Thoughts on art practice PhDs

  • Daniel Rourke

Could an art practice-based PhD work for you? Artist, writer and PhD candidate Daniel Rourke reflects on balancing theory and practice.

Image: Daniel Rourke

What are artists to gain from taking a PhD? How does the mantle of ‘artistic research’ enable art objects and those invested in them? And where does art’s autonomy reside when its criticality comes from within an academic institution?

Over the last 20 years art has eased its way into academia. Past the door of the artist’s studio and up the back stairs it tiptoed until, in a very bold move, it seated itself in the commissioner’s chair. Where once art reacted against academies from the outside, art, and the artists who make it, now work from within the institution. Artists interested in pursuing a doctoral degree will have heard time and again about ‘the critical function of art’. Indeed, many theorists would insist on art being defined from this state of opposition (the ‘avant-garde’). But to understand the potential of art today it becomes impossible to separate it from the academic institutions that use its name to label their distinctive, often daring, new departments. Goldsmith’s Art Writing MFA and the RCA’s Critical Writing in Art & Design being two of the freshest – some might say hippest – examples.

To begin producing ‘new knowledge’, PhD researchers often need to pursue contradictory goals. A strong research question poses not the trajectory to a definitive answer, but a principle by which the researcher may begin to generate knowledge. This becomes especially slippery when that ‘knowledge’ is woven into an artistic practice, or when the art objects created by that practice are assumed to qualify the research. How does one invest research in projects that have yet to be realised? Practice-based PhDs hide another stumbling block, usually one based on the expectations of the artist: the belief that time invested in a research degree should improve the quality of practice, as well as strengthen one’s grasp of theory.

The distinction between the practice and theoretical components of a PhD can vary wildly, and although on paper they each glean 50% of the final mark severing them into definite halves can be an unwieldy, often impossible, task. In the RCA’s Department of Communication Art & Design for instance, projects regularly emerge that blur the line between the written and ‘practical’ components of research. A recent edition of critical journal Texte Zur Kunst focused on artistic research declared, "Philosophy and art share the conviction that cognition requires a material form.” A practice-based PhD may have a smaller word count than its non-practical equivalent, but as final exhibitions are documented and literature reviews are spell checked, the boundary between art object and critical reflection will have hopefully elided into a single, successful, conglomeration.

As a practice-based researcher myself, with two years of the academy under my belt, I’ve found that the primary method of answering these concerns is to reflect them back at the institution. Research does not take place in isolation. As with any treasured job it is the people that make a PhD worth undertaking. If you are lucky – and let’s admit it, fewer things are harder to predict than luck – the artists and academics that make up your department will be driven by similar desires as you are. Of course, I could spend the rest of this short article on the restrictions of labelling yourself a graduate of the RCA, Goldsmiths or the Slade. But reflecting back the conditions of research at the institutions that produce them comes closer to addressing what really makes academies function: exchange. To paraphrase the words of John F. Kennedy: ‘Ask not what academia can do for you—ask what you can do for your academia.’ Productive exchange begins by giving your all, whilst always expecting those around you to do the same.

In terms of the market, artistic practice often inhabits an obscure space, cut off from the concerns of art galleries, of buyers, sellers and the aesthetically motivated public. The main benefit of taking up a practice-based research position is exposing one’s practice to the eyes of others. But this exposure always focuses both ways. Jean-Francois Lyotard writes, in The Postmodern Condition, “Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.” Criticality – the enactment of research – begins in the process of exchange, a goal which, if Lyotard is to be believed, should be held in higher esteem than the art market. Taking a practice-based PhD means investing time and knowledge with other practitioners, often other artists who, having undertaken their research years before, now enact their modes of exchange as tutors, professors and PhD supervisors.

Research degrees are not always the best way to fortify the foundations of an artist’s practice. Indeed, many would argue that the very principle of artistic practice within the academy is to rock those foundations, even raze certain principles of practice to the ground. But when PhD researchers are supported to develop and sustain their thought from within their art it can often be the supervisor or established academic artist who has to rethink their assumptions, rather than the other way around. Personal exploration, issuing from practice, becomes valid as PhD research when its significance is a significance shared. A significance exchanged is a significance enhanced.

In this sense then, practice-based PhDs seem to offer nothing new: artists have always produced in order to advance knowledge. No one is suggesting that artistic practice takes place from within a social vacuum, or that artistic value cannot be found in studio and gallery spaces apart from the art school or academy. Instead, art’s investment in the exchange of knowledge – what we could call the momentum of knowledge – gathers energy and value from a variety of sources. To construe one’s practice as academic as well as artistic is to recognise that exchange is more than a two-way process. What Lyotard’s exclamation tells us about practice it also tells us about research, that investing time, effort and – principally – intellectual labour in anything is only half as valuable when you expect nothing in return.