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Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research
By G. James Daichendt
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Artists and Scholarship
What does it mean to be a scholar in the visual arts? Artists are creative, important, needed, and critical voices in society — but are they scholars? In the following text I not only present a broad case for scholarship in the arts but also re-examine how we look at the arts in the academic context. Rather than understanding art as a cultural phenomenon and aesthetic product, I invite you to see art production as a type of inquiry, reflection, interpretation, commentary, and thinking process that has transformed the way we understand the world and ourselves. While this text was written for Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) students and faculty in the United States, it will also provoke the interest of anyone concerned with what the arts actually do. My overarching goal is to build upon the context of arts research by offering avenues of inquiry for artist scholars and provide examples that are meant to teach, inspire, and provoke thought about the many decisions that contribute toward a single work of art or series. Whether you are an artist, researcher, or art appreciator, I believe you will have a new understanding for how art is meaningful and transformative across a range of disciplines.
The status of visual art education in the United States is at an uneasy place in history. The adoption of art training and education by the nineteenth-century research universities is still a major point of contention (albeit a misunderstood one). Universities were not the original home of art education but these institutions have taken on this responsibility and are now the dominant source of art education opportunities for the aspiring artist. There are several lingering symptoms of this uncomfortable relationship between artists and the university. A major point of contention is the current terminal degree in visual art being a master's degree (M.F.A.) and not a Ph.D. (like other subject areas). In addition to the question of degree is the added expectation of artists to become researchers or to validate their studio work as a form of research. This is a frustrating endeavor that pushes art programs to become more like their neighbors (scientific disciplines) in the university. Artists worked for quite some time without ever using the term "research" but it has become commonplace in Ph.D. programs and one has to wonder if this is a positive evolution of art education. As the Ph.D. in visual art looms closer and more desirable to administrators and organizational/credentialing institutions, these issues will become more important.
Artistic creation is a process that utilizes a variety of thinking processes, and the results of these practices are typically valued in our society but not consistently documented as a form of research outside small circles. In the twenty-first century, art is being compared to other types of research and is gaining ground as a prominent theory in the visual arts. Studio and practice-based Ph.D. programs promote art products as research, and there are several blended Ph.D. programs that promote writing and art production as research. In an ideal world many art professionals would like their art to stand for research. However, this is not the current reality. Instead a written paper is expected to accompany the work of art to justify, explain, or document aspects of research or thought. This is a paradigm that is not likely to change but how we write and for what purpose is open to debate.
The writing component is a valuable aspect of art education and in many ways the only form of research recognized by contemporary universities. This is evident in conference presentations in the United Kingdom where papers are distributed and honored but the artwork only makes a brief appearance to remind everyone that the presenter is an artist or that the subject is artistic. Even this publication is primarily words, a frustrating endeavor for the artist scholar who desires to improve his or her art and not necessarily their writing skills. However, the argument presented is that reflective writing works as self-critique and that thinking through words, however difficult it may be, will ultimately reward the artistic process and the art product.
The artist studio is a great example that represents the potential for research in the visual arts. There are many opportunities for inquiry and discovery in these spaces but we need the artist to make the connections. The artist is the catalyst that brings together the media and it is through the writing process that the artist scholar is able to connect the dots and reflect upon the artistic process.
The current language used to facilitate arts research is mature and is delivered quite convincingly, but one must wonder how much this research is aiding their goal to become a better artist? There is no need to reinvent the wheel, as there is much progress in this area outside the United States. A similar dilemma faced visual arts education at the beginning of the twentieth century as art educators within universities debated the significance and importance of manual/technical training/crafts-based training in relation to historical and theoretical studies in art history. While adding studio classes to the university curriculum seems passé, adding research expectation upon the artist's agenda is sometimes a big stretch. This may seem like old hat to our UK colleagues but some US institutions are frightened to adopt many of the commonalities in visual art Ph.D. programs overseas.
