The Artist as Doctor (of Fine Arts)
by K. Hart and Ashok Mathur
Earlier this year, cultural organizer, writer and artist Ashok Mathur left his position as head of the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan to become dean of Graduate Studies at OCAD University. He made the shift after discerning OCAD U’s unique potential to critically engage the implementation of practice-based research in the framework of the academic institution—a movement that has seen notable progress in scholarly environments outside of Canada. Two months into his decanal post, Mathur released a detailed list of items he was interested in pursuing at the school; among them, the investigation of a doctorate in practice-based research. A PhD in visual arts employs the methodology of research-creation, which, although distinct to the field, has recently gained recognition for its value in the academy across disciplinary boundaries. I corresponded with Mathur about research-creation, its utility as a methodology, the significance of its emergence in Canadian institutions and what it has to offer to artists who may be looking to undertake doctoral studies.
K. Hart: What is research-creation?
Ashok Mathur: Research-creation is the concept of artistic production that incorporates various forms and levels of in-depth research. This results in creative work that shows clear evidence of a research practice without over-determining the work with what some might deride as an overly academic approach. We view the output from a research-creation project as something embodying the principles of research as defined by disciplinary knowledge, but not absent of aesthetic or technical methodologies.
KH: What makes it distinct from other forms of research dissemination in the academy?
AM: The general practice of research-creation is generated from the arts, although other disciplines, such as applied sciences, social sciences and humanities, are employing such methods more frequently because of their potential for immediate social relevance to a general population. Though the precept of research-creation was borne from and is inherently an artistic project, the interplay be- tween disciplines is starting to take effect. We have seen more projects coming before Tri-Council [the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council], for instance, led by principal investigators who are not artists nor otherwise working from sites of creative output, where at least some of the major dissemination is creative in nature. Scholars and academic disciplines are beginning to comprehend the value of output that is creative and artistic, creating a wave of new activity across disciplines.
The obvious difference between research-creation and other forms of research is the output. More traditional or discipline-bound forms of research result in products such as papers, journal articles or books, but the dissemination of research-creation is often for public consumption and with an arts perspective. Many works of craft and art have a deep history of method and research behind them; often, these forms are not simply technical skills, but learned from deep engagement in communities of master craftspeople, artists, scholars, elders and non-traditional forms of knowledge acquisition. The important distinction is that the latter works are not presented as research but as products of research.
It is perhaps important here to unpack the very term “research,” a term that Linda Tuhiwai Smith and others have rightly criticized as one that can do more to con-tain and oppress than it can to reveal or open possibilities. How, then, might research-creation be thought of as a salve to this condition of the term? I would suggest that artists and designers who ground themselves in research are also grounded in or connected to various communities outside the university structures. This practice refutes the linear hierarchy of the university as purveyor of knowledge and allows for a more collaborative framework that does not unevenly value gown over town, so to speak. That is what a university should be and that is what re- search-creation can possibly support in developing.
KH: What are the changes affecting how research-creation is received?
AM: The most significant change is that research-creation has entered into the discourses of Tri-Council, particularly SSHRC, and it has become widely accepted that a funded research project may result in a performance, an installation or another artistic output. As well, many new practitioners across disciplines are framing themselves as researchers who are producing art as their disseminated product, not for purely aesthetic reasons, but for reasons that are social and political. They may think of themselves as artists, but the goal of their work is to produce creative output that differentiates itself from other art forms by virtue of the way its embedded research builds capacity to develop graduate student knowledge, advanced teaching in the university and so on.
KH: Why do you think the PhD in research-creation has not been present in Canadian academic institutions to date?
AM: Mostly the reason is historical. In the European Continental, Australian and New Zealand contexts, it has been a common path for students to go from their bachelor’s degree into their doctoral education. In fact, in some instances, the master’s degree was awarded to those who had entered their PhD but not taken it to completion. In North America, the MFA was determined to be the terminal degree in creative practices, whereas in the social sciences, sciences and humanities, the master’s degree was seen as a stepping stone to the PhD. But, within a global economy of artistic discourse, this is starting to shift, as students, professors and our very institutions be- come aware that higher education allows us many opportunities to grow in ways we can define ourselves.
Many institutions, including OCAD University, are investigating the potential for doctoral programs within creative disciplines. Some already offer these, but largely from a comprehensive university standpoint, which means those degrees are often beholden to the standards created for disciplines traditionally designated as “critical”: dissemination to other academics, for instance, whereas the dissemination for research-creation is of- ten more public. We will see a dramatic shift in the next few years and a trend toward the PhD, or practice-based delineations such as the Doctor in Fine Arts (DFA) or Doctor of Design (DDes). We are already seeing the academy populated more and more by professors with these types of degrees—primarily outside of North America, but that too is changing as we increase global awareness around these sorts of degrees.
KH What does a PhD in art provide an artist that a BFA or MFA may not?
AM: A scant few decades ago, the MFA was considered a good but unnecessary thing for an artist to have. It was seen as a credential for teaching at post-secondary levels but, even then, not a requirement. A lot has changed in the intervening years: more and more, we are seeing practising artists, without a quest to teach in colleges or universities, spending time acquiring their MFAs. They are not looking to merely credentialize, but to take their work further and deeper into today’s rich and shifting arts economy, challenging themselves to take their work to different levels. For many, that means a concerted and dedicated period of time not just engaged in an in-depth research project, but—and this is the crux of the matter—engaged with other artistic thinkers: professors, colleagues and other students.
