Sunday, 7 October 2012

In Significant Research

Inasmuch as institutions of education are devoted to various forms of evaluation and assessment it seems logical that the research of art teachers should be assessed just as that of other academics. If the professional practice of art teachers is to be given comparable credence as other disciplines, and is to be financially supported, then presumably art teachers should be able to demonstrate the value of their output to the wider community – and the more significant the better. Nonetheless, as a discipline, art does not fit comfortably within the regime of research assessment (See REF), not least because of the continual emphasis on the very term "research". Do artists conduct research? Does it make sense to define the work that artists produce as research?

Most people think of artists as practitioners, as makers, certainly not as bookish academics or scholars lost amongst the shelves of a dusky archive and even less as lab-coat-clad experimenters. But perhaps this is to make a caricature of what is surely a heterogeneous practice in which many forms of enquiry are engaged. Neither is it intended to suggest that artists do not concern themselves with questions of knowledge or understanding. They do. But the search that artists are involved with articulates itself primarily through a frequently messy and unstructured engagement with materials and processes. Art concerns itself with experience from the inside, as it were, and looks to knowledge as a means to deepen this experience, much less as a means to understand it. In recent times this form of enquiry has come to be called "Situated Knowledge" or "Material Thinking" and it seems likely that these terms, and the arguments that underpin them, have emerged as a backlash against the preponderance of emphasis placed upon more conventional forms of knowledge production that are so venerated by the Research Excellence Framework and its like.

If art creates knowledge at all it is certainly not because artists deliberately seek it in the ways that, for example, scientists do. Artistic Method, if there ever were such a thing, would doubtless be a singularly ineffective means to accumulate knowledge or articulate it. Any knowledge that comes about through the creation or interpretation of art does so as a by-product of experience - experience that must first be felt and interpreted to be understood. Experience is the point, both in the making and in the contemplative encounter with art, even if the experience, as such, is the discovery of knowledge. Art shows us how the experience of forming - as distinct from 'acquiring' - knowledge can, in itself, be more edifying and fulfilling than knowledge alone. Where art is concerned, experience eclipses knowledge.

“It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of ‘culture.’”

John Cage does an excellent job here of clarifying the difference between various kinds of involvement and how, as we remove ourselves further and further from being 'in' an experience, the more passive and pointless the exercise. Art is not a declarative process - it does not hand itself over easily. The power of art resides in the degree to which it rewards concerted engagement. You have to work at it and the closer you approach the condition of the maker - in fact of supplanting them - the more rewarding the experience promises to be. At its best, art transforms its audience, in the act of interpretation, into creators, not viewers, not listeners, nor even performers, but makers: creators of significance.

There are deep pleasures to be gained from this process: "The pleasure of finding things out" as physicist Richard Feynman put it, not of being told, nor even of possessing new knowledge, but of engaging to the point of discovery. Art is not simply something we consume then, but rather something we make anew for ourselves.

It should be apparent by now that the skills, insights and imagination of the artist are only fragments in the overall constitution of the artwork, though indispensably important ones. But without the engagement of an audience the artwork can be little more than an inert and anonymous object. Each engaged audience, each thoughtful viewer, re-creates the artwork - the more they devote, the more they are likely to reap.

But if it is we who re-create the artwork, if its significance is largely of our own making then why credit the artist at all? Moreover, if the significance of an artwork is, to some indeterminate degree, a projection of its audience then how can an accurate estimate of the contribution of the artist ever be formed? This is a question for which no criteria - whether for the evaluation of art students or art teachers - will ever provide a satisfactory answer.

The impact of any experience emanates in multiple directions like ripples on an already turbulent pond. Quite how the influence of any particular impact can be assessed from the ensuing tumult is highly questionable. Granted, large impacts create a measurable increase in overall activity but if Chaos Theory has taught us anything it is that small events can sometimes have profound consequences.

Culture is the product of collective activity and the ripples across its surface are a complex interleaving of causes and effects. By singling out only the measurable influences, not only do we vastly exaggerate their perceived significance, but we also overlook the significance of a multitude of other constitutive, and therefore vital, contributions. The outcome is a situation where those individuals who are already successful reap yet more rewards, whilst the untried, the speculative and the unpredictable are simply ignored, thus promoting and perpetuating a culture of risk aversion, performativity and self-regard.


Anonymous said...

I can see exactly what you are aiming at and you hit the nail right on the head. Thanks for another insightful post Jim

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