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Art and Artistic Research

Art and Artistic Research. Music, Visual Art, Design, Literature, Dance

by Corina Caduff, Fiona Siegenthaler, and Tan Wälchli, Editors
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2010
Series: Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess and University of the Arts Yearbook
Bilingual publication: English/German
320 pp., illus. 30 col/120 halftones. Trade, $49.00
ISBN: 9783858812933.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Research in art –also called research through art, practice-led or practice-based artistic research– is now clearly established as something very different from art tout court, on the one hand, and research on art (art history, art theory, art criticism) on the other hand. However, the practical implications of this newly institutionalized area are still under heavy debate. Promoters of this type of research insist on the right of artists to ‘do a PhD’ (although this is just the top of the iceberg) and to benefit from funding possibilities until now strictly reserved to traditional academic disciplines. Critics will underline the very incompatibility between artistic experience and academic streamlining and managing of research, emphasizing the illusion of giving an added value to real art by theoretical, academic methods and procedures. The first key word in the whole process is ‘academization’, for, at least in Europe, the reform of higher education has produced (in the UK) or is producing (on the continent) a radical merger of the university and non-university types of education, and this evolution is not something that can be stopped. The second key word is ‘arts and sciences’, more particularly the ‘two cultures debate’, which has been dynamized by these changes in artistic training in universities.

As the bibliography listed at the end of this rich volume clearly demonstrates, discussion and publication on research in art have become booming business. The advantage of this sudden flow of conferences, seminars, special issues, books, and courses within the new programs, is that it is no longer possible to start discussing from scratch, innocently repeating the same slogans, fears, hopes, desires and frustrations. One must now taking into account a growing body of knowledge as well as a certain number of landmark texts, methodological statements, best practices, artists’ careers, and even theoretical works that have shifted from the margins to the very centre of the discussion: everybody is now following with great anxiety the wording of the British Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) definition of research in fine arts, just as everyone is rereading the special issue of the Dutch Journal of Music Theory (2007, vol. 12-1) on ‘Practice-Base Research in Music’, after having rediscovered classic voices like those by Christoph Schenker or Christopher Frayling.

What strikes most in this new volume is first of all the importance of the philosophical metadiscourse that is mobilized by the authors to make their point: Danto, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze for instance, are all over the place, and this overrepresentation of the postmodern art-theoretical doxa is a symptom that the field is still far from having constituted its own frame of reference. Moreover, these theoretical authorities seem to be shared by all categories of contributors: administrators, teachers, critics and theoreticians, but also the artists themselves. A second aspect that may come as a surprise is the exemplarily European dimension of the discussion. Contrary to many other disciplines, where the Bologna BA-MA reform has not dismantled national preferences and traditions, research in art is a discipline that seems eager to wipe out as much as possible the local constraints in order to achieve from the very beginning a common ground of what training, teaching and thinking in this new kind of research is supposed to be.

In general, one can only admit that the quality of the ongoing debate is good, and that the strong commitment of the participants to the achievement of a common goal –i.e. the equality between research in art and research on art– does not imply sloppy thinking and hasty, one-dimensional argumentation. The essays gathered in this volume are honest and most of the times quite challenging. They are well documented, they ask often the right questions, they do not provide us with all the answers, and they demonstrate that conference papers do not necessarily produce boring books (most texts in this volume are short, their tone is brisk, their content useful and their horizon clearly indicated). In short, this book is both a good introduction for those eager to catch up with a discussion whose start they missed a couple of years ago and a valuable sparring-partner and echo chamber for those already involved in the field.

As always, some burning questions are not tackled. I am not referring here to financial or institutional issues. I am thinking in the very first place of the homogenizing way in which art is defined. The subtitle of the book goes: Music, Visual Art, Design, Literature, Dance, and what at first sight seems a strength might be seen as a huge problem as well. Musical composition, for instance, is a discipline whose methods and theories fit the more traditional research agenda seamlessly, and probably the same applies to design. But what about creative writing? A second issue that the emerging discipline is probably not ready yet to really look into the eyes is the question what to do with students who reject academization. There is a consensus that the future staff should be a mix of people with and people without PhD’s, but what about the students that start their training? Will they all be forced to follow the rule? The prestige of many theoretical references of the new programs and the continuing fascination with deskilling in contemporary art make academization a seductive solution, even for very young students who may have no real interest in doing (academic) research whatsoever?

It would be unfair, however, to use these questions and perplexities as an argument against research in art. The present volume should help at least fine-tune and focus the creative chaos that is still reigning in this field.

Last Updated 8 March, 2010

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