NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Let’s Party Like it’s 1919 : Some Questions to Ask of Art and Engagement (or Don’t Tell Art What to Do as It’s Doing it Anyway)

Art, being art, is never straightforward: to expect or to demand precise things from it is, perhaps, a fool’s dream – and one that can be counterproductive. Over the past century, some of the most politically and culturally engaged art movements and schools … have emerged from chaos, tragedy, disaster …

By Jennifer Higgie

 ‘There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly’
– Buckminster Fuller

 Art, being art, is never straightforward: to expect or to demand precise things from it is, perhaps, a fool’s dream – and one that can be counterproductive. Over the past century, some of the most politically and culturally engaged art movements and schools – from Dada, to the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College – have emerged from chaos, tragedy, disaster, alongside some of the most difficult, contemplative, and idiosyncratic art. None of it took place because it was a formal requirement. 

Most funding bodies the world over ask artists to demonstrate how their work will engage with the public: the more they can prove, the more likely it is their work will be funded. On many levels, this is laudable; on many others, however, artists feel pressured to discuss their work in a way that can be restrictive and counter-intuitive. Now, I am not and never have been an academic and I’ve also never been on a funding committee; my thoughts on engagement have evolved from my from my training as an artist, working for decades as an art writer and an editor, and having many close friends who are artists and writers.

… there’s something contradictory about requiring artists to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to justify the ongoing support of a creative practice: how can an ‘interaction’ or a ‘contribution’– be it a piece of writing, an artwork or a design – be precisely measured?

The Australian Research Council’s new engagement assessment rates universities and fields of research on a low, medium, high, scale. Engagement is defined as: ‘Interaction between researchers and research end-users outside of academia.’ Impact is gauged ‘on the contribution the research has made to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research’.

Leaving aside my slight bafflement at the term ‘research-end user’ I would say that these definitions throw up more questions than answers.

No-one would argue with the idea that art should engage with the community it’s part of, and that it should be made accessible to an audience who hail from diverse backgrounds and experiences. My concern lies in the implication that a way of thinking or making art that doesn’t obviously trumpet engagement as a core principle is somehow considered less valid than work that more blatantly engages with it.

While I understand the form-filling that funding necessitates, there’s something contradictory about requiring artists to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to justify the ongoing support of a creative practice: how can an ‘interaction’ or a ‘contribution’– be it a piece of writing, an artwork or a design – be precisely measured? By the number of people who have seen / read / looked at it? By the income it generates, the dreams it infests, the ideas or objects it’s inspired? By the amount of downloads, clicks, likes or responses? By how long the dancing lasted or the intensity of the hangover? By the long-term influence it exerts? 

What do we want art to do? And who is the ‘we’ we’re talking about it?

Creativity can, of course, be manifested in myriad ways but many of them are immeasurable. History has proven that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers, art always finds a way to reflect religious, sexual, political or spiritual beliefs, personal mythologies, obsessions with a body or the bodies of others. Art can be a protest, a therapy, a riddle or a place of solace. It can give a voice to the unrepresented, invent forms for those who feel that the world is formless or make the world graspable to those who feel it is out of reach. Art can be a response to anything and it can be made anywhere. It always has and it always will. 

Yet, all too often, the demands of funding bodies, however well-intentioned, read as if the powers that be want to hold creativity to account. 

All of this begs the question: What do we want art to do? And who is the ‘we’ we’re talking about it?


 Jennifer Higgie is an Australian writer, art critic and editor-at-large of frieze magazine, based in London, UK. She is currently working on a book on women’s self-portraits, titled The Mirror & the Palette, which will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2021, and on various film scripts. She is also the author and illustrator of the children’s book There’s Not One; the novel Bedlam; and the editor of The Artist’s Joke. She is the writer and presenter of Bow Down, the new frieze podcast about women in art history, and the editor of the annual art-historical journal frieze masters. In 2008, she was a judge of the Turner Prize; in 2017, she was on the selection committee for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; and she curated the Arts Council Collection (England) exhibition ‘One Day Something Happens’, which toured to five galleries across the UK and Ireland between 2015-17.

More from this issue

More from this issue

What does the ARC Engagement and Impact framework have in common with the Bauhaus? This was the framing question of Engagement, this year’s ACUADS Conference, offering a productive way to contextualise social, intellectual and political engagement within the most impactful creative legacy the world has ever known.

How can learning to make things in glass assist a student’s broader creative and social development? Can glass working foster social awareness?

There is a grim temporality to much policy-engaged research on the Creative and Cultural Industries that reminds me of the closing dialogue in the first Terminator film … Sarah Connor drives into the desert to prepare for the struggle that lies ahead. At the petrol station a young boy points to the dark clouds and says a storm is coming. Sarah sighs and says, ‘I know’.

It was a windy afternoon in Melbourne when I was gifted a small monopoly house by artist Ceri Hann … Over several years, Hann made and gifted objects from a fictional casino – symbols of economic value and exchange that were hacked and hijacked to provoke the receiver to think and talk. While these objects have no real economic value, they point to the invisible yet essential currencies that fuel the art world.

There are two significant factors that combine to undermine creative outputs being classified as new research internally in many Australian universities … These two issues, complexity of creative research methodologies and research staff turn-over, can result in creative academics feeling undervalued and sometimes under siege.

Is engagement a dirty word? It’s one of the dirtiest words I know. Like many words that have come before it (synergy, impact, interaction), it has been taken up as a buzzword, stretched to such levels of generalised abstraction it can stand for almost anything.

Aligned with the 2019 Australian Council of University Art & Design Schools annual conference on the same theme, this edition of NiTRO will focus on the meaning of engagement for the creative arts: across disciplines, nationalities and cultures; but also with industries, communities and the world at large.