Henk Borgdorff: The Debate on Research in the Arts

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Borgdorff, Henk. “The Debate on Research in the Arts,” Focus on Artistic Research and Development, no. 02 (2007), Bergen: Bergen National Academy of the Arts.

Key words: art research, ontology, methodology, epistemology, legitimacy, knowledge, practice

Other words: academic drift, intrinsic nature of art research, trichotomy (ontology, epistemology, methodology), educational politics and strategies, Christopher Frayling (research into art, research for art and research through art), interpretive perspective, practice-based research, practice-led research, practice as research, legitimacy and autonomy of art research, hermeneutic practices, performative practices, aesthetic practices, mimetic practices, practice-in-itself, practice-as-research, theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge (techne), intellectual knowledge (episteme), practical wisdom (phronesis), knowing that, knowing how, making (poiesis), doing (praxis), artistic produces, artistic practices, artistic experiences, empirical, analytical


Henk Borgdoff, a music critic and research fellow at the Institute for Musicology, University Utrecht and Royal Conservatoire, launches his disambiguation of the debate on/around/through research in the arts by raising several questions: Does research in art exist? Is this kind of research distinguished (made different by) its object of art? If so, should this kind of research qualify as academic research in its own right? Does it belong at the doctoral level of higher education? When does art practice count as research? Doesn’t all art practice count as research to some extent? Can criteria be developed to differentiate art practice in itself from art practice as research? How does aesthetic research differ from what is called academic/scientific research?

Borgdorff organizes his response to these questions into four main sections: (1) the debate, (2) discussion on terminology and issues related to “research, (3) the characteristics distinguishing art as research, (4) The aspects and legitimacy of this kind of research. In addition to being more descriptive than analytical, Borgdoff’s discussion is distinguished by his attempt to define what makes art research unique as well as his nuanced understanding of knowledge types and research processes.

While the various “camps” in the debate over art research are regularly identified in surveys of the field (Scrivener, Biggs, Candlin, etc.), Borgdorff’s discussion also highlights various anxieties around “academic drift”: concerns around art becoming (pure) scholarship. Borgdorff also identifies regional developments in art and research as part of his attempt to contextualize his proposition, with the UK’s research culture evolving in relation to the AHRC (emphasizing outcomes) and RAE’s (emphasizing study design) as tandem definitions of research (funding).

The next section could well be titled “prepositions and a proposition,” given it’s elucidation of research types. Following Christopher Frayling’s differentiation between “research into art” “research for art” and “research through art,” Borgdorff offers his own trichotomy: “research on the arts” (emphasis on reflection and interpretation, as in art history) research for the arts”(evolving new techniques, as in alloy development) and “research in the arts” (reflection in action). Of these three possibilities, the third is the most controversial for various reasons, including its emphasis on practice. Indeed, observes Borgdorff, practice-based/led/orientated/as research is fraught, in part because it necessitates practice as art research from practice as just art. To this end the author offers the following proposition:

Art practice qualifies as research when its purpose is to broaden our knowledge and understanding through an original investigation. It begins with questions that are pertinent to the research context and the art world, and employs methods that are appropriate to the study. The process and outcomes of the research are appropriately documented and disseminated to the research community and the wider public.

A useful proposition, certainly, despite taking a lot for granted including a general understanding of knowledge, context, the art world and process and outcome. Perhaps for this reason, Borgdorff goes on to clarify what the intrinsic aspects of art research: what differentiates it from other types in inquiry.

Ontology: Doing defines being and there are various ways to practice. These include aesthetic, hermeneutic, mimetic, emotive, and so on. More importantly, there are different kinds so facts in the world, with artistic facts being defined by that which cannot be conflated with historical and social facts. For Borgdorff, this relates to materiality and immateriality: artistic facts consider materiality in the way that makes the immaterial possible.

Epistemology: Knowing involves understanding, and Borgdorff delimits several different types: Theoretical knowledge (episteme), Practical knowledge (techne) for making (poesis) doing (praxis), Practical wisdom (pronesis), Intellectual knowledge, Tacit knowledge, Sensory knowledge (rational but nondiscursive). What defines artistic epistemology in particular, however, is its commitment to articulating and communicating the non-conceptual and non-discursive.

Methodology: What research methods and techniques are appropriate to research in the arts? How do these methods differ from methods and techniques in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities? Is there a characteristic, privileged way of obtaining access to the research domain of art research and the knowledge embodied in it – something that might denote (connote) art research? In contrast to other types of research, art research is necessarily anchored in the artist’s idiosyncratic practice. Art research is keenly subjective, often intent on improving and enriching the practitioner’s experience.

The subjective distinguishes art research in another respect. Because one’s engagement with art objects tends to be subjective, art research methodology tends to emphasize processes as these are more easily circumscribed and shared. In other words, because in art, processes are easier to assess than outcomes, art methodology often places a premium of procedural explication.

With this ontological, epistemological and methodological issues in mind, the third section concludes with the following characterization and definition of art research:

Characterization: Art practice – both the art object and the creative process – embodies situated, tacit knowledge that can be revealed and articulated by means of experimentation and interpretation.

Definition: Art practice qualifies as research if its purpose is to expand our knowledge and understanding by conducting an original investigation in and through art objects and creative processes. Art research begins by addressing questions that are pertinent in the research context and in the art world. Researchers employ experimental and hermeneutic methods that reveal and articulate the tacit knowledge that is situated and embodied in specific artworks and artistic processes. Research processes are documented and disseminated in an appropriate manner to the research community and the wider public.

Borgdorff’s overview of the debate, his breakdown of research types and his speculation regarding the intrinsic aspects of art research is both productive and provocative. This is also true of the coda on legitimacy where he speaks frankly about the anxiety around art research and the implications it has for researchers, students and professionals alike. And yet, his propensity for separating out and distinguishing various parts of the whole as an analytic tool strikes me as problematic when it comes to differentiating objects, processes and contexts in relation to art, as if these elements were necessarily clear-cut. More curious still, is his observation that such distinctions are particularly useful when it comes to money. “Especially in the assessing (and funding) of research in the arts, it makes quite some difference whether one exclusively examines the results in the form of concrete art objects, or whether one also looks to the documentation of the process that has led to those results or at the context which is partially constitutive of the meaning of both the art object and process.” Why this makes a difference, Borgdorff unfortunately doesn’t say…


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