Background

‘Maker-based’ doctoral studies became possible in Finnish art universities during the 1980s, which was considerably early by international standards.

The first doctoral dissertations at the art universities were completed in the 1990s

Raimo Sariola: Sellonsoiton motoriikkaan liittyvien kognitiivisten prosessien mallintamisesta, Sibelius-Akatemia 1990. [On modeling the cognitive processes in cello playing]

Päivi Hovi-Wasastjerna, the first dissertation by a Master of Arts: Mainoskuva Suomessa: kehitys ja vaikutteet 1890-luvulta 1930-luvun alkuun, University of Art and Design Helsinki 1990. [Advertising image in Finland: the development and influences from the 1890’s to the beginning of the 1930’s]

Taneli Eskola, first doctoral dissertation containing an artistic component: Water lilies and wings of steel: interpreting change in the photographic imagery of Aulanko Park, University of Art and Design Helsinki 1997

Annette Arlander, first doctoral dissertation in theatre including an artistic component: Esitys tilana, Theatre Academy 1998 [Performance as space]

Jyrki Siukonen: Uplifted Sprits, Earthbound Machines: Studies on Artists and the Dream of Flight, Academy of Fine Arts 2001

The stages of the developing artistic research are presented in more detail in Annette Arlander’s in-depth article “Diversifying Artistic Research”.

For a long time, the artistic components of doctoral dissertations raised scepticism and criticism. Partly for this reason, doctoral dissertations in the field of art at first followed the model of scientific universities. Although performances, exhibitions or concerts may have been included, the doctoral research was mainly focused on theoretical discussions. The teachers and first theorists of doctoral education came mostly from the academic world. Since then, artist-researchers have increasingly assumed responsibility for developing theoretical thinking, but the field still has a strong philosophical emphasis in Finland. Artistic research has been influenced perhaps most by the trends of continental philosophy, post-structural theories, phenomenology (see Rouhiainen and Bredenberg), pragmatism (see Kumpulainen), feminisms (see Porkola), post-colonialism (see Järvinen), new materialism and post-humanism (see Arlander).

The success of artistic research is underpinned by a more general transformation in the field of human sciences, which particularly rejected the positivistic conception of knowledge prevailing in the 1970s and 1980s. A positivistic researcher adheres to observable facts and seeks objectivity in the role of external observer. In the field of art, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain such a position, because artistic work always gets its meaning in personal experiences. Since the late 20th century, both artists and researchers have emphasised the active role that recipients play as co-authors of the work. A researcher of art cannot remain an outsider either, as their experiences and activities become part of the research subject, and the emerging knowledge.

The fundamental distinction between researcher and artist is obscured. Various practice-based methods, in which the researcher participates in the activities subject to their research, have gradually been adopted in the fields of cultural research, ethnography and pedagogy. In social sciences, qualitative methods have been developed, instead or in addition to quantitative measurements, for comprehensive understanding of different phenomena and their meanings. Theatre research, having traditionally focused on history and drama, expanded into multidisciplinary research on performance culture in the late 1980s. Besides staged drama, people became interested in performances happening in everyday life and society, and producing social reality. Interaction between artistic and scientific researchers in the field of performing arts has been lively.

Different ways of studying art have often been described in a triad, originally proposed by Christopher Frayling in 1993:

  1. research on art
  2. research for art
  3. research in/as/through art

Research on art takes art as the subject of research. This includes all traditional fields of art research, such as art and theatre history, aesthetics, cultural research and art sociology. The researcher examines their subject from the outside and uses generally accepted methods of humanities, social sciences and history research. A majority of this type of research is conducted at scientific universities, but also to a certain extent at some art universities. It has been recognised also by the scientific universities for a long time already that art can never be examined entirely from the outside, as the recipient’s interpretation always shapes how a work of art or process is seen. It is therefore not possible to draw a clear line between scientific and artistic research attitudes.

Research for art is experimental research that produces new working methods and techniques for creative work. It is mainly conducted at art universities, especially in applied arts and industrial design, but it could also count in the tradition of theatre laboratories outside academia, as well as experimental performance art. This type of researcher is a kind of creative inventor or engineer who wants to change and improve existing practices.

Research in/as/through art differs more radically from the earlier research traditions and is conducted at art universities only. This means that the artistic process can at the same time be the subject, medium and outcome of research. Art is understood as a mode of knowing of its own kind, which cannot be assessed on the basis of any external field. Art makes it also possible to gain such understand about the world that cannot be reached by any other research method.