I would break it down like this: the BFA is a technical and critical training ground for artists, a place they can discover new disciplines and experiment by themselves and with others. The MFA is a next leg up, allowing the candidate to take their knowledge into a deeper place, producing a significant body of work that is informed by research and by the academy supporting it. The PhD is a place to dive deep into a new arena and should be the grounds for radical new work that has not been produced before. This may seem an extreme description, but it is really the path of doctoral study: to open doors passed by before, to bring new elements into critical consciousness.
KH What are the main differences between an artist with an art education and subsequent studio practice and an artist in a research-creation PhD program?
AM: We have to understand that the PhD, like the earlier educational regimes before it, is another step along the way of studio practice and research-creation. Although doctoral education is what we might think of as more substantive and of a greater depth, it is not necessarily categorically different than undergraduate and graduate programs. What we are bound to see, however, is that with the emergence of the PhD in research-creation will come an evident reflection on the work undertaken at the master’s and bachelor’s levels. In other words, the PhD has the potential to inflect the types and means of practices in these other degrees. I think what we will see are mid-career artists and designers re-inhabiting the academy to pursue a PhD, essentially moving their studio/professional practice into an academic setting. Just like any other discipline, there will be those who feel the PhD is prudent for their careers, and others who will be content pursuing a vibrant studio/professional practice.
As for a base rationale for undertaking doctoral education, some suggest the PhD in art is a way to fund a major project, assuming there is academic funding to be had—but as we all know, there are likely novel ways to achieve some of that limited funding without enrolling in university. This means the major reason for the PhD is to further challenge artists within a community that is nurturing and critical, allowing those artists to take themselves to new places. Those of us who inhabit positions at art and design universities are well aware of this trajectory, and we want to move toward developing re- search-creation at all undergraduate and graduate levels. This includes but is not limited to the PhD. We want to produce this category on terms that make internal sense, rather than being beholden to doctoral programs in other disciplines. In other words, we need to take control of our own agency in devising these programs, everything from expectations to principles put into practice, so that the PhD in research-creation retains the key elements that are important to us.
KH: Could you talk a bit about how currently there is a necessity for art to be accompanied by text (academic papers, artist statements, didactics) that justifies its relevance in order to be accepted as research within academic institutions? How does this requirement shape artistic practice?
AM: I do not think there is a necessity for the art to be accompanied by text to make the project whole. But as a way toward granting a degree, there is usually a critical writing component that works alongside the creative output as a device to illustrate the connections of research to production. Rarely do we see a master’s or doctoral research-creation project “travel” with these component parts; rather, upon completion of the work, those creative elements that are the results of the research often find a life of their own in galleries and other venues, generating engaged interest through that presentation. That does not mean the written or critical component of the work is devalued or necessarily excised from the finished work—in fact, such writing often finds a life of its own in various publications and other settings—but we have to reconfigure our thinking from one that equates good writing with good creative production. Often, they are hand-in-glove, but more important is cogent communi- cation: written or oral discourse around work that illustrates the methods and practices that brings it into being.
KH: Is there any difference in the frame of reference with which the art world regards or should regard artist-scholars in contrast to artists? Are there distinctions?
AM: I would hope that distinction, if it currently exists, is blurred and eventually has no purchase. What we do not need is another binary to divide us. However, we can also understand there are spectrums and always will be; some artistic production, both in and outside of academia, will be far more dependent on research-creation than others and we want to steer away from value judgements that suggest one approach is superior to the other. There will always be those who engage research and take it into creative outputs, and those who may not focus on a research agenda but still produce art. The blurring is interesting, appearing in the past where artists have influenced one another, whether through shared research, studio space, exhibitions and general discourse. The important thing is to find a use for all that we do, find ways to challenge ourselves and to take ourselves further, whether in art, ethics or ideas.
On a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, I met several artist-researchers who were completing or had completed their DFAs—many of them were international students and/or from racialized immigrant families. The manner and type of information they conveyed through their 2D and media practices alongside their critically dis- cursive frames was nothing short of profound. They were embedded in nurturing environments that allowed them to pursue their chosen practice while providing them the tools of comprehensive analysis, leading to large-scale exhibitions and global tours of their work. One of the preeminent scholars in the field, Danny Butt, has written an exhaustive analysis in his book, Artistic Research in the Future Academy (2017), unravelling how doctoral education has its roots in creative and exploratory research. This is something we need to comprehend as we develop models for the future.
This is the type of landscape we can create in Canada, but to do so we have to keep certain elements frontal and foremost: any doctoral work has to be driven by energies brought in by candidates—to mould and shape doctoral students by the institution is a radical mistake, but to support their endeavours and have the institution shift to accommodate is a necessity. The same goes for research-creation as a whole: it cannot be prescribed by those of us who are cocooned by the institution, but must be a porous field that allows intimate and intricate parlance between those inhabiting and those entering, al- lowing for a digestion and support of new ideas and simultaneously propelling the university to reinvent itself in ways that are responsive to the populations it must serve.