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MFA Visual Art Research

A research guide created for students in the MFA program at Lesley University College of Art and Design.

Micki's slides

MFA Thesis by Micki Harrington

Tips for Library Searches

1) Try starting by searching for artists you want to compare your work to, or people you might want to quote. You can add in additional search terms to narrow your search:

2) Use the icons next to your search results to know which is a book vs. ebook vs. article vs streaming video, and look at the subjects listed to see which perspective on the topic they are covering:

3) Make slight tweaks to your keywords to see if the results change. For example see how the results differ for these searches:

4) If you find one good resource, mine it for more by reading their citations.  You can find the foundational/influential books written on a topic by seeing which books gets cited in articles a lot. For example:

5) When you're providing context for your work, consider citing a source that summarizes something for you, so you don't have to waste time explaining it in your thesis. Remember this isn't a history, psychology, or philosophy thesis. For example:

6) Try searching just one database if you're getting too many results from other disciplines, but remember you're missing out on non-art perspectives. 

Reasons to Google

Not everything you find on the web will end up being cited in your thesis, but that's okay, there are still a lot of uses for what you find:

  • Googling helps you discover new keywords and find summaries of non-art topics you can actually understand. 
    • For example, a Google search for childhood objects and psychology will give you results you can actually understand! 
    • And now we have a couple extra search terms like "attachment object" and "transitional object" if we want to dive deeper.
  • You can also add in phrases like exhibition review or group exhibition to discover artists.  Use - to exclude terms from your search, for example -pinterest will remove Pinterest results.
    • A long string of words like this wouldn't work so well in the clunky database tools, but Google has an easier time: photography group exhibition landscape as connection to the past
  • When there are a lot of different ways to say the same thing, Google is better at including related results, however you should still try making slight tweaks to your search terms to see the difference in your results:
    • Googling creating art in the woods vs. artmaking in the forest
  • Finding voices that have been excluded from the scholarly conversation Remember that some communities have been engaging in critical, intellectual conversation for centuries, but affluent white publishers didn't see profit in those conversations, so they didn't publish them in journals and books. 
    • For example, searching for a topic like immigrant experience fragmented identity in the library @LL Search tool gives you a lot of outsider perspectives and attempts at "problem solving". Searching Google will help you find more recent global perspectives and more personal/lived experiences, like this article about an artist.

Remember to use both @LL Search (the library tool) AND Google, back-and-forth:

  • Use Google for it's ability to interpret more natural language/search terms, and then use the library to find full-text versions
    • For example compare @LL Search and Google results for body as vessel for trauma and hope
    • Google results include a book: The Body Keeps the Score, but Google won't let you read the whole book. So head back to the library and search for the title, which gives you an eBook version!
  • Try it! Pick a search phrase and try searching the exact same thing in these different tools:
    • Google (full-text of popular sources)
    • Google Scholar (scholarly articles, some full-text, some not)
    • @LL Search (popular and scholarly sources, full-text)
    • ArtFullText (art-specific scholarly sources, full-text)

Is it Scholarly?

Is it scholarly?

  • Was it written to advance the scholarly conversation, to give advice to other professionals, or to sell ad space on a web page?
  • Who wrote it? Are they an expert? Artists are experts on their own work, but so are critics, art history scholars, curators, etc.
  • Was there a strict publishing process, like a magazine/journal where editors review everything before it's published? Or is it a personal blog where the author can just post whatever they want?
  • Do they back up their claims with research/citations/links to their sources?

Do I have to research the author of my quote?

  • Researching the authors you are quoting is an exhaustive practice, and you can never really know everything someone is thinking, so focus on researching the people whose thoughts are essential to the main artistic arguments of your thesis.  Those are the ones you need to withstand the test of time.  If you cited a psychologist who turned out to be wrong, you did your best, you're not a psychologist, no one can fault you for that.  If you cite an artist who turned out to be a known racist and you don't address it because you didn't know, that's a much bigger problem.
  • Try searching for people's names with words like criticism or controversy

Should I find old or new information?

  • You should have diversity in your sources, including publishing years.  If you can't find any current art scholars or critics saying the same things they were saying in the 1900s you should consider whether these are old-fashioned ideas that don't hold up to progressive contemporary artmaking.  
  • Every discipline has a different relationship with the scholars of their past.  For art criticism, we have to acknowledge that all of our old ideas are based on colonialist thinking.  Even scientific disciplines, like psychoanalysis, have been fraught with dangerous people committing crimes in the name of science. If you want to know if there is conversation/discourse around a specific person, try the library search rather than Google.  Google results will focus on information about the person, the library search will include more critique or criticism of that person as well.

Tips for Reading Other Theses

You can search through a global database of theses (Master's programs) and dissertations (PhD programs). Keep these tips in mind!

  • Look at all the different ways people organize a thesis to get ideas for your outline, see a list of examples here
  • Limit your results to Fine Arts subjects and Master's theses
  • Use the abstract/table of contents to determine if you really want to read it

This database isn't great at sorting your search results by relevance, so stick to broad topics, and read the Abstract/Details first to see what's relevant.

  • For example a search of monochrome painting gives you this thesis, which might not give you information to cite, but it helps you understand how other artists explain the materials/methods you use.
  • You can also search for terms that appear within the abstract, for example when you search for the word "hope" in an abstract of a Master's Fine Arts thesis, you get this thesis