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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

Is it Scholarly?

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, to give advice to other professionals, or to sell ad space on a web page?

Do I have to research the author of my quote?

  • Consider this: You've published your thesis and then discover that an art historian you quoted has said some very questionable things about women, and has been stripped of any scholarly positions he held.  If the main argument/framework of your thesis is based on this man's writings, you're going to wish you had researched his other writings and remarks to know whether that framework is based on sexist ideals.  However, if you quoted him once as an example of the perspective of the time decades ago, the main argument and framework of your paper is still in tact.
  • 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 argument of your thesis.  Those are the ones you need to withstand the test of time.
  • Try searching for 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 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) The more abstract a concept is, the more you need to brainstorm alternative wording/keywords for the same thing.  Keep track of keywords like you keep track of artist names, to refer back to.  Even if you only find one good article, that's a successful search! Read the citations and follow the breadcrumbs.  For example:

3) Use the Select a Field dropdown to search by Author, and use the options to the left of your search results to limit by date, format, etc.
For example, here are results about Hilma af Klint and here are results by Hilma af Klint. Add search terms into another search bar to get quotes from artists about specific topics. For example Hilma af Klint AND consciousness

4) When looking up perspectives from other disciplines, remember you only need information that will support your claims about your own work, so look for books or overview articles that will summarize big ideas for you.  Remember this isn't a history, psychology, or philosophy thesis. 

  • For example searching for jellyfish resilience leads you to an article titled Rise of the Jellyfish which summarizes and provides an overview of the biological research on the topic.

5) 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. 

  • For example, searching for jellyfish in ArtFullText will search through art-subject journals/magazines only. 
  • Searching for objectification of women will give you results from artists' perspectives.
  • You can also search for names in this database, to get an artist's perspective or to narrow your results down if there are people in other fields with the same name.  For example, here are the results for Laura Mulvey AND feminism

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 artists. Keep an eye out for terminology you can incorporate into future searches. 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
  • When there are a lot of different ways to say the same thing, Google is better at including related results. For example, there are a dozen ways to say that someone uses "found objects" or "repurposed materials", or "everyday objects".  You can use natural language with Google, and just type things in how you would say them in conversation, for example abstract photography as reaction against commercialism, or, photography as "creative destruction". Google has a better library of related terminology, so it's better at taking what you say, and knowing what you mean
  • Find leads to more scholarly sources Track an idea back to it's source. When reading an article, find the original book, article, artist, or exhibition they are talking about see if you agree with their interpretation.  If it's a research study from outside of the art field, it's okay to trust another expert's interpretation/summary of it.
  • 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.  Search the web, but still try to find an authoritative (and representative) voices to cite.
    For example, searching for a topic like biracial immigrant experience AND art in the library @LL Search tool gives you a lot of outsider perspectives.  Searching on Google is more likely to give you the perspective of people actually in the community.
  • 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. Other MFA theses will be discussing the freshest ideas in contemporary art, because you can publish your thesis right away.  For example searching for "automatic drawing" or for maximalism, will yield good results in @LL Search, but combining the terms yields better results in Google Scholar because there are more MFA theses in the results. Keep scrolling for more tips for finding MFA theses.

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
  • 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 try an Advanced Search to limit by subject. For example, here are the results for displacement when you limit to Fine Arts