There was a time, not so long ago, when art was art and research was research. Many painters and novelists didn’t even read their reviews in the press, never mind academic commentary on their work, and contact between the two worlds was limited.
Today, in the UK at least, two major developments have changed all that. One has been the trend for the schools teaching actors, composers, designers and musicians to be incorporated into the university sector. The other has been the steady shift towards funding according to “research excellence”.
By the time of the 1996 research assessment exercise, as Nicholas Till, professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex, explains in our cover feature, post-1992 arts institutions were seeking their share of research income by arguing that the creative work of “artistic practitioners” should be considered as research.
Since then, the concept of “practice as research” has inevitably expanded from sonnets and symphonies to cabaret, hip hop and the less familiar ground of conceptual and performance art.
Times Higher Education recently reported on the work of Brunel University’s Daniel Ploeger, for example, whose heroic feats of buttock clenching gained him the title of “the Jimi Hendrix of the sphincter”.
Roberta Mock presented her inaugural lecture dressed as an elf. Her defiant message? ‘This is research - deal with it!’
Equally unusual is the case of Roberta Mock, detailed in our feature, who presented part of her inaugural lecture as professor of performance studies at Plymouth University dressed as an elf. Her defiant message for any detractors? “This is research, this is what I do - deal with it!”
Some will inevitably question whether such projects are a good use of public money but there’s no doubt they make universities livelier places to work.
Yet the trend towards “practice as research” raises a number of issues.
Till points out that traditional signs of artistic achievement, such as a major retrospective exhibition, used to be considered signs of research excellence. Yet today, he says, despite the stress on research impact, “the 2014 [research excellence framework] panels have made it clear that such indicators of public or professional esteem are no longer relevant in evaluating the work that is submitted, which will be judged solely on its merits as research”.
One danger of this is that artists may continue to produce the work they (and their public) want while wasting time on paperwork and repackaging so that it appears to fit the latest policy and research funding agendas.
Others may be steered away from the most creative paths and turn towards what Till describes as “very dull artistic outcomes”. “Academic” is seldom meant as a compliment when applied to music or painting.
Meanwhile, those actually working in the arts often get bogged down in arcane debates about the precise distinction between, for example, “practice-led” and “practice-based” research, while others will argue that artistic expression is still undervalued or misunderstood within the academy.
This sometimes finds expression in the plaintive question: “Would Rembrandt or Picasso have been awarded a PhD by a British university?”
With so much confusion to disentangle, Till’s call for “a more fundamental review of artistic practice in higher education” has much to recommend it.