NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Dr at large: A temperature check on the Creative Arts PhD

By Professor David Cross  — Artists with PhDs is the name of a blog by American art historian James Elkins founded some fifteen years ago to question the value and validity of the PhD in the creative arts. Framed around his “Fourteen Reasons to Mistrust the PhD”, Elkins has over time taken on the role of eminence grise of practice-based PhD scepticism believing that artists of any persuasion, but specifically visual arts should not be undertaking doctoral research.[i] 

That the blog has maintained a certain status over time as a place of genuine discourse where a spectrum of pro and anti- doctoral shades have been in a critical dialogue, points both to a genuine spirit of contestation and to a lingering sense that there are still unresolved issues in relation to the practice-based PhD and its status both for institutions and creative practitioners. Where Elkins questions the conflation of artistic practice and scholarly research, the contention that art is improved by scholarly research and a general sense that the PhD underpins a broader academicisation of art, the gist of his anti-doctoral manifesto is that it is expensive (especially in the US), elitist and ultimately without a valuable purpose beyond growing university bottom lines.

While his perspective is framed through the partisan lens of an American system for which the MFA is still widely considered the terminal qualification in fine art, design, film and television among other creative disciplines and where any postgraduate study by Australian standards is for most prohibitively (absurdly) expensive, Elkins is not solely focused on his own backyard. His mistrust of the PhD is global and interestingly he has not mollified his position in significant ways over time as the practice-based PhD has reinforced its foothold particularly in European and Australasian tertiary programmes. Like many researchers actively committed to the PhD by creative practice, I have often looked on Elkins critique with a certain jaundiced indifference. Artists are and can be researchers, it is clear to me what kinds of art are improved by scholarly research, and I do value the imperative of garnering new skills in self-reflexive thinking in relation to understanding how artistic decisions are arrived at and how method might be strengthened through scholarly interrogation. These were battles fought and won by pioneering figures in the university creative arts sector in this country some thirty years ago, a number of whom reflect on these skirmishes in this special issue.

And yet, as we look to chart a post-COVID course in Australian higher education and specifically consider the delicate status of HDR in our institutions after systemic funding cuts, I have found myself returning to Elkins multifaceted critique not to suggest he was right on everything but to consider where his probing might have revealed inherent blind spots of fragility. As the practice-based PhD in Australia has faced a number of discrete but related challenges in the past decade (but especially in the last three years), one might reflect on whether a spectrum of tertiary managements have fallen out of love with the practice-based PhD and the PhD in general, and whether there are at the same time structural and coherence issues with the PhD that have not been satisfactorily addressed or resolved over time. One might ask specifically whether Elkins was prescient about the economic challenges of the PhD model even in ways he had not foreseen?

This issue of NiTRO takes as its aim a temperature check of the PhD in the creative arts and offers a range of perspectives on its current status, both within universities but also for artists considering the value or otherwise of undertaking this qualification. While the contributions focus on returning to the arguments for this qualification, examining best practices and reflecting on past advocacy undertaken by key figures such as Denise Ferris and Su Baker among others, there is also a different set of responses that seek to investigate its current challenges based on the twin and intimately braided imperatives of economics and politics. Writers including Danny Butt interrogate why Australian universities have either turned away from or diminished their focus on the PhD and how ideological  forces have changed the nature and purpose of the qualification.

This issue began to form as a reflection on how COVID and its related economic challenges has impacted on the PhD. With universities shedding thousands of jobs, international students numbers dwindling and the recently departed federal government prioritising “job-ready” graduates, the PhD has very much been in the firing line. Many universities have begun to retrofit professional development into what has been a largely pure research programme of study from a perspective that all research should be at the service of industry and its specific needs. Such an instrumentalisation of research through the prism of employment has shifted the goal posts atomising the pure research project into a series of constituent parts.

In addition to the macro challenges, universities have also turned the spotlight on the financials of the PhD which have become more pressing with the drop in international student numbers. While PhD completion rates have long been a challenge, university managers have begun to target doctoral supervision in a funding model that only really rewards completion. Talk of changes to the status of PhD supervision in workloads as well as new shared cohort teaching rather than small supervisory teams, is increasingly being heard in keeping with the financial modelling of favoured coursework approaches. The reduction in scholarship support, fundamental to many prospective candidates, is another key factor to completions and a reason non-scholarship places are dropping. Add in the burgeoning inflation numbers in Australia and the paucity of creative arts jobs in the immediate future, and prospective candidates must be wondering how much harder we can make undertaking a creative arts PhD.

It would be wrong to say the PhD is at the cross roads, but these challenges have started to bite with a result that once again the creative arts PhD is requiring heightened levels of advocacy both inside and outside universities. The perversity of this is that the infrastructure required for a resilient PhD culture in this country has never been stronger. The depth of expertise continues to grow ensuring the prospective pool of examiners and research experts is expanding exponentially. And support services including pastoral care and the all-important writing and research skills for creative artists have also in large part been refined and improved as would be expected after thirty odd years of trial and error. Yet just as we benefit from the maturity of the qualification, it appears a degree of triaging is still required to keep it functioning as a viable and effective pan-institutional system.

