Sorry, the question is wrongly put, Good Man (1978). We should ask, when is research artistic? But let us start from the end.


According to the UNESCO definition, research is “any creative systematic activity undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge about humanity, culture and society, and the use of this knowledge to devise new applications.” (OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms, 2008).

Research, therefore, means the state of not knowing – or even better, not yet knowing along with a desire for knowledge (Rheinberger 1992, Dombois 2006). Rather than being a unique feature of scientists, research also seems to include many activities, such as those undertaken by artists, for example. The fact that the majority of them have been creative and not a few systematic in their working method is undisputed. The driving motivation of an increase in knowledge, on the other hand, is still granted much less often as self-evident, even as the knowledge they need to perform and reflect their work must have been acquired somehow and correspondingly entails research – research undertaken not just at that specific moment but rather from the very beginning.

For many reasons, as Baecker (2009) succinctly describes, resentments toward junctions of research and art begin primarily with their substantification; the thought that artists are “researching” appears easier to accommodate within a scientistic worldview than that some of the products of their work must logically belong to “research.” Lesage suspects that underlying this are concerns about the restriction of access to resources and thus, in the title of his article, posed the question, “Who’s Afraid of Artistic Research?” (2009)

Before citing McAllister (“I think, artistic research exists,” 2004) as penultimate argument in a potential dispute, a few points can often be saved by offering a categorical distinction such as the tripartite one made by Jones (1980), Frayling (1993) and Borgdorff (2009): the distinction between art based on (other) research, art that uses research (or research methods) and, lastly, art that has research as its products. Dombois (2009) extends this trichotomy via the following chiastic complements: “Research about/for/through Art | Art about/for through Research.”

Even natural scientific research alone is very diverse in its objects, methods and products, as McAllister notes (2004). This applies all the more in view of research in the humanities and social sciences as well as industrial, market and opinion research. Not surprisingly, this is also true for artistic research. Among the authors cited here, there is agreement that this diversity must be preserved against efforts fostering their canonical restriction.

Art without research just as equally dispenses of its essential foundation as does science without research. As cultural developments, both live from the balance between tradition and innovation. Tradition without research would be blind takeover, and innovation without research would be pure intuition. Wherever scientists do not research but instead teach, judge, carry out, advise, treat, apply or talk more or less telegenically (hence “PUSH” – the button), they might still be undertaking science – but were they to undertake all this without research, they would not be quite true to their cause. The same can be said of artists. On the other hand, it becomes clear that – in same measure as is the case for science – by no means does all art count as research.

The most important diagnosis, however, is that the term “research” designates something as little homogenous as “science” or “art”; they are collective pluralities, assembling highly diverging processes that often trespass the categories of boundaries such as disciplines to be more closely related there than with some other members of their own faculty, subsequently grouping together more easily under their common interdisciplinary denominators, such as topics, methods and paradigms. This “urge toward singularization” is probably the strongest root of the “opposition” – as stubborn as it is alleged – between art and science; Baecker (2009) calls this the “organizing principle of the functional difference,” the emergence of which Mersch & Ott (2007) trace back to the 19th century.

Art and science are not separate domains but rather two dimensions in the common cultural space. This means that something can be more or less artistic even as nothing is stated regarding the degree to which it is scientific. This is also true for many other cultural attributes, among them the musical, philosophical, religious and mathematical. Some of them are, however, more dependent on each other than they are isolated. In this respect, Latour’s diagnosis applies here mutatis mutandis: “There are no two departments but only one, their products to be distinguished later and after joint examination” (1991, p. 190). However, at the very least, not everything that is considered to be art must therefore be unscientific, and not everything that is regarded as science must be unartistic. Dombois proposes five criteria for “Science as Art” (2006). A wealth of examples – space constraints here do not allow for their listing – show that the artistic and scientific content of objects, activities and events allow themselves to be mixed, one independent of the other, to varying degrees of intensity. Research is not artistic when or even only when it is carried out by artists (as helpful as their participation may often be) but rather earns the attribute “artistic” – no matter where, when or from whom it was undertaken – on its specific quality: the mode of artistic experience.

Artistic Experience

In the mode of aesthetic sensory experience, perception becomes present to itself, opaque and able to be sensed. Artistic experience can be prescribed similarly, as the perceptory mode of the sensed interference of frames (for details, see Klein 2009). According to this diagnosis, to have an artistic experience means to look at oneself from outside a frame and simultaneously enter into it. Frames, which in this way cross through our perception, are also comparably present and able to be sensed (Fischer-Lichte 2004 calls this a “liminal state”). The artistic experience as well as the aesthetic sensory experience are modes of our perception and as such constantly available, even outside the works and places of art.

