Aliens in the Research University

For some time now, as I’ve fallen deeper into the academic side of the fine art industries, I’ve struggled to understand the peculiar divide between art in the university and art in the commercial market.

Here’s the best way I can summarize this divide these days:

The more prestigious an academic institution one works for, the more likely recognition of one’s art research is subject to market forces, rather than to peer review.

This is probably not news to anyone, but for me it’s the simplest way of describing a wide-ranging problem. Why is this the case, and why is it a problem?

First, this is the case because academic institutions appoint and promote professors in a comparable way to the appointment of professors in other fields – based on excellence of work, as determined through demonstrated public recognition.

The larger the scale of recognition for artists, the more likely the generating engine for that recognition has little to do with the academic world. Features in prestigious magazines, curated group exhibitions, commissions and the like are more bound up with commercial gallery sales than with anything like academic peer-review. (This is not a complaint, mind you – more on that in a minute.)

The most prestigious academic institutions require artists who have received great recognition in these areas. Such artists have likely spent much less time in the academic side of art, as their work required long labor in the commercial world. If they land in an academic job, they are likely to feel somewhat alien, and rightly so. Everyone else around them has risen to their position through very different structures of recognition.

For the record, I have nothing against a profit-driven market for fine art. We owe a great deal of new knowledge and experience to such markets. This market doesn’t support everything that I expect from art – not even close – and it does seem to best serve the wealthy. But in the end, this market benefits a broader range of people than do many other luxury markets.

However, there is a problem in how success in this market translates to academic expertise, especially for institutions that lay any claim to faculty governance or to the stewardship of knowledge through research. Here’s how I see it.

Thanks to the hard work of my predecessors, art professors are viewed as colleagues by their peers – on matters of promotion, curriculum, and recognition of excellence. In fact, as colleagues most art professors come with very little experience in how judgment of value happens in a peer-review based model of knowledge production.

An artist can earn a deserved and prestigious place of recognition within the art world without ever having to discursively articulate her relation to other artists or ideas, living or dead. Through manual expertise, intellectual curiosity, and savvy attention to demand, an artist can work her way up through all manner of coveted residencies, awards and exhibitions, without even needing to identify a home discipline. This is only right, I wouldn’t want to see this go away, for art has no need for the mechanisms of disciplinary academic review.

Conversely, peer-reviewed artistic achievement – through conference presentations, certain granting agencies, visiting lectures, certain curatorial models, and publication – won’t hold any particular weight in the commercial art market. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But when these two domains of recognition are conflated in review of art professors, we end up with people asked to do things they aren’t qualified to do. The conflation of these domains also contributes to a non-specific vocabulary for evaluation of student work, curricular goals and programmatic priorities.

I’m having trouble thinking of a good analogy. The best one I can give is unfortunately from dog shows – you can’t judge the working breeds using the standards of the sporting breeds. Sure, they’re all dogs, but they perform in very different ways.

Some time ago in the 20th century – and others have told this story – artists managed to convince universities that the sort of knowledge produced through deft manipulation of material form could be evaluated and judged. The MFA was born, recognized as a terminal degree, and artists started getting tenure.

It’s time now to make some clearer distinctions and descriptions of how art researchers are and aren’t like other university workers. We may even have multiple classes of art researchers at this point (as in psychology or other fields). These need to be somewhat protected from one another, expectations made clearer, the interface between a market-driven field and a review-driven field smoothed in the interest of communication, fairness, and value. This is especially true during a time of such limited economic resources.

I should add here that from a labor perspective there are far more pressing issues than the one I describe. I suspect that many to most instructors of art at the college level are not even employed full-time, so this whole dynamic only dimly affects them – except in their ability to move into a full-time position as desired in the current system.

Also, of course, instructors in academic institutions that privilege teaching over research are less affected by the dynamic I describe. (For that matter, I’m not even sure how much longer we’ll see artists in research university settings.)

Lastly, in fine art education I’m not sure there exists an ecosystem of knowledge and value at work – there may be multiple pyramids rather than a single structure of ascending value and prestige. So this point I’m trying to make may only affect a small number of people. But as long as research universities are such centers of science, industry, and the military, I’d like to see art’s role clarified in the interest of maintaining a relevant role.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *