Opus versus output

Artistic practice can certainly be research - but the present model in UK universities is confused and lacks intellectual rigour, argues Nicholas Till

March 7, 2013

I recently spoke at a conference on the subject of “composition as research” at a university in Germany. German universities have been slow to accept the principle of artistic practice as research, in part because of the more rigid institutional divide between practice and theory in Germany in comparison to our more integrated practice-theory teaching and research in the UK. Almost all the other contributors to the conference were either German or associated with German institutions, and it was evident that they were looking to me as a visitor from the UK, where it is known that PhDs in practice are now standard, to offer them a coherent rationale for practice as research, based on the apparently well-founded British model, that they could take back to their university deans or presidents to persuade them to sanction PhDs in musical composition in their own institutions.

I’m afraid that I couldn’t be as sanguine about the UK system as they would have liked me to be, since I don’t believe that the intellectual rationale for practice as research in UK universities was ever thought through systematically; in the tradition of British empiricism it has simply muddled itself into being as a series of pragmatic responses to the process by which art schools and music and drama conservatoires were gradually brought into the higher education system from the 1960s onwards. By the 1996 research assessment exercise, post-1992 arts institutions (often now faculties within new universities) were wanting a share of the research income cake, and they made a vigorous case for the creative work of artistic practitioners teaching in higher education institutions to be considered as research for the purpose of the RAE. The case was accepted with little real examination. This was a fatal error.

In his development of Serialism, Schoenberg was undoubtedly engaged in a systematic project of artistic research

It was an error because many artistic practitioners in universities are not engaged in research - they are simply pursuing their own artistic or professional practice. While it may have seemed a smart move at the time of the 1996 RAE to claim that this work was research, and those institutions that were on the ball did indeed do well out of the 1996 RAE on this basis, since then the criteria for what constitutes practice as research have, quite rightly, become increasingly stringent. As a result many artists teaching in universities are now putting themselves through elaborate contortions to justify their work as research according to the new criteria. Those who don’t play the game (perhaps because they are busy working professionals, for instance) are likely to get clobbered in the forthcoming research excellence framework. In the 1996 RAE, the quality of artistic practice was judged largely in relation to indicators of esteem: a retrospective exhibition in a major gallery, designs for a production at the National Theatre, or a BBC commission for an orchestral work being deemed primary evidence of the merit of the submitting artist’s work (with a lot of dubious “research” appointments of high-profile artists being made as a result). The 2014 REF 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 merit as research.

Let me be clear: I believe that artistic practice can be research. The Italian painters of the Quattrocento who investigated the artistic potential of the newly established geometry of perspective; the composers who around 1600 unwittingly invented opera as an outcome of scholarly research into the performance practices of Athenian drama; Stanislavsky’s development of his “Method” for acting; Braque and Picasso working alongside each other to forge Cubism; Schoenberg’s development of Serialism: all were undoubtedly engaged in systematic projects of artistic research.

These examples all have three things in common: a sense of common endeavour, sometimes collaborative and sometimes competitive; a clear relationship between theory and practice - whether the practice is employed to test a theoretical hypothesis, as was the case with the composers who invented opera in response to the theoretical speculations of classical theatre scholars, or whether the theory is parallel or post facto, as was the case with the group of lesser artists around Picasso and Braque who theorised Cubism as it evolved; and a belief that artistic innovation involves issues of cultural meaning and value rather than merely technical concerns. Such work would certainly meet the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s criteria for research: it was led by “research questions, issues or problems” (Jacopo Peri: “how might the Greeks have sung their dramatic texts?”; Braque: “how can we paint the space between objects rather than the objects themselves?”; Schoenberg: “how can we reconstitute musical form on a non-harmonic basis?”); it was highly aware of its own creative and discursive contexts; and it was driven by the need to find new methods for new problems. Such work also clearly met the REF Panel D’s conveniently vague criterion of providing “new insights” - did it just!

