NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Artistic Criticality

By Professor Ross Woodrow — Creative arts research is probably too widely established in Australian universities to be dislodged by any argument against its validity. Even so, judging from past attempts at exclusion of the creative arts from consideration as research by the Australian Research Council and the OECD with its Frascati Manual, reform will not involve reasoned argument.

The arbitrary nature of all classification processes becomes the perfect arena for selective disempowerment by using semantic word juggling and modification (1). This means that terminology is always vitally important in discussing creative arts research modes and outcomes.

The creeping use of the term “artistic research” in some Australian universities and indeed its acceptance by the ARC is a cause for concern since it will have a negative impact on the long-term prospects for creative arts or practice-based research in Australia. I would argue that use of the terminology can only be interpreted as the old fawning imitation of the European Academy or compliant appeasement to the forces in the Australian research academy that would attempt to marginalise or exclude the creative arts as a valid area of research.

“Artistic research” is established as a dominant terminology for creative arts research in many central European countries as Henk Borgdorff, President of the Society for Artistic Research, reported in his interview with Jenny Wilson in the August 2016 issue of NiTRO (2). More recently, at a public lecture in Brisbane in 2018, the preeminent art historian from the Netherlands, Mieke Bal, confirmed the popularity of the term in Europe, although this was in the context of a dismissive aside to her main topic of discussion, noting “artistic research” was a very problematic craze (3). The development and wide-spread use of the term is no doubt partly driven by the cross-language and cross-disciplinary demands on arts education terminology in Europe post the Bologna accord. Yet the United Kingdom has been far less accepting of the expression “artistic research” for creative arts research and the American academy has shown little interest.

In Australia the word “artistic” has such effete connotations that it is almost an antonym for rigour and functionality. Artistic gymnastics and the other few sporting activities, such as synchronised swimming and dressage, that are judged on aesthetic merit, might attract global audiences at Olympic level but sit on the outer margins of competitive sports in Australia where almost any occupation or serious activity can be diminished when prefixed with “artistic”. The terms artistic customs officer or artistic cardiology are inconceivable, artistic policing or refereeing would result in instant dismissal, although artistic banking would now be universally accepted given its close relation to the established descriptor of creative accounting. The association of artistic with thinking would certainly seem to excise any cognitive precision from the process.

Maybe not. A recent linkage grant awarded by the ARC titled “Artistically rethinking creative coding for digital media” suggests that artistic thinking is not at all the dreamy, fruitlessly ineffective activity that such a coupling might normally imply. Reading the extended abstract for this grant it becomes obvious that artistic thinking is so instrumentally rigorous that when applied to the “brittle” problem solving of creative arts research, in this case applied to creative coding for digital media, it can innovate the tools to develop a much more cost-effective project for the next Vivid festival in Sydney or whatever other artistic light and sound spectacle in which the ARC would like us to invest our time (4).

When “artistic” is used within the creative arts fields it is protected from the general derogatory or marginal connotations of the term in popular consciousness because of its very specific applications, as with artistic direction in film and theatre, for example. Attempting to co-opt the generic usage for artistic research in the creative fields would create some nonsense couplings such as artistic creative writing or artistic painting which is already a descriptor used to distinguish specialised professional decorative painting from general house painting. Probably the biggest impact of the prefix would be on artistic interpretative dance or artistic spoken-word performance as this would compound their potential satirical status.

The origin of “artistic research” forty years ago was as a segregating term as Henk Borgdorff pointed out in 2012. He imagined an anonymous public servant in Paris discovering the term “artistic research” as a necessary exclusionary descriptor for research in the creative arts and inserting it into the Draft Recommendations concerning the International Standardization of Statistics on Science and Technology for the agenda of the 1978 UNSECO General Conference (5).

Borgdorff also indicated that the first drafts of what was to become the Frascati Manual for defining and describing research and development worldwide, in emphatically and categorically excluding artistic research had protected the “research” part of the phrase with inverted commas (6).

Public servants doing two-fingered air waves around an invisible research every time it was mentioned with “artistic” was part of a larger semantic dilemma when drawing up a definition for research and experimental development that began with “creative and systematic work” and placed novelty, creativity and uncertainty as the top three of five core criteria that had to be satisfied for any activity to qualify as research. The word “creative,” meaning original and innovative, was coined in the eighteenth century as a term exclusively applied to art (7). Today, creativity both inside and outside the academy singularly defines the operational mode that is exclusively valued in the arts and especially so for the fields of visual arts and music where no necessary and sufficient definition exists to identify the outputs produced in these disciplines. They can only be judged as a manifestation of creative compulsion, motivation and operation.

