Artistic Research

The following text was given as a discussion paper in Research in Art, Art in Research -symposium held at the University of Minnesota Dec 6th, 2005.

"I think it is precisely the total absence of all false hopes that brings out the depth of the necessary change. It has been said that reality is only adequately represented in its most extreme forms. In its normal forms, it doesn't reveal what it actually is. You have, if you want to really judge a repressive society, to go to the mental institutions, the insane asylums, the prisons, whatever are the extreme manifestations. Can the same be said with respect to art?" -- Herbert Marcuse

"In 1958 I wrote the following: ‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’ I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?" - H. Pinter (from his Nobel Lecture, read more: www.svenskaakademien.se)

"But in the measure that history moves forward, and with it the struggle of the proletariat assumes clearer outlines, they no longer need to seek science in their minds; they have only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouthpiece. So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society. From this moment, science, which is a product of the historical movement, has associated itself consciously with it, has ceased to be doctrinaire and has become revolutionary." - Marx

In this presentation I would like to explicate the concept of artistic research from methodological point of view. That is, I am going to give you an idea what we mean by artistic research in our recently published book by the same name (Hannula et al. 2005). As we know art can be approach from numerous different angles be it history, aesthetics, philosophy, education, sociology, or something else. Our point of view is that of artistic experience and artistic practice. In other words we are proposing an approach in which an artist could study her own creative process and artistic work reflectively, and in a work-in-progress sort of way. Artistic research is a form of study in which experience reflectively changes itself, and in which all possible areas of experience are at play, even those, which do not lend themselves to easy conceptualization. This is a core meaning of the concept of artistic research. This also brings it close to such methodologies as action research, ethnography, participatory research, narrative research, life-history, and biographical methods, teachers-as-researchers approach, and so forth.

Our purpose was to develop an approach “from below”, that is, to encourage to research starting from personal experience, observations, and intuition, not from theories “from above”. This is not to suggest that theories could not be constructed, but that in artistic research they must be particular and describe specific phenomena at hand. We wanted to claim that by studying their work themselves, and developing understanding of artistic ways of being and existing, artist can serve the general interest in human sciences.

We published our book in the situation in which there are more and more demands for social and academic accountability – or effectiveness or results – of arts. If universities, especially research universities, and other institutions of higher education are worth of the name, research work should be their number one priority. In this situation an obvious fear was that if academic community in arts did not have an explicit idea of their research, or even some coordinates for developing and guiding their research practices, then someone else would set the standards for artistic research. Furthermore it was probable that without methodological openings arts would be in trouble both financially and substantially as parts of universities. That was the ugly side of the matter.

The more positive side was, and still is, that by writing a book and evoking conversation about research in art and art in research, we could try to keep the initiative in the hands of academic community. Thus in this respect the case of artistic research fills classical definition of hegemonic struggle, that is, who has a final say in the discussion, whose voice will be heard? In this struggle we wanted to have an advantage. And I predict that these demands will be here soon if not already. In Finland it is the government that is giving pressures for the research community, here in the US, I assume, it is the market. However, Michael Young (2005, 46), a famous British sociologist of education, has stated quite controversially that centralizing state might undermine high quality post-compulsory education, and discipline-based research “even more than an education system based on the market.”

Before introducing the two methodological principles what we are proposing for artistic research, let me say few words of my own position stemming from the tradition of critical pedagogy, which has its roots in the works of Marx, Gramsci, Freire, Marcuse and others.

To put it briefly, from the angle of critical pedagogy research as well as education and the arts are politics, and value neutral, apparently objective research from a bird’s eye view is a practical impossibility. From critical point of view arts represent an area of experiences “inaccessible to other experiences, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle” (Marcuse cit. in Brookfield 2005, 203) governed by the market. Art cannot represent revolution or social transformation without losing its own autonomy, or its value. But as it has its own freedom, and just because of this, and through its style and overall aesthetic dimension art can open eyes and ears, as well as venues of political liberation (ibid. 202). In the world of “advertising clutter and mood drugs, infotainment and virtual violence, endless spectacle and technologies of disconnection”, art is a necessary ingredient of “mental environmentalism” (see MacKinnon 2005).

