BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 14 MAY 09


Navel-gazing or fresh methodologies? Finding the right name for artistic research

BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 14 MAY 09

‘I can hardly understand the importance given to the word “research” […] The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting […] I have never made trials or experiments.’
Pablo Picasso interviewed by Marius de Zayas (1923)

Although research, in relation to the creative disciplines, remains a fresh topic in the United States, in Europe it has become a tortured subject. Sir Christopher Frayling’s watershed 1993 essay ‘Research in Art and Design’, a model of idea-pioneering, prompted much teeth gnashing in the darker corners of several institutions. While he set out reliable navigational points showing where art and design research might lead, he also agonized over its likely effects: ‘There may well be opportunities for research within the expressive tradition, but they need dispassionate research rather than heated discussion about status, class and reverse snobbery.’

Since the publication of this essay, research in the fields of art, design and craft has become a question of status: what is the nature of such research, who could do it, how would it be judged and who could be qualified to estimate its value as research? These were questions surely flamed by funding agencies and universities seeking to diminish the risk and uncertainty of quantifying ‘success’ where research in art, craft or design is concerned. But in the intervening 16 years since Sir Christopher published his commandments, the answers to these questions have provided little in the way of creditable consensus. This is most obvious with the many different names currently being used: ‘practice-based research’; ‘artistic research’; ‘practice-led research’; ‘research through practice’. This list is far from complete. Worse still, each of these distinctions has spawned jingoistic orthodoxies. To take a page from American philosopher Cornel West, uncritical tribalism may best describe the trend.

It was Sir Christopher who saw that ‘research for art, craft and design needs a great deal of further research.’ History is prepared to show us what he meant; research methodologies, elemental to the creative disciplines, have their own engaging precedents, even if called by other names (see: Are You Experienced?, frieze issue 120, January-February 2009). But uncritical readings of the history of research in art, craft and design are responsible for a great deal of needless re-invention and navel-gazing at the expense of projecting relevance and influence into the world. Plotting successful university careers also proved an underlying motivation for establishing research as a methodology characteristic of the arts. Why? The intention was to give practitioners – from painters to dancers – equal footing with scholars in the academy when it came to evaluation, research funding, promotion and tenure.

The irony is that the attempt to establish specialized research methodologies in the arts has become just another obstruction in the process of shedding discrete approaches in favour of interdisciplinary analyses of common problems – as was persuasively spelled-out by Mark C. Taylor in The New York Times recently. That is, practice-based researchers adopted the university’s default small-bore research method without ever considering an activist, interdisciplinary research method – a lost opportunity for research in the creative disciplines to influence something larger than itself. And it mustn’t go unsaid that accepting research as the sanctioned mode for discovery in the Department of Art, Craft and Design is one thing, though it’s quite another to assume that research disciplines in other departments will take it to heart.

In many quarters, though, research in the creative disciplines has fallen into a state of inertia; ‘practitioners’ continually fail to reasonably demonstrate the relevance or influence of their work, beyond their own self-absorbed ‘reflection’ upon it. Some sharper minds prevail amidst this hazy musing; Rolf Hughes’ recent article, ‘Pressures Of the Unspeakable: Communicating practice as research’, laser-cuts around this inertia:

‘Practice-led research attracts its share of mystique and anxiety. When attempting to articulate the significance of a given practice, process or outcome, an otherwise articulate designer not infrequently “loses her voice” succumbing to the force-field of theoretical generalizations and abstraction, or resorting to autobiographical disclosure via the unadorned sketchbook or lovingly reproduced “research diary”, genres well-suited to chronicling the ruins of once optimistic desires – the painstaking archaeology of defeated intentions, the roads not taken, the references not pursued […] [T]here is in practice-led research a widespread description problem: questions of research relevance, accountability and evaluation are not infrequently deferred in favor of investigations into “the creative process”, or mappings of form, influences or other varieties of introspective inquiry subsumed under the often solipsistic concept of “reflective practice”.’

In light of Hughes’ blunt assessment, it is well to ask if research in the creative disciplines is merely a form of affirmative action, granted from a belief that broad values may be gained from diversity in the field of research by giving underrepresented groups (artists, designers and craftpersons) a significantly greater chance of doing some form of research, however Lilliputian? Or is it that we would believe anything to make it true that art, craft and design had some measurable effect on the larger world once compared to research in medical or political science?