The term “artistic research” was abandoned in the 2015 edition of the Frascati Manual and replaced with “artistic expression” to avoid any implication that the creativity self-evidently inherent in arts practice might be confused with the creativity that defines scientific and other research activities in academe. In the almost four-hundred-page long Frascati Manual there is a single sentence giving qualified acknowledgement that creative activity is intrinsic to the creative arts: “One area requiring care in assessment is the arts (Section 2.6): there is creativity, but the other criteria have to be confirmed for the activity to qualify as R&D” (8).

The Section 2.6 referred to in the above quote is headed “R&D and Artistic Creation” which is divided into three sections, the last titled “Artistic expression versus research,” manages in a single 140-word paragraph to dismiss creative arts activity as research for failing the novelty and transfer/repeatability criteria for recognition. This trick is done with a spectacularly clumsy manipulation as a linguistic three cup and ball switch. The “artistic creation” placed in the main heading for this section inexplicably becomes “artistic expression” in a subheading for the paragraph and finally, without explanation, for research definitional purposes it morphs into “artistic performance.” “Artistic performance” is actually only a subset of “artistic creation” and excludes most of the activities that produce tangible works of art, novels and films.

This ploy ignores the fact that researchers in the creative arts produce determinate knowledge that extends understanding of the world and human affairs. Denying, for example that J. M. Coetzee’s post-apartheid novel Disgrace facilitates the transfer of a new understanding of the complexity and inhumanity of the political system that developed in South Africa and the impossibility of any easy resolution or reconciliation without unremitting compromise. Undoubtedly, the reasons for disavowing the radical criticality inherent in this creative work is because the novel functions with an inclusive power that no academic text on political science or history could ever match.

To describe such a work, or Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, or Sidney Nolan’s painting series on Ned Kelly as an outcome of “artistic” thinking would only diminish its profound importance and impact.


1. OECD (2015), Frascati Manual 2015: Guidelines for Collecting and Reporting Data on Research and Experimental Development, The Measurement of Scientific, Technological and Innovation Activities, OECD Publishing, Paris.  DOI:


3. Mieke Bal presented the lecture on 15 February 2018 at the University of Queensland art Museum for the Centre for the History of Emotions.

4. The extended abstract for this grant on the ARC website and the sense artistic is used here is different to the usual way novel coding is described as an artistic system.

5. Henk Borgdorff The conflict of the faculties: perspectives on artistic research and academia 2012 p.77

6. Borgdorff p.78.

7. Raymond Williams Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society New York: Oxford Univ Press (1976) 1983 p. 83

8. Frascati Manual, p. 47.

Professor Ross Woodrow has been involved in research education in the creative arts for more than three decades. He helped establish the HDR program in Fine Arts at the University of Newcastle in 1995 and since 2006 has been working in various research leadership roles at Griffith University.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — Is this the future of creative arts or the end of specialised practice?
By Associate Professor Keely Macarow — Judging from a quick glance at today’s news cycle, it is clear that we live in uncertain and debilitating times in which our political leaders lack leadership and imagination in addressing climate and humanitarian emergencies that demand human and ecological justice.
By Dr Caren Florance — What do photographers and poets have in common? Despite the contemporary ease of digital publishing, they both yearn for the authority of a physical book. Funnily enough, this is also the case with academics, but here we are thinking about non-traditional outputs, so I won’t go there.
By Associate Professor Jonathan Duckworth — I am fascinated by research that brings together the arts, design, science and technology having worked collaboratively across these domains for most of my academic career. My own interdisciplinary journey began with two research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Australia Council for the Arts through their Synapse initiative.
By Dr Elizabeth Ellison — At one stage in my academic career, I spent time teaching into a broad postgraduate degree in which my teaching team and I coordinated cohorts of students in study areas. Mostly, these were what we might consider to be traditional discipline areas, such as creative writing or interactive design. I, on the other hand, was the coordinator of the cohort of “Interdisciplinary” students.
By Professor Jon Cattapan — Arts training institutions, and indeed the artworld itself, reflect the complex and rapid shifts of information and technologies available to us. Is it really possible to be immersive and discipline-specific in a world where access to many knowledges provides such rich counterpoints and ruptures to singular practices?