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Book Review


Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research, G. James Daichendt (2012), Bristol: Intellect, 161 pp., ISBN: 978-1-84150-487-2, p/bk, £16, $23



This book covers two related topics: the role of writing in art education and the pros and cons of offering research degrees in art, and has been written ‘for artists and designers entering, graduating, and employed by the contemporary art academy in the United States’ (1). All the same, Daichendt has been looking beyond the borders of the United States to Canada, Australia and England/UK (he uses the two interchangeably), where the debate he seems to be having with himself about Ph.Ds in art took place in the 1990s. Although it is only in recent years that a handful of institutions in the United States have been offering this qualification, the issue itself isn’t new there and has long been a hardy perennial at the annual conferences that country’s College Art Association (where US university art teachers assemble).

 

For much of the book, Daichendt seems to be thinking aloud about whether or not art can be research. He does this through setting out ideas about what he thinks research is, a potted history of art education and a selective literature review of the debate about art as research and Ph.D.s in art. For much of this read, I was certain he was going to side with the opponents of art as research. He points out how research addresses questions it wants to answer, which isn’t the way most artists work. He explains that research has to be systematic and that ‘the artistic process often does not work this way’ (77). So it came as quite a surprise when, towards the end of the book, he comes out in favour of art research and Ph.D.s. He tempers this just a little by proposing that through research artists add new understanding, rather than new knowledge.

 

The book then turns its attention to how the M.F.A. (at present supposed to be the terminal degree in art in the United States) can learn from research degrees by making students complete a more stringent dissertation. Daichendt is convinced that although students might find this difficult and not relish the task, they would nonetheless gain much from the undertaking. Much of this section is like a basic textbook, although to my mind more suitable for final year B.A. social science students than those studying art. And therein lies a problem with this book, for his knowledge of research doesn’t appear to extend beyond those parts of social science appropriated by those investigating education, with a simplistic reduction down to quantitative versus qualitative. Yet he uses this knowledge to pontificate about art research. Art research methodology is in its infancy but is certainly not scientific. He writes ‘we generally think of scientific method when the term “research” is used’ (11), and his discussion and examples will be familiar to those who have undertaken education research. It has often been remarked that art education scholarship rather awkwardly strides two very different paradigms, one scientific and the other artistic. However, none of this is relevant to a discussion about art as research. The way Daichendt passes over research methodologies in the arts and humanities is all the more strange considering that he sometimes writes about the history of art education, including here.

 

In his mini history of art education, he greatly exaggerates the extent to which artists in the Renaissance were educated in theory. However, a more serious charge is that he omits to mention the change in the relation between art and theory brought about by the displacement of Modernism by contemporary art from the 1960s. From then on, artists have ‘integrated the critical discourse of art into its means of production’ (Van Winkel 2012: 277). Art education changed accordingly, with students having to be able to explain and contextualize their work. This is not to suggest that the relationship between theory and practice in art education has ceased to be troubled (far from it). But it does mean that although the parameters of what an artist might do are now wide open, for a student in a university, or an artist in the professional art world, this applies only to the extent that they can provide a theoretical justification. This change in art practice and education has opened the way for research degrees.

 

Perhaps Daichendt misses this out of his account because he disparages what he calls the ‘industry of theorizing’ (43). His account of research misses out that vital element, which lifts it from the mundane to the meaningful: a theoretical framework (including in social science). It is mentioned once on page 141, but used to mean methodology, which isn’t the same thing. The fact that art Ph.D.s sometimes include a thesis of 20,000 turgid words wrapping themselves in knots around half-understood critical theory isn’t a reason to abandon theory – and this book would be so much better had it not dodged the issue.

 

Although I think there has to be a place for theory, I’m unsure about the need for writing. Year after year about a third of my students have dyslexia and in all fairness they ought to be presented with other means of demonstrating learning. As research degrees in art were being introduced, the examining tended to be done by people in allied disciplines such as art history, who sometimes scrutinized the thesis in depth but paid scant attention to the accompanying exhibition. All too often, the two sit uncomfortably beside each other. I would like to think that as these qualifications become more established, so alternatives to the thesis can be developed.

 

I was left puzzled by Daichendt’s embrace of the idea that new knowledge should be replaced by new understanding. It begs the question whether the new knowledge or understanding is to be personal or general. Be that as it may, in education the concept of ‘understanding’ is problematic: how do we know whether or not something is understood? We test for knowledge. New knowledge can diminish understanding, as it undermines previously held certainties. It could be argued that art doesn’t enable understanding but presents enigmas. Daichendt gives the example of the Bauhaus teacher Itten asking his students to handle, cut up, smell and taste a lemon before drawing it. This, he claims is understanding. No it isn’t. It is experiencing.

 


This book might be written for those in the United States, but for those in that country or elsewhere who want to know about research degrees in art (and design) there have been some much better titles published – and often reviewed in this journal. For those more interested in the nuts and bolts of writing in art and design, I would recommend the Writing-Pad website (www.writing-pad.org) and its accompanying Journal of Writing in

Creative Practice.


Reference


Van Winkel, C. (2012), During the Exhibition the Gallery Will Be Closed: Contemporary Art and the Paradoxes of Conceptualism, Amsterdam: Valiz.

 

 

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