In the human sciences there has been a lively conversation about the meaning of language, especially the meaning of narratives, representations, rhetoric, metaphors, and different styles of writing. These topics have also included the aesthetics of scientific work. As sociologist Robert Nisbet writes in his book length essay Sociology as an Art Form in 1976, “sociology is, without a question, one of the sciences, but it is also one of the arts – nourished, as I argue in this book, by precisely the same kinds of creative imagination which are to be found in such areas as music, painting, poetry, the novel, and drama” (p. 9). Nisbet is harsh critique of positivism, the idea of unified and universal scientific method since this blind faith represents not science but scientism, which, in Nisbet’s view, “is science with the spirit of discovery and creation left out” (p. 4).

In other words, researchers should not follow the narrowest, method-fetishist paths, but find their own routes that, in turn, could enrich other fields of human sciences. They should try to keep they minds and bodies open in reflecting their work without any ready-made theoretical frame of references.


But let me now go to the two theoretical and methodological premises of artistic research, namely those of democracy of experiences, and methodological abundance.

By democracy of experiences we refer to the idea that in artistic research and elsewhere all experiences are potentially valuable, and in the same line: no demarcation, or hierarchy can be drawn between them in the first place. They represent the shared lifeworld in its richness, and therefore valuable source of both art and research. This holds true also in terms of different disciplines. There is no epistemological ground to keep some science more mature than other, for what is meant by scientific maturity? Is it better to have one paradigm, two competing paradigms, or perhaps three or more different paradigms? The more the better, would be our preference, for it is easy to inhale and exhale in such a situation.

Our concept of artistic experience springs from that of John Dewey who once pointed out that “art is is a particular quality of human experience that to some degree could be present in any interaction an individual had with the world.” According to Dewey art is a process that can be experienced when a certain quality of attentiveness and emotion are part of the engagement. (cited in Clandinin & Huber 2002, 162.) Thus it is a human potential, at least to some extent conceivable to all. This is another reason to think that every experience must count in doing artistic research. Accordingly, one must keep in mind that experience does not somehow “naturally” divide into the compartments of art and research.

Before the 19th century there was hardly any substantial separation between art and science. Both were treated as equal and parallel areas of human curiosity and inspiration. (Nisbet 1976, 9.) Thus we should not to confuse disciplinary politics and historically established institutional boundaries with genuine enthusiasm for arts and sciences. Too often we do just that hiding behind disciplinary boundaries, and taking a fixed position to rule out this or that as not scientific or artistic – at least not enough. This is not an attitude of researcher; it is an attitude of a bureaucrat, or as I would like to call it, after Jean Baudrillard ‘conspiracy of art and sciences’ (see Baudrillard 2005), or more aptly, in the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen – ‘the Emperor has no clothes-syndrome:

The emperor marched in the procession under the beautiful canopy, and all who saw him in the street and out of the windows exclaimed: “Indeed, the emperor’s new suit is incomparable! What a long train he has! How well it fits him!” Nobody wished to let others know he saw nothing, for then he would have been unfit for his office or too stupid. Never emperor’s clothes were more admired. “But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last. (hca.gilead.org.il/emperor.html 11/30/05)

This is often the case in the halls of academia when nobody dares to ask the obvious question. If we wanted to advance arts and sciences we should look for the similarities in arts and sciences, and not so much differences. Thus, just for the sake of play on words, I am proposing the idea of “methodology of similarities” that would study – not inter-disciplinary differences, but – inter-disciplinary similarities, and in contrast to logic of demonstration “underlying act of discovery or illumination or invention that is the clue to all genuine creative work” (Nisbet 1976, p. 5). Elliott Eisner, a prominent thinker in art education, has put the idea of similarities between art and science in brief by stating: “After all science at its best is an art. Artless science isn’t very pretty” (Eisner 2005). In Eisner’s view the same goes with art and education. At best education is art, and education without artistic touch isn’t very pretty either. (Various practices in the arts are theoretical, althought often in a tacit and hidden way, and research is also a certain practice with its own acts, habits, and rituals. To me the lesson is that it is crucial for the university students - not to mention university teachers - to learn to live in both of these worlds, to understand both languages of arts and science in developing their "inquiring minds".)

