To Ph.D or not to Ph.D?

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Victoria Vesna
UCLA School of the Arts

“To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D?” that is the question many artists are asking themselves these days, and it seems to be a controversial topic that has been pushed to an ongoing debate by James Elkins brought to the forefront in this country with an article he wrote for Art in America in 2007, entitled “Ten Reasons to Mistrust the New Ph.D. in Studio Art”. Soon after, he published a book, Artists with Ph.D.s: debates about the new studio art doctoral degree. [1] This trend towards studio art Ph.D.s is starting to take momentum in the US, largely following the lead of the programs established in the last decade in the UK. As an artist who enrolled in one of the first Ph.D. programs in the UK established and directed by artist Roy Ascott in 1994, I have not only gone through the process but also helped shape a new program by being one of the first five doctoral students. [2]

The Center for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts (CAiiA) was based at the time in a pretty traditional setting, at the University of Wales in the UK, and I have to admit to asking myself more than once why I am putting myself through the agony, especially in light of the fact that I started my doctoral studies within months of receiving tenure in UC Santa Barbara? I approach the question of a Ph.D. program for artists from a personal point of view, as an artist would do, while presenting the program I completed that has morphed into the Planetary Collegium and oddly was not even mentioned in the widely cited Elkin’s book. I feel that this is a strange omission that I would attribute to not addressing the growing field of media arts but thinking strictly in terms of established studio arts. So, at the outset, be aware that I am one of those artists who work with technology and with scientists and benefits from being in an academic environment.

My motivation to pursue a Ph.D. was not one for career promotion in academia but to push myself to use a different part of my brain, have a better understanding of what it is my colleagues in the humanities were writing, which I found, as many do, intimidating and close to impossible to engaging in a dialogue. As an artist I was educated entirely in traditional art schools and so I had knowledge of art history but no ability to write or contextualize my work in a theoretical fashion. But eventually I learned, on my own, about the work of conceptual artists and became aware that if they did not write about the work they were doing at the time, there would be very little for art historians to work with. Media arts is equally elusive and transitory in many ways and I found myself having to present my work in ways closer to describing technological or scientific innovation than the arts. Additionally, this new type of work was of no interest to the fine art gallery world at the time, so most of us working in this field had to get jobs in academia teaching, and many landed in research universities. And, finally and most important to note, media arts are by their nature technological and collaborative across disciplines.

Media artists work directly with humanists, engineers and scientists and we prosper in the research universities and our work stagnates when in solitary studio isolation. This is a stark difference from studio artists who approach work in universities and art schools as a job and not a playground. But when I became faculty at UCLA, I was curious to see how the budgets are allocated and how much funding there is in different areas. It was quite a shock to see the little slit in the pie chart where art resides – oddly reminiscent of the charts the Guerilla Girls circulated some decades ago. It seems like not much changed and this became another motivation for me – I wanted to be on the same level field with the boys in the playground.


Much of the debate centers on how the art practice may be affected, positively or negatively, by the more academic methodology study that a Ph.D. implies. But, what is neglected is considering how the artist may impact that environment and what that may mean for the accepted methods of study. Even if strictly practice based, the mere fact that an artist in development is spending that length of time in an academic environment would have implications on how that person’s creative work is shaped. Through my personal interaction with academics and scientific researchers, I have come to believe that artists can have a major, (positive) influence on the academic environment. For instance, this very paper was written after the presentation at the conference and not one person on our panel – all artists with Ph.D.s — read their paper as is customary in art historical circles. My presence and interaction with scientists in labs has certainly made a shift in the perception of the artist as a wild bohemian who is not able to articulate a thesis or write a proposal. But, most of all, in terms of the debate addressed here, I believe that as the number of artists who have Ph.D.s grow, the very process and methodology will undergo a major change and this is a very important role that we can potentially play, not only in the education of the artist but also in the shaping of academia in general.


