Doctor of Philosophy

by Michael Galbreth October 12, 2011

“A University of Oxford Dphil in full academic dress”

Glasstire has lots of fun opportunities to vomit voice your opinions about art. It’s set up to be interactive. However, for a number of reasons, it’s not often that I am moved to add to the chatter. A recent poll, however, caught my eye. As regular readers are familiar, Glasstire frequently posits a hypothetical to which readers may respond (simplistically) by voting. The current poll question is, “Should artists pursue a PhD in studio art?” By today (October 8), the respondents exceeded the 70 mark, which in sheer quantitative terms makes it a solidly reliable poll for art opinions in Texas. The current results are an astounding 86% against with an “It’s all bullshit,” emphatic, flag-bearing, leading the charge quote by Christina Rees. In years past I may have leaped to some simplistic dismissal to this particular question, but now…

If the answer is indeed in the question, then let’s analyze the question. Let’s break it down into parts – phrases, definition of terms, etc.

The first thing to consider is the first part: “Should artists pursue…?” This assumes there is something to pursue, something pursuable – a Phd in “studio art” in this case. Well, where would one pursue such a thing if someone could pursue such a thing? No school in Texas offers one (by school I mean institutions of higher learning otherwise known, in the parlance of our time, as colleges, universities). For those with only in-state tuition budgets, that’s not an option. So what about elsewhere? After careful, thorough research (more than 5 pages of Google), there seems to be very few art departments in universities or art school colleges that offer a PhD in “studio arts.” To back up my assessment, here’s the first result in my exhaustive search – an article posted on the authoritative, deliberate and sagacious Huffington Post:

So who offers a PhD in “Studio art?” Apparently, as of February of last year (2010) only one of the so called top 70 art schools offers a PhD. Who?

UCSD (University of California, San Diego)

I did not research the most “artistic” colleges, which may be found here:

(The only Texas school on either list was UT but I have no idea how they made any list remotely related to art except that because they’re in the top 10 in every sport all the way down to badminton, the rankers (pun intended) who make these rankings must have figured they deserve thusly to be included. They don’t. My guess is that UH has secured its place among the bottom 100. But I couldn’t find that list. No wonder. You’ll notice that I didn’t even mention Rice. But I digress.*)

My first question is, how can one even ask this question? After all, it seems that pursuing a Phd in “studio art” is not very pursuable which posits it in the realm of the near hypothetical.

Next, let’s consider the term “studio art.” What is this? I assume that it’s different from non- studio art, of which I am familiar. And (and this is an educated guess) non-studio art is the larger of the two sets by a long shot. And as a practice, that is, something to do with one’s life, “studio art” is certainly different from art history, which is another of those many employable practices, like curating, built on the backs of those who actually do the do. It seems every school offers a PhD in art history which apparently qualifies one to be an expert in art. How is it that the study of the thing is more scholarly than the thing? That’s what it implies, doesn’t it? I find that similar to receiving a PhD in heart surgery without ever having performed one. Something’s fishy here to say the least.

The question behind this question is should//how/can it be possible that artists, compared to other people in other so-called disciplines, deserve/qualify for such a thing, this title? After all, engineering, biology and even business (for god’s sake) routinely offer PhD’s. Artists just express themselves (for god’s sake), don’t they? This can’t possibly be quantifiable enough to award a PhD. Can it? Should it?

Let’s step back a moment, clear the air, and try, at least, to look at this objectively. Humans as a species, are social animals (except for women in Saudi Arabia and the reason for that is that they’re not allowed to do anything so no one really knows anything about them, except they’re there. And we know this because our drones are flying overhead and they’ve been seen – but not heard). Anyway, humans love to organize themselves into groups, sets, tribes, countries, elk’s clubs, women’s softball teams and universities. Structurally, human organizations tend to have hierarchical arrangements based on various characteristics, some deserved, perhaps, some not. Regardless, recognition of higher status is important, like the people who are closer to God and you know they are because they wear a funny white collar that signifies that they are. There are many examples of these signs, both simple and complex. They are social signs of status and accomplishment. This is what a PhD is. And once you’re a doctor, you can never be an undoctor (unless your last name is Kervorkian). It’s just like the title of Grandmaster in chess. Once you’ve achieved it, you have it for life. And even if some wood pushing putz at notsuoH whips you playing black, you’re still a Grandmaster. Or it’s like a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, which, except for five of the nine, is pretty supreme. Apparently.

Thus, the award of a PhD, in contemporary human society (Plato was never Dr. Plato) is important as a status symbol and thus important to our culture.

As for the importance of art in human culture, the most succinct summation on this that I have ever heard comes from Milton Glaser (for god’s sakes) [ ]. On this subject, his words are the clearest, most accurate, most true that I have heard. Here are his words.

