Can Art be Research? Artistic Research for Traditional Researchers

At some point all university-based artists face either a timid, antagonistic or baffled questioning from colleagues: “Can artwork be research?”. This semester my university set me an impossible task: to explain artistic research for traditional researchers in a three-minute presentation for Research Week. They also asked me to be a bit provocative, an easy task when discussing artistic research. The following is an informal, condensed and incomplete introduction to artistic research for the curious.  

In academic managerial speak artistic research is classified as non-traditional research outputs or NTROs. This is a term likely developed by researchers who weren’t creative practitioners. Since 2009 the term NTRO has been adopted by the Australian Research Council to describe research outputs like creative works, curation, and translations which couldn’t easily fit into publication-oriented Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment processes.

If you are a creative practitioner you are more likely to characterise work as “artistic research” or “practice-led research” or “research-led practice” or simply “research”. Which term you deploy suggests something subtle about the methodologies, scholarship and politics which underpins your research practice.

The location and value of creative outputs as academic research has been widely debated over the last 20 years. In this time the discussion has shifted focus from ‘is artistic work research? Why is it valuable to the academy? How do we define it?’  to the pragmatic and somewhat problematic questions of ‘How do we measure it against other forms of research and assess its contribution?’. Outcomes of these conversations, and successive iterations of external research evaluation processes like ERA have largely normalised artistic research practices within Western universities.  

One of the provocations of locating artists in the academy is the presumption that artistic work produced within the academy has a broader responsibility given its location. The implication of this statement is that the artwork must be doing something inside the academy which it potentially may not be doing outside the academy. This provocation leads us to a direct discussion of research excellence. 

In Australian universities, it’s not simply enough to make creative work. Performing with a band at the local pub or in a friend’s garage is likely not research. Julian Klein (2017) argues that the question shouldn’t be “What is artistic research?” but “when is artistic research?” suggesting that research occurs when reflection and knowledge is produced at the level of artistic experience itself… “acquired through sensory and emotional perception, through the very artistic experience from which it cannot be separated”.  

Emmerson (2017) describes artistic research as a negotiation between the perspectives of the artist and their colleagues which may not be in alignment. To establish something as artistic research Emmerson advocates criteria which evaluates and validates artistic work as research, encompassing:

  1. “Contextualization (particularity, research field, purpose, audience);

  2. Process (of investigation, of reflection, employing an appropriate method);

  3. Documentation (of outcome and/or process);

  4. New Insights (originality, knowledge, contribution to field);

  5. Dissemination (‘effectively shared,’ peer-review, impact, significance)”.

By applying criteria like this, the artistic researcher undergoes a dual validation which establishes whether their work is research, and if so, the value of its knowledge contribution. Neither process is straightforward.

What does peer review of artistic work look like?

The University of Sydney’s Guidelines for Non-Traditional Research Outputs provides a comprehensive description of how NTROs can be identified and evaluated. In digest, artistic peer review looks like work curated, commissioned, or disseminated by significant festivals, exhibitions, programs, venues, organisations, publishers, or media outlets/platforms. A work which receives funding through peer-assessment processes such as government or peak-body grants, awards or commissions can also be deemed as having undergone peer review. Similarly, works whose achievement is recognised through awards, prizes or other accolades assessed by peers from the artistic community is deemed to have undergone peer review. Critical evaluation and reviews by media, academics, artistic practitioners, or other sources of esteem to the relevant community of practice and its audience are also considered equivalent as is the repeated public presentation or dissemination of an artistic work.

What does artistic research excellence look like?

Generally, artistic research excellence looks like a work which evidences support via peer review. This circular logic can be problematic because under metrics focused systems of research assessment, experimental artistic work, or work by emerging artistic researchers does not always have access to mechanisms of peer review, as these mechanisms tend to preference established modes of practice by established artists. This can place an extra responsibility on the scholar to evidence excellence and impact of the work from other mechanisms. This can be done in a variety of ways, usually through the collation of metrics. Many artistic researchers track audience size across all locations of engagement and dissemination (realworld and online). More in-depth data can be collated by conducting audience engagement and evaluation surveys, focus groups or interview studies. Other researchers publish critical and reflective commentary on their artistic work in academic and professional publications to demonstrate value. Presenting or discussing the work on alternate media platforms, or through public talks can also evidence impact and importance. At a minimum, artistic researchers are starting to normalise the collation of personal correspondence, social media, web, and other anecdotal commentary on their artwork as evidence of impact.  

Whether artistic research, or research in general should be subject to assessment practices of this kind is a separate debate. Under ERA assessment processes responsibility is on the researcher to make the case for why the artistic work is research. This in itself can make traditional research, with its more transparent pathways of achievement, somewhat attractive.