Response: Who’s Afraid of Artistic Research?

I think it’s worth my time responding to some of the papers I’m reading at the moment. Not that they particularly need responding to because of any inaccuracies or points of contention, but I’m hoping that it might help to solidify my own position as I start work on my PhD. In short, express my own ideas better. I’ve begun my canditature with very broad concepts that need more focus and direction before I really get started on my own research.

Probably fittingly, I’m kicking this off with Dieter Lesage‘s 2009 paper, Who’s Afraid of Artistic Research? On measuring artistic research output. This seems to have been written during a period of large changes for European art academies (Lesage makes the distinction between art academy and university, which might be more pronounced in Europe than Australia), as efforts are made to standardise what it is that makes a Bachelor Degree, Masters Degree, Doctorate and so on. As this occurs, questions about the output of artistic research vs scientific research are raised: must an artist adhere to the structure of a science doctorate; should an artist be forced to produce a paper at the end of their degree; and so on.

I’ve been told that the higher education sector in Australia is undergoing similar structural changes, to standardise higher education across the country – and perhaps internationally. That makes Lesage’s arguments against standardisation topical, but for me, he fell short of selling the point.

One of the characteristics of the emerging discourse on artistic research that seems to alienate some artists – even if their own practice is often described by critics as a form of artistic research – is that the discourse on artistic research tends to be very much embedded, either in a critical, deconstructive or constructive way, in the contemporary debate on the reform of higher art education in general, and of the Academies in particular. And it should be clear that most artists have a love-hate relationship with the Academy. (p. 2)

I don’t doubt that there is a love-hate relationship between artists and any institution. Artists almost by definition are very much focused on their individual endeavours, and having to bend to the will of an outside party (for funding, exposure, research support and so on) can feel like a compromise. However, I don’t think an artist should (intentionally at least) become part of an institutional body purely for the reason of creating art.

This may be where my Australian understanding of universities is differing from Lesage’s Euro-centric worldview, but I see an academic institution as a place of ideas. I don’t particularly care whether they’re artistic or scientific, but the institution should give the researcher the opportunity to attack philosophical ideas. The physical outcomes (thesis, artwork, cure for cancer..) feel almost less important to me than the process of exploring entirely new research.

In our flexible ‘project society’, we change so often between our different professional identities, that every rigid identity dissolves and it becomes unclear, what criteria quality control agencies should check. Our society is not only a ‘society of control’, as Foucault wrote. It is a ‘quality control society’. ‘Self evaluation’ – universities and academies know this quite well — is as much an instrument of this ‘society of control’ as surveillance cameras. (p. 3)

I’ll be honest: this quote confuses me a bit. I agree with the first part wholeheartedly – I am currently wrestling with my own range of personal identities. Am I an artist? A designer? A scientist? An academic? A researcher? Of late, the latter is what I feel most comfortable. As with my research last year, my PhD studies will likely drift between disciplines – moving from art, to design, to science and back again. And this is a Good Thing. Each informs the other, by not getting stuck in the traditions and methodologies of any one area. The only constant is research.

Obviously, I should be critical of my own work and Foucault would probably have some choice words to say about this being a form of policing myself. But isn’t that what Lesage is arguing for? As someone within an art instutiution (albeit part of a university), Lesage suggests that I should be the master of my own outcomes – not the institution. And wouldn’t that require me to enforce all kinds of quality control upon myself?

…at academies ‘academic’ had already for quite some time become an insult, a signifier of a lack of artistic quality. And so it happened that, at the very moment that many European academies had become very anxious not to teach their students to produce ‘academic art’, they were told they had to ‘academize’ in order to get accreditations for their artistic study courses. (p. 4)

My experience with the Fine Arts is that it is extraordinarily academic. If you don’t understand the history, you don’t understand the concepts and you don’t understand the art. But maybe they’re right: whilst attending the Picasso exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery recently, my mother offhandedly said, “I’ve seen better paintings than this”, to the horror of some nearby members of the public. Maybe they were more academic and understood the history of each piece better than her? Or maybe my mum was totally within her right to make that subjective faux pas and shouldn’t have to adhere to the opinion of the canon.

Responding to Lesage’s comment more directly, I think he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. If you want to create art, without being chained to any history, tradition, or canon, then by all means do that. But all that remains for an art academy in this situation is to teach skills without context. In Australia, we have the TAFE system which would fit this description – for people more interested in learning a trade, without most of the academic theory that a university crams in alongside. Whilst TAFE is excellent for many people, if it is a doctorate that you’re aspiring to, then you need to put your work in an academic context. Without awareness of what else exists, how can you create new knowledge?

…the Bologna Process, in a way that is completely unintential (sic), may eventually contribute to the end of the hegemony of the natural sciences in the field of research. What we are witnessing today, at least in those regions and countries where institutions of higher arts education, willingly or unwillingly, committed themselves to take part in the Bologna Process, is the beginning of a fierce battle for the definition of research. (p. 4)

I do agree with this statement. Although in a climate where university degrees are becoming less regarded (a great many people go to university as a matter of course, which some believe has led to a ‘dumbing down‘ of all levels of study), perhaps an end to hegemony is what is needed. Not only do institutions have a terrible habit of guarding their research, faculties and schools within those institutions guard their own. My experience is that we are in need of an even research playing field in universities and perhaps compromise on all sides will lead us there.

The notion of artistic research implies that artistic practice can be described in a way more or less analogous to scientific research. An artistic project, then, begins with the formulation, in a certain context, of an artistic problem, which necessitates an investigation, both artistic and topical, into a certain problematic, which may or may not lead to an artwork, intervention, performance or statement, with which the artist positions himself/herself with regard to the initial artistic problem and its context. (p. 5)

I feel that Lesage has written this as a cynical attack on standardising research. Instead, I’m going to take it as an excellent description of exactly how I feel about my own methodology. Perhaps it’s my straddling of art and science that makes the statement fit so well, but I also believe it is the role of art to explore new methodologies which can inform scientific research. Unless the artist approaches a problem to investigate with a certain level of scientific subjectivity (open to debate), it’s unlikely that the outcome is useful to anyone other than the artist.

Journals for artistic research which intend to promote the emerging field of artistic research and to discuss all the questions that relate to this emergence are of course perfectly legitimate, but it would be wrong to restrict the notion of artistic research output to publications in these journals. I believe these journals should be very careful in thinking how they position themselves in respect to academic journals and all the rituals that characterise them, and be very precise about the way in which they intend to be different from those journals. (p. 7)

This I couldn’t agree with more. My feelings of journal databases and the gated communities they represent are dubious at best. Science requires a certain level of peer review to approve their research, but the humanities should run – not walk – to a far more open and inclusive  format. Universities are Knowledge Institutions and the research generated there should be shared where possible. I’m not entirely blinded by a utopian vision of openness – I do realise there are time where intellectual property should be carefully protected, however like the major record labels, journal databases are an outdated business model, attempting to make money from the work of others. I want my research to inform and help others – not force them to pull out their wallets.

The insistence of universities on the obligation of a written supplement seems to demonstrate the university’s lack of confidence either in the capacity of the arts to speak in a meaningful, complex and critical way in a medium of their choosing, or in the university’s own capacity to make sound judgments on the meaning, complexity and criticality of artistic output as such. (p. 8)

This final quote sums up both Lesage’s argument and my disagreement with it perfectly. He believes art itself makes the philosophical statements required for research output, whilst I am more inclined to suggest that the process and theory puts it into a context that viewing a work alone cannot. Thinking back upon my own work, I don’t know that I have ever really finished any artwork, so maybe it’s the process alone that I am truly interested in.

Leave a Reply