NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Critical Care in Creative Research

By Dr Danny Butt — During the 1990s and 2000s, as readers of NiTRO know well, an intensive debate took place among art and design academics as to whether their practices and those of their graduate students could be called research, and if so what “contribution to knowledge” might be made by the creative output, as distinct from the writing that has traditionally accompanied submissions in higher degrees in creative arts.

James Elkins famously characterised this “scientification” as a mere response to bureaucratic Research Assessment Exercises in the U.K. and related tertiary education systems,[1] but the debate also has a pre-history in a dialogue between the East and West coast traditions of practical and theoretical U.S. art education that came to be established in the College Art Association of America (CAA) in 1911. In his 1917 CAA opening address Columbia professor Arthur Wesley Dow noted that “the best way to appreciate the quality of a line is to take a piece of charcoal or a brush and try to draw one.” Similarly, Edith R. Abbot claimed a more ‘direct’ and ‘scientific’ analysis of art was available through drawing, rather than the emotion-filled practice of mere viewing.[2]

By appropriating scientific discourse artistic research departs from humanist rationales for art education which focused less on production and more on the development of taste and moral uplift in the viewer. Scientification has instituted the artist as knowledge-holder in relation to their own work, in contradiction to Kant’s model of aesthetics where “the author of a product for which he is indebted to his genius does not himself know how he has come by his Ideas.”[3] In Kant’s view artistic non-knowledge allows the irruption of genius/creativity/nature, which in turn allows the disturbance of the viewing subject’s conceptual frame, allowing the free play of sensations through which the viewer remakes themselves with the work. In the absence of a final artistic authority, the independent critic emerges who can advocate for the work’s public character, with the artist adopting the critical role themselves in the first instance.

What is striking today is the scientific mode of self-documentation’s adherence to the logic of neoliberalism. Rather than taking one’s work to the public for free exchange, one is compelled to be ceaselessly active in managing one’s productive outputs in “creative” entrepreneurship. . .

The irony of the emergence of the artist as the holder of research-based knowledge is that while the scientific mode appears to offer the artist greater autonomy, it also imposes upon their knowledge the form of the written report, a species of writing that emerged in the sciences as the site where a “claim to significance” should be made. What is striking today is the scientific mode of self-documentation’s adherence to the logic of neoliberalism. Rather than taking one’s work to the public for free exchange, one is compelled to be ceaselessly active in managing one’s productive outputs in “creative” entrepreneurship, with audience engagement less important than citation. As Foucault notes, “the stake in all [neo]-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo œconomicus as partner of exchange with a homo œconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.”[4] It is a lonely life, if not a narcissistic one.

Perhaps in artistic research today it is the role of the critic, rather than the experimentalist, that can reimagine art’s knowledge potential: the singular capacity of creative works to show care for the material world.

The vastly expanding archives of academic production, now available instantaneously and at once, pressure the creative researcher toward quasi-scientific claims to ever-shrinking patches of territory that can be defended as “one’s own.” Perhaps in artistic research today it is the role of the critic, rather than the experimentalist, that can reimagine art’s knowledge potential: the singular capacity of creative works to show care for the material world.[5] This critical role may draw upon but does not rest only in archival skill of the historian or the advocacy of the contemporary curator/organiser, but seeks to share the creative work’s empathy with a public brought into being by the encounter of work and audience. Jan Verwoert has argued for an ethic of care in artistic work that acknowledges an indebtedness to others that exceeds any calculation, and these specific relationships make “another form, another ethics another attitude to creative and social performance possible.”[6] As the financialisation of the university proceeds apace, how to make our institutions of creative learning more caring may be the great challenge and opportunity for artistic research.

Dr Danny Butt is a Lecturer in the Centre for Cultural Partnerships in the Victorian College of the Arts, and a Research Associate with the Research Unit in Public Cultures, both at the University of Melbourne.  His book Artistic Research in the Future Academy will be published by Intellect in 2017. He is a member of the arts collective Local Time, with whom his most recent publication is “Colonial Hospitality: Rethinking Curatorial and Artistic Responsibility” in the Journal for Artistic Research


[1] James Elkins, “On Beyond Research and New Knowledge,” in Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art (Washington: New Academia Publishing, LLC, 2009), 112. Elkins gives less attention to the large body of Scandinavian literature.

[2] Clayton Bart Funk, “The Development of Professional Studio Art Training, in American Higher Education, 1860-1960” (Ed.D Thesis, Columbia University, 1990), 60-63

[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan and Co, 1914), §46.

[4] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79 (Basingstoke [England] ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 226.

[5] See the introduction to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011). On singularisation, see Irit Rogoff, “Practicing Research / Singularising Knowledge,” in Agonistic Academies, ed. Jan Cools and Henk Slager (Brussels: Sint-Lukas Books, 2011), 69–74.

[6] Jan Verwoert, “I Can, I Can’t, Who Cares?,” Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain, November 1, 2009, http://www.onlineopen.org/i-can-i-can-t-who-cares.

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