Please don’t call me doctor

Ian Haig, 2009

I am thinking of getting my Ph.D. it will cost me US $150 from a website specialising in fake university qualifications. This Ph.D will be from a prestigious-sounding US university that doesn’t exist and for a prestigious-sounding area of study in Art Education that also doesn’t actually exist. Of course this Ph.D won’t be worth the paper its printed on, but it got me wondering; what actually is the currency of a Ph.D? In particular, what is a Ph.D for an artist worth? This, I guess, begs the question of what is actually the currency of an artist anyway, let alone one with a Ph.D. I have to say from the outset, and apologetically, I am an artist and an academic, but I find the whole notion of a Ph.D more than a little problematic.

I have often thought it would be an interesting art project to actually purchase this Ph.D on the web and get the University I work at to list it on my official transcript of results. It could be interesting to see how far my bogus qualifications could be taken; could I supervise other Ph.D students perhaps or undertake important post-graduate research projects on the strength of my shonky $150 Ph.D?

The thing with the current push for artists to get Ph.Ds is… it’s only art. It will only ever be art.

What you are doing is not a cure for cancer, nor are you making some new discovery about quantum physics. What you are doing is just art. Now this isn’t to downplay the value of art, or question its cultural relevance or anything like that, I just feel elevating what you do by getting a Ph.D isn’t actually going to make a lot of difference to its status and reception as art. Really, it won’t.

Now the good thing about art, unlike science, is that it’s entirely subjective; everything is open to interpretation, there are no right answers, no correct response. However getting a Ph.D implies you have ticked all the right boxes as an artist. You have achieved “quality outcomes”, contributed to the body of knowledge and off you go and get your gold star. This, in the sciences, with their notions of empirical data and publishing your findings for others to build on or refute, I can understand… but art practice? Art critic, Dave Hickey talks about the ‘worthiness of contemporary art’ (Hickey, 1997), which he equates to taking medicine; it tastes bad but you know it’s good for you. I think of this when I think of artists doing Ph.Ds.

Now, without sounding too dismissive, I can understand that a scientist or even an art historian can usefully undertake a Ph.D, and that sustained periods of research in any practice can be valuable, but I simply can’t take the idea of an artist with a Ph.D seriously.

I don’t like the idea of smart artists with Ph.D’s… smart artists too often equal bad art.

I am entirely serious when I say artists should maintain a degree of dumbness; being dumb is not as bad as people think. Dumbness, particularly for an artist, allows them to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Dumb artists can take risks in their work; they can be playful, perverse, do things the wrong way, undertake things knowing they will fail, be irresponsible, open themselves up to glorious mistakes and not be creatively crippled by over-thinking every single move they make as an artist.

Which brings me back to the question of the value of art. The current lemming-like rush of artists to undertake a Ph.D is, of course, symptomatic of how art practice is under increasing pressure to justify its outcomes in today’s research-obsessed universities. Art practice in the institution has always, and probably always will, grapple with quantitative outcomes, use-value and economic imperatives. But, I maintain, it is the very uselessness of art, its frivolity, the fact that it is not quantifiable, its non-scienceness that makes it an interesting place to be.

Of course such a notion is completely at odds with the Ph.D fraternity and the idea of art as “quality-based research” and the idea of quantifying a use-value for it. With plenty of artists quick to step up to be validated and elevated as responsible members of society with a Ph.D, I guess this isn’t going to go away anytime soon. I just wonder if, in the case of contemporary art practice, this research mandate is interpreted far too liberally in the form of artists undertaking Ph.D’s. Artists as doctors? I don’t like the sound of that.

An artist who calls themselves a doctor has possibly found a nifty way of getting upgraded to business class, but would that same artist step up when someone on their flight has a heart attack?

So, getting to doctors; some people have a pathological fear of dentists but for me, it’s doctors. My fear of doctors is not that they will find something wrong with me, although I guess that could be part of it, its more that I don’t trust them. The whole notion of the ‘doctor’ as some kind of authority figure having an elevated status within society is somewhat deluded when you consider just how conservative and blinkered the conventional medical industry is. Allopathic medicine’s charter, like the Ph.D is that of science, presented as the absolute truth of human knowledge. Its rationale is of processes being tested, patterns established and data collated to arrive at research findings. Anything outside of this belief system is shunned as unproven, unsubstantiated and not worth pursuing.

The artist Ph.D candidate establishes research questions, quantifies outcomes and articulates methodologies for their art practice. Which in the process has been so justified, intentionalised, and badged with usefulness and meaning that the life has been sucked out of it. You can forget all about ambiguity, mystery and pointlessness as aesthetic strategies; art becomes an academic exercise. Artists are no longer simply “artists”, but “researchers” undertaking important research work.

Although the rush to be “Doctor” is largely borne out of necessity, as university-based artists attempt to satisfy the ever-growing demands of the academic machine to get and keep their jobs, I can’t help thinking that ultimately there is a degree of insecurity in wanting to validate ones practice in such a way. I suspect that they are actually buying into the belief system of the prestigious and honoured artist, proving their worth with a doctorate.

Artists with Ph.Ds seem to take any opportunity to announce to the world they have a Ph.D. In exhibition catalogues, reviews of shows, gallery signage, and those little annoying email signatures that say they are “Dr”. I actually get a twinge of embarrassment for them every time I see a Dr. before their name. Who cares about your academic qualifications? Apart from, maybe, other artists with Ph.Ds. Let me say it real simple to those artists with Ph.D’s: you’re not really a doctor, so please don’t call yourself one.

An artist I recently met in the US who teaches in a university there, seemed confused and perplexed that so many Australian artists he meets seem to have a PhD from an Australian university. As the artist with a Ph.D is somewhat unusual in the US, I explain that they’re not really doctors, and that the Ph.Ds they get are play Ph.Ds. This seems to satisfy him.

Dave Hickey Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, Los Angeles, Art Issues Press 1997