Review of “Thinking Through Practice: Art as Research in the Academy”

“Thinking Through Practice: Art as Research in the Academy”, edited by Lesley Duxbury, Elizabeth M.Grierson and Dianne Waite. RMIT Publishing 2007

Review by Danny Butt – preprint

To appear in Second Nature: International Journal of Creative Media, issue No.1, March 2009. p140-146

In their article “The Doctorate in Fine Art: The Importance of Exemplars to the Research Culture”, Katy Macleod and Lin Holdridge argue that doctoral submissions in the fine arts must be read and studied in depth in order for students and supervisors to understand how doctoral study operates in the field (p165).  However, they note, the developing literature on doctoral study remains curiously focused on research methods and protocols rather than on an elucidation of the culture through reference to what is being produced by doctoral students (156). Teachers and students in doctoral programmes know that scope and method are two of the most important questions a student faces, and that these always need to be fashioned in relation to the material of the research project. In the humanities and social sciences, the easiest way to develop an awareness of what scope and method “look like” comes from perusing other doctoral theses, but students in fine arts programmes often struggle to find appropriate documentation of other related projects. This publication of case studies directly addresses that need, featuring six artist-researchers who teach at RMIT and write about their own very diverse PhD projects. This book is one which I hope will be emulated by more teaching institutions who offer doctoral study in creative disciplines.

The general rationale for the book is most clearly articulated by David Thomas, who describes art practice as:

…a way of researching through the practice of making art. Such making is not just doing,  but is a complex informed physical, theoretical and intellectual activity where public and private worlds meet. Art practice is the outcome of intertwined objective, subjective, rational and intuitive processes. Considered in this way, art is a discipline, informed by the conceptual and linguistic conventions of its culture and history.(p.85)

However, the discipline of art after conceptualism is difficult to clearly delineate through description of specific outputs or methodologies as there are an enormous variety of approaches and materials that can exist as art. It remains easier, if not sufficient, to define art by social and institutional contexts rather than the procedures and practices themselves. The avant-garde tradition has always undermined clear statements about what art could or couldn’t be, this diversity and resistance to confinement has become characteristic of the field.

Accordingly, the book’s case studies document a wide range of different approaches to reflexive making in an academic context. If it creates an argument, it is through outlining potential directions rather than making a general argument about the possibility of thinking through practice. In this respect, despite the similarity in title, it can be sharply distinguished from the essays in Holdridge and Macleod’s landmark book Thinking through Art, and those seeking substantial theoretical justification for creative practice approaches to research will be disappointed.

The first case study by Lesley Duxbury emphasises the strengths and weaknesses of artistic practice as a form of investigation.  At first glance the chapter appears to be a somewhat ragtag collection of anecdotes about walking as it relates to her own practice and that of others. She also raises,a range of philosophical concerns which, however, are never addressed in detail. While the material outcomes are novel, the novelty is not defined in relation to an existing corpus of knowledge in the way that is standard for most non-art disciplines’ research. The links between the various strategies explored by Duxbury are not defined in advance, and the creation of the meaning is left with the reader. While this approach will undoubtedly baffle those with a background in other forms of research, it reflects the norms of artistic knowing by foregrounding the subjectivity of the knower when considering art practice as a form of “human knowledge” in the academy.

In this way, Duxbury’s project highlights a key challenge in considering artistic practice as research: the relationship between methodology and output is not always evident in studio art practice. This is why doctoral programmes in the creative sector tend to require an appropriate written component; a process many students find challenging. Text has always accompanied the visual in the arts, and some kind of record of the process is often critical for an effective dissemination of the results of a practice-based inquiry. There is also a degree to which the “backstory” of the work has always been important in the professional visual arts environment (we might think, for example, about the role of Hans Namuth’s photographs in diffusing the story of Jackson Pollock).

Throughout this book the different approaches and styles caused me to wonder what makes an exegesis or textual accompaniment a compelling read? Isn’t some of the truth in art precisely it’s capacity to arrest our imagination? The different case studies here variously emphasise methodology, method, or procedure. The implications of this are more than stylistic, they also point to disparate understandings of the purpose of the written document accompanying a practice-based project. These questions are not unique to art practice: while we often think that writing in scientific journals describes experiments and results, Sharon Traweek (1996) makes the point that it would be impossible to replicate a contemporary physics experiment based purely on the writing in journals – there is a high level of implied or tacit knowledge and convention. Scholarly writing in the sciences is less a set of instructions than a claim to significance.

