Artistic research is conducted with art, and the outcomes are partly in artistic form. According to the principles of the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy, Uniarts Helsinki, artistic research is justified and evaluated using academic criteria, and “artist-researchers produce practice-based knowledge, expertise and understanding that can be used and applied both in the arts and in other fields of society.” www.uniarts.fi/en/study-programmes/doctoral-programme-of-artistic-research-in-performing-arts/ (4.2.2024)

Can artistic work, which is usually associated with subjective feelings and comprehensive sensory experiences, also produce evidence-based knowledge? If so, what kind of knowledge is thus involved? Artist-researchers say that they are often at the verge of not-knowing, which means that they do not seek explanations or answers. Instead, they settle by the phenomenon being explored, and experience its innermost strangeness. The art-maker is always at the verge of something new and unknown, because the work of art taking shape cannot be fully known in advance. As a research medium, the artistic process opens up questions, suggests possible perspectives and fosters discussion rather than provides explanations, definitions or answers.

According to philosopher Dieter Mersch, a work of art does not aim to explain or interpret, but to show and reveal phenomena. Something not previously known emerge, and it is first revealed along with the work of art. The work of art exists only in a form that can be perceived with senses: seeing, hearing, and feeling. The emerging thinking cannot be expressed in any other way than with the form in question, nor can its relevance be judged by the principles of any other field of knowledge. A work of art creates a world of its own, and determines what is true within the work of art itself with its own criteria (Mersch 2017; 2015).

Artistic research is often contrasted with scientific practices because it cannot be assessed on the basis of objective criteria. It should, however, be kept in mind, that knowledge and its acquisition can be viewed in very different ways in different scientific disciplines, and no researcher is capable of being completely objective. Natural sciences emphasise that test arrangements carried out under similar conditions must be reproducible, i.e. must produce the same result, given the same starting point and the same method. Mathematics and logic are based on systematic reasoning based on given premises. In engineering, the most important thing is to make the designed device work. Cultural, societal or historical researcher interpret their data from their current perspective, in relation to previous research and prevailing values.

The common objective of all scientific methods, however, is to produce as reliable and verifiable data as possible. This does not mean a construct of absolute truths, but rather constant criticism and questioning of assumptions that seem self-evident.

All scientific knowledge is basically uncertain and changing

Even in natural sciences, absolute truths are not expected to be within reach, but only highest possible probabilities or practical applications. Even if it is not possible to fully explain, for example, the true being of gravity, engineers are able to predict future events well enough, based on observations and theories, to keep an aircraft in the air. Theories and hypotheses are tested and challenged in research community conferences and scientific publications. When someone presents a new theory, it is up to others to look for possible gaps, discrepancies, logical fallacies or conflicts. If none are found, a given hypothesis can be accepted, until someone develops a better one. This usually happens sooner or later. No theory is considered final, but it is believed that continuous correcting will gradually bring us closer to an understanding that corresponds to reality.

As opposed to the natural sciences, similar, verifiable hypotheses are usually not produced in the humanities, such as historical, cultural and artistic research, because claims can rarely be verified by means of testing or field research. Data and observations are always selected and incomplete. Researchers interpret them differently, and there are not always right or wrong answers.

Scientists in any field are not always in agreement, and they are not meant to be. When several researchers in disagreement explain their points of view, the result is a kind of map about what can be thought about a certain issue within the framework of prevailing knowledge. Ideally, this increases the mutual understanding about the issues, even if it does not provide final answers.

It is important for artistic researchers also to remain critical of their own research outcomes, even if the aim is not to scientifically verify their reliability. Perhaps the clearest guideline here is that other researchers must be able to follow the course of the research, in order to assess what the outputs presented are based on, and whether they can be considered credible enough. Scientific methods do not reach all artistic phenomena, but nor can an artist-researcher make factual claims without demonstrating how they arrived at them. This is not always easy, since artistic knowledge escapes verbal expression. (see ”Artist’s skills as a research subject and medium”)

Since ancient times, European philosophy has been contemplating the fundamental nature of knowledge and how a people could ascertain the truthfulness of knowledge. Thus far, no one has been able to provide an exhaustive answer. For example, according to Plato’s well-known definition, knowledge is justified true belief. But what kind of justification is good, and who decides whether it is true? We know that we have plenty of knowledge about all kinds of thing in the world, but we cannot always explain what we then actually have, where we have got it, and how we can assess it.

