Asthma Attack. Art stops.
Marginalized by mass media, stripped of grand narrative by pomo funk, art is proclaimed dead. Unable to do anything anymore. We have devolved, according to Giorgio Agamben (2000), to pure communicability, where nothing can be said. Pluralism, says Boris Groys (2008), means that all art discourse is ultimately futile and frustrating.
Can there be a cure?
Yes, we hear. Like the bionic man, we can rebuild. We have the science. Inject a dose of pure research into the heart of art. Research will restore rigor to the viscera, pump vigor into the limbs, spread the balm of money onto the bowels, bring respect to the intestines. Through research, art will regain its place as a viable arena of operation. All praise the new art PhD.
But, with the regulating pacemaker of methodology strapped to its aorta, we must ask if our new art is alive at all. Or is it a walking zombie?
There are many reasons why art in the academy is now being framed as research: art departments, wishing to increase their funding and academic standing, see research as a way to provide validation and rigor, separating institutionalized art from the whimsical arbitrariness of “intuitive” or “expressive” art. Yet, although research brings prestige and funding, we are still left with defining what exactly it means to do research in art.
Throw a stone at the word research and you hit the word method. To do research, we are told, we systematically apply methods in order to conduct an inquiry located in a discipline. A central question, then, is what methods?
One body of the literature in art research focuses on process-based methods. For example, according to Carole Gray (2004), art research means employing methods to achieve a “process of accessible disciplined enquiry”. To do art research, we follow these stages:
1. Planning the Journey
2. Mapping the Terrain
3. Locating your Position
4. Crossing the Terrain
5. Interpreting the Map
6. Recounting the Journey
What is disappointing about this approach is that it equates art research with project management. Following the stages above tells us nothing about the art that is produced… rather it tells us the steps we ought to follow to make it. This use of methods to define process is a retreat to an identification of art with craft, in other words with a set of conventions that dictate ways of making. Meanwhile, a jarring ground truth is ignored: many artists are indisposed to following a sequence of steps in their making. Artists can be idiosyncratic, inconsistent, oblique, eccentric, unpredictable, failure-driven, wayward, non-normative, and whacko, not because they lack training or discipline, but precisely because these tactics are effective tools of discovery in art making. Art is often far more unplanning than planning.
Another body of writing in art research (e.g. Sullivan 2010) locates art research as a “method of enquiry” that generates “new knowledge” or “understanding”. Sullivan acknowledges that the methods used in art research should come from art, and not be imported from, say, project management or social science. He goes on to suggest that we use those methods for seeking knowledge, after tidying them up to make them “rigorous”:
“… if you happen to be making art within an educational setting, then there is a responsibility to be able to use your imaginative and intellectual drive to respond to our incessant need to know and to do so in a way that meets the rigor demanded of practices undertaken in institutional communities.” (2010, p242)
Part of me wonders whether increasing the rigor of art practice will also dampen the very creativity and imagination Sullivan so admires (rigor as in rigor mortis comes to mind). Mostly, though, Sullivan's tack makes me think of an art educator I once heard saying “artists are so imaginative and creative, if we just used artists to design cars, think how great cars could be.” Aside from how this patronizes the creativity of non-artists, it implies art is a kind of service bureau for imagination. Sullivan similarly wants to yoke art into service, this time for knowledge production. But is art really a service? If we define art as a service for inquiry into knowledge production or understanding, we ignore how art operates phenomenologically and ontologically. This over-constrains art to an epistemological frame. Elkins (2009) responds to this by asking bluntly: what is the new knowledge produced by a painting by an artist like Picasso?
Sir Christopher Frayling provides a third way of thinking about art research. Frayling identifies three approaches: research into art (using research as a historical lens, e.g. carrying out research into art history), research for art (using research in service of a practice, e.g. researching a new pigment) or research through art (where the art itself is research). The last category, research through art, is the least well defined, and therefore to me probably the most appealing. Faced with the over-determined alternatives, thinking of art itself as research is a good start. What exactly this means, however, is unclear. And again, we should not forget a ground truth: artists carry out investigations for and into their practices on a daily basis as part of their making, as they look at other artworks or study processes for making. It is unclear what leverage Frayling’s three distinct labels give us over a single label.
James Elkins (2009) urges us to spend time asking what other approaches are possible before we commit to categorizing our options, copying existing methodologies, or restricting art research to loosely defined goals like “new knowledge”.
My first response to this challenge is to propose inverting the research paradigm. Instead of asking what methods go into art research, we should ask what methods come out of it. Art, in this paradigm, is not about the production of knowledge, but the production of worlds, each with their own systems, discourse, rules, and possibilities. It follows that we should not restrict how art is made or what methods are followed, since that restricts what worlds are possible. Instead, we should focus on the worlds proposed by art, and investigate the distribution of methods intertwining with those worlds - not so much a partage du sensible (Ranciere 2006) as a partage du methodologie.
How could we do this? To start to answer this, lets consider different ways for analyzing art. I have often heard art enthusiasts asking "what does this artwork mean?" This question presupposes that the role of art is to generate meaning. Some art viewers, on the other hand, may ask "what is this artwork doing?" This is a far more open question, one that imbues in art a degree of agency, supposing that art can act, can do things in the world, is a form of life, or at least it has lifelike qualities. The question "what is it doing?" does not limit art to generating meaning, but broadens the enquiry - we can talk about what an artwork is doing in terms of the history of art, or in terms of its political ambitions, or in terms of how we experience the work in moment (a phenomenological account). The question of doing is, in my opinion, a relatively recent invention, one that only begins to make sense once art takes on performative qualities, from the Dadaists onwards. The shift from "what does it mean" to "what is it doing" signals an expansion in the methods that art participates in, from methods of meaning, to methods of interaction and embodiment. It is a change in the methods of analysis of art that also signals a change in the distribution of methods that art participates in.
Georgio Agamben, Means without ends: notes on politics. 2000.
James Elkins (editor), Artists with PhDs. 2009.
Christopher Frayling, Searching and Researching in Art and Design, in Proceedings of the National Research Conference Art and Design in Education. 1997.
Carole Gray, Julian Malins, Visualizing Research: A guide to the Research Process in Art and Design. 2004.
Boris Groys, Art Power. 2008
Jacques Rancière, The politics of aesthetics. 2006.
Graeme Sullivan, Art Practice as Research, 2nd ed, 2010.