The Future of Theory in Art Schools

How ‘theory’ should be taught in art schools is a much discussed topic ever since I joined the University for the Creative Arts. At UCA, regular CTX (Contextual Studies) group meetings are organised for tutors to exchange knowledge, share experiences, discuss issues emerging from teaching and learning cultural theories across the University. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “Contextual Studies”, basically it’s about contextualising historical and critical studies in arts subjects (such as fashion design, photography, film production, craft etc.). It forms an important part of arts and design education as it helps developing students’s research, analytic, conceptual and deductive skills.

A symposium I attended recently, co-organised by UCA and RCA and taking place at ICA (are you getting confused yet about so many -CA acronyms? I am!), dedicated to this very topic of the future of ‘theory’ in Arts and Design Schools?

In the morning session chaired by UCA’s Dr. Roni Brown, Steve Smith (Westminster), Judith Brocklehurst (IoE, University of London) and Mirko Nikolic (Westminster) proposed some interesting concepts to capture the dualism of body-mind / practice-theory. For example, Steve Smith considers “theory as art work”; developing theory is as if creating a piece of art work. But a question from the audience challenged this perhaps idealised analogy: does every practitioner want to theorise or is every practitioner capable of developing theory alongside their practice. Perhaps practice-based research is an over-hyped or over-sold concept? I suggested, upon my joining in the debate, that theorising or conceptualising is not an easy task for even a theorist, and a critical distance and an efficient communication channel are required to allow reflection, constructive dialogue and collaboration between theorists and practitioners.

Session 1, on stage from left to right: Judith Brocklehurst (IoE, University of London),  Roni Brown (UCA), Steve Smith (Westminster), Mirko Nikolic (Westminster)

Session 1, on stage from left to right: Judith Brocklehurst (IoE, University of London), Roni Brown (UCA), Steve Smith (Westminster), Mirko Nikolic (Westminster)

Session 1, on stage from left to right: Judith Brocklehurst (IoE, University of London),  Roni Brown (UCA), Steve Smith (Westminster), Mirko Nikolic (Westminster)

Session 1, on stage from left to right: Judith Brocklehurst (IoE, University of London), Roni Brown (UCA), Steve Smith (Westminster), Mirko Nikolic (Westminster)

On stage from left to right:  Annie Davey (IoE, University of London),  Chantal Faust (RCA), Emily LaBarge (RCA), Zoë Mendelson (CSM)

On stage from left to right: Annie Davey (IoE, University of London), Chantal Faust (RCA), Emily LaBarge (RCA), Zoë Mendelson (CSM)

On stage from left to right:  Annie Davey (IoE, University of London),  Chantal Faust (RCA), Emily LaBarge (RCA), Zoë Mendelson (CSM)

On stage from left to right: Annie Davey (IoE, University of London), Chantal Faust (RCA), Emily LaBarge (RCA), Zoë Mendelson (CSM)

The debate became more heated in the afternoon as the controversial question ‘should universities award ‘practice-based PhD’ was under discussion. Peter Osborne (Kingston) shared some acute observation about current arts and design education (especially on the concept ‘transdisciplinarity’). He pointed out several inconsistencies in the delivery and the rationale. Here’s just one issue he talked about:

Transdisciplinarity would be hard to achieve if there is no specialism. Arts are considered as transcendental and cross-discipline (e.g., sociology of arts, psychology of arts, history of arts, philosophy of arts etc.) because artists have specialist skills. Theory simply does not fit in arts and design education at the moment. The generic character of contemporary arts is that amongst other things the contextual is also constitutive. They are not in a sense necessary; they are constitutive in the actual sense. But the naming of art institutions or courses seems to suggest theory is contextual, supplementary to study practice. When questioned if he was trying to police the boundary, he said:

“The function of a PhD by practice will mean there’s no artist in art schools. I think that’s very serious. I think that’s a totality. Art schools in the last 50 years at least are not training ‘academic painters’. Exemplary of practice cannot be reduced to a rule that’s teach-able. So what do you teach when teaching arts? My view is that you should never teach arts. You can help people to produce arts, put them in certain relation with arts, but if you try to teach it, it’s kind of over. I think it’s kind of what’s happened. There’s dual-structuralism. But why practice has to take this form of (PhD)?”

Julie Louise Bacon also spoke of the need of re-inventing art pedagogy so that arts education is not normalised. Having completed one herself, Bacon is all for ‘practice-based PhD’. But, she thought currently there is too much emphasis on ‘practice-based PhD’ as a certificate, rather than on what ‘practice-based PhD’ really is about – “embodiment of thinking processes”, about “embodied knowledge”, “epistemology of bodies”.

“[Practice-based PhD] is a test, it’s a dialogue, a contract between an individual, the institution and the field. It’s not just about the certificate. I think it’s wrong-headed to place the emphasis on the certificate. I
think it’s far too reductive.”

The last session featuring Marquard Smith, Henk Slager (Utrecht), Rebecca Fortnum (Middlesex), Alison Green and Rosie Ram (CSM), Adrian Rifkin (London)

The last session featuring Marquard Smith, Henk Slager (Utrecht), Rebecca Fortnum (Middlesex), Alison Green and Rosie Ram (CSM), Adrian Rifkin (London)

The discussion has become really profound: the question about theory-arts has been turned into a body-mind question. Think about this: from Greek philosophers to modern days arts school educators, we are pondering the same question: how body and mind can be united as one. How about getting students to play ‘chess boxing‘? Surely that would be enlightening?

I walked out of ICA and into the busy London. Inevitably, I took some tourist photographs (see below). Did the drive for clicking the camera shutter reflect any intellectual thoughts in my mind at that moment? Only partially, I think.

Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) at night

Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) at night

London at night - taken in front of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

London at night – taken in front of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

London at night - taken in front of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

London at night – taken in front of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

Trafalgar square at night

Trafalgar square at night

Big Ben at night on 25 January 2014

Big Ben at night on 25 January 2014

London on 25 January 2014 (view from Westminster Bridge)

London on 25 January 2014 (view from Westminster Bridge)

London Eye on 25 January 2014 (view from Westminster Bridge)

London Eye on 25 January 2014 (view from Westminster Bridge)

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One thought on “The Future of Theory in Art Schools

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post Yuwei. As someone who is currently undertaking a traditional PhD at Lancaster I confess to not having a great understanding of the concept of practice-based PhDs, so your article has given me a new way to think about the topic. Thanks for sharing (and I particularly love your photos!).

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