At this point of time it is academics within institutions committed to a high quality PhD programme that is ensuring standards are improved if not maintained. Arguably an inherent weakness in the system is the absence of a broader forum within creative arts education for academics to engage across institutions to discuss issues of supervision, assessment, exegesis word lengths and crucially potentially new models of PhD such as the PhD by publication that Toija Cinque addresses in this issue. Su Baker and Brad Buckley’s very comprehensive research report Future-Proofing the Creative Arts in Higher Education presented in 2009, clearly signals the need for this cross-institutional structure. Indeed the first three of eight recommendations preface the importance of a community of practice and the need for regular forums to share knowledge around best practice and a consistency of approaches.[ii] Yet in 2022 the form and approach of the creative arts PhD is largely shaped by individual tertiary providers with some overlap via occasional sessions at peak bodies such as ACUADS. This has led to a complexity of approaches with different inflections.

Without calling for the spectre of standardisation, might it be time to revisit Baker and Buckley’s call for the establishment of an Australian forum of creative arts academics to consider and outline best practice protocols for the PhD. Such a forum would be the ideal place to thrash out key issues from whether it might be a good idea to introduce the viva voce, to investigating new models beyond the standard 3 year programme and to reflect on and consider adventurous new approaches taking place internationally? Such a forum could also drill into the practice/exegesis dyad and consider whether ideas of revision in the examination process, are too skewed towards the written component and not to the re-working or re-staging of the creative component. It might also consider best practice in exegesis word length and revisit or update assessment criteria. And lastly in this starter for ten, might we re-think examination panels through a more co-operative system whereby national and international academics are shared and able to undertake assessment at more than one university in order to achieve a more supportive- indeed sustainably-focused- economy of scale?

In a nutshell, there are a spectrum of things to consider around inclusivity, access, governance, collegiality and economic modelling but it is also important to frame this temperature check in terms of the great potential to strengthen and grow HDR research. There are genuine opportunities to link HDR research to relevant creative arts industry funded opportunities, to really focus on building and supporting pathways for indigenous students so that they can showcase important new and old knowledges, and to make the PhD inclusive more broadly. But as with all things in academia, we need to work together to achieve these things.

Hopefully this issue will prompt some reflection and generate new ideas as to how we might best nudge the PhD in creative arts forward and build on the nearly forty-year legacy of HDR creative art research in Australia.

[i] http://www.jameselkins.com/yy/4-fourteen-reasons-to-mistrust-the-phd/ accessed May 1, 2022

[ii] See, Creative Arts PhD Future-Proofing the Creative Arts in higher Education: Scoping for Quality in Creative Arts Programmes. Report developed for ACUADS by Professor Su Baker and Professor Brad Buckley in 2009 https://ltr.edu.au/resources/DS7-624%20Creative%20Arts%20Baker%20Melbourne%202009%20report.pdf Accessed June 6


David Cross is an artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne. Working across performance, installation, video and photography, Cross explores the relationship between pleasure, intimacy and the phobic in his works, and often incorporates participation by linking performance art with object-based environments. As a curator Cross has produced a number of temporary public projects, including One Day Sculpture (with Claire Doherty) across New Zealand in 2008-09, and Iteration: Again in Tasmania in 2011.He recently co-founded the research initiative Public Art Commission (PAC) at Deakin University which is devoted to the commissioning and scholarship of temporary public art. Recent PAC projects co-developed with Cameron Bishop include, Treatment with Melbourne Water and City of Wyndham (2015-17), Venetian Blind with European Cultural Centre, Venice (2019), and Six Moments in Kingston for the City of Kingston (2019). Cross is currently Professor of Visual Arts and Co-Director of PAC at Deakin University, Melbourne.

More from this issue

More from this issue

If the debates about the state of the creative arts PhD appear to have slowed down over the last 15 years, it is perhaps not only due to a contraction of the sector, but because the questions being asked of it are no longer in sync with forces driving structural change, whether in the academy, the creative arts, or in the world more broadly.

There is a part to working in a university that I love – every week I get to work with at least one PhD or Masters (Higher Degree in Research or HDR) student. They are often guided by a sense of purpose and eager to find a way to be a part of a university. HDR students bridge the worlds of artistic practice, creativity and scholarship.

I recall thinking, decades ago, the introduction of Higher Degree Research (HDR) programs had reinvigorated the teaching and learning space. These programs added interactions for staff and candidates on topics of exciting diversity toward cultural insights.

This brief piece responds to the questions of how the PhD might be re-conceived and what necessary combination of changes might ensure its ongoing quality and appeal to a new generation of creative-arts scholars keen to challenge established boundaries in the public domain. In the context of communication and creative arts, aesthetics has something significant to do in relationship to generating and communicating research findings and presenting or challenging the facts of a matter.

Higher degrees by research, in any discipline, are significant but humble undertakings, and bring together a whole set of relationships and expectations, intersecting across and between the candidate researchers, supervisors, institutions, and the wider political economy and policy agenda in relation to research training and its funding. Invested and vested interests can get very partial or biased about the relevance of a research project or practice. The lack of a real or practiced arms-length approach to federal research funding in Australia is a problem.

As we inch closer to the 100-year anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, it is timely to remind ourselves that journeys in knowledge are rarely linear or constructed from large waypoints. This great creative work, a masterclass in the relations of part and whole, is roughly contemporary with another creative work which is only now hitting it stride – the doctorate.

Graduate degrees in the performing arts are now well established in Australia, with graduates employed in various university departments. The exegesis/project combination of these degrees holds different weightings across the various universities that offer them … The unfolding of the relationship of writing to practice also occurs in vastly different modes across institutions.