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,

More from this issue

More from this issue

Independent artists are faced with a challenging and transforming landscape that requires adaptive resilience in order to thrive creatively, today and in the future. How do we, as tertiary educators, empower and enable artists to build strong and flexible, professional contemporary art practices? To address this issue, my current research draws models of praxis from artist-run initiatives (ARI) in the Visual Arts industry, specifically from my experience as director of Boxcopy Contemporary Art Space.

By Su Baker, President, Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts — Over 2 decades the creative art academic community has grown and matured as a sector - so have the questions of method and purpose of publically funded research, that influence the processes of evaluation. Discussions around impact and ‘end-user’ value is a live issue at the ARC and we look forward to the new thinking that will shortly emerge. The creative arts depend almost entirely on end-user experience, and the impact of these experiences aspire to have real and meaningful impact on peoples lives.
By Dr Jenny Wilson. DDCA’s Research officer Jenny Wilson caught up with Henk Borgdorff in Amsterdam in April 2016, hot on the heels of his recent speaking tour of European and UK universities, art and music schools, to find out more about artistic research and European experiences of the politics of art and higher education.
By Professor Graeme Sullivan Visual arts has no singular function because it can be called on to do just about anything. Arts’ usefulness is because it is edgeless and homeless—art is masterful at shape shifting and form fitting
By Professor Jeri Kroll Since the Strand report (1998), scholars have been unpacking the manifold ways in which creative works can be research. Explaining the usefulness of questions to doctoral candidates not only keeps supervisors honest, but also keeps at the forefront of everyone’s mind why theory is unavoidable.
By Professor Paul Draper and Professor Scott Harrison Communities of profession, the old academy and the new academy, intimately rub up against each other and while some research may still be considered ‘more equal’ than others for now – this evolving mix can only positively impact on the rise of artistic research, its acceptance in society and its measurement by governments and universities.
By Associate Professor Cheryl Stock AM — The narrative of knowledge is almost always underpinned by the cognitive but how we know the world is often through the experiential. Whilst we have moved a long way in redefining knowledge in research terms to include the processes and outcomes of our practices (artistic, creative, professional) and importantly have privileged the artist’s voice as the expert in this recasting of what a knowledge claim might look like, some art forms prove more problematic than others in this endeavour.
By Professor Margaret Sheil — On my last outing in an ACUADS conference, I was described by Flinders University’s Julian Meryick as the “artist’s ideal of a scientist… impatient with the reduction of everything down to short term utility.” So as I venture once again into the creative arts domain, I draw on a scientific analogy. The principle of chemical equilibrium refers to a system in which the rate of consumption of inputs is the same as that at which outputs are produced so that the system is in a stable state of consumption and production.
By Professor Ross Woodrow — The decision by the Australia Research Council (ARC) to achieve the long-mooted merging of the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) and the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise by adeptly disappearing the HERDC has been welcomed by many discipline leaders, and not just those in the creative arts. With the inclusive ERA becoming the singular evaluation of research quality across Australia, there couldn’t be a better time to rethink the classification of research in universities.
By Associate Professor Robert Burke and Dr. Andrys Onsman — Criticism of the scientific methods of doing research has increasingly pointed out that all experimental research involves some sort of creative leap. In the performing arts such creative leaps are fundamental to artistry.
By Dr Leo Berkeley — The creative practice of filmmaking, understood as a form of academic research, has been growing in scale and significance within Australian universities for several years. While doctorates involving the making of a film have been occurring for decades, it is only relatively recently that the academic screen production community has been seeking to more systematically establish how the production of a film can lead to the discovery of new knowledge.
By Dr Jenny Wilson As many in creative arts grappled with the amalgamation challenges of the 90s, few were aware that the Dawkins reforms also had increased the centrality of research to university funding. This ‘blissful ignorance’ was not to last.
By Professor Brad Buckley and Associate Professor John Conomos — Recently, there has been much discussion in the press and beyond about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects at high school and at university. In particular, the Commonwealth Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda has focused exclusively on STEM disciplines. However, that discussion misses the central importance of creativity, inventiveness and innovation.
By Dr Kate Tregloan and Professor Kit Wise — Interdisciplinarity has been widely recognised as a valuable response to the wicked problems of our time. The ability to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries brings together different perspectives and expertise, and allows entirely new approaches and solutions to emerge. To prepare students and graduates for the complex challenges of the twenty first century we need good quality interdisciplinary programs. But how do we know what is ‘good’?
By Professor Estelle Barrett and Professor Barbara Bolt — At a roundtable at the Australian Council of University Art Schools (ACUADS) annual conference in 2014, panelists were asked to address the following question: What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art? Whilst the panel felt that the development of higher degree research programs in creative arts did not lead to better “art” they did agree that it has profoundly affected the way art is framed and understood both within the academy and beyond.
By Professor Margaret Gardner AO — The Australian Government’s Federal Budget announcement in May was confirmation that funding for the Office for Learning and Teaching would be discontinued after this year. The news, though not unexpected, represented a blow to funding for teaching and learning scholarship in Australia.
By Dr Tim Cahill and Professor Julian Meyrick — ‘In God we trust. All others bring data,’ quipped US statistician, W. Edwards Deeming. As he implied, measurement is an inherently conservative occupation. Units of appraisal have to be agreed in advance, while the aim of measuring something is usually to compare it with something that already exists.

By Julie Hare There are a lot of things that happen in universities that the majority of the population don’t know about. Research is one of them. The average punter – even the average undergraduate – would have little idea as the scope, scale and importance of research that takes place. And having a scientist […]

By Lynn Churchill and Jill Franz, IDEA (Interior Design Interior Architecture Educator’s Association) — IDEA comprises 12 International Institutions providing a minimum four-year Bachelor degree in the disciplines of Interior Design (ID), Interior Architecture (IA) and Spatial Design (SD). Most include an Honours program and the opportunity to undertake further research in Masters and PhD programs in compliance with the object of IDEA - excellence in ID/IA/SD education and research. Academic Research is a significant requirement for most academics in these disciplines.
By Associate Professor Denise Ferris and Professor Marie Sierra, Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS) — The National Innovation and Science Agenda, launched in December 2015, has significant consequences for tertiary institutions, and in particular, for the art and design disciplines, as well as the broader arts, humanities and social science (HASS) fields.