Search for and respect of similarities is familiar from many fields of study, and thinking traditions from philosophy to literacy and from sociology to educational studies. Robert Nisbet has the following position:

For a long time now, though only really since the early nineteenth century, we have perpetuated the delusion that art and science are by their nature very different from one another. It is high time this delusion is ended, and reluctant sociologist may take heart from the fact that for a good while the really great scientists of our century, in physics, mathematics, biology, and other spheres, have been emphasizing the basic unity of art and science. (p. 8)

Nisbet does not refer only to cognitive and formal similarities between arts and sciences, and their creative impulses, but also to their themes in a given historical era. For example in 19th century both artist and social theorist painted provocative and illuminative portraits of different social actors. Among the many exemplars of this conservative yet original social thinker are the influential writings of Karl Marx, and especially his Communist Manifesto written with Friedrich Engels. Nisbet expects that “no one who has ever read Communist Manifesto is likely to forget the portrait of the bourgeous. . . . In giving last rites, as it were, to the bourgeoisie, Marx created a portrait that has survived to this day.”

Umberto Eco, an Italian semiotic, and novelist, has come to the same conclusion in his short text on the style of Communist Manifesto. Writes Eco (2004, 26-27): “Even apart from it s genuinely poetic capacity to invent memorable metaphors, the Manifesto remains a masterpiece of political (but not only political) oratory, and it ought to be studied at school along with Cicero’s Invectives against Catiline and Mark Anthony’s speech over Julius Caesar’s body in Shakespeare, especially as it is not impossible, given Marx’s familiarity with classical culture, that he had in mind these very texts when writing it.”

Maybe it would be good to study at school the works of Friedrich Nietzsche too. Think his self-portrait Ecce Homo, not at all naturalistic story of his philosophical life, written in rhapsodic style how he is so wise, and so clever, why he writes such good books, and other such themes. His contemporaries doomed the work as a product of insane mind, but later it was considered as a masterpiece in its triumph of style, “a work of art” marking “one of the highest points of German prose” (Kaufman 1967, 201).

And talking about Nietzsche, we can think of creative process in art and sciences as an interplay between his Apollonian and Dionysian principles of being, and acting in the world (The Birth of Tragedy). The Apollonian refers to analytical principle, and to rationalization, classification, counting, forming and structuring. Thus, sculpture is the most Apollonian of the arts, since it relies entirely on form for its effects.

The Dionysian principle as opposed to the Apollonian breaks down individual identity and brings into surface something normally hidden. All forms of enthusiasm and ecstasy represent Dionysian principle, for in such states people are tented to give up their individuality, and submerge in a greater whole. Thus, music is the most Dionysian of the arts, since it appeals directly to instinctive emotions and not primarily to reasoning mind. Dionysian thinking has excessive characteristics; and such thinkers, educators, and researchers go beyond ordinary boundaries, and the normative guidelines found for example from research method textbooks.

In sum democracy of experiences in arts and sciences, and for that matter in education, describes the process whereby artist, researcher, or educator for that matter can find and acquire ideas, which are not closely related, from various sources, from the richness of experiences, artistic or otherwise. Democracy of experience is respecting the diversity in thinking and styles of doing research.


