The Phantom ‘Practice Only Thesis’

Wilsher, Mark (2019) The Phantom ‘Practice Only Thesis’. The Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, 13 (1). ISSN 1753-5190 (Submitted)


As universities become accustomed to the complexities of their art and design faculties, a body of literature has emerged that explores some of the possibilities of a doctorate in the creative arts. In the area of fine art in particular, although not exclusively, there has been a drive towards a purely practice-based thesis. This article argues that the notion of the practice-only thesis is not only an unrealistic illusion that puts pressure on students, but also does not reflect contemporary professional practices. For an art practice to communicate any sort of specific knowledge it must be embedded in a pre-existing and continuously evolving flux of discourse produced through written and spoken language. The American artist Trisha Donnelly’s 2014 Serpentine Gallery exhibition is taken as an example. Critical writing in the art press produces an accepted interpretation, and this is what the artist ‘Trisha Donnelly’ comes to stand for. So artwork that might appear to be producing its meaning autonomously should be seen as a collaborative practice involving the artist together with their professional interpreters. Research students are required to produce a self-contained project which would seem to preclude the incorporation of writing or academic interpretation by others. But it is fundamentally unfair to demand a thesis without any written component since it does not exist in an expanded notion of the contemporary art world.

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