Artistic research! Where are we today?


DOI: 10.32063/1002

Clive Brown

Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds, and Guest Professor Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst, Wien.


Question 1: What is artistic research? What characterizes good artistic research? Can you give one example of excellent artistic research?

Question 2: How far have we come in establishing a relevant practice for artistic research regarding criteria for admission, (methodic) approach and assessment?

Question 3: The following quotation is from Manifesto of Artistic Research: A Defense Against Its Advocates (Henke et al.):

Since its beginnings in the 1990s, artistic research has been driven by politics. Without the strict academicization of courses of study in art and design as furthered by the Bologna Reform, the entity we call ‘artistic research’ could hardly have come into existence.

How would you judge the nature and consequences of the politically driven institutionalization of artistic research? Was there a thing called artistic research before the Bologna Reform, or is it simply a bureaucratic invention? In fact, is artistic research the last step in the steadily growing academization and institutionalization of the art field?

Question 4: What is research in artistic research and how does it differ from what groundbreaking artists have always been doing?

Question 5: For whom is artistic research? Who is expected to benefit from the projects and their outcomes? How should the outcomes ideally be communicated or disseminated?

Question 6: What kind of shared knowledge does artistic research produce and (how) is it falsifiable?

Question 7: In his book Artistic Research Methodologies, Mika Hannula writes that the artistic researcher must ‘develop and perfect her own artistic skills, vision and conceptual thinking … contribute to academia … by proposing an argument in the form of a thesis … and communicate with practicing artists and the larger public, performing what one could call “audience education.”’ Are the expectations to the artistic researcher both too high and hazy?

Question 8: Should artistic research be critical, or even subversive? And if yes, how and why?

Question 9: What are the challenges for the development of artistic research? Considering the development of the field so far – do you see specific areas in need of change or strengthening? Where would you like artistic research to be in 10 years?

Question 10: What can platforms such as Music & Practice do in order to help the development of artistic research?

by Clive Brown

Music & Practice, Volume 10


Question 1

There seem to be so many different understandings of the term Artistic Research that it is difficult for me to say what it is intended to incorporate. I find it a very ambivalent term. If artistic research has a similar meaning to historical research, geographical research, medical research, astronomical research, etc., the common feature would be the generation of new knowledge and understanding about the object of the research; but within each of these categories there are many subdivisions. In this context, therefore, the term Artistic Research could mean simply that it is research focused on the arts: music, drama, creative writing, visual arts (painting, sculpture) and maybe, in the current anti-elitist context, such things as architecture, garden design, advertising imagery, food packaging, and many other things that might more commonly be seen as fundamentally utilitarian.

Practice-led or Practice-oriented Research, terms that have been used in the UK in connection with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), might be better terms than Artistic Research, if the inclusion of a practical element, rather than merely verbal text and illustrative musical notation or images, is a defining feature. Practice, in the widest sense, however, is not unique to the arts. Research in the sciences will often involve practical experiments, both as tools and demonstrative outcomes, just as an investigator in the fine or performing arts might utilize practice as a necessary component of the research process and an essential element of its communicable results.

Many of my PhD students since the early 2000s, who have been professionally-trained performers, have employed practical experiment very effectively as an essential element of their research and their dissertations. I have not been disappointed with any of them, but among the most recent ones, which I regard as outstanding, are Kate Bennett Wadsworth’s ‘Precisely Marked in the Tradition of the Composer’: The Performing Editions of Friedrich Grützmacher (University of Leeds, 2017) and Johannes Leertouwer’s Re-inventing the Nineteenth-Century Tools of Unprescribed Modifications of Rhythm and Tempo in Performances of Brahms’s Symphonies and Concertos (University of Leiden, 2023). I also examined an excellent example in November 2022 at the Norwegian Academy of Music: Christina Kobb’s Piano Playing in Beethoven’s Vienna.