“There’s this stupid overlap between the two that no one understands. And the lack of distinction between art and design and art and non-art is so puzzling to people. And everybody wants to be an artist because, in terms of status, there’s almost nothing better you can be in almost any culture; basically, [this is] because art is terribly important as a survival mechanism for any culture. As a result, the people in primitive cultures who can create art as such are those who are highly respected. And that basically occurs in sophisticated cultures as well. But the only purpose of art is that it is the most powerful instrument for survival—art is so persistent in all our cultures because it is a means of the culture to survive. And the reason for that, I believe, is that art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive.

But if you look at a work of art, you can re-engage reality once again, and you see the distinction between what you thought things were and what they actually are. Because of that, it is a mechanism for the species to survive. And because of that, it is terribly important in human consciousness. I also believe, curiously, that beauty, which is very often something we confuse with art, is merely a mechanism to move us towards attentiveness. You realize we all have a genetic capacity and need to experience beauty, but beauty is not the ultimate justification for art. It is merely the device by which we are led to attentiveness.”

[Trouble yourself to listen to him yourself. Here’s the link. Hear it and don’t weep. ]

So finally, the real question, (assuming that art is the most important aspect of human culture, which it is) is not “Should artists pursue a doctorate in studio art?” but rather, “How can it be that anyone else but artists are recognized as doctors of philosophy?


* Footnote: (Okay, I mean, I’m going to like, way digress here, you know? Wildly. Have you ever noticed that when a, say, right tackle from the Green Bay Packers self introduces himself before the game [c’mon, admit it, you have] and if he happens to have gone to Ohio State he says, self-introducingly, “Brad Dipshit, THE Ohio State University,” making a way bigger than necessary deal to emphatically overly emphasize the THE to let you know that it’s not just Ohio State or Ohio State University but THE Ohio State University? As if the THE makes it more important or something. As if THE Missisippi State or THE Texas Christian or all THE other universities are inferior because they don’t actually have a THE in front of their official name. To all those who went to Ohio State who insist on calling it THE Ohio State University, I say shut THE fuck up.)


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janet tyson October 13, 2011 - 08:10

Overlooking your reference to THE Ohio State University–whose name I cannot explain, but it is what it is–the business about a PhD in studio is confusing. Because a PhD is not about practice, it’s about theory.
So a PhD in studio would not be about making or practicing art, but theorizing about the making or practicing. In which case, an artist would be best-qualified to propound theories.
I don’t think that a PhD in studio automatically is bullshit. Not if it actually helped someone be a better artist or helped get that person galleries, exhibitions and employment.
If it is bullshit, it’s only if a PhD in studio is being heralded as some kind of magic bullet that would further one’s career. And that IS bullshit because, at this moment in history, I don’t think that any sort of degree does anything for anyone–outside of personal enrichment.
Nor do I see it as an issue of status (well, not entirely, as I do understand the status thing to a point). What it really is, is a matter of: do you want to subject yourself to the rigors (including the tyranny of a PhD advisor) of in-depth research on a subject?
If so, go for it. If not, never mind. Which really has nothing to do with bullshit or not bullshit.

Angela Walley October 13, 2011 - 11:36

Great article. I imagined Michael’s sweet voice narrating the whole thing in my head. I love the Milton Glaser reference, that man is a genius. I also love how Michael somehow integrated a sports reference into an article about “pursuing” a PhD in studio art.

janet tyson October 13, 2011 - 12:14

Vis a vis Milton Glaser, who never really did get to the point about art and design: beauty is a mechanism, absolutely. But, as Dave Hickey (unintentionally) has demonstrated, there’s no agreement on what constitutes beauty. His idea of beauty involves smooth surfaces and charismatic color. For Dave, beauty generally equates with voluptuousness. For me, it would be rough surfaces and monochrome and a sort of puritan severity–that’s what would lead me to attentiveness.

BrownKlown October 14, 2011 - 20:56

THE THE THE Klown wins! HA-HA-HA!

michelle chen-dubose October 14, 2011 - 23:23

Good read!
Also love the photo and caption.

Jerome October 17, 2011 - 12:47

Texas Tech University offers a PhD in Fine Art.

Terry Mahaffey October 17, 2011 - 15:25

Thanks very much for the thoughtful article. I enjoyed your comments about the importance of art to our culture and I agree that the artist has assumed the mantle of philosopher for our time. (Alas, some didn’t get the memo – I’m looking at you Damien H.) I’d like to make a quick observation regarding your comment “It seems every school offers a PhD in art history which apparently qualifies one to be an expert in art.” Respectfully, a graduate education in Art History is not so much a study of the making of a thing, as it is a study of the conditions within which a thing is created, and, by extension, the created thing’s impact on subsequent artistic practices. For example, an art historical study of Michelangelo is not undertaken in order to learn (or critique) his chiseling technique, but is instead, a study of what influenced the artist and how the artist’s influence extended forward. Where a studio artist studies how to make a sculpture, continuing with the Michelangelo example, an art history student endeavors to learn (among other things), the origin and development of his style, the sociological and theological conditions that guided his compositional practices and techniques (I’m thinking of the Catholic Church’s striving to adapt to the forces of the Protestant Reformation), and how his style was adopted/adapted by subsequent artists. An art historian is not an expert in practice, as is the heart surgeon in your analogy, but is instead an expert both in what influences an artist (or a work of art) and how that influence is extended forward.

