Artists and Academics: What They Might Have in Common

Over the New Year, I had the pleasure of regularly sitting at a long dinner table with a group of artists, delighting in the conversation that developed as ideas, dreams, and challenges were shared. While this is not a realm that I presently inhabit professionally, I found myself, as a PhD student, still resonating with what was discussed. As I reflected further on the conversation, I realised that the world of the artist (at least the visual) and the world of the academic (at least a humanities PhD student) are not that dissimilar. Last week, Transpositions introduced ITIA, an Institute that is unique because it brings these two worlds together in an intentional way. And while artists oftentimes assert they are not academics and academics will protest that they aren’t artists, I wonder what happens when similarities are focused upon rather than differences. How might the artist or academic understand themselves better by considering the other?

G. James Daichendt in his book, Artist Scholar, starts to consider these two realms together, arguing for the importance of the development of academic critical thinking and writing skills in the education of artists, particularly in MFA programmes in the States. I’ll be reviewing this book later in the year, but I wanted to start the discussion a bit further back and consider three similarities that I think are found in what is oftentimes required from both artists and academics. (When I write of ‘artist’ or ‘academic’, I can only reflect upon the experience of a ‘visual artist’ and a ‘humanities PhD student’. However, I suspect that many will find at least a bit of resonance with what’s presented).

1. Being an artist / academic requires a lot of time on one’s own. For the academic, this is probably most relevant for those in the humanities rather than the sciences where collaboration and groups are more prevalent. Similarly, for artists there is opportunity for collaborative work with other artists, the community, etc. However, both the artist and the academic are stereotyped as one who spends a lot of time on their own to produce the work that is within them. Time spent thinking, conceptualising, writing, painting, drawing, sculpting, creating… both of these vocations can be a one-person show at times and with that comes the loneliness, the need for self-discipline, and the challenge of community.

2. Being an artist / academic requires (singular) focus and (sometimes painful) sacrifice. Most artists and academics I’ve known haven’t gotten where they are without both of these things. Whether one is trying to ‘break’ into the art world or become an academic, there tends to be many hours of unpaid labour that precedes the result (if it ever comes). Financial, geographical, and relational sacrifices are made in pursuit of a vocation. These sacrifices are made because of an intense focus on what is possible or what can be discovered or what can be visualized, and a love for what one does.

3. Being an artist / academic is both creative and constructive. It’s self-evident that these characteristics would describe an artist, but I would contend that the same applies to an academic. To research, think, and write where there was nothing before is a highly creative and constructive act. And while one creates with words and the other with paint (or clay or pencil), what might happen if academics (and artists) learned how the other does it, sustains it, fosters it, and protects it. At the very least, both can testify together to how hard and how satisfying it is when the ‘object’ is realized.

For an institute like ITIA or anywhere else that seeks to bring together the seemingly disparate fields of art and theology, perhaps the points of resonance are not just found in the ideas. Perhaps there is also a similarity found in how we see the world and how we create and construct it. How might this further the conversation between the arts and theology? Where are there other points of similarity?

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