PhD meeting

I have just had a PhD meeting with Colin Crumplin from Bath Spa. And it was very interesting.


I should fill you in the background I would like to do a PhD that sits between the arts and psychology. Colin describes this is something similar to Susan Hillier’s use of her anthropology background in making art, and I suppose there are similarities I want to use my background and interest in Cultural evolution to probe various aspects of the arts, such as authorship and arts relation to its audience, from within an arts context.


Colin quite rightly pointed out two problems (well two problems aside from the multi institutional, multi disciplinary and bureaucratic issues). Firstly that my knowledge of Art history was weak and I appeared to know more about the scientists than the artists. And secondarily that a PhD was usually a detailed study of a particular aspect, and that in its current state my proposal was too broad.

First let me make it clear that I agree with him to a degree and accept everything that he is saying. However, some interesting questions arise from this…

Is an interdisciplinary PhD by definition broader than your usual PhD, and in providing this multi-institutional funding pot are the AHRC trying to encourage this? Or are they unaware of the potential strains they are putting on the traditional format of a PhD? Personally, I think that there should be scope for a broader PhD that seeks to unite knowledge from different areas, rather than bury itself in detail, particularly in the Arts and Humanities. In the sciences it could be argued that this detail is essential in providing practical solutions to problems. But, in the arts there isn’t this sort of pressure, in fact there is a different pressure, they should be interesting. By this I mean that they should have an interest to more than a handful of academics, because in the arts and humanities we are dealing with very public matters that effect people or have an audience. How much scope is there for this variation in approach at the moment? I don’t know…

Now this brings me onto the first issue, my embarrassing ignorance of art history. Hands up anyone who as a graduating MA artist has heard of Kenneth Marten, (just to let you know I have but only because someone pointed out this ignorance a few years ago). Any other British constructivists? Ok lets try one from my conversation with Colin, Francois Morellet?

Now Im not defending my ignorance, I feel ashamed and want to do something about this, but I have one question why after a BA, an MA and a lifelong interest in the arts have I not heard of him?

Perhaps a weakness in teaching? Well yes, certainly at BA, but I don’t think this is the reason. I haven’t been taught anything about studies in consciousness but I have been able to research this easily myself.

So is it availability of information? I think this is closer yes I can find books available at cheap prices and published scientific papers on the internet but there are few in the arts. Monographs on even much more famous artists are far more expensive and the publishers seem to defend the material inside like misers! I am reminded of C.P. Snows lament in the divide between the two cultures back in the 50’s. 60 years later and it seems there has been no change. Part of the problem I my case is that the scientists I study all reference each other in their works and share a common interest. These relationships and links are much harder to fathom in the arts. In fact my knowledge of artists is comparable to my knowledge of scientists or greater, much greater in fact. But they are disparate, because we don’t specialise in the same way that scientists do, and this is not encouraged at BA level. The teaching staff are encouraged to be broad and not to coach students in their own interests. where as the opposite applies in the sciences. Just look at the rate of new specialisms emerging in the sciences vs those in the Fine Arts.

But also, Im not sure that artists necessarily are the best person to go to to learn about their work? In fact the same can be said of art historians and critics, they often come with their own baggage? In the end all we are left with is the image of their work and a whole load of competing histories,none with any real authority (Yes I include the artist in this) over any other. So its not available and even if you can find something its rarely conclusive.

The nature of the arts? Maybe and of course a little confused knowledge is better than none? Or is it? Im not sure Im ready to air this in public in case I get struck off or something, but as artists do we need art history? I mean its fascinating and enjoyable and often inspiring and we would all be drawn to it anyway, but is it essential for making contemporary art?

Colin said two things, firstly that we don’t want to repeat what was done before and secondarily that if something is visually similar to something else than usually there is an underlying cause in the artists practices that is responsible for that – and the implication was that you would look a bit stupid if you didn’t know it. As I have done numerous times, to my disgrace.

Now I don’t believe that we really can repeat what has been done before and I believe that an artist should be a mirror on society and reflect or critique the zeitgeist, for want of a better word. Now that may be through absorbing contemporary science and literature or through doing portraits of contemporary life, the permutations are endless. Within this I can’t see that repetition is an issue? No one wants to consciously copy another artist, what would be the point (unless to make a point – Glenn Brown)? If we have unintentionally done it, well the chances of anything directly similar are slim, and the fact that a similar visual theme has arisen is comparable to a case of convergent evolution (bats wings and birds wings). In itself this would be very interesting and point to a similar cultural or physiological selection pressure. For a very basic example we have portraits done by Gainsborough and also contemporary portraits, the visual similarities actually highlight the differences in many ways, as well as the obvious fact that humans like looking at humans.

In fact, this was the case when I was introduced to Kenneth Martins work. A friend, who was an older artist and writer on the arts, mentioned similarities between my work and Kenneth Martins. I was accused of ignorance he couldn’t believe I hadn’t been taught about him on a BA (we had Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus, but no British connection, although Vorticists in Britain were covered in relation to Futurists in Italy), what should I make of it? Yes both of us have an interest in constructivist systems based approaches, but I have come to that conclusion from a completely different route and will continue on my path, so why should I have known about him before? Does that change the work in any way, because I am not familiar with another visually similar artist? Of course, I was curious to find out about him, and I have seen many reproductions of his work (I discovered one of his paintings in a restaurant once) but beyond this I found it extremely difficult to get any information other than exhibition listings and other artists who has worked with, with some very vague indications as to his motivations. It would take an arts history PhD to fully excavate this and interview the relevant people. Then as mentioned there would be all sorts of complications about who’s version is definitive and ‘true’ as mentioned earlier. Am I not better off concentrating on my research and feeling validated and comforted in the fact that I am not the only artist to have come to these or similar conclusions?

I suppose if culture was stagnating and no advances were being made then the arts might grind to a halt and become boring and repetitive, but I don’t see this as being likely in the UK at the moment (Despite the general gloom and bad weather). (I suppose also that ‘bad art’ or amateur art might try to copy without engaging in any attempt to find a contemporary motive for working.)

So, just because art history is closely related to contemporary arts does that mean it should form the research content of a fine arts PhD? Or are their equally valid domains for research scattered across contemporary life?

Ultimately, I have a long journey ahead of me in finding  suitable niche for me to do my research and practical work in the arts. It is obviously academic in nature, but it is yet to be seen if I can find a suitable supervisors and whether this can fit into the PhD framework, even if that is what is wanted by the funding bodies. Then of course, I have to be accepted at whichever institution that ends up being and then I have to secure funding. So a lot of work and talking ahead and no guarantees of any pot of gold at the end of it.


I hear a rumour that Cardiff Met  had to persuade their staff to do PhD’s in order to raise their research profile….- -oh the irony.


About Phil Lambert

Visual artist based in Cardiff
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