There are many similarities between art making and research to consider. Study, experimentation, and exploration are fundamental both to research and art making. Also, art products are vital to understanding and representing our collective history. Much of our understanding of ancient civilizations comes through art products of past societies because these creations reveal valuable information about technologies, cultures, and societies. In the modern and contemporary eras, artists have altered the way we think about issues that range from pornography to symbolism. In addition, artists also study and document methods in order to further their craft. A great deal of writing was collected and preserved by artists during the Renaissance to build a conceptual foundation and theory of art making. These activities certainly draw similarities to research and display a significant knowledge base in the visual arts. In fact many would call this research or go so far as to say that everything an artist does prior to making the work is research or that the act of making is itself research. This is a very broad application of the term but not necessarily an inaccurate one in describing the artistic process.
Much has changed since the nineteenth century and the arts appear to be quite comfortable in the university as more and more institutions offer art degrees (and specialties). Contemporary artists explore and experiment with an ever-expanding list of materials and technologies to push the limits of what is considered media and appropriate subject mater for art making. But is this research? This is a question every art program and artist in the university should address. The following discussion is an introduction to this issue and can facilitate further dialogue.
Basic language on research and the arts
Research is generally understood as a type of investigation. It is a process involving the collection of information and eventual discovery of new or revised knowledge. Using this definition, research is a search for knowledge. It involves asking questions, discovering, interpreting, and organizing data. A description that sounds a lot like art making.
Any process involving a search for knowledge could be defined as research but we typically think of the scientific method when the term "research" is used. The scientific method is a set of techniques that are used in relation to the collection of observable and measurable evidence. This theory is used to explain the world. It typically involves a problem, a hypothesis, a procedure to test the hypothesis, and the results. This is considered an inductive method. Through observations we formulate theories and laws about nature.
In comparison, the deductive method starts with true statements and leads to a conclusion based upon reasoning. Much like a detective story, a deductive research study would start with a general theory and work toward a specific conclusion. The methods mentioned may be part of artistic inquiry but they do not necessarily slide off the tongue of artists and designers.
In much the same way, the media for artists can be subtitled with data for researchers. Two different types of data that are often used in social science studies are qualitative and quantitative. Quantitative refers to information that can be communicated through numbers and statistics while qualitative explores phenomenon through text and visual imagery. Quantitative research involves systematic investigations that can be counted like how often people perform a particular task. Qualitative is more concerned with human behavior and the reason people do things. The two are very different, yet quantitative studies are typically based upon qualitative judgments and qualitative studies can be represented quantitatively.
Common methods of collecting data in qualitative research involve interviews, observations, and examining documents. This is compared to quantitative research that utilizes the scientific method and consists of collecting empirical data. Histories, qualitative and quantitative research methods are not foreign to the artist. However, the analysis, documentation, and display are the main barriers that separate the artist from the traditional researcher. It is much more difficult to read a painting or installation compared to a status report or a concluding paragraph. The nonlinear characteristics of art products do not lend it to communicate in a predictable fashion. This is a great frustration for those in other disciplines when they are asked to equate art production to research in fields like history or science. Recognizing the contribution of artists in the academy is one of the biggest barriers artist scholars wrestle with in their professional work. In fact many question whether it is worth it, even when clothed in the proper language. Artists refer to their work as research but when asked about their data, they often provide a list of secondary sources, texts from a number of disciplines, and a host of artists and concepts. It is often a jumble of influences that may vary widely and may not make much sense to the outsider.
There are three types of research that are relevant for the artist. Pure, original, and secondary research: each has a different perspective related to knowledge and process used to achieve understanding. Pure research is where the researcher desires to learn something by studying the subject. A pure research study does not necessarily have a directed plan. In comparison, individuals who are looking for information that no one has discovered perform original research. The third type, secondary research involves discussing and comparing viewpoints and findings from other studies and results in a clearer understanding of the material or possibly new insights. All three are valid types of research and artists could likely fall into any category. Recognizing what you are doing as the artist though is quite valuable for realizing the kind of knowledge you produce.