The concept of methodological abundance comes from a German-born philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) (The guy in the picture is not Feyerabend, but Lenin in his Mausoleum; Feyerabend did referred to Lenin in his Agaist Method). According to him, the world is too diverse to be reduced to a single method or even a single philosophy of science viewpoint (Feyerabend 1999). Behind the methodological abundance are also the political upheavals that have occurred in the real world, or the so-called risk society, and what one could call the war and catastrophe-proneness of Western nation states. Feyerabend felt the ugly consequences of monolithic real politics, and was wounded when serving in the German army during the Second World War.

In his magnum opus, Against Method (1975), Feyerabend argues that the world is so diverse, chaotic and surprising that the belief in one all-powerful and all-encompassing method is nothing more than self-delusion. The richness of the features of reality is not organized according to beautiful models but instead requires an anarchistic starting point. He writes: “Anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology and for the philosophy of science” (ibid., 9).

The frozen methods of positivism or theories about rationality are based on a reductivist view of the world. Therefore, the only principle that can be defended under all circumstances is “anything goes”. It means that all methods and ways of perception are in their basic premise possible and nothing is excluded when aiming to understand the world.

Why, then, does Feyerabend bother to overturn our belief in methodologies? In his autobiography Killing Time (1994, 179), he explains his motives as follows: “One of my motives for writing Against Method was to free people from the tyranny of philosophical obfuscators and abstract concepts such as ‘truth’, ‘reality’, or ‘objectivity’, which narrow people’s vision and ways of being in the world.” A second motive is the concern for scientific change, that which (having one direction and one goal) is called progress. Feyerabend, like many other post-60s philosophers of science, claims that following one method leads to a standstill in science, no matter what the discipline in question. Feyerabend's ideas are important in the field of art research: think about thruth in painting, in poem, or in melody. Where's the truth in them? I am tempted to think that there is no place for thruth at least in the sense of correspondence to some outer reality, or even as a coherence between other paintings, poems, or melodies. The whole idea is nothing more than absurd. Instead it is possible to think that pieces of art must be interpreted, and put to some context in order to have this or that meaning. Through these meanings they are part of our lifeworlds in different ways.

And, as Harold Pinter puts it in his 2005 Nobel Lecture "Art, Truth and Politics", truth in drama, and in the arts in general, is forever elusive. "You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

This demands that in art research - as well as in education - we should try write open texts, divergent texts, which not only inform but also speak consciously and reflectively to us at the scale of pleasure, as Feyerabend (1999, vii) says:

Writing has become a very pleasurable activity, almost like composing a work of art. There is some overall pattern, very vague at first, but sufficiently well-defined to provide me with a starting point. Then come the details – arranging the words in sentences and paragraphs. I choose my words very carefully – they must sound right, must have the right rhythm, and their meaning must be slightly off-centre; nothing dulls the mind so thoroughly as a sequence of familiar notions. Then comes the story. It should be interesting and comprehensible, and it should have some unusual twists. I avoid ‘systematic’ analysis: the elements hang together beautifully, but the argument itself is from outer space, as it were, unless it is connected with the lives and interests of individuals or special groups. Of course, it is already so connected, otherwise it would not be understood, but the connection is concealed, which means that strictly speaking, a ‘systematic’ analysis is a fraud. So why not avoid the fraud by using stories right away?

Bert Terpstra, the editor of Feyerabend’s posthumously-published book Conquest of Abundance. A Tale of Abstraction Versus the Richness of Being (1999), writes that during the editing he came to understood the worldview according to Feyerabend: “In place of a ‘frozen’, material universe, I could perceive an open and changeable reality, and I became able to see, and thus I was liberated from, all sorts of fixed ideas about ‘the way things are’.”

The idea of the “abundance of reality”, developed and emphasized continuously by Feyerabend, belongs to a tradition of thought, according to which the research objects in the human sciences – Feyerabend would undoubtedly also add the natural sciences – are constructed by writing about them rather than first discovering them and then writing about them. Writing is simultaneously thinking and doing, both observing the world and creating it.

