions, then the PhD would be the only place an artist could got to really join the conversation of contemporary visual theory. ...
Let's work to raise the bar, and make art education more difficult.
*Performance based research funding
**Obviously a PhD candicate would use more polysyllabic words, such as pedagogy and methodology, but uni was a long time ago for me now ...