As the artist enters the domain of the researcher, is the integrity of each role maintained, or is there perhaps an unavoidably unharmonious relationship between these dual roles for the practice-based researcher? As such an artist placed in such a position of both creating art on one hand, and explaining and justifying its value on the other, I have observed that there are inherent issues that sometimes arise from this pursuit, including pressures to see and value art in specific ways — ways that are not universally valuable or applicable to art.
The role of the arts in a research context has long been the subject of debate. Borgdorff in A Conflict of the Faculties explains that “There is something uneasy about the relationship between ‘artistic research’ and the academic world” (56) and many Practice-Based arts researcher have likely experienced a certain tension between their role as an artist and their role as a researcher. On one hand, the research aspect, which places pressures upon me to understand and explain the context and impetus of my music, has been incredibly valuable and enriching. However, the step beyond this where one looks at the music directly for its contribution to knowledge, is one that causes me varying degrees of discomfort.
To begin, what is a musical contribution to knowledge? According to Borgdorff “we can hence speak of research in the arts only when the practice of art delivers an intended, original contribution to what we know and understand” (42). The problem, here, however is that this suggests that the only art that can be considered valuable in a research context is art which is primarily about the creation of specific kinds of new knowledge. Does this, however, not limit the art allowed within a research context to that which is easily explainable and generalisable in the short term?
The contributions of an artist to the practice of art are much more complex than this, not to mention that explaining some art undermines or runs counter to the purpose of it, which is directed towards the experiential. This is the second issue I have with Borgdoff’s definition — it defines artistic research by the creation of new knowledge that can be known and understood, but there is much art for which the unique experience of it is the contribution to knowledge; it creates new experience, which in turn leads people towards their own new knowledge and understanding.
Such requirements of artistic research may in fact create a situation where on one hand, a composer’s works might be a highly influential and important contribution to the musical culture, and yet their contribution to knowledge within a research context would be very difficult to explain. Take, for example, the music of Wolfgang Rihm. Rihm is a highly prolific composer, with several hundred compositions to his name along with a variety of honours and awards. Rihm, however, has commented in a numbed of contexts sentiments such as “the process of composition is such an intimate thing. It’s very difficult to speak about it because it’s something which has to do with nerves and also the chemistry within your body” (Cited by McGregor) and such sentiments are not uncommon in the creative arts. If we accept for the purposes of this discussion that Rihm is a master of his art who has made significant artistic contributions, then we must address the ineffability of his artistic practice. If we accept Rihm’s claim that “I work very intuitively, proceeding on instinct” (Vienna Philharmonic) then we can understand the problem of placing a composer like Rihm within a research context that expects justification of the art in terms other than the art itself. On one hand, we know that Rihm is making a contribution to knowledge within his field through the creation of his music, while on the other, Rihm doesn’t set out to create a contribution to knowledge as easily explainable as, for example, a set of compositional techniques, he writes what his instinct demands of him. Thus far, his output is vast, varied and there is no easy way to encapsulate the full scope of it. There is, arguably, also no way to generalise Rihm’s contribution to knowledge, because his contribution is the result of the totality of his mind and lived experiences as a composer, which arise as instinct and are made manifest in the music itself.
Both artists and musicologists understand this implicitly. Borgdorff states this explicitly, saying “Artistic research – as embedded in artistic and academic contexts – is the articulation of the unreflective, non-conceptual content enclosed in aesthetic experiences, enacted in creative practices, and embodied in artistic products” and yet, while we accept that art is embedded with knowledge, we still fall back to the quasi-scientific methodology which demands that as research, art must provide “an intended, original contribution to what we know and understand” (Borgdorff 42) which must be explainable through a medium other than the art itself.
Of course, this is a non-issue for some artistic practices, such as those that are deliberately exploring a question important to the composer. However, we must also be aware that historically a lot of art – including works which are considered masterpieces – did not come from this kind of pursuit. The reason that such an emphasis has arisen with regards to what is acceptable in a (music) research context, is perhaps that throughout the Twentieth Century, a conceptualisation of composition as a rational, orderly and scientific process became increasingly common. Judy Lochhead explains that “the intertwining of the new music aesthetic with the analytical-theoretical imperative was shaped by a dominant cultural and intellectual determinant at mid-century — what has become known as the authority of science” (26) and as composers increasingly sought to create their own self-contained systems of composition with technical-analytical-theoretical imperatives, musical analysis became increasingly relevant to the consumption and understanding of that music. But such Modernist approaches to Art have subsided. Michael Levenson in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism suggests that “we are still learning how not to be Modernist”(2) even while others write of Postmodernism: ‘‘Let’s just say it: it’s over’’ (Hutcheon 166).
Composers by no means pursue the creation of music exclusively as an expression of a theoretical-technical construct, nor as one of conveying directly decipherable knowledge and understanding. Art is not a lecture, it is an invitation to reflection which results in knowledge through personal insight. As is the case with composers such as Rihm, we must appreciate that enormous contributions can be made that sometimes defy accurate explanation and encapsulation.
While it is possible to analyse the embedded knowledge in music through pursuits such as musical analysis, such an activity creates an inherent bias and misunderstanding of the works. For example, if a composer is acting on instinct, or is writing the music down as their best representation of the music that arises spontaneously in their mind, bringing analysis to bare on the music — regardless of what is uncovered — creates a misrepresentation of the nature of the music as a constructed object whose technical attributes are important beyond its experiential consequences. This is, in many cases, simply not true.
