Artist’s statements and PhDs

by bjmuirhead

I often read artist’s statements about their work, partly because they are impossible to avoid at exhibitions, partly because it sometimes is interesting; but all too often the statements make little or no sense in they don’t really explain the work, or they offer little insight into the work. Often it seems that these statements are tacked on afterwards, as an analysis, but not one which explains the force, if any, behind their work.

Recently I had occasion to read yet another successful PhD thesis in visual art (photography). I am getting quite a collection of PhD’s and Masters theses, and the majority of them are, in my opinion,  streams of unrestrained gobbledygook which seem to bear little relation to the visual work produced. This particular one, like them all, wasn’t incomprehensible, but it was positively pneumatic, to use T.S. Eliot’s word. But it did lead me to understand something about contemporary art which I loathe.

The visual work in this PhD, and the visual documentation of it, seemed to me to be rather dull, but I don’t think this was because the person doing it lacked skill. Rather, I think it was dull because it was academically driven. Whatever impulse started the work was thwarted by being directed and explained by mostly French postmodern theorists, to whom the actual visual work gave the appearance of having to conform. (Mind you, I have some doubt about this person’s understanding of Bachelard—I may not be a postmodernist, but I have read many of them.)

Over the past year I have read quite a few masters and doctoral theses in visual art, done by artists from various (English speaking) parts of the world, and have seen this quite often, i.e., the theory overtaking the work, and it profoundly disturbs me: art as a form of academic investigation becomes dull almost as a matter of course. But if I am going to say that this is the wrong approach (and I do say that it is), what do I think works?

The beginning of my answer is that a PhD in visual art, done by an artist who is presenting artwork as a part of their thesis, seems to me to be a protracted (and perhaps tedious) artist’s statement. The rest of the answer depends, most likely, on the motivation of the candidate, specifically: are they motivated by their work? Or are they motivated by the validation and career opportunities provided by their doctorate?

I guess what I’m saying is that a visual arts PhD should, it seems to me, be a more personal document, not an academic exercise—unless, of course, the artist wants to be an academic.

Were I to do a PhD based around my visual art, I could not analyse my work in this way, especially not from a postmodern point of view. If I were to do it, I would have to talk about Chinese aesthetics, and especially the notion of blandness. Traditionally the literati painters applied this notion to their paintings, along with their (foundational metaphysical) beliefs about yin and yang. I would have to talk about these because they are what my current work is informed by, it’s what drives the way I take photographs.

At the same time, I couldn’t write academically about ‘blandness’ or yin and yang—I am not an expert in ancient Chinese philosophy, and nor do I want to be. But I am an expert in how these ideas effect the way I take photographs, and in how they influence what I am trying to achieve in my work. (Back in 2011 when a friend was helping me curate my upcoming exhibition of nudes, she went to see an exhibition of Chinese artists, including photographers and print makers. Helping me curate was the first time she had actually looked at my photos, but the surprising thing for me was when she commented to me afterwards on the similarity of feeling she had noticed. If nothing else, this told me that I was succeeding in what I was trying to do.)

Of course, many other ideas and many artists influence my work, as well as my personal history, and they would have to be dealt with also. For me it would be a fascinating exercise in intellectual, artistic and personal autobiography. But it wouldn’t be an academic work except for being done as a university degree. At best it would be an autoethnographic reflection on the intellectual matter as it relates to my photographs. This type of approach would be truly useful to me, and may even be interesting for others, who might recognise some of the ideas in their own work.