janet tyson October 18, 2011 - 10:43

Terry makes an important, albeit indirect, clarification of my comment about a PhD being about theory, rather than practice. He talks about a graduate degree in art history in terms of historical context for the production of objects, and of the influence an artist and the objects s/he makes upon future artists/objects. And there is a difference between a PhD in art history and in critical theory. But history and critical theory intersect because history generally is selective and, as such, it becomes a form of criticism.
Anyway, there are plenty of artists who have the chops to acquire a PhD in practice, theory and/or history, if they want to. Any of those has the potential to enrich their work and maybe even advance their careers. If art schools/departments continue to be inundated with 100x more applicants than there are open positions, the extra credential might help narrow the field.
I know that art historians (especially those in academia) often seem clueless about actual objects, and the theories they put forth can be incredibly trivial. But that doesn’t mean they lack focus and discipline–and those both are qualities that any successful artist needs, as well.

dfab October 18, 2011 - 18:37

I’m still trying to discover why the MFA degree exists.

janet tyson October 18, 2011 - 19:30

A PhD in studio is the new MFA in studio. We just keep degrading that which is at the beginning of the process of a formal education in studio practice by adding to what used to be the end of the process. But so it is in many, if not most or all, disciplines. Give it another two or three years, though, and maybe the coolest thing, that which will have search committee’s knocking down one’s door, will be a high school transcript that includes art classes, taught by someone who couldn’t find even an adjunct position teaching Intro. to Drawing in a community college. (My first two years of college were at a community college–and, with few exceptions, my best instructors were at that school.)

Chad Dawkins October 24, 2011 - 18:49

What would actually be the coolest is if in two or three years high school kids still get art classes. I agree with the arguments of overqualified teachers in community colleges and with the importance of an extended study in the theory and underlying mechanisms of art production, etc. But, I’m with dfab in questioning the MFA. If the point of an extended education is to learn one’s field in depth, then what are all are of these MFA students doing for four years? The MFA programs are nothing more than diploma mills churning out under-educated, uninspired artists with a credential to teach at, yes, community college or high school. But if the goal is dignified teaching positions than it should be admitted that people are not pursuing MFA’s to be artists they are, in fact, looking to be teachers.

If students aren’t getting the theoretical and critical grounding needed to traverse their own work and the realm they wish to inhabit in a graduate program how is anyone to expect that they would gain it in an additional research program? From my experience, MFA programs offer connections and social opportunities. As with any field, they are also a bogus means of obtaining the credentials to practice in one’s field. If an MFA is the current “ticket in” what will be consequences of an additional level in the academic or professional hierarchy?

As for the notion that “the artist has assumed the mantle of philosopher for our time”–that’s a crock of shit, an idealist, romantic vision of the artist as the champion of culture, the savior of humanity. Artists make stuff, we tell stories, we bore people with our obsessions, we teach at community colleges. I would be so bold as to say that the philosophers of our time are–wait for it–contemporary philosophers.

Not to be too pedantic or sarcastic, but I fear that the question of the validity of these sorts of political-academic-monetary maneuvers morph into questions of which “art job” is more important. That is another fight in itself. The fact is that artists work in the art world. Philosophers, theorists, art historians, and all other PhD’s work in the academic world. It takes a very special individual to successfully navigate the bridge between those worlds. And I feel wholeheartedly that the hordes of potential studio PhD candidates are not that special.

Terry Mahaffey October 24, 2011 - 19:32

A philosopher is one whose role has traditionally been to foment discourse within his or her sphere of influence about the fundamental nature of things: of knowledge, of reality, of existence, etc. During better times, our civilization has profited greatly from this transaction.

The “mantle” has been variously passed, in my view, from the ancient (original) philosophers to those who were best able to rise to this dignity. At once it was certainly the poets, then the painters and sculptors of proto and early modernity took charge.

To whom are we to look in our time if not the artist? Who is capable of moving our humanity in the right direction if not the artist?

Marianne B. Woods November 1, 2011 - 13:41

I teach Art History at a Texas University and I have enjoyed all of these comments. I told my students just this week that PhD means “piled higher and deeper” and they laughed! The point is that it takes a lot of dedication to reading, writing, and sleuthing to earn a PhD! I have met very few MFA grads who have the necessary interest and ability. So…perhaps it is about skills and abilities; they are separate and likely equal. It just takes a lot more time and money to earn a PhD than it does an MFA.


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