Within an “experience,” the subjective perspective is included constitutively, because experience, by its very nature, cannot be delegated, and only secondarily can it be intersubjectively negotiated. This is a major reason for the conception of the singular nature of artistic knowledge (Mersch & Ott, 2007, Nevanlinna 2004, McAllister 2004, Busch 2007, Bippus 2010. Dombois 2006 refers to Barthes’ 1980 proposal of a “mathesis singularis”). Artistic experience is particularly dependent on and inseparable from the underlying goings-on. Artistic experience is an active, constructive and aesthetic process in which mode and substance are inseparably fused. This differentiates artistic experience from other implicit knowledge, which is generally able to be considered and described separately from its acquisition (see Dewey 1934, Polanyi 1966, Piccini and Kershaw 2003).

Artistic Research

If “art” is but a mode of perception, “artistic research” must also be the mode of a process. Therefore, there can be no categorical distinction between “scientific” and “artistic” research – because the attributes independently modulate a common carrier, namely, the aim for knowledge within research. Artistic research can therefore always also be scientific research (Ladd 1979). For this reason, many artistic research projects are genuinely interdisciplinary, or, to be more exact, indisciplinary (Ranciery in Birrell 2008, Klein & Kolesch 2009).

Against this background, the phrase “art as research” seems somewhat inaccurate, because it is not art that somehow evolves into research. What exists, however, is research that becomes artistic; hence, it should actually be called “Research as Art,” with the central question being, “When is Research Art?”

Over the course of a specific research undertaking, artistic experience can occur at different times, differ in duration and vary in importance. This complicates the categorization of the undertaking while on the other hand allowing for a dynamic taxonomy: At what times and in which phases can research be artistic? First, in its methods (such as searching, archiving, collecting, interpreting and explaining, modeling, experimenting, intervening and petitioning); but also in its underlying motivation, its inspiration, in its reflection, its discussion, in the formulation of research questions, in its conception and composition, in its implementation, in its publication, in its evaluation, in the manner of discourse – just to name a few. These phases can only be summarized and categorized post-hoc, such as in the customary triad of object, method and product. This sequence, however, is important in order to avoid falling into the normative restriction of a canonical system within the discussion on artistic research (Lesage 2009).

At what level does the reflection of artistic research take place? Generally, at the level of artistic experience itself. This excludes neither a (subjective or intersubjective) interpretation on a descriptive level nor a theoretical analysis and modeling on a meta-level. However, “It is a myth that reflection is only possible from the outside” (Artega 2010). Artistic experience is a form of reflection.

Artistic Knowledge

Who are we? How do we want to live? What do things mean? What is real? What can we know? When does something exist? What is time? What has causality? What is intelligence? Where is sense? Could it also all be different? These are examples of interests common to art and science. Their treatment does not always lead to secure and universally valid knowledge (with regard to the history of science, only in very few cases, no?). The arts are granted the authority to formulate and address such basal and yet complex issues in their specific ways, which must not necessarily be less reflected than those of philosophy or physics, and which are in a position to gain specific knowledge that could not be delivered in any other way.

Whether an artistic thirst for knowledge is acceptable as a reason for also calling an investigation “research” obviously depends on the question as to what types of knowledge fall under the concept of cognition, or which types of cognition count toward knowledge. Even if we could agree that knowledge is “justified true belief,” we still would not have won our case, because we would have to come to a common understanding as to when an opinion is a belief and exactly what can be a justification for this – not to mention the concept of truth. This path, no matter how we travel it, leads to final arguments, which either appear acceptable to us or not (see Eisner 2008). The following applies to those kinds of terms that, in the end, are part of a meta-language such as knowledge: The more we try to proscribe them, the more we are constrained to normative judgments, at their core supported only by what we want them to mean. Then it is equally feasible to posit that knowledge also includes experience as a third species in addition to cognition and skill or that knowledge and experience stand side by side as forms of cognition – they should at least be considered equivalent.

Some authors require that artistic knowledge, notwithstanding it all, must be able to be verbalized and thus be comparable to declarative knowledge (e.g., Jones 1980, 2004 AHRB). Many say it is embodied in the products of art (e.g., Langer 1957, McAllister 2004, Dombois 2006, Lesage 2009, Bippus 2010). Ultimately, however, it has to be acquired through sensory and emotional perception, through the very artistic experience from which it cannot be separated. Whether silent or verbal, declarative or procedural, implicit or explicit, artistic knowledge is, in each and every case, sensual and physical, “embodied knowledge.” The knowledge for which artistic research strives is a felt knowledge.


Originally published in German in: Gegenworte 23, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften 2010.





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Photograph Credit

Manuel Klein