Elkins writes in his introduction, “The question is not whether the new programs are coming, but how rigorously they will be conceptualized.” [1] Just as Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees–introduced in the United States following World War II–provoked opposition from artists and academics initially, but have since become ubiquitous, Ph.D.s in studio art, Elkins argues, are on a similar trajectory towards acceptance. But, in my opinion, it is not all about the job market – it is about advancing the knowledge base and empowerment of the artist in the market, whether it is the more established gallery system or academia. And, I very much agree that it is about introducing rigor into the work in the art studies.

Without doubt, the greatest benefit I gained from doing the Ph.D. study is learning to how structure and articulate my thoughts in relation to contemporary art practice, theory and or scientific innovation. The study helped me understand and contextualize my work and this gave my practice a focus, which I was trained to get from the outside, ie. from a curator or art historian who would, from their point of view, talk to me about the work I do. This is still the case, and I did not lose respect for this field in the process, but instead have developed long term and deep relationships with curators and art critics. [3] The artist/ critic interchange becomes collaborative and strengthens the theory/practice divide in productive ways. It also demands rigor from the artist and the curator in ways that push the field forward and, in the end, this is what it is all about – evolving the art practice. Of course, many artists have achieved this outside of the academic context and any artist worth their salt is involved in a life-long study of a particular obsession that manifests as a work, even if not from the rational part of the brain. What the doctoral study provides however is structure and access to scholars, technology and materials that is at times difficult to acquire, not to mention the isolation in the studio…

At the crux of discussion about the Ph.D. degree in the arts is the left/right brain divide that is more evident in the practice/theory and the art/science divide. Too frequently art history has unfortunately separated in academia from the art practice departments and this has created a gap in knowledge for young artists. Artists have always played a role in interpreting, albeit poetically, how technological and scientific advances affect society at large and our individual perceptions of self. As the world becomes more technologically complex, with the nonstop bombardment of endless information, it is possible that this role becomes ever more important.


The last point I would like to make as an educator is that the MFA is simply not enough time to gain the broad comprehensive knowledge necessary to be a successful artist today. The knowledge demand on artists are more intense than ever – one needs to gain skills in technology, learn art history, social issues, critical theory, learn to write and of course, most of all, have all manifest in a powerful practice. Academia provides the structure, space and time to develop this while at the same time offering the possibility of collaborations with other disciplines. The audience in the room at the CAA panel where I recently spoke was composed of 98% artists who ask themselves the question, “To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D?” and only 2% of art historians, who are interested in this issue but never asked that question of themselves. So, yes, I think it is a good idea for an artist to pursue a Ph.D. if the artist wishes to be challenged and to engage the larger social sphere and plan to teach the next generation of artists.


1. Elkins, James. “Ten Reasons to Mistrust the New PhD in Studio Art,” Art in America (May 2007): 108-9 Elkins, James. Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art
2. Roy Ascott is the founder and President of the Planetary Collegium, the Director of its CAiiA-Hub, and Professor of Technoetic Art in the University of Plymouth, England. He is Visiting Professor in Design|Media Arts at the University of California Los Angeles. Amongst many senior academic and advisory appointments he was Vice-President and Dean of the San Francisco Art Institute, California; Professor of Communications Theory, University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria; Professor and Chair of Fine Art, Minneapolis College of Art & Design; and President of Ontario College of Art , Toronto. In 1994, he founded CAiiA at the University of Wales Newport, which was renamed the Planetary Collegium when he relocated it at the University of Plymouth in 2003. As director of research,Roy Ascott’s PhD graduates include Peter Anders, Jon Bedworth, Geoff Cox, Char Davies, Elisa Giaccardi, Dew Harrison, Pamela Jennings, Eduardo Kac, Joseph Nechvatal, Miroslaw Rogala, Gretchen Schiller, Jill Scott, Bill Seaman, Christa Sommerer, Victoria Vesna. As a teacher, Ascott has had many notable students e.g. Brian Eno, Paul Sermon, Pete Townsend, Steve Willats. [Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace. Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. Edited and with an essay by Edward A. Shanken]
3. The three curators I have had long term professional relationships with are Christiane Paul, Linda Weintraub and Biljana Tomic.