When discussing artistic research, it is important to keep in mind that there are ways of perceiving the world other than writing – not least the rich languages of music and the wondrous sensations they produce. Feyerabend (1999, 268) argues: “Our surroundings, the entire physical universe included, are not simply given. They respond to our actions and ideas. Theories and principles must therefore be used with care. Most of them exclude specifics and personal matters; speaking bluntly (though not untruthfully), we can say that they are superficial and inhumane.”


There is a lot of talk nowadays about the social, and even political relevance of art. For example the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance at the University of Minnesota states in its website (www.theatre.umn.edu/): “In keeping with the University’s three public purposes—research and discovery; teaching and learning; outreach and public service—our primary mission is to educate our students and our audiences about the performing arts, and about the social issues and human emotions the arts speak to so powerfully.” This statement refers to the ultimate power of artistic expression, its capability to offer different point of views. But if we take the idea of public engagement seriously, as I think we should, then it is all the more important to begin to develop ways to communicate with the public also in the area of art research. As a starting point this demands that we reject the positivistic ideals of research, and start to think research as an open and critical field of human invention.

By referring to an open and critical space in art research I am also speaking on behalf of strong and autonomic research community that guarantees the freedom to ask critically, think critically, speak critically, and write critically. It was Herbert Marcuse who suggested that all critical and creative thinking needs space and time; and that is why we have university. This also why I am sometimes struck by the fact that people seem to be so busy, always looking their schedules as if there is everything else in their academic life but time for serious thinking and creating. Nevertheless I am still dreaming of universities as safe havens for the ideals of critical scrutiny, and of truly democratic society. In this sense I am thinking of art as an area of both democracy of experiences, and methodological abundance. These principles refer to the idea of artistic research as a link between teaching, research and artistic practice, and to view art as a process from artists’ point of view.

Pretty much in this same tone, Erich Fromm, a German philosopher and critical social psychologist, emphasized the profound liberatory meaning of arts in people’s life. In his book The Sane Society published in 1955 Fromm criticized the modern distinction between the artist as a special profession, and people as mere consumers of art. In his view art belonged to everyone. He had difficulties in finding a proper word for describing his own position that stressed the importance of arts in fully comprehending and enjoying the world. In the lack of a better word he referred to ‘collective art’, which meant, “to respond to the world with our senses in a meaningful, skilled, productive, active, shared way” (italics in original, p. 347). He stressed the idea of sharing in contrast to the modern, individualistic conception of art. Collective and shared art experience and practice is something, which permits people to feel one with others; it is an integral part of life, and “corresponds to a basic human need” (p. 348). The transformation of society from destructively insane into life-sustaining and sane demands, in Fromm’s view, that people have opportunities to “sing together, walk together, dance together, admire together” (p. 349), together, and not as members of a lonely crowd in the Mall of America.


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Brookfield, Stephen (2005). The Power of Critical Theory. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Clandinin, Jean & Huber, Janice (2002). Narrative Inquiry: Toward Understanding Life’s Artistry. Curriculum Inquiry 32 (2), 161-169.
Eco, Umberto (2004). On Literature. Orlando: Harcourt.
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Hannula, Mika, Suoranta, Juha & Vadén, Tere 2005. Artistic Research – Theories, Methods, and Practices. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts & University of Gothenburg.
Kaufman,Walter (1967). Editor’s Introduction. In Nietzsche, Friedrich: On the Genealogy of Morals / Ecce Homo. New York: Vintage, 201-214.
MacKinnon, James (2005). The Mental Environmentalists Are Coming. Adbusters 14 (1).
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Pinter, Harold (2005). Arts, Politics and Truth. Nobel Lecture Dec. 7, 2005. www.svenskaakademien.se (10.12.2005)
Young, Michael (2005). Government Intervention and the Problem of Knowledge in Education Policy. In Koski, Leena & Sabour, M’hammed (Eds.). Koulutuksen merkitystä etsimässä / Searching for the Meaning of Education and Culture. Joensuu: Joensuu University Press, 39-48.


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