By Dr Danny Butt
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. During the Anglophone tertiary education heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s, university expansion in the creative disciplines compensated for the decline in state arts funding. Significant numbers of artists moved into the ivory tower to teach and once integrated with universities, undertake research. The goal for creative artists was more or less a classic Enlightenment one, to seek the freedom to teach and learn, potentially with access to studios and facilities, and participate in bildung or self-cultivation and find support to live away from the demands of the market.
In his optimistic 1999 essay “The University Without Condition”, Jacques Derrida (2002, 232) had already noted that the creative arts looked like the future of the Humanities, and that scholarship should be conceived as works of art (p.232), in a space of “unconditional questioning”. But as far back as 1980 in “Mochlos”, Derrida (1992) had also identified that this reserved “space” of the university was disturbed by the construction of “data banks” outside the university. The university has little leverage in these new information environments outside the university, as it is founded as an enclosure, a cloister, a retreat, a place to take leave from the world to find information in an alternate form of convocation and community. As an entity, it has little skill in engaging others.
This porosity of institutions that was emergent in the 1980s is now thoroughly complete through financialisation rather than discipline-led change, and the model of academic community based on withdrawal from the market no longer appears salient in an artistic ecology running on commercial databanks such as Instagram. In her book Speculation as a Mode of Production, Marina Vishmidt (2018) observed that contemporary “social practices” in art seek to extend beyond the bourgeois confines of art as unconditioned and “free” non-labour, and instead speculatively attempt to influence broader economic relations outside of art from which art has traditionally withdrawn, or materially experiment with the labour-relations of their own artistic production.
Artists can no longer avoid the knowledge that Western institutions of art emerged during a period of white colonial dominance, and still operate on a legacy model that cannot address the critical questions artists are raising today: how can we transform our way of living to evade climate emergency? How can we undo the structural racism and colonial mindset that pervades our institutions? How can we replace the default operations of an art world with one genuinely inclusive and welcoming for those marginalised by the operations of power? How can art facilitate survival of ourselves and the planet? Universities have not shown themselves to be skilled at addressing these questions in their own operations, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the creative arts PhD is in a static and reactive mode, with few institutions committed to forging resonant new models of collaborative inquiry, which instead exist outside the university in communities of knowledge attached to more concrete forms of action.
As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2011, 161) puts it, “institutions in culture must precomprehend an institution or instituting of culture, not simply as a chronologically prior event.” Perhaps the challenges here for the creative arts PhD are not to experiment with the form of education for the future, but to more thoroughly interrogate their limitations and heritage. For Vishmidt, supporting PhD researchers to grapple philosophically with the underlying conceptual conditions of their own practice would also mean providing the conditions to explore the political-economic conditions of their work. Vishmidt’s book mentions artistic research only in passing, but she notes that following Brecht there is the potential for artistic research to be “antagonistic in its stance rather than merely inquisitive”, subsuming art as we know it in modes of “sensuous disruption” that “go beyond ‘asking questions’, but also beyond the enactment of political forms within art as edifying or melancholic contemplation”(Vishmidt 2018, p26).
This sense of a transition from describing to doing seems in keeping with student impatience with a university sector that pays lip service to social realities but at an organisational level struggles to walk the talk, whether through diversifying hiring practices; fostering non-extractive modes of research and community; building meaningful solidarity with First Nations; or providing inclusive environments that support all students’ flourishing. In this context, the formation of the doctoral researcher through individualised cultural and intellectual development in preparation for an academic life of the mind seems out of touch with both the reality of the cratering academic labour market and student demands to support more collective and collaborative infrastructures for inquiry.
As always, we turn to Indigenous Knowledge as a guide to more inclusive and sustainable practices of intergenerational knowledge transfer, but as Tuck and Yang (2012) remind us, decolonisation is not a metaphor, and meaningfully supporting this goal is no simple matter for institutions and subjectivities attached to settler futurity, innocence and redemption. Perhaps our best guide is to tune into what Tav Nyong’o (2015) described as the student demand: “The student demands the right to reclaim her study; to know the world in order to change it. That demand is the freest, most fearless speech we may have the privilege to hear. Will we listen?”
Derrida, Jacques. 2002. “The University Without Condition.” In Without Alibi, translated by Peggy Kamuf, 202–37. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Derrida, Jacques, and Amy Wygant. 1992. “Mochlos; Or, the Conflict of the Faculties.” In Logomachia : The Conflict of the Faculties, edited by Richard Rand, 1–34. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Nyong’o, Tav. 2015. “The Student Demand.” Bully Bloggers (blog). November 17, 2015. https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/the-student-demand/.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2011. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tuck, Eve., and K. W. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol.1 (1). http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/article/view/18630.
Vishmidt, Marina. 2018. Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital. Leiden: Brill.
Dr Danny Butt is Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Practice and Graduate Research Convenor in Design, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. He published the book Artistic Research in the Future Academy (University of Chicago/Intellect) in 2017 and How Artistic Research Ends (RUPC/Surpullus) in 2020, and is an editor at the Journal of Artistic Research. He is Chair of the Advisory Board for Practicelab, the postgraduate student-run graphic design studio at VCA, and is a member of the artistic collective Local Time.