The following considerations reflect upon artistic research within the (visual) fine arts from the standpoint of one whose interest is grounded in philosophy of science and aesthetics. They address, on the basis of the relevant art history and theory, various aesthetic practices and aspects that can be considered distinguishing characteristics of specifically artistic research and that are promising in light of the current challenges involved in grappling with the world—particularly when the question of knowledge is at issue.
For many of those who are just beginning their studies, artistic research is just as much part of their artistic toolboxes as is drawing. By the same token, artistic research also faces criticism by artists, scholars, and various actors in the art (market) system who attempt to shut it out of the artistic field as such. One repeatedly hears the mantra-like reproach that art, too, is now becoming academic in character and being made subject to the dictates of knowledge production—and thus robbed of its creative potential as well as its potential to manifest resistance. This critique holds that instead of reminding us of the limits of knowledge, pointing out the problematic aspects of knowledge production, or giving itself over to unconscious processes in which the unpredictable can occur, artistic research becomes a mere provider of knowledge. But is it actually that simple to delineate or distinguish between art, knowledge, and research by way of polarisation? And what (power) interests are connected with each of these? Does the dispositive of the art market actually set free resistant and unpredictable potentials? It seems to me that the exclusionary criticism that one currently hears is less promising as a strategy than the pluralisation of the artistic field would be.
It is possible to discern diverse genealogies of artistic research. The historical avant-garde experimented with aesthetic tools, testing out their ability to permeate and change life. They also did away with the myth of subjectivity, replacing the artistic genius with the artist-as-engineer and rejecting the representation of the visible world as mere illusionistic painting. The artist (imagined as a male, of course) was to become a researcher.1
One encounters this self-understanding again and again over the course of the 20th century in combination with themes such as economic issues,2 interdisciplinary and collaborative ways of working between art and technology,3 or the desire to anchor artistic practice in society4. But the artistic ambition was not (or was no longer) that of acting as an avant-garde model for society; nor, however, was art to function as a counter-model to society. By both conceiving research methods after and appropriating them from empirical fields such as the social sciences, artists instead put the possibilities and functions of art up for discussion and opened up new interconnections with society and current issues.
In its present-day institutionalised form as established by the Bologna Process, artistic research exists as part of the dispositive of knowledge. It takes place not in a free outside realm but rather works within the field of knowledge, developing its strategies and transgressions in relation to recognised norms and conventions. In this, it can call upon specific artistic and aesthetic practices, techniques, and processes that arose during the modern era. And it follows that the methodological toolbox of artistic research includes those aesthetic practices that modern art developed as part of distinguishing itself from science. Here, the potentialities of portrayal in terms of our perception of—and our thinking about—the world receive special attention. In the history of aesthetics and modern art, representing reality entails its portrayal and its production. Aesthetic practices are aimed at visual perception’s productivity rather than at visual perception’s ability to recognise; they work with contradictions, with irritations, with ambivalences, with multiple meanings, and on the fringes of knowledge. They search for that which cannot be positivised and cannot possibly be researched but nonetheless must still be considered as a possibility. Artistic research that makes use of aesthetic practices creates the conditions for the transformation of both that which is and that which asks as to the possibilities of other ways of knowing and of another knowledge.
* This is the author’s abbreviated version of her text “Künstlerische Forschung”, in: Jens Badura, Selma Dubach, Anke Haarmann, et al. (eds.): Künstlerische Forschung. Ein Handbuch, Zurich, Berlin: diaphanes 2015, pp. 65–68.
1. Alexander Rodtschenko: Alles ist Experiment: der Künstler-Ingenieur, Hamburg 1993 (original edition: 1920).
2. Tom Holert: “Artistic Research: Anatomy of an Ascent” in: Texte zur Kunst, “Artistic Research“, no. 82, June 2011, pp. 38–62.
3. Douglas Davis: Vom Experiment zur Idee. Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts im Zeichen von Wissenschaft und Technologie, Cologne 1975 (original edition: 1972).
4. Eremit? Forscher? Sozialarbeiter? Das veränderte Selbstverständnis von Künstlern, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein und Kunsthaus Hamburg, Reinbek 1979. See also Elke Bippus: “(Kunst)Forschung. Eine neuartige Begegnung von Ethnologie und Kunst,” in: Reinhard Johler, Christian Marchetti, Bernhard Tschofen, Carmen Weith (eds.) Kultur_Kultur. Denken. Forschen. Darstellen, Münster, New York, et al. [Waxmann] 2013, pp. 284–291.
Infobox Artistic Research
In the German-speaking region, the discourse on artistic research is very closely linked with the higher education reforms laid out by the Bologna Declaration, which educational policy during the 2000s—especially in Switzerland and Austria—pursued via the introduction of research institutes, master’s degree and PhD programmes, and university-based funding programmes and guidelines. Since then, in a departure from the historical situation in which one saw merely isolated (though recurring) appeals in its favour, artistic research has become more visible thanks to conference publications, journals, and handbooks, as well as non-university institutions, networks, and projects. But the original impulses for the institutional perspectivisation of artistic practices as research were actually provided by the university reforms in Great Britain and Scandinavia that were carried out during the 1990s. It was Christopher Frayling, a historian and rector of the Royal College of Art in London, who introduced the distinctions between “research into art”, “research for art”, and “research through art” not only in order to systematise various ways of researching in the arts, but also to institutionalise “art as research” as well as legitimise newly introduced doctoral programmes.
Foundational literature on the topic:
Henk Borgdoff, “The Debate on Research in the Arts,” in: Sensuous Knowledge – Focus on Artistic Research and Development, no. 2, Bergen 2006, online at: ips.gu.se/digitalAssets/1322/1322713_the_debate_on_research_in_the_arts.pdf
Henk Borgdorff: “Die Debatte über Forschung in der Kunst,” in: Künstlerische Forschung. Positionen und Perspektiven (subTexte 03, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Intitute for Performing Arts and Film), Zürich 2009, pp. 23–51.
Christopher Frayling: “Research in Art and Design,” London: Royal College of Arts Research Papers, vol. 1., no. 1, 1993/94. researchonline.rca.ac.uk/384/3/frayling_research_in_art_and_design_1993.pdf