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?

14 Comments

  • Christopher R. Brewer says:

    Sara, thanks for this, and I think you’re right that there are similarities in what is required from both academics and artists. In addition to the three things you mentioned I’ve been thinking about two more, the first being a variation on being an artist/academic requiring a lot of time on one’s own, and the second a continuation of our conversation last week having to do with art and the Church.

    1) Being an artist/academic requires discipline with regard to studio/study practice.

    A year or so ago, my good friend Alfonse Borysewicz sent me a series of pictures from his day in the studio. Most were details, snapshots from the space. The one that’s most vivid in my memory was taken from a seated position, the frame containing Alfonse’s crossed legs, red/blue striped socks and leather shoes. He was sitting, thinking.

    In my interview with Alfonse (http://vimeo.com/30094053) he says, “My wife likes to tell me every day you should go in, you know, work eight hours, you know, straight, like paint eight hours straight, and you know, for every hour you paint you spend five hours looking, staring. But I do tell students, painters, that it’s very important to keep a schedule, to go into your studio even though you don’t know what you’re going to do. To quote Beckett, I think art is waiting for something to happen. You do little things in the studio like clean up … I just sit there and finally you get up and you start painting …. There’s a constant back and forth reflection. You go back home thinking either I just created a masterpiece or I didn’t then you go back in the studio and either re-do the masterpiece or … it’s hard, but what’s beautiful is the ending.”

    And that’s what these pictures were of – painting, sitting, staring, cleaning up. And that’s more or less what I do here in the Roundel. Some artists/academics figure they’ll go in to the studio/study when inspiration strikes, but as Alfonse reminds us, it’s important to keep a schedule. Academics, like artists, must cultivate a sort of attentiveness, and wait for something to happen.

    2) Being an artist/academic means loving the Church intentionally, over and over again.

    It seems as though academics, like artists, often have a rocky relationship with the Church. And like artists, academics can’t blame the Church (any more than the Church can blame the artist/academic). We must love the Church, giving ourselves up for her. There is more that could be said here, but I’ve said enough!

    Curious to hear your thoughts on these additional similarities.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      Thanks, Chris, for this. The challenge in the first similarity you mentioned is to allow for the space to think, reflect, etc rather than filling up one’s day with a lot of ‘doing’. For me, this is a discipline because sometimes there is a lot of comfort in filling my time in doing things… somehow it seems more tangible. Giving time and space over to thinking can feel risky, especially if the outcome cannot be known.

      I very much agree with your second similarity. As we’ve talked about before, both artists and academics have, at times, been misunderstood vocationally by the church. And this has caused hurt and frustration. But our call is to serve and to give and to forgive.

  • Carol says:

    Interesting thoughts ….
    On the idea of routine and structure, yes there is persistence, perseverance , pain and joy in the studio. There is also the mystery of the ‘ spaces in between’ . I have often sat struggling in the studio for hours and then given up and gone for coffee in a cafe somewhere – there,when I thought I had switched off for a while inspiration comes, the ideas begin to flow, and out comes the sketchbook ! Sometimes the inspiration comes sideways, unexpectedly ! The wind blows where it will ….!
    I have had this conversation with many other creatives … There is much more to say, but I’ll leave it there.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      You describe the PhD process so well, Carol! 🙂 In academic discourse, the ‘spaces in between’ are called liminal spaces… I like what you say about making the space for inspiration to come. I suppose that we can all learn to trust the process and not get so stressed when nothing seems to come yet.

  • E. John Walford says:

    Sara:
    I found a lot of resonance with your observations. As an art historian, thus, I suppose, an academic, who spend most of my career working in a small studio department of a Christian liberal arts college in the USA (Wheaton, IL), and as the only art historian among a team of active, practicing artists, functioning with academia, I also noticed how different they were to me, in the way they would think about a problem or possibility, to say nothing of differences in dealing with authority structures – in this case, the College administration. It was often frustrating for both parties – particularly as I was also department chair for 21 of those 30 years, and this generated advantages and disadvantages for both types – the artists and me, the academic.

