Are Academics Really Artists?

painter-at-workI find it sometimes really difficult to describe what academics, especially at reasonably research focused universities, do. It seems easy to say that we teach, research and (increasingly) administer, but I wonder is that really a good definition of what we are about? Most people seem to think our main focus is on teaching, with the other activities just a small thing on the side. Conversely for many of us, creation of “new knowledge” – and passing this knowledge on, in various forms, including (but not limited to) through teaching, is something that we would at least like to dedicate most of our time to.

I recently had dinner with an artist friend of mine, and during the conversation he suggested just how many misconceptions there are of what an artist does (e.g. an artists “only” paints beautiful paintings). The more we talked about both our views and actual behaviour at work, the more it struck me how similar academics are to artists.

Take for example writing papers. In a way it is similar to creating works of art, such as, say paintings. There is a technique, there is some research and even skill that gets better with practice.
Think of what motivates good academics – and good artists: It’s not just the creation of artefacts such as paintings, sculptures or indeed papers, but rather expressing something: Passing on a message. Often involving multiple media: For example canvas and oil, maybe creating installation, music and movement in contemporary dance – or indeed papers, books, lectures and presentations. Both artists and academics persuade, try to make people think – and hope that the observers (or students) will start to dig deeper than just the surface, start to question what is the obvious.
Even when we sending in our papers for review to a journal has a cunning resemblance to trying to submit an idea for an exhibition, hoping that the gallery owner will find the work attractive enough to be exhibited.

I tried to search a bit around regarding definitions of academics, yet couldn’t find any that linked “us” to artists (apart from artists in residence, or practicing art academics). Maybe it isn’t the most obvious of all comparisons, but as I start the new academic year I find it quite a nice way to think of myself as an artist, someone “on a mission” to pass on a message, even just to make people stop and think about a few points I can raise.

You may also like...