What kind of research do you perform through your artistic practice?
Much of my argument for arts research is more akin to understanding and inquiry rather than research in the formal sense. Artists understand their subjects of study because they ponder, rethink, and challenge traditional methods of thinking. This challenge is often where the genius is in art making and where new insight or knowledge is gained. This is why the diverse data sources (publications to television) mentioned earlier work so well in the artist studio. The sketches and jumbled thinking can be rough but the artist is working toward an understanding that grows each day (pure research). Even the Sunday painter is rethinking the landscape as the strokes of watercolor reorganize what is actually there on the horizon (secondary research). Understanding is renewed as the composition is reworked with every edit. This knowledge develops in small bits or large leaps as the artistic process continues and potentially never ends. It is an ongoing phenomenon, as the artist grows more insightful and aware as their practice continues. There may never be an endpoint and that is acceptable because we can never fully understand any one thing, but this is why the artist and designer continue to work. I think this concept of a continuous understanding and development of knowledge is comparable to driving across the country. The more roads, towns, and states you explore, the better understanding you will have of the country and its residents. Have you learned something? Yes — does it alter the way you think about space, people, distance, etc.? Yes, of course. A new understanding is developed and a new knowledge of the country can be applied after these experiences, and the driver is apt to contribute to such a knowledge pool. The knowledge or understanding that breaks through the surface in artistic inquiry is often disruptive to knowledge systems and has the potential to change the way something is understood. Much like the new understanding of the country gathered from traveling, artists provide new insights on topics that span all types of knowledge.
As a result of this inquiry or studio process, artists are able to discuss, debate, and perform with a much more critical voice in community as they understand and approach the subject from a new perspective. This is one of the valuable roles artists have in society. They aid our understanding of philosophy and gardening alike because they engage in a wide variety of subjects outside the visual arts. Artists may not always create embodied knowledge in the scientific sense but art and artistic processes are evidence of thinking made visible and there is much an artist can do to identify this production of thought made visible.
Another example of how artists contribute and provoke inquiry and understanding is to look at a particular topic or genre of art. What is considered shocking has been a popular concept since the inception of art. Whether it was Greekhumor, Michelangelo's wry personality, or Damien Hirst's various critters encased in formaldehyde, artists have explored methods to shock and surprise their public. Do artists generate new knowledge from creating shocking art? Yes — contributing toward our understanding of a topic certainly is an aspect of knowledge. The artist explores shocking ideas and imagery to stretch what is already known. The successful shock artist understands the context and pushes what is acceptable. This is a visual commentary or inquiry that jolts the audience from a metaphorical slumber to engage an issue.
Universities and arts research
Research as it applies to art making is constantly at the forefront of universities offering advanced degrees in visual arts and among the faculty who work within these institutions. Artists outside the university, from my experience, do not regard their work as research but most would be quick to agree that art products and processes are the result of thoughtful dialogue, deep thinking and that there is value in their products. If artists did not believe this, they would not create. The faculty in many university art departments label their art as research and justify this vocabulary because of their context. This language is equally important amongst students who pick up the terminology from their professors. There is status involved in such language, as status is not only confined to wealth but is, in this instance, an intellectual status that positions the artist in the thick of university politics.
Excerpted from Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research by G. James Daichendt. Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: Scholarship and Art's Ambiguous Objects by John Baldacchino,
Chapter 1: Artists and Scholarship,
Chapter 2: The Professionalization of the Visual Arts,
Chapter 3: The Status of Artistic Scholarship,
Chapter 4: Artists and Writing,
Chapter 5: Reflections on Knowledge and Understanding,
Chapter 6: Practicing Reflective Scholarship,
Chapter 7: Revisiting Writing and Research,
Appendix A - Putting Writing into Practice,
Appendix B - Banksy Hearts NY,