    However, that stated, the point of my adding to your fine set of observations is that, with time, I found I learned and profited greatly from sustained exposure to their modes of thought, and ways of addressing problems. They had a far greater capacity than I did for thinking outside the box, risk taking with new directions in their work, a willingness to experiment, and a way of making associations that was more intuitive than reasoned. They also spoke a lot about “listening to, and working in response to the materials,” which at first sounded to me like odd “talk-back” – “huh,” I would think to myself, “so the materials have a will too, that drives what you do? You don’t impose your will on their pliancy?” With time, I came to see what they were talking about, in this “listening to the materials,” and it most definitely impacted my own academic practice, and, most definitely, the style of my writing, and my classroom teaching.

    For both major publications of my career I received praise for my writing style, and I would credit some of that to what I learned both from my visual arts colleagues, in terms of ‘dialog with the materials,’ as well as from my music colleagues in the Conservatory of Music, who taught me something about timing, sequence, rhythm, patterns, and refrains, that transfer into writing style to bring an added beauty to the experience of reading. Academic writing, or classroom teaching, I conclude, can both be greatly enriched by sustained exposure to the ways and methods of visual artists and musicians – as well as those involved in drama – from all of which groups my life has been enormously enriched, and to all of which I am immeasurably indebted.

    Thus, I too see much to be gained from visual artists, musicians, actors, and academics, especially those in the humanities, working in close quarters, and so I also laud you for reopening this conversation, in the context of Transpositions!

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      Thank you, Dr Walford, for adding to this conversation and presenting such an inspiring vision of the potential of true interdisciplinary academic environments.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      After further reflection, I wanted to add another similarity that relates to the artist listening to their materials. The other similarity I experience is listening to and allowing the project (whether it’s research or a work of art) to go wherever it needs to go. I realise that this can feel just as odd (and esoteric) as listening to the materials, but my experience as an artist and a PhD student is you oftentimes journey into the unknown and have to go wherever the project leads. So while there’s thinking, reflection, concepting prior to, when the moment of writing or painting or sculpting or designing starts, you do not know where it is going to end up and there is, at least for me, a sense of giving up control of what the end product will be. A terrifying and exhilarating experience and almost always a surprising one.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Love this post. It’s certainly been easier for me to shift from an artistic to an academic work environment by considering my academic work as just another set of creative projects, including one major long-term project (the dissertation) accompanied by a series of shorter creative experiments (conference papers, blog posts, etc.). The dissertation is less oppressive when viewed as a collection of material one can play around with and organise into something pleasing (and meaty) to read, as opposed to: “Here are facts. Here are arguments. Organise them.” (Which is, I confess, how “academic writing” reads in my head.)

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      I really like this way of conceiving of doing academic work, Cole. I have never thought about it like this… and when I do, it makes me think, ‘I have actually done something like this before’ rather than the academic process being wholly alien.

  • Carol says:

    I can relate to both Cole and Sara in their experiences. As I moved very nervously from being a practising artist to the alien world of academia, a friend advised me to think of the written work in terms of a collage- gathering different pieces together, possibly quiet different, and bringing them together into a whole composition. I have continued to find many parallels as I study.
    Now studying at PhD level I find continuing with some element of my practical work – creating installations for worship spaces – is vital along side the more cerebral study in finding the questions I need to ask. The experiential and embodied study goes hand in hand, the reading feeds into the practice and the practice feeds into the reading.

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      I like this. Doing academic work as an artist is a whole different way to conceive of the process… I’m learning that while I do have to fit into a box in a sense (ie I have to write 80,000 words and defend them), it’s okay if my process doesn’t fit into the traditional box of doing a PhD.

      Can you say a bit more about how you’ve seen reading feed practice and vice versa? Any examples of what that has looked like for you?

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    In light of this conversation, I was intrigued to find this start to a chapter by practical theologian, John Swinton:

    ‘Theologians can be as creative and innovative as the most elegant of artists, weaving and painting wonderful experiences, explanations and offering understandings of humanity and creation which excite, tempt, tantalize and amaze.’ (102)

    Swinton, J. ‘Friendship in Community: Creating a Space for Love’ in D. Willows and J. Swinton (eds.), Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2000), 102-106.

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