While musical analysis is a standard method for understanding music, it is rooted in an intensely Western view of the role of the artist. If we look to other cultures, however, we find that such a relationship between the artist, the art and the audience is not the only one that exists.
Andrew Juniper in Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence explains that in traditional Japanese art-forms, the “role of the artists is that of a medium rather than an individual… it is the supreme achievement of an artist to reach the levels where conscious effort and thought are abandoned to the dictums of the unforeseen forces that guide out lives” (72).
Consider for example, the following images.
An Ensō, see here for more information.
A clay bowl from Juniper’s Wabi Sabi, The Japanese Art of Impermanence, p. 105.
These two images give some examples of traditional Japanese art. The first is the Ensō, a circle conventionally drawn in a single brush stroke. The drawing of the Ensō is intended to capture a snapshot of the artist’s mind, spirit and context at the moment of its creation. The second is a small bowl (Juniper 105) showing an uneven lip, and an overall lack of smoothness and symmetry, and this bowl is intended to point the observer towards the imperfection and impermanence of all things. Both of these examples illustrate traditional Japanese aesthetics, and both have the purpose not of conveying knowledge but of creating an experience in which their aesthetics lead to reflection and insight by the beholder.
While Western aesthetics might be thought — somewhat simplistically — to grow from the idea of man’s domination over nature, valuing the craft, imagination and cleverness of an artist, the Eastern religio-philosophical teachings of Zen and Taoism — both of which have heavily influenced Japanese aesthetics — are preoccupied with naturalness, impermanence and an acceptance of man as part of nature.
Prusinski writes of Japanese aesthetics:
“… extended periods of isolation allowed a traditional, “Japanese-ness” to develop. The aesthetic ideals that emerged from this process “are expressed in situational categories … of which the most important are makoto (truth, natural sincerity), aware (enchantment), okashi (charm of playful humor), yugen (mysterious beauty), sabi (veil of antiquity), wabi (restrained beauty), shibui (aristocratic simplicity), en (charm), miyabi (tranquility), hosomi (subtlety, frailty), karumi (lightness), yubi (elegance), sobi (grandeur), and mei (purity, nobility).” (6)
The aesthetic qualities outlined by Prusinksi suggest a rich, subtle and largely different way of approaching art. While similarities between the simple descriptions Prusinski provide and Western music might seem present, it is import to remember Juniper’s comment that much of the aesthetic pursuits of traditional Japanese artists are reflections of an inwards pursuit, not of the construction of an artwork in and of itself. Further more, the idea of impermanence and imperfection play substantial roles in Japanese aesthetics through Wabi Sabi which “seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing” (8). In Wabi Sabi art, naturalness, decay, asymmetry or irregularity, texture and unevenness, the use of ‘diffuse and murky’ colours, simplicity (lack of embellishment), space, intimacy, and impermanence (Juniper 82-91) are all important to the resulting art. In such a way, studying and analysing the exact paint stroke of the Ensō or the precise contours of the bowl and so forth is utterly without value, for even if they could be formulated in such a way as to allow for generalisation and reproducibility, such would be contrary to the nature and purpose of the art. A reproduction, no matter how much skill was required, would be a failure.
For many hundreds of years, such art has been highly valued in Japan, not for its contribution to knowledge, but for the experiential effect of such art upon the viewer, and while discussing the art and its nature are important, discussing the art directly as a combination of technical attributes would be to thoroughly misunderstand it.
This is the uncomfortable situation that the artistic practice in a research context can occupy. The art can be incredibly rich, imbued with meaning and significance, and yet a research context demands that it be explainable in terms that are contrary to its very nature. How does one explain the unevenness of a brush stroke, the rust on a metal working, or the decay of a wood work, all of which are seen as valuable in Japanese aesthetics?
In this way, the research context is itself imposing limitations and biases that effect which kinds of art are acceptable, and those kinds are primarily the ones that are able to offer simple questions and simple answers. We are therefore imposing on both artists and arts research limitations that forces us to see and value art in a specific way, for the expedient of simplicity, which is unduly given preference.
It might be simplistically put that: Art often inspires rather than informs. As such, we should be very careful about the treatment of art in a research context, for there is inherent in such a situation the potential to force artists to work in specific, explainable ways, and to produce explainable pieces of art. We do so at the risk of changing what it means to be an artist, and of only discussing and allowing within a research context specific artists and specific kinds of art. I would contend that this should be avoided at all costs, because the ineffability of some art is exactly what triggers reflection and insight, and such art is valuable also.
Borgdorff. The conflict of the faculties. Leiden: Leiden U Press, 2012.
“Ensō.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
Hutcheon, Linda. A poetics of postmodernism: history, theory, fiction. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Juniper, Andrew. Wabi sabi: the Japanese art of impermanence. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2010.
Levenson, Michael. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to Modernism:. Ed. Michael Levenson. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 15 Sept. 2011. 1–8.
Lochhead, Judy, and Joseph Auner. Postmodern music/postmodern thought. CT: Garland Publishing Inc, US, 2001.
MGregor, Richard. “Hunting and Forms: An Interview with Wolfgang Rim.” Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2010. 349-60.
Rihm, Wolfgang, and Winrich Hopps. “Wolfgang Rihm in conversation with Winrich Hopp.” Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. Berlin Philharmonic , 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2017. <https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/interview/23694-3>.