Question 2

I find this very difficult to answer. In my own experience at the University of Leeds and at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst (Vienna), admission has simply been based on my own judgement. I was invited to supervise Johannes Leertouwer’s dissertation, and another ongoing PhD, at the University of Leiden, and have also been involved in supervision of PhDs at Ghent University and the Orpheus Institute, but have no knowledge of their admissions procedures.

Question 3

I was not familiar with the term Artistic Research until relatively recently. The term itself certainly seems like a bureaucratic, or perhaps ideological invention. PhDs in music, or musicology (a term that was unfamiliar to me in the UK context in the 1960s), for instance, has been with us for more than a century, although it has mostly had a historical or analytical bias. The key development in the 1990s was the acceptance that practice might be a legitimate element of the research process and outcome in music research. My professorial title at Leeds (Professor of Applied Musicology) reflected the fact that much of my research interest centred on practical music making in a historical context. I welcomed the possibility to incorporate practice in the work of my research students as an integral aspect of dissertations that engaged with issues of historical performing practices. This allowed for engagement with topics that could not have been adequately investigated or disseminated without a performance element.

Question 4

I am not at all comfortable with the idea of Artistic Research as a synonym for creative activity (in music: conventional professional performance or composition). There was a very lively, sometimes acrimonious debate about this in the UK academic community during the 1990s. I attended one meeting in London, convened in connection with the assessment of composition and performance, concerning the third or fourth rounds of the RAE (1992, 1996) I think, which involved about 50 representatives of UK university music departments. It was overwhelmingly felt that routine professional performance per se (i.e. the concert activity of teachers in conservatoires) could not legitimately be regarded as research. People were much more divided about composition (partly because, while the former mainly concerned conservatoires, this was much more important for the research status of university music departments, which habitually included composers/composition tutors). An uneasy compromise was reached, whereby compositions could be included for assessment if accompanied by a textual explanation of their ‘research’ content.

I confess to considerable unease about equating creative work with research; it seems to me that they are two entirely different things. With reference to the previous question: lumping them together as PhDs seems more like a political or ideological decision than an intellectual one.

Question 5

From my responses above, it will be clear that I see the term Artistic Research, as it is currently used, as a blanket term for disparate disciplines, which involve quite different processes, procedures, and outcomes.

Question 6

If Artistic Research is taken to mean the creation and contextualization of a work of art, the above question seems irrelevant, since a work of art stands or falls by its intrinsic qualities, which can only be evaluated over time by the reactions of contemporaries and posterity. If it is taken to mean the investigation of the arts through tried and tested research processes, it will be judged by traditional criteria. Of course, deliberate falsification cannot be excluded.

Question 7

This clearly equates Artistic Research with some form of creative output, apparently excluding the kind of practice-led research with which I have been involved. My feeling is that the expectations are not only too high and hazy, but also problematic in other ways. This agenda seems much more the product of political or ideological pressure in the academic community than a valuable spur to artistic creativity. We might indeed be concerned that it could encourage a kind of ivory tower attitude that takes little or no account of the communicative potential of the created object.

Question 8

The arts can and should, sometimes (but not always) be critical and/or subversive, or at least challenging. But in my view that is the province of artistic creativity, not of artistic research.

Question 9

My first thought is that I would prefer the term to disappear altogether! My reasons for this will be apparent from what I have written here. I have never used the term, having conventionally referred to the work of my PhD students in this area as Practice-led Research. Even that term, however, is not really satisfactory. The research need not be ‘led’ by the practice; the practice can simply be one of the methods that is necessitated by the nature of the intellectual investigation, which the research questions generate, and an essential component in the dissemination of the research outcomes.

Question 10

All intellectual engagement with these issues is valuable. Open-access online resources, edited by respected scholars, such as Music & Practice, can spread awareness of a variety of differing approaches. The influence of such material on the development of artistic research may be small, but will not be negligible. It will offer a kaleidoscope of perspectives and insights, which have the potential to influence the thinking of other scholars. Only time can determine whether Artistic Research (if the term survives) will develop a coherent set of processes and principles or will remain an ill-defined canopy for disparate activities that range from rigorous scholarship to self-indulgent artistic aspiration.