For many artists today, some or all of these characteristics of research may be an essential component of their artistic process. But by no means all artists are engaged in research of this nature, or are employing these methods. Speaking personally as someone who has pursued both a professional artistic practice in theatre and practice as research within a university context I am very well aware of the difference between producing a professional piece of work (usually to commission) and producing a piece of work in which I have myself determined the questions and issues that I wish to address, and in which I am in control of the methodology for that research process. Although I still occasionally undertake public or professional work, I now identify myself predominantly as an academic researcher for whom creative practice is but one tool of enquiry, albeit an essential tool for certain kinds of experiential understanding that cannot be reached any other way. I hope that when I undertake public or professional work I apply the same degree of intellectual and critical rigour that I bring to my research, but the bottom line is different, since with the former one has a responsibility to deliver an achieved piece of work to an audience rather than simply to gain new understanding or insights.

Higher education institutions need to have proficient and experienced practitioners teaching within them. But instead of trying to pretend that all such practitioners are engaged in research, it would have been better to have found an alternative means of evaluating the merit of such professional artists and craftspersons. Eminent novelists, composers or designers enhance the quality and esteem of the institutions for which they work, and this needs to be recognised and rewarded appropriately. But not by forcing them to present their practice within the mould of academic research, which often leads to some very specious exercises in repackaging.

With artistic practice as research, emphasis is placed on the aptness of the research questions, the rigour of the methodology, the thoroughness of the contextual research and the acumen of the theoretical conclusions that are adduced. Process rather than product; generalisable knowledge rather than specific aesthetic experience. While these are essential to the definition and evaluation of practice as research, they may be less relevant to creative practice that is not defined as research. On the other hand, the question of aesthetic quality is often deliberately evaded in the evaluation of practice as research. Indeed, practice as research can lead to some dull artistic outcomes. But perhaps this doesn’t matter: Peri’s opera Euridice (Florence, 1600) is groundbreaking as a technical demonstration of the possibilities of sung drama, but it is dry and, dare I say it, “academic” in comparison with Monteverdi’s Orfeo (Mantua, 1607), a passionate masterpiece that showed the true artistic potential of Peri’s more cautious first steps. But Orfeo, which is based on the same fable as Euridice, almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without Peri’s earlier experiments (which would bag a nice REF impact case study for Peri: “my research has led to the birth of a new art form”).

With artistic practice as research, the emphasis is on…process rather than product, generalisable knowledge rather than specific aesthetic experience

The confusion concerning these different modes of practice and their evaluation is all too evident in the submission criteria for the REF Panel D (broadly, arts and humanities). Researchers submitting practical projects are invited to attach a statement of 300 words to identify the project’s “research imperatives and research processes” through “descriptive or contextualising material”. Clearly it is impossible to provide that amount of information about a substantial research project in a mere 300 words; in fact, it takes about 300 words simply to explain what the project was (what, who, where, when), and what the material being submitted represents. Even though one is also invited to submit a portfolio of supporting material providing further evidence of the “research dimensions of the work”, it is also clear that this is not expected to include extensive written material. What this suggests to me is that, although the Quality Assurance Agency and AHRC criteria for practice as research have been made progressively more academically rigorous, the old paradigm of the self-sufficient aesthetic artefact, judgeable on its own merits, is still residually in play in the 2014 REF. We expect our practice PhD students to write lengthy critical exegeses of their projects - anything between 10,000 and 40,000 words - yet we somehow assume that our own work can be evaluated as research on the basis of just 300 words and some supporting material. For myself I determined that unless I could secure publication of a substantial critical commentary on my creative practice submission for the REF there would be no purpose in submitting the project at all.

It’s too late to disentangle the confusion for the 2014 REF. But I very much hope that when that exercise is over a more fundamental review of artistic practice in higher education will take place. Then next time I will be able to advise my colleagues in Germany with a bit more credibility.

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