IDSVA | A Message from the Founding President

A Message from the Founding President. It is not every day that an entirely new PhD is added to the worldwide spectrum of graduate education.

A Message from the Founding President

Photo by: Dave Dotsie, 2017

Photo by: Dave Dotsie, 2017

It is not every day that an entirely new PhD is added to the worldwide spectrum of graduate education. Accordingly, some might like to know how the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts started as a concept and got going as a school. Years have passed since I taught my first art school theory class. But never will I forget the lessons of that experience.

I was in proud possession of a newly minted PhD and had been teaching lit crit to Ivy League undergrads in Paris. The theory course I was about to teach was the first ever to be offered at the art school, and I wondered if third year art students with little academic training could handle the by then notorious intellectual demands of THEORY. To be honest, I’d convinced myself they’d run me out on a rail. I was so wrong! These young artists plunged into theory headfirst. They dove deeper and got it faster than the super-smart lit critters I’d been teaching in Paris.

I soon found out there were two good reasons why: First, theory for art students meant something more than ‘theory’: it was useful to their lives, to their aspirations and personal identity as creative expressive individuals. Secondly, because art students spent most of their time in the studio, where resolving abstract problems was the basic activity of a studio practice, dealing with abstraction was a way of life, and analytical thinking was the medium of thought. With the first assignment I also found out that artists were great writers of theory. They tended to write about theoretical/philosophical issues in concrete terms, for the obvious reason that a work of art is the concrete representation of a philosophical abstraction.

Before long I was urging my liberal arts school colleagues to send their students to art class if they wanted them to do better in physics or philosophy. What I had discovered for myself was nothing more than the truism that education philosophers and clinical researchers had been insisting on for years: that art making was crucial to cognitive development precisely insofar as it engaged the body, mind, and spirit in a singular form of creative human expression.

And very soon I also realized that my art theory students were making exciting changes in the studio. Even older studio faculty who had had no training and little interest in theory began to remark and appreciate the effect theory classes were having on the school as a whole. Theory became a requirement for all majors. Meanwhile, I got busy developing an MFA program that would recognize the importance of theory and philosophy in the graduate training of a studio artist. The new MFA was weighted roughly fifty-fifty between theory and practice. Degree candidates had to defend a written thesis from within the context of their studio thesis. The results were to me astonishing, partly because I was able to see first hand the level of art making that could be achieved through rigorous training in theory and practice, and also because I was amazed by the brilliance of the writing.

Clear and pressing was the need for a PhD program that would take these discoveries into account. In designing this program I wanted to put the lessons of my art school experience to advantage. I had learned that studio education is based on mentorship as opposed to the lecture model of liberal arts education. I had also learned that art school is very much about being on the spot. Especially at the graduate level, students got to meet and work with those who were pushing history into the future. To eye the very cusp of historical production was a huge benefit to art students who would soon be asked to take the same responsibility.

In this light, I have collaborated with art practitioners and scholars from around the world to design a PhD program for artists—and by artists I mean those who approach their work as a creative practice, as curators, architects, creative scholars, or art practitioners in the more traditional sense. I believe we have created the first PhD program of its kind in the United States. It combines rigorous philosophical study with on-site intensives. The latter might be described as critical interventions that bring the artist-philosopher into immediate contact with the life-world of contemporary art, whether it be participants in the Venice Biennale or the critics, curators, gallery directors and artists who populate the New York art scene.

Mention of the artist-philosopher brings me to one final point. The poverty of philosophy remains a failure to act. And yet a philosophy of action seems the only hope remaining in the face of our present conditions of existence. Such a philosophy will materialize, I believe, when the philosopher has learned to engage body, mind, and spirit in the concrete representation of a philosophical abstraction. Who will this philosopher be, if not the artist-philosopher?


GS signature.jpg

George Smith, PhD
Founder and President, Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts