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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.

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 brainstorm keywords. When you find a new word or phrase, try another search in Google, the library, and Google Scholar. For example you can start with informal language, like human drive to be outdoors and discover the term 'biophilia'
  • When there are a lot of different ways to say the same thing, Google is better at including related results. For example, queer art isn't always described with the exact words "queer art", there are a dozen ways to say that someone uses "found objects" or "repurposed materials", and not everyone who does collage or assemblage describes their work that way, some people might just use the term "interdisciplinary artist".  Google automatically includes results with related terminology. 
  • Find leads to more scholarly sources Track an idea back to it's source. Find the original book, article, artist, or exhibition they are talking about and cite that instead. For example, I wouldn't cite this article because it's a secondary source, it's people talking about new research studies. I would click the links to track down the primary source, the original research studies.
  • Finding voices that have been excluded from the scholarly conversation Remember that queer artists, or artists exploring blackness, have been engaging in critical, intellectual conversation for centuries, but white publishers didn't see profit in those conversations, so those voices aren't found as often in journals and books.  Search the web, but still try to find an authoritative (and representative) voice to cite.
  • It takes time to publish ideas in print. After writing, editing, submitting, and revising, it takes months if not years to publish your work. Online sources will have more information about recent events/ideas, like community art in a pandemic.

Is it Scholarly?

  • 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?
  • Was it written to advance the scholarly conversation or to sell ad space on a web page?

Tips for Library Searches

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

2) Just because some or most of your search results are irrelevant doesn't mean they all are.  You only need to find one relevant results from a search to make it worth your while! Each of these relevant articles was buried in irrelevant results about working with dementia patients

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

  • For example if your search for information about ceramics and surface is resulting in a bunch of dental articles, go to the Journal List and type in "ceramics". You can search within a specific magazine/journal like Ceramics Monthly.
  • Compare these results for the same search terms social media and self-portrait:

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 
  • Use the abstract/table of contents to determine if you really want to read it, for example a search for "abstract film" gives you this thesis which isn't very abstract at all and this thesis which is much more relevant
  • Sometimes you just want to see what scholarly language sounds like when talking about personal or taboo topics, so reading theses is a great way to also improve your writing
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