Art can also be used as a scientific research tool (art as research). For example, in social sciences, information about people’s experiences or thoughts have been collected through artistic workshops. Research has also been subject to art (art about research) by, for instance, demonstrating physical theories in a performative form.

Artistic research, which primarily refers to research in/as/through art, established its position in both Finnish and international universities in the 2000s. The number of publications and doctoral degrees in this field has multiplied over the past twenty years. There are already several active academic journals and conferences specialising in artistic research.

Key publication channels for artistic research in the performing arts

However, no publication so far has been considered a general textbook for artistic research, nor has any need for one been expressed in the discussions in the field. Artistic research has been deliberately preserved as a multidisciplinary and multifaceted framework where no one can define acceptable practices exclusively. There is no specific range of theories or methodologies that should be applied in the field, or any limitations in principle of what an artist-researcher can examine, and by what means.

This is at least partly because artistic processes are currently understood, in principle, as being unpredictable, challenging prevailing views, and crossing boundaries. Art cannot thus be defined or instructed in advance. It can only be understood by agreeing to follow the inner logic of the emerging work of art or event. Every artist-researcher or researcher doing artistic research must therefore determine and justify their own working methods, which may prove challenging.

What is artistic research like in practice?

As artistic research is based on the researcher’s personal artistic practise, there is considerable variation in the approaches, contents and methods of individual research projects, depending on both the field of art and the personal views of the researcher. In Finland as well as abroad, the various art universities define their requirements for a doctoral degree in artistic research in different ways. The field as a whole can also be understood in various ways, depending on local academic practices.

The most important uniting principle in artistic research is that the artist-researcher uses their own artistic work as the main medium of thinking and as a source of understanding. The artistic work can be a research subject, a method, an outcome, or all of these at the same time. The artist-researcher makes art, and at the same time studies both their working process and the emerging experiences, feelings, thoughts and events by looking at them from within the process, not by perceiving from the outside. In addition to or instead of verbal explanations, the thoughts emerging from the research process may take an experiential or a functional form. 

In artistic research, works of art and processes are not viewed as objects of research, to be explained through other disciplines. Artistic activity is regarded as significant thinking in itself, existing only as it is experienced in the work of art or process: as performances, events, images, sounds, movements, etc. Live performances, exhibitions, exercises, experiments or workshops are part of the research publication. They are both a research method and an important way of communicating research outcomes to other people.

The aim may be, for example, developing new types of artistic solutions and methods or understanding tacit knowledge related to the prevailing practices in one’s own field. It is also possible to study phenomena one wonders about through art, such as the relationship between nature and human beings, social inequalities, or established behaviours. Of course, this happens in all artistic work, also outside the framework of academic research.

Artistic research is subjective in that it is based on individual activities and experiences. Although shared understanding emerges in artistic processes, it does not aim to achieve the same generalisability as scientific research. Each artistic work and process is held unique, and so perceptions of them cannot as such automatically be applied to other works and processes.

In practice, approaches of artistic research vary. Some artist-researchers do not want to separate the artistic and the research component. Then the very same process or work of art poses the question, examines it and responds to it. It expresses everything essential in itself, and does not need to be explained. The research is received and understood as a multisensory experience, not as conceptual thinking.

There are also artist-researchers who work very close to traditional academic research in arts, history, philosophy, aesthetics or pedagogy. Many researchers wish to reflect on their artistic process either verbally, or in some other way that differs from the actual artistic work. This means that the researcher distances themselves from their own experiences, and examines these experiences critically and analytically. Texts by other artists or researchers having dealt with similar subjects can be helpful, linking the process in question to wider contexts.

Sources

Frayling, Christopher. 1993/1994. “Research in Art and Design.” Royal College of Art Research Papers 1(1). researchonline.rca.ac.uk/384/ Retrieved 04 October 2022.

Contributor

Laura Gröndahl

Laura Gröndahl has worked as set designer, researcher and teacher. She defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Industrial Arts in 2004, worked as Professor of Stage Design from 2006 to 2013, held teaching positions in several universities, and holds the title of Docent in Theatre Research at the University of Helsinki. At present, she works as University Lecturer at the Performing Arts Research Centre at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, with special interests in practices within the arts and theatre, scenography, and documentary theatre. orcid.org/0000-0001-9727-3977