Recent Descriptions of Artistic Research Are Polarised and Misleading

When art is limited by economic conditions and political instrumentalisation, the academy can offer an important space for experimentation and critical discourse.

Production still from Petra Bauer och SCOT-PEPs film Workers! (2018), from the research project Looking for Jeanne at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. Pfoto: Caroline Bridges.

In his article Academisation Must Die So That Art May Live, Frans Josef Peterson worries that we are confining art to the lecture hall. But artistic research at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm rarely takes place in such a setting. Our research has a strong focus on artistic practice and takes place in our workshops and studios. It brings together disparate practices, such as those of Petra Bauer, Filippa Arrias, Goldin + Senneby, and Annika Larsson. All are active within the academy, as well as in the expansive field of the art world. The artists represent a wide range of media – a film, a book, a magic trick, a concert – and the research is in constant dialogue with a world outside the school seminar rooms.

The rejection of Bogdan Szyber’s dissertation has generated an interesting and important discussion about the conditions and opportunities that academic research actually offers art. I think that discussion is an expression of the fact that higher art education is currently undergoing change. This change is initiated and discussed from within the schools by both university administration and the faculty, as well as students. But it is also about how changes within the entire higher education sector, the field of art, and society at large affect the art academies’ working methods. It is a discussion that is ultimately about artistic freedom and how it is understood and negotiated in an educational and research environment.

The establishment of artistic research in Sweden over the past twenty years is part of a shift in the field where artists seek new areas and new artistic methods, such as testing how artistic knowledge can enter into dialogue with other areas of knowledge. We see this, for example, in how artists who work with art in the public sphere engage and contribute artistically in larger societal processes which shape our living environment. This role is different from that of the artist who works alone in their studio without a commission. New modes of artistic practice require that we both negotiate and critically examine how artistic freedom is formulated and made possible in these contexts.

At the Royal Institute of Art, we are currently offering the postmaster course Of Public Interest, with visiting professor Jonas Dahlberg, in which artists and architects work jointly on change within public space using artistic methods. I’d venture to say that the discussions on art that take place and the art projects that are developed within this course could only occur within the framework of an art academy. In addition to their own artistic practices, participants have the opportunity to critically reflect with peers on the methods and conditions of public art. I believe that the art academy, with its affiliations with the artistic tradition’s understanding of freedom, as well as the academic tradition of open critical discussion and the development free thought, provides opportunities for artistic practice, not limitations.

Production still from Petra Bauer och SCOT-PEPs film Workers! (2018), from the research project Looking for Jeanne at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. Pfoto: Caroline Bridges.

The discussion that has taken place about artistic research has at times been sweeping and has not distinguished between doctoral programmes in fine art and the research done by artists in their positions as teachers at art academies, or in externally funded projects. A doctoral programme – which Szyber followed – has, like all academic degree programmes, degree objectives. Those aims are set, like all education at our art academies, by people with artistic merits and an active artistic practice, not by bureaucrats. Other artistic research does not have the framework of postgraduate education, but is formulated and conducted independently by the researchers themselves. It is difficult to see in what way that research would be less free than any other artistic activity. This is not to say that we don’t need to discuss and develop the forms of artistic research. It is crucial that we dare to keep an open mind about what artistic research can be, and give it the opportunity to find its methods and formulate for itself what it means to conduct research on an artistic basis.

At the Royal Institute of Art, we have chosen an experimental approach to what artistic research can be, and are aware that a new area of research can only become truly innovative if it is allowed to find its own uninterrupted path. It is my belief that our researchers are free artists who, based on their research practices, create art and knowledge about art – research that has an impact on artistic research as well the broader field of art. Unlike Petersson, I see that exchange as something truly productive, where what is done in artistic research today contributes to art in general. Indeed, the artists I mentioned above are examples of such a contribution.

The image that has emerged in the debate about the conditions of artistic research – on the one hand, the free artist, completely unbound, answering to no one, and on the other hand, the researcher entangled in the institution’s suffocating net, is both polarised and misleading. The free artist is seldom as independent as we hope, but dependent on, for example, the priorities of state or private granting committees. The artist’s circumstances are also affected by the selections and evaluations of curators and critics. Petersson states in his article that this is a predictable objection. Sure, but that does not make it any less relevant. Not because it would give carte blanche to restrict the freedom of art within academia, but because in a situation where art – especially one that does not fit in a commercialised art system – is limited by economic conditions, political instrumentalisation, and a weakened critical discourse, the academy can offer an important space. It can be a refuge for more experimental artistic practices, a common critical discourse, and an exchange of ideas that is not given sufficient space in other parts of the field today.

Art schools have always been places where art is created. For experimental and research art that has had difficulty finding a place within traditional art outlets, some art schools have become important hubs for practices that today would probably be described as artistic research. Legendary examples are, of course, Black Mountain College where, among others, John Cage and Merce Cunningham created ground-breaking works. Or the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which for several decades was an important stage for conceptual art, installation art, and land art with people like Dan Graham, Lucy Lippard, Miriam Shapiro, and Robert Smithson. I believe that these kinds of experimental places that spur mobility between teaching and research, studio and academy, school and the larger world, remain productive models for the research environment of an art academy today.

Sara Arrhenius, Vice chancellor of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm (currently on leave)

Production still from Petra Bauer och SCOT-PEPs film Workers! (2018), from the research project Looking for Jeanne at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. Pfoto: Caroline Bridges.