Currently, knowledge is not considered something permanent that could be just found somewhere. It is often more meaningful to talk about knowing and understanding as endless processes. More new questions may arise in artistic research than answers to old ones. Instead of clear outcomes, however, the researcher may develop a gradually expanding understanding of the subject in question. This is similar to the circle of understanding in the hermeneutic philosophy of knowledge.

Hermeneutics and the circle of understanding

Hermeneutics is a philosophical theory that seeks to interpret and understand the meanings of different texts. It is an ancient concept originally associated with the interpretation of sacred texts or laws. What is essential is that the same text can have different meanings depending on the time period and situation in which it is interpreted.

The 19th century philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) applied hermeneutics to the research of human activity and history. He distinguished between natural sciences, which seek explanations, and life sciences, which focus on human activity and aim to understand the mindset of the subject researched. According to the hermeneutic concept of history, the past can never be reached as such, but it is always studied from the present of each period of time. It is important for a historian to understand their own limitations, which is where they must start in trying to identify with the inner world of the subject.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) is perhaps the most well-known modern hermeneutic philosopher. He described the formation of knowledge as a spiral, in which all that we know is in a constant state of flux. Everything that a person knows and is able to think forms a sort of mental horizon in the same way as the physical horizon is the limit to what we can see. Similarly, if something is beyond the horizon of thought, we will not be able to understand it because we do not have the corresponding concepts at our disposal. When we receive new information, we interpret it on the basis of our prior knowledge and thinking ability. New knowledge expands the horizon. Understanding deepens and new things come within the mind’s reach. This allows a reassessing of prior knowledge, which further extends the horizon and changes the conceptions of things already known.

This kind of continuous movement between the knowledge as a whole and its individual parts is called a hermeneutic circle, a circle of understanding. The whole is understood with reference to its individual parts, and the individual parts with reference to the whole. When a conception changes, it impacts everything, and the consequences of the impact are reflected back again. Thinking progresses on a spiral-like circle of increasingly deepening knowledge, never reaching its final goal (Gadamer 2005).

Not to make things too simple, it is worth remembering that no one actually knows what art is, either. The modern conception of art did not take shape in Europe until the 18th century. Up to that, domains such as painting, poetry or music had been considered separate skills and artisan crafts. It had never crossed anyone’s mind that these could be bundled in the same category. When artistic work was freed from the authority of church or rulers, people began to see it as an independent cultural field. On the one hand, it was set apart from the rest of society into a self-contained sphere, which manifested in the establishment of museums, concert halls, national theatres and other public art institutions. On the other hand, for example paintings increasingly became objects of art trade and investment. Art is thus not an eternal, immutable essence, but an historically and locally constructed concept and cultural practice that can be understood in a variety of ways.

When modern art was no longer thought to serve goals set from the outside, an interest in exploring the nature of the artistic experience itself emerged. This resulted in the development of modern aesthetics as one of the branches of philosophy.

What is art?

According to Dieter Mersch, modern art has been linked to the question of knowledge and truth from the very beginning. Among others, Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) suggested that sensuous knowledge (Cognitio sensitiva) constitutes a unique way of knowing that differs from rational thinking and should be subject to its own criteria as an independent form of knowledge (Mersch 2015; Kjørup 2006).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) partly disagreed with this premise. He felt that aesthetic pleasure emerged when a person felt the functioning of their mental faculties. The capability for judgement could not be reduced to knowledge, but it operated between understanding and moral, assessing how they work. Kant tried to solve the problem about the subjectivity of matters of taste that had been vexing the 18th century philosophers, by showing that humans have access to the world only through their mental faculties and the ‘thing itself’ can never be perceived as it is. Therefore, the universality of aesthetic judgement was based on mental faculties common to all people, not on the characteristics of art objects as such.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the early German Romantics considered art the highest form of thinking because it was able to combine the sensory with the mental, the subjective with the objective, the finite with the infinite. Hegel (1770–1831) felt that art was one manifestation of the spirit, which is realised through sensory experience. This basic idea – expressing spiritual reality in a visible, material artwork – was passed down from Romanticism through Symbolism into one of the leading principles of Modernism in the 20th century.

