Ritwij Bhowmik elaborates on the requirements of a PhD in fine arts and its larger implications on the Fine Arts ecosystem in India.
For those who have one, a PhD in visual arts may today seem like a far better bailout than years spent as a practicing studio-based artist with declining yields and value, and a so-called “job security” looming on the horizon.
However, the seemingly effortless and attractive call for a higher degree in Indian visual arts education rather has more unanswered questions than solutions. Moreover, we are not alone. Art and design institutes across the globe are involved in determining the requirement of a PhD degree in this field. What can it offer to art students/artists? Should they require one? If yes, then what uniform curriculum, measures, and benchmarks should be applied to award such a degree in this versatile creative field? Should a trained postgraduate visual artist pursue years of rigorous theoretical research for a higher degree? Or can a few years of studio-based art practice replace the requirement of a doctoral dissertation for this degree? Should art academies shift from MFA to an arts PhD as the required terminal degree?
The principal disadvantage is that more and more visual arts students are getting sensitive to the collective panic generated by the notion of degree-oriented higher education for job assurance. This is undoubtedly connected to the long-standing oblivion towards visual arts practice in our society, edged by the economic ups and downs. The degrees like visual arts PhD is hard to come by and certainly uncalled for the artists. Nevertheless, this sudden boom for a visual arts doctorate intensified with the recent UGC announcement, which dictates the requirement of PhD in new appointments and promotions in university lectureship positions. This straight jacketing everything into one set of formulae will do more harm than solve art educational issues.
“This notion of visual arts PhD, unfortunately, is lowering the bar for art education instead of increasing the quality of education. It denies jobs to deserving practicing artists with years of experience and allows ill-trained average candidates with a PhD into the education system. Further harming the whole system,” says Prof. Indrapromit Roy of MS University of Baroda’s faculty of Fine Arts, who is raising his voice against this madness for the last ten years.
For long, the MFA (or MVA or MA in Visual Arts, the nomenclature varies depending on the school) is awarded as a terminal degree in art schools around the country. The uniqueness of this postgraduate degree is that it is fundamentally a practice-based degree and not a research degree—the primary intention of it as to train professional artists. Since the inception of MFA and the absence of a PhD, it has been regarded as the uppermost in the visual arts. Thus, it used to be accepted for lectureship appointments and promotions to full professor.
If art academies replace MFA with PhD in visual arts (obviously after completing the MFA) as the required terminal degree, then there is further confusion. What practice do PhD students study to earn a PhD in art or design? Should they receive a PhD for the advanced level practice of visual art? Or should they master a series of substantial research skills for cutting-edge research in art or design?
The young graduates of the Indian art collages had grown significantly over the last twenty years since the NET (National Eligibility Test) became popular among the aspirants of a university lectureship. Year after year, hundreds of freshers appear in this national level exam to qualify for the post a lecturer at a reputed state art-college. However, at the same time, the number of such jobs had not kept pace with this growing demand. With the massive army of youth, armed with an MFA degree and NET scour, the competition became cut-throated. Soon, this ostensibly high qualification can no longer satisfy the recruiters. In several cases, recruiters started demanding a PhD degree (or at least enrolled at a PhD program) from the candidate at the time of the recruitment.
A young artist Sadhana expresses her resentment “I have a BFA and MFA from a reputed art-college in Kolkata and appeared NET. Still, everywhere I apply for a job, they ask for a PhD degree. It seems that there is no regard for a trained artist unless he/she has a PhD degree.” Sadhana is now pursuing her PhD in Fine-Arts at IIT Kanpur.
It is also surprising to add here that not only young artists but also experienced faculty members are being deprived of their deserving career choices due to the lack of having a PhD. Despite having a long, illustrious career as both artist and art educator, existing visual arts faculty members are denied career advancement for not having this degree. The list includes well-known institutes like the MS University of Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Kala-Bhavana of Visva-Bharati University, Kolkata’s Govt. College of Art & Crafts, Mumbai’s J.J. School of Art, among others.
