Artistic research, art research, practice-based research, art-based research, practice-led research, research in and through the arts, creative (arts) research, ArtScience[1]… So many terms, all floating about and seemingly swirling around the same ideas, like tiny whirlpools in a river of human cognition.

                UNESCO defines research as “any creative systematic activity undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this knowledge to devise new applications.[2]

                But how does this help us to find our way through the miasma of meanings, inherent and implicit, and to emerge on the other side, confident in the knowledge that we somehow managed to grasp the silver lining and drag ourselves into the light and clarity?

                We, the artists, have always been researching, through and for our art. It is such a basic step in a process of creation, that we almost never pay it any heed. Like children, we open our minds to the world, we play with the ideas and concepts, juggle them, taste them… some we hold on to for a time, and others we quickly throw away like old used toys. Picasso is said once to have stated: “I never made a painting as a work of art, it’s all research.”[3] But is this artistic research? The main questions to arise, and a frequent point of dispute with our fellow scientists involved in empirical research, are the ones of knowledge generation, its reproducibility, whether or not (but also: how) it relates to other kinds of knowledge, and, last but not the least, the question of the methodologies involved.

                We were searching for a space in which the artists themselves would be free to experiment and define their own methods and approaches – something quite unlike conventional research about the arts, by non-artists. Such a space is found in the newly developed field of artistic research, which, by its nature and the virtue of knowledge it produces, often, but not always, closely relates to the humanities and social sciences. As it’s finely written about artistic research on IFCAR’s web site: “Pragmatism suggests that its exploratory experimenting with the habitual distinctions about human action, perception, notions, and assertions renders artistic work comparable to philosophical thinking. [4]” Artistic research must accept subjectivity as opposed to the classical scientific methods. Similar to the social sciences, it uses qualitative research and inter-subjectivity as it’s tools.

                A renowned philosopher and music theorist, Henk Borgdorff offers us a helpful definition: “Art practice qualifies as research if its purpose is to expand our knowledge and understanding by conducting an original investigation in and through art objects and creative processes. Art research begins by addressing questions that are pertinent in the research context and in the art world. Researchers employ experimental and hermeneutic methods that reveal and articulate the tacit knowledge that is situated and embodied in specific artworks and artistic processes. Research processes and outcomes are documented and disseminated in an appropriate manner to the research community and the wider public.[5]

                Metacognition, to borrow a term from the field of cognitive psychology, is an aspect of critical importance in artistic research. Heightened self-reflexivity about one’s own artistic practice, the ability to position this practