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Explained: VCS Doctoral Proposal

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The PhD in studio art is a very problematic creature. Imagine writing a 300-page research dissertation on your work! In the Department of Visual and Critical Studies, we are developing a different kind of PhD. Not an ordinary PhD for artists, but an opportunity to pursue the study of visual culture right up to the PhD level, in an art-school context.

This context is what makes the program unique. Visual studies (or visual culture, or visual culture studies, or images studies) is a relatively new field; it began in the early 1990s, and now it has spread to universities around the world. It is the study of popular art, mass media, television, advertising, and other “low” arts, and it complements art history’s interest in fine art. Visual studies uses interpretive methods taken from a range of theorists—Irit Rogoff (who is coming to SAIC later this spring), Nicholas Mirzoeff, Lisa Cartwright, TJ Mitchell, and others—to understand the production and reception of images in capitalism.

At SAIC, we started the Visual and Critical Studies program as a Bachelor’s degree; that was unusual at the time, but it has become more common in the past few years. Normally, visual studies is a subject that you choose after an undergraduate degree in a college or university, and it has nothing to do with the production of art. It is a scholarly field: you write research papers, you live in the library, you write a 300-page dissertation and try for a teaching job at a college.

What we’re doing in the Visual and Critical Studies department is unique: it will be the only PhD in visual studies in an art school. Our idea is to take advantage of the fact that we are in the middle of the art world, next door to a museum, and right in the business and economic center of the city.

Students in the PhD program will take one and a half years of seminars beyond the MA or MFA, and then go to work on their dissertations. During the year and a half of coursework, there will be a seminar on the state of visual studies worldwide, so that students will have a sense of how the field is developing; a seminar on the scholarly and creative use of research materials; and seminars on dissertation research and preparation. We’re hoping to include a weekly faculty seminar, in which MA and PhD students and faculty all meet together and discuss the latest publications. Sometimes the topic would be the faculty’s own writing, and other times the content of recent conferences. The idea is to promote a close sense of community between faculty and students, and give students a sense of how visual studies is discussed. Students will be encouraged to take electives in other departments, so that the PhD remains strongly integrated with the rest of SAIC.

The dissertations would be serious business, just as they are in universities, but ours will be more open-ended, accommodating exhibition practices and other non-written material. Students’ existing art or writing practices could be developed in parallel with their scholarship, leading to new configurations that aren’t usually possible in universities. Nominally the written component of the dissertations will probably be about 75,000 words (about 300 pages), but when the dissertations include exhibitions or screenings, that requirement would be adjusted. (A minimal figure, often adopted by universities, is 45,000 words.) The seriousness of the dissertation is to ensure that graduates from SAIC will be on a par with graduates from major universities, but our PhDs should also have the advantage of being educated in an art context: they will have a more involved, committed, intimate understanding of the ways art is made and discussed.

SAIC will be the first with this new degree, and it should make our community of faculty and students even more interesting and diverse. We are working on resources—space for students, faculty issues—and we’re hoping to accept the first students in fall 2009. We will probably start with a small program, with perhaps three students the first year, and we’re hoping to give at least two of them full funding; in a similar manner to large universities.

James Elkins is a faculty member of Visual Critical Studies and Art History, Theory and Criticism at SAIC.

See the School News report in this issue for another view by SAIC administration about the possibility of PhD programs at SAIC. The Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism is also in the preliminary stages of proposing a PhD program; this proposal is being developed by David Getsy.

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