One other dilemma is the narrowness of the Indian art market. Since the recession of 2008, the Indian art market is quite careworn to get out of the inertia. Conventionally, Indian Art Galleries and auction houses have never shown any particular interest in artists carrying higher degrees. This gesture grew more and more intensified after the recession. A vast section of the Indian galleries is now more comfortable to play safe by investing in the “Big Names,” keeping a blind eye for the talented new-comers, including the ones with a PhD in their kitty. It is another blow to the aspiring young artists, who are dreaming of a career in Art. After being involved in the long pursuit of PhD, when failed to get a decent job due to age restriction, many artists could not return to the art market, as they are already forgotten or ignored.
As a result, budding Indian artists need to be cautious against this folly, which, compared to their continuous dedication towards art practice, could become too runny in the years to come.
“One should be aware, however, that this degree has no value and doesn’t help any budding artist in their creative quest. It just a higher degree that might get you a job, that too if you are fortunate enough,” clarified an artist from Mumbai, who wished to remain anonymous.
Ray of hope
As the predicament worsens in the Indian art scene, many prominent artists are now raising their voices against the trend, one that is less concerned about the artistic value and is more interested in the paper value of a degree. Artists like KG Subramanyan, Anjoli Ela Menon, Lalu Prasad Sahu, K Laxma Gaud, Manu Parekh, and many others raised this issue with the government and the art fraternity. Over the years, prominent artists joined this protest and expressed their concerns with the government. They demanded that no PhD, but the artistic contribution by the artist should be recognized for recruitment.
In 2014, as a vital step to fight against this oblivion, renowned art educators from various Indian art institute submitted a joint petition to the chairman of the UGC– the apex governmental body of higher education in India. This was the first of its kind approach. The petition was led by the faculty members of MSU’s Faculty of Fine Arts and signed by many famous artists and retired art educators like GM Shaikh, Nilima Shaikh, R. Sivakumar, Indrapromit Roy, Sashidharan Nair, Vasudevan Akkitham, Parag Roy, Chhatrapati Dutta, among others. The petition demanded to remove this norm for the PhD degree and allow the candidate’s competence to be judged by his/her contributions to the filed. It says,
“Let us draw your kind attention to the fact that even in the US where Practice-based PhD is widely available, it is NOT a Mandatory requirement. MFA or MVA is considered a terminal degree. Since many practitioners send years practicing their art and researching without formal degrees, they are in danger of being completely sidelined by privileging only ‘doctoral research’ and unrecognizing all other considerations. Moreover, in India, Practice-based PhD was not recognized until recently and only in a nascent stage. It is unreasonable to expect it to bear fruits in three years! As a result of the 2010 notification, there is already a rush to anyhow get a doctoral degree, that too in mostly art historical research and not about the practice at all! Appointing such degree holders only will completely undermine practitioners and professionals and bar them from the system and damage the future of studio-practice based discipline for many years to come.”
“There is no proper studio-based visual arts PhD program in this country. The students in our art institutions are trained to become artists instead of pursuing theoretical research. So, naturally, it becomes virtually impossible for them to conduct pure academic research for getting a PhD degree,” states Prof. Ashok Bhowmik, a noted artist and ex-principal of Kala-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University.
The author is a faculty member at the Dept. of Humanities & Social Science, IIT Kanpur. He regularly writes on Art History, Visual Communication and Film Study. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Ritwij Bhowmik is an Assistant Professor and the Convener of the Fine-Arts Discipline at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS), IIT Kanpur, India. He has spent a tenure serving as a Guest-Professor at the Department of Asian and Islamic Art-History, University of Bonn (Germany). He also delivered several invited lectures on Indian Cinema and Art at renowned European universities including the Universität zu Köln (Germany), University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Universität Duisburg-Essen (Germany), University of Split (Croatia), and the Aalto University (Finland). His list of awards include the DAAD Research-Stays Fellowship, Golden Bamboo Scholarship by National Chiao-Tung University (Taiwan), Chinese Govt. Scholarship 2008-2009 by the Ministry of HRD (Govt. of India), Award Grant by the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation (Canada), Institute Fellowship by IIT Kanpur and Young Scientist in Visual-Culture Award by the Venus International Foundation. He earned his Doctorate in Visual-Culture from National Chiao-Tung University (Taiwan). His research interest lies in the area of Modern Bengali Cinema, Art-Education, and Chinese Modern Art. He is working on his forthcoming book on Indian Visual Culture, which will be published in 2020.