Issue #190
My Parrot Can Talk, Can Your Honor Student Fly? May 18, 2012

Installation view of the Repair Station (with Sam Ratanarat’s hands) in SPACE PROGRAM: MARS by Tom Sachs at Park Avenue Armory. SPACE PROGRAM: MARS is co-produced by Creative Time and Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Genevieve Hanson, NYC. 

From the Editor

Coffee in hand it’s time to wade into the rising tide of discussion surrounding Ph.D’s for artists. Reading through some of the relevant literature on the topic did nothing to assuage my sense that I’m ill-prepared—and, with a mere M.F.A., woefully undereducated—to broach the topic with any skill.1 However, the broader issue of education, its head again on the budgetary chopping block in California and throughout the U.S, has forced my hand. Our choice to cut education while taking to the political pulpit to evangelize creativity, competition and American exceptionalism, is irony at its most mind-boggling. Art education, at the bottom rung of the ladder, has always occupied an uneasy relationship within the broader academic world. Its methodological markers and qualitative rubrics are slippery and variable, neither of which gel all that well with the standardized form of evaluation that make Universities go ‘round. An institution passing out Ph.D’s to artists only complicates this scenario as it adopts academia’s stalwart degree with all of its implied qualifications, and applies it to a set of practices that by their very nature resist verbal explanation and explicit standardization. ‘Art isn’t here to explain things,’ said Beuys.

It’s not hard to imagine a world wherein art will become even more academic, more professionalized and as a result less engaged with the world and a general public; its ability to be ‘radical’ or ‘critical’ neutered by over-institutionalization. This is not a scenario unique to Universities. After Frieze New York refused to allow Occupy protestors on the ‘island’ a brief uproar ensued. I couldn’t help but think that maybe the exclusion was a good thing. Museum’s are only one amongst a growing list of outlets co-opting the critical language and protests of the Occupy movement—divorcing it of its power and slowly converting it into another art world commodity. What good is antagonism and institutional critique when it’s let in through the front door? With Deutsche Bank as its major sponsor Frieze certainly deserved the criticism, yet art fairs and the art world strike me as an all too easy, and ultimately inconsequential target for the movement. Resisting absorption into the ‘system’ ensures at least a small degree of power and criticality is retained, though should be done while paying heed to sliding too far down the populist slope.

By its very nature a Ph.D privileges the written and verbal form of knowledge (quantifiable and easily deployed) over the aesthetic one (messy and often unanswerable). The art historian’s pen planted this seed long ago, and the demand that all artists be eloquent verbal tacticians—implied by the Ph.D—denies art practice its own set of operating procedures.2 (We should be mindful of John Berger’s assertion that ‘seeing comes before words.”)3 This complicates the equation between artist and art historian. Wherein once the artist/object preceded the scholarship, now the artist/object generates its own scholarship in accordance to the formalized rules set forth by scholars. Tricky. Education is never a bad thing, but I wonder if over-institutionalization and specialization is, especially for artists. In the most simplistic terms: are artists better served in the classroom or out in the world, by writing a dissertation or shooting their next video? To think that the future of artistic production will be steered solely by education is silly, but to deny its prominent role and unintended effects is equally foolish. The M.F.A. proves that.

We’re thrilled to lead off our issue this week with the launch of Artists’ Words, a feature that lets you hear directly from an artist about a piece, exhibition or project they’re thinking about. Austin-based artist Barry Stone leads the charge and writes thoughtfully about memory, photography, personal narrative and nostalgia through the lens of his photograph, Homecoming (Nabokov’s Rainbow). Filmmaker and writer Caroline Koebel examines the context and narrative of the fairy tale in her review of Aurora Picture Show's program, Big Bad Wolf presented by AMOA-Arthouse at the end of April. Institutionalization, and its effect on ones ability to be radical, is the subtext of Chicago-based artist and writer Patrick Bobilin’s engaging review of Rashid Johnson’s exhibition, Message to Our Folks, at the M.C.A. Chicago. From coast to coast, Los Angeles-based artist and writer Travis Diehl writes critically about well-Rolodexed artist Alex Israel’s exhibition, As It LAys, at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York. The rolodex is also the jumping off point for Mexico City-based artist Alex Dorfsman’s images for our Project Space organized with the help of writer and curator Leslie Moody Castro.

Do you think we should head back to school for a Ph.D? Let us know by emailing us at: askus@fluentcollab.org.

Eric Zimmerman is an artist and Editor of ...might be good.

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1. Issue #26 of e-flux Journal: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/editorial—“artistic-thinking”/. takes up the idea of artistic thinking while Texte Zur Kunst #82 (http://www.textezurkunst.de/82/) artistic research. James Elkin’s addresses the Ph.D. more directly in his 2009 book, Artists With Ph.D.’s: On The New Doctoral Degree In Studio Art. (http://www.jameselkins.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=211:artists-with-phds&catid=1:academic-books&Itemid=8)

2. This verbal lucidity is not without its drawbacks. See #6 in James Elkin’s series on why we shouldn’t trust the new Ph.D. for artists: https://www.facebook.com/jamesprestonelkins/posts/428866557126445.

3. John Berger. Ways Of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972): 7.

+ 2 Comments
Alan Pogue
May 18, 2012 | 4:17pm

Good questions.

I never took an art class, a photography class, because I did not want a status quo institution to influence either my politics or my aesthetic. There is a political economics of aesthetics. We all know that even if it is not discussed. Political liberals are often very confused about this. They want both social change and the approval of the art establishment. Who funds the art establishment? Wealthy people. What do wealthy people want? They want, sometimes, to be thought of as kind but they also want the continuation of Capitalism. They have no critique of the imperialism that funds their economic advantage. Even when they have anti-imperialist rhetoric they still cling to the status quo art establishment. They don’t need money but they still crave false "respect", being part of an exclusive club of art cognoscenti. Artists want to make a living. Who will support them, buy their work, give them grants, give them space for exhibits, make them a "brand" so that others, who have spare money, will collect their art? How does careerism sabotage ones vision? Why should anyone give a damn what the MoMA thinks?

I could go on.

Alan, D.Ph. (doctor of photography, the Reality School)

P.S. I did drink a lot of scotch with Russell Lee but I never took a class.


Alan Pogue
Texas Center for Documentary Photography

Katherine A.
May 21, 2012 | 3:17pm

As an undergrad in Design I have realized that many of my peers, and myself, have difficulty verbalizing what our work is meant to express. Funny saying that because I also feel that as design students, are work should communicate clearly.  I think it is mostly a self-motivated practice that needs to be developed by every individual planning to move on with an art degree. Why build up debt for a Ph.D when it is a matter of simple note taking and a second reader? I am not bashing the Ph.D either! I would love to be able to afford to go to school for my Ph.D, but for what I’m looking at it may be another 5-7 years before I can even think of Grad School.

Thank you,
Katherine A.

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