why doctoral researchers should go to the modern art museum

Really?? Why should early career researchers bother themselves with contemporary arts?

Well, the answer could be to hold better conversations at dinner parties, or to help the team at the pub quiz. Or it could be to help the stroppy niece with her homework. Or perhaps it is to make it clear to the uber-cool black t-shirted attendant that you’re in the gallery for the exhibition, not because it’s raining.

But none of the above is the answer I was thinking about.

Perhaps it is because at least some contemporary art represents what some might call the zeitgeist, what’s trendy, of the moment, what’s avant-garde. If researchers are to get contracts with publishers, gigs on television and make their work say something now in ways that will have ‘impact’, then getting onto ‘the cultural’ through contemporary art ( as well as literature film etc) might be helpful.

Well, maybe that’s an answer for the academic cool-hunters, but it’s not the one I’m thinking of.

I’ve got more and more interested in the connections between contemporary art practices and the kinds of knowledge-related concerns that researchers fret about. In academic circles these concerns are usually categorised as the e and o words – however, I’m not sure if I ought to write epistemology and ontology in a blog post. So rather than worry about the ‘correct’ term, it’s probably just sensible to illustrate what I mean.

It seems to me that a lot of contemporary art practices are about disrupting taken-for-granted ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. When viewers first encountered Duchamp’s toilet in a gallery they were challenged to think about what were their preconceptions about what counted as ‘proper’ art. When viewers first saw Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, they were challenged to consider if any of their responses to the piece arose from deeply felt understandings about gender, class and ‘decency’, as well as art.

Knowing this tradition of challenge to common sense and common assumptions, I was particularly struck by the commonality of contemporary art and researchers’ concerns at a recent exhibition by Klaus Weber. See a short news report about the exhibition here.

Weber’s pieces played with Enlightenment binary thinking – he constructed objects and installations that raised questions about what counts as natural, what is a machine, why do we understand human history as a story of progress, what are the relationships between humans and animals, humans and insects, humans and plants. Juxtapositions of man-made and natural objects opened up a space in which gallery visitors were asked to consider why we persist in seeing human manufacture as both different from and superior to that practised by animals and insects. We were asked to think about the consequences of this belief. Weber also played with perceptions and our assumptions that to see and hear is to access ‘reality’ and ‘truth’.

Weber’s concerns overlap those that are discussed and debated regularly within doctoral education. It would be hard these days to find a research methods course or text that does not deal with the problematic history of Enlightenment thought, with the need to seriously attend to taken-for-granted ways of thinking, with the importance of deconstructing as well as constructing knowledge. Like contemporary artists, researchers-in-training are asked to consider on what basis the research community can claim to see, hear, feel, and know.

Perhaps it is because the processes that are used in and as contemporary art practices often go further than other disciplines in higher education that we do not see the commonalities between us. Contemporary artists are, it’s true, quite often more confronting, more committed to disruption and deconstruction, more playful, more likely to mobilise the absurd and carnivalesque, than many of us who are located with other disciplinary thinking and writing traditions.

But this is no reason to ignore the potential for cross-disciplinary conversation.

As we teach doctoral researchers the importance of rational, reasoned, evidenced argument – rather than the open-ended provocation, ambiguities, inconsistencies and ambivalences that are characteristic of much contemporary arts practices – there are nevertheless some possibilities for thinking about how these arts practices might inform our current research methods education.

Why not expect that all doctoral researchers should go the gallery? Why not acknowledge the shared interests and concerns across disciplines? Why not countenance the notion that, by seriously encountering contemporary arts practices, those engaged in research education as both students and teachers might learn the same ‘stuff’ differently, or perhaps even learn more!

Contemporary art – who needs it? Perhaps research education does…

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, contemporary arts practices, deconstruction, epistemology, knowledge production, ontology, research education and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to why doctoral researchers should go to the modern art museum

  1. I once took a group of middle and high school students to London to expose them to art and theatre in a way that made them question what they were seeing. In each gallery or show we went to see they were asked to come away with three moments or pieces that made them confirm their notion of what Art is, inspire them as artists or challenge their notion of what Art is. One really great moment for them was when they were looking at furniture and objects from the 20th century in the Victoria and Albert museum and they came across an iMac encased in plastic. Seeing it in the context of other older objects they began to look at every object as a testament to their time in history, and it made me revisit the way I teach the Arts. I’m at a new school now and teaching Music instead of Theatre, my question to my students is “What will your musical legacy be?” or “What imprint will you leave on history through the music you make or listen to?”. I really hope I’m setting up my students to be great thinkers, regardless of whether they end up being great artists. Your post made me think of this.


  2. Judy Davidson says:

    I found this a very interesting post. Thanks for sharing this. One of my research mentors–Liora Bresler–actually does take her research classes to the art museum…the theater…and to many other art opportunities to consider the role of the arts as a way to enter research methodology. Thanks. I really enjoyed this. Judy


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