In today’s discourse, art and philosophy are interlinked in many ways. Artistic activity is not only considered an object of analysis, but a unique way of thinking, through which philosophical questions can be discussed. In the phenomenological tradition, having reached a central role, art is thought to reveal to the receiver something essential about the nature of existence and the human relationship with the world, in a way that exceeds the limits of everyday thinking. (e.g. Merleau-Ponty 2012; Heidegger 1998; Rouhiainen: On Phenomenology and Artistic Research in Performing Arts) In the Pragmatist tradition, art is not distinguished from other aspects of life, but is considered an experience that is perceived as meaningful in itself. (e.g. Dewey 2005 and Kumpulainen: Pragmatist Philosophy in Support of Artistic Research) Hermeneutics, emphasising the recipient’s interpretation, also assumes that art does not exist in objects, but in constantly repeated experiences (Gadamer 1960).

Classifying objects or phenomena as art and non-art seems outdated from the current perspective. The fact that the fields of art are very different also causes problems. One central thought behind current artistic research seems to be an understanding of artistic processes as liminal experiences that go beyond everyday common sense, and challenge it.

Some perspectives on contemporary art

This list can be complemented and questioned:

Art is able to subvert and disturb established attitudes. It forces people to look differently, think about things from new perspectives, experience unfamiliar and unknown phenomena.

In principle, art is unpredictable and strange. An experience created by a work of art is not necessarily logically linked to any prior knowledge, but rather constitutes its own world.

Art deals with phenomena that are unattainable through scientific examination or rational theories, nor through common sense. That is why it can reveal hidden things or show alien aspects concealed in familiar phenomena.

Works of art evoke images that cannot be explained or interpreted, but that still seem meaningful. This is called a surplus value of art. The recipient experiences something very important, but does not really know what it is. A work of art will never wear out or become empty: there will always be more to it than the person experiencing it can take in.

Creating and receiving art often involves the feeling that one is in contact with an alien and unknown phenomenon. If we could explain what it is about and familiarise ourselves with the alien phenomenon, it would lose its own character. Experiencing the unfamiliar is about total misalignment, the inability to touch the unknown other. This inviolability is a valuable thing because it safeguards the strangeness of the unfamiliar. If we try to take control of the unfamiliar through our thinking, we bring it into our own conceptual system, but at the same time exclude the very things which we are not familiar with and which make the unfamiliar unfamiliar.

Art creates a kind of liminal sensations in people by exposing them to something which cannot be presented or expressed. The mind senses its own inability to think about the phenomenon it is experiencing.

Art has also been assigned different tasks in other fields of life, such as social influencing, identifying different problems and seeking solutions, combating climate change and biodiversity loss, strengthening communality, preventing exclusion, therapeutic operating methods, etc.

Sources

Dewey, John. 2005. Art as Experience. New York & London: Perigee; Penguin Books.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, 2005. Hermeneutiikka. Ymmärtäminen tieteissä ja filosofiassa. Transl. Ismo Nikander. Tampere: Vastapaino.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2013 (1960). Truth and Method. Second revised edition. Translated into English by Joel Weinsheimer & Donald G. Marshall. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Heidegger, Martin. 1998. Taideteoksen Alkuperä. Transl. Hannu Sivenius. Helsinki: Taide.

Kjørup, Søren. 2006. Another way of Knowing: Baumgarten, Aesthetics, and the Concept of Sensous Cognition. Bergen: Kunsthøgskolen i Bergen.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012. Filosofisia Kirjoituksia. Transl. Miika Luoto & Tarja Roinila. Helsinki: Nemo.

Mersch, Dieter. 2017. “Taide ja ei-propositionaalinen ajattelu.” Tiede & Edistys 4, 347–354.

Mersch, Dieter. 2015. Epistemologies of Aesthetics. Transl. Laura Radosh. Zürich: Diaphanes.

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