There is a prevailing gullibility towards the opposite of research: recycled creativity, sustained by historical and critical amnesia. The case of the Swiss graphic designer Ernst Bettler is as rare as it is extraordinary; a story of a creative discipline using soft power with effect to change the course of culture. described Bettler’s posters as ‘brilliantly subversive work’, while Phaidon published Michael Johnson’s Problem Solved (2002), in which Bettler is named as one of the ‘founding fathers of the “culture-jamming” form of protest.’ Bettler, of course, turned out a hoax.

Given design’s historical lack of creating measurable change, shouldn’t the Bettler story have appeared incredible? And what does it tell us that the creative disciplines so easily accepted the tale at face value? It suggests that there is a near total lack of the understanding of, and ability to, conduct basic research. Writing for after Bettler had been unveiled as a ruse, Rick Poynor commented: ‘It reveals how skimpy standards of research, validation and basic knowledge can be in design book publishing.’ Indeed, though research in this field may be the least of it.

Yet, in another form, research in the creative disciplines is not only possible, but presents a creditable projection of influence and relevance. It welcomes Hughes’ questions regarding accountability and evaluation. Researchers may yield new knowledge by using creative works to metaphorically erase a cultural blind spot, though only assuming they know how to accurately map the blind spot. This would prevent artists and designers from repeating earlier and more accomplished work; it would save us from ever witnessing another chronicle of ‘the ruins of once optimistic desires’. In this way we could say that research in the creative disciplines was only one more form of research that requires no special dispensation. In this form, research in art, craft and design is ‘applied’, and the research questions pursued, as well as the results yielded, can be said to be otherwise unavailable but through this applied research methodology. Why, then, call it research through practice, artistic research, practice-led research, or anything other than ‘research’? Today, with Sir Christopher’s lucid distinctions between research into art and design, research through art and design and art and design as research apparently fully absorbed, why shouldn’t ‘research’ in the creative disciplines function simply, either as applied or pure research?

In order to make the distinction between applied and pure research, a difference must first exist, and while there is a sharp distinction in the sciences there is almost none within the creative disciplines. Why? Because in the sciences, moving from thought to action typically requires a moral decision. In 1974, before proceeding from pure to applied research with recombinant DNA, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that these experiments be voluntarily deferred for ethical reasons, and they were. Four years on, underlining that moral obligation, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore wrote an article titled ‘The Limits of Science’, in which he upheld the right of a scientist to free discovery, or the creative contemplation of pure science, but with the caveat that restrictions might apply to its application. ‘I want to make a crucial distinction’, Baltimore wrote: ‘the arguments for [unrestrained freedom] pertain to basic scientific research, not to the technological applications of science. As we go from the fundamental to the applied, my arguments fall away.’ But when a dancer moves from contemplation (I have conceived a dance) to application (I will perform this dance), no ethical question stands in her way. Is it odd that Baltimore’s distinction between the contemplation and application of research seems irrelevant to the creative disciplines? Why do the arts produce so few works necessary of being tested by the ethics that might cause them to be deferred or self-censored? Because there is usually no distinction between pure and applied research in the creative disciplines; they are one in the same.

Another weakness that materializes by comparing research between the creative and other disciplines is the unshakable belief in the myth of the lone creative genius. Scientific research happily accepts the notion of ‘multiples’, whereby several scientists arrive at the same research results at about the same time. (For example: four astronomers, including Galileo, discovered sunspots in 1611.) It was sociologist Robert K. Merton who unraveled the traditional notion of the genius, arguing that independent discoveries, attributed to a researcher-genius, are frequently duplicated in a common intellectual milieu by other researchers. This research is a vote of confidence in an interdisciplinary approach to discovery. But within the creative disciplines ‘research’ largely remains the work of the solitary figure huddled in the studio; genius – maker of masterpieces. Tempers still rise over whether Braque or Picasso invented synthetic cubism. Yawn.

Why not set aside all the teeth gnashing and accept – for the moment – ‘research’ as a word describing what is already underway in the creative disciplines, all in the name of taking up the important work of re-conceiving of universities as relevant and influential institutions? Within the creative disciplines, some educational institutions are uniquely positioned to take the lead, in that they effectively established influential interdisciplinary research methodologies. To name a few, they include the Institute of Design at Stanford, Design Academy Eindhoven, The Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Design London and The Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship. These programmes are already aligned with the signal guideposts in Taylor’s re-design, precisely reflecting the passage where he writes: ‘The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.’ Once restructured beneath an interdisciplinary, even transdisciplinary, theme-based – rather than discipline-based – curriculum, the means of inquiry and discovery at university, those that we now call ‘research’, will have been transformed at a genetic level. For this, we have no name.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.