The more interesting case studies in the book acknowledge this, while others remain in a procedural mode.  For Ruth Johnstone’s investigation of the 18th Century print room, the writing-up makes the project more banal than it seems that it might be in real life (or visual documentation alone) We move cautiously and rigorously through an extensive description of the procedures she undertakes in the production of her work. While this is an appropriate record that demonstrates reflexivity at one level, it also carries a curiously flat affect compared to much artwriting, and perhaps serves as a reminder why artists are not customarily the ones making the written claim to significance for their own work.

At the other end of the scale, Philip Samartzis gives concise accounts of his material outputs as a sound artist, but throughout addresses the underlying question of “What might this work mean?” rather than “What did I do?” This kind of reflective theorisation runs a different risk: it can lead to overstatement, or a potential lack of adequacy of the project in relation to the  huge questions of museological presentation strategies and states of listening being explored. In the end, though, it seems to more fully reflect the ambit of art practice as a way of seeing the world rather than simply as a set of physical procedures.

While both the above cases represent genres of project documentation that are becoming common in the artistic research literature, the most advanced and intriguing case study in the book is by Robert Baines, a goldsmith investigating issues of authenticity and the fake in jewelry production. Baines tests his questions through the production of new pieces that attempt to confound experienced assessors of archeological material. What distinguishes this project is his exploration and confrontation of an entire philosophy of material as held by curators of ancient jewelry. Here the value of creative practice as a research methodology is evident, bringing together material, sociological and philosophical investigations to provoke a new way of thinking about the historical artefact in a specific field of practice, questioning our professional and personal desires for the artefact to hold truth.

While at the beginning of the review I noted that the book is a series of case studies, it is ably introduced with an article from Grierson and Duxbury. They begin with an epigraph from Heidegger: “We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves are thinking.” (p.7) From this thesis about reflexivity and the embodiment of knowledge, the introduction quickly moves us through a range of issues relating to artistic practice as research — from the heterogeneity of the field, to the contributions of art to knowledge, the policy environment, the relationship between the work and the exegesis, and back via Heidegger to the question of ‘what is art?’

It moves through these significant questions in a couple of paragraphs each, and the feeling of important tensions being glossed over brings to mind Timothy Emlyn Jones’ lamentation on the lack of book-length engagement with the question of practice-based research. The implicit argument in Thinking Through Practice, ironically, is that there is a level of understanding that can only be activated at a particular depth of material engagement (craft, perhaps). The danger of potted summaries (whether of practice or philosophy) is in the easy links across disciplines and fields of practice that elide the significant work required to move between and create significant effects within these disciplines.

To give one example, the authors claim that:

“…thinking through practice interrupts the insistent means-end relations of the creative knowledge economy with its focus on fast capital -— financial, informational, social, et al. It is also a way of slowing down or exposing the pace of informational innovation and its demands in the so-called progressive economies and social complexities within which we live, work, and function on a daily basis.” (p.9)

Really? Such effects are certainly a potential function of reflective art and design practice, although we might also be struck by the degree to which artistic explorations may also be complicit with, or even emblematic of, the knowledge economy and its financial speculations. We also have to consider the sheer amount of work produced which fails to gain purchase in the art world, let alone the much broader social and economic structures this sentence suggests.

Such a gap between the scale of the claims made for work – philosophical, sociological, political – and the work’s measurable effectiveness in creating such changes is one of the more common issues faced in evaluating the writing of art students. These problems are not so much about the theories being incorrect, but the adequacy of the form of writing chosen to do justice to the issues raised. It is here that the book’s flaws are perhaps most evident: the gap between the ambitions to affect large conceptual frames espoused in the title/introduction and the effectiveness of the works presented in intervening in those frames.

This is less a complaint about the book than recognition that art as an academic field is still a nascent discourse and so a book like this is still working out its genre as it goes, so to speak. The gap between aspiration and delivery is symptomatic of the paucity of appropriate theoretical language to position creative practice.  Emlyn Jones suggests that “we have a great deal of knowledge about the knowledge basis of art and design, but much of our knowing about knowledge is anecdotal and undertheorised.” (2006, p237) The development of a shared language for such diverse practices will be a slow process, and it is only through the publication of books such as this that such a language has a chance of emerging.

Works Cited

Emlyn Jones, Timothy. 2006. A method of search for reality: research and research degrees in art and design. In Thinking through art : reflections on art as research, 226-240.  London ; New York: Routledge.

Macleod, Katy and Lin Holdridge. 2004. The Doctorate in Fine Art: The Importance of Exemplars to the Research Culture. The International Journal of Art & Design Education 23, no. 2: 155-168.

Traweek, Sharon. 1996. Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. Social Text 46/47: 129-139.