After seventeen years teaching students from the part-time art education course, (1) I was given the opportunity to become a photography professor at the academy where I had studied myself, around twenty years prior to this. My old teachers became my colleagues. There was a different atmosphere in the art school than the dark times I remember from the late eighties. The director was now referred to as head of department and the academy was preparing to “integrate” (in layman’s terms: to become a part of the university) within a relatively short time frame. We adopted the same Bachelor/Master system and the teachers were encouraged to carry out “research.” Substantial funds were made available for this and I was keen to take up the challenge. Although I—and everyone else taking on such a research—didn’t really know what research in the arts should be comprised of. I had heard about theaterprofessors from the conservatorium who rejected the trend to carry out “research” as they felt their artistic practice was already a form of research.
But was an artistic practice and the research that was inevitably part of it the same as a research within the academic context? And was the academic context of added value just a necessary evil until we were able stand on our own two feet, and shift from the academic context towards the academy context? (An apparent nuance, and yet worlds apart.) After a lot of meetings and stale conversations at the academy about the differences between artistic practice and artistic research, the initial outlines were drawn: a distinction was made between research “in” and research “about” the arts.
Research in the arts could be viewed more or less as part of an artistic practice. The value of this research was its “communicability” and capacity to “reveal the applied methods” through which its feedback (or “nexus”) into the education program could be established.
Fantastic, right? I envisaged a radically different academy from the one in which I had trained: taught by tutors with a frame of reference as big as their belly button. I imagined an academy in which people would debate, a course with people working to a high standard resulting in a stimulating environment where people are constantly hot on your heels. A stark contrast to what the school had become: an arts graveyard where most of the tutors had barely lifted a paintbrush or held camera for years and yet knew exactly how the students should be instructed.
The American photographer Robert Adams, originally trained as an English teacher, has never wanted to give photography classes. In his book Why People Photograph (2) he devotes a chapter to “Teaching” and recites the well-known quote from George Bernard Shaw:
In this chapter he further discusses how dedicated teaching can bring an artistic practice into jeopardy. Of the seven people in the English department where Adams began his teaching career, two committed suicide as a direct consequence to being unable to strike the right balance between teaching and writing.
The Californian artist John Baldessari, the mentor of many a famous artist, sums up the paradox of art education in a more bearable light:
“It’s essentially an idea that you can’t teach art, but if you’re around artists you might pick up something”.
Could research in the arts build the inconceivable bridge between teaching and an artist’s practice, or at least—if meaningfully structured— have a stimulating effect on both?
I decided to apply for a research fellowship and put forward a proposal based mainly on a photographic series I had recently begun working on, Simple Present. The book about Beijing I was about to produce would fit in perfectly as a “milestone” or “research outcome.” I was already on the job.
Several of my colleagues already had research posts. They were much laughed at (behind their backs), particularly by colleagues who didn’t carry out any form of research (due to laziness, lack of ambition, being too old, too radically against everything, or for other noble reasons). Teachers from other academies and colleagues from the art world were also derisive about research within the arts. The teacher-artist-researcher was possibly even more problematic than the art teacher.
I also wasn’t entirely without skepticism; just a few years before I took up research myself, I published an article in an arts magazine in response to the first PhD defense in the arts. The article was titled, “Mom, why do we do doctorates?” (3) Like other PhD defenses I witnessed around that time, the artistic achievements—which were the results of the research—suffered from a misconceived pressure to use academic language, leading to clownish accounts and dismal theses. It became apparent there was a fundamental flaw in the entire concept of a doctorate in the arts; the artists found themselves in a jam in which the academic expectations resulted in pseudo jargon and the presented artworks appeared to be an illustration of the research rather than an actual result.
The first Belgian doctorates in the arts had become fact and the tone was set: there was still a lot of work do to. At that time, every researcher was simultaneously a pioneer and cannon fodder. The title “Professor Doctor,” that many a fresh-faced doctor immediately added to their e-mail signature after graduation, was the slightly ridiculous consolation for the humiliation that went hand in hand with the doctorate research.
We were in search, all too often speaking a language that wasn’t our own—save for a few artists that could master the academic language (which, to be honest, often came at the expense of the scope of their artistic practice).
The academy was—through the forced academization process—looking for necessary progress. Merging with the university appeared to be of great value, at least if both parties were willing to learn from one another.
As soon as I was well underway with my research, the academy’s merger with the university was called off. We turned back to the arts and made plans to become a “School of Arts”; a merger between the conservatorium and another arts program was in the making. Our courtship display with the academic world evolved into a marriage of convenience with a prearranged divorce.