Art history doctoral candidates favor 20th century art


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So what are America’s doctors researching?
No, not the research scientists — the newly minted Ph.D.’s in art history. What kinds of art, past and present and from around the globe, are of pressing interest?

The answer is: mostly Modern art, mostly from North America and Europe. The 21st century is scrutinizing the century that preceded it.


According to lists compiled by the College Art Association, a venerable professional group whose membership includes the vast majority of American academics in the field, the most-studied area for doctoral candidates in the U.S. and Canada last year — by a long shot — was art made in roughly the last 100 years. Paul Klee, Eduardo Paolozzi and Kazimir Malevich were among the subjects of 67 doctoral dissertations in the category.

The 29 categories listed by CAA range alphabetically from ‘African (Sub-Saharan)’ to ‘World Art,’ a cross-cultural, transnational discipline. Twentieth century painting, sculpture, design and other art had 50% more doctoral dissertations accepted in 2010 than the next most popular field.

In 2002, the earliest listing on the CAA’s publication review website, the most popular field for study was Europe’s Renaissance and Baroque era, from the 15th through the 17th centuries (34 dissertations).

Last year, the second-most attractive area for budding scholars was American art — Thomas Cole, James McNeill Whistler, etc. — with 45 dissertations. No doctoral studies at all were completed in five areas: Digital Media/Animation, Outsider/Folk, Native American, Prehistoric and the aforementioned World art. In all, nearly 400 doctoral dissertations were approved by CAA member schools. The interest in ‘mostly Modern’ art grows even larger when the various categories are unpacked.

For example, American art included a study of expatriate abstract painter John Ferren, whose most productive years were spent in Europe during the 1930s. Architectural history included projects on the Modern master Louis I. Kahn and vernacular Russian architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Chinese art was not only concerned with the Guiyijun Period (851–1002) and the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) but with the Chinese avant-garde before World War II and artists who emerged in the 1990s.

Two of the three design history doctorates focused on the 20th century, including film costumes and Japanese handcrafts. Modern also dominated the area of Drawings/Prints/Photography/Works on Paper.


Since programs at schools differ and history is anything but rigid, faculty who submit the dissertations to the CAA listing can choose the category they think best describes their student’s area of study. So the 20th century field includes dissertations on Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, while their colleague, Jasper Johns, was a dissertation topic listed in Contemporary art. Warhol also turned up in the popular area of Critical Theory/Gender Studies/Visual Studies (36 dissertations).

Add the 20th century art dissertations from all those other areas, and it’s overwhelmingly the most popular field.

Which areas were the least studied in 2010, aside from those that saw no doctorates awarded? The Middle East/North Africa and Oceanic/Australian areas each had a single champion — both on historical subjects.

The entire CAA list of art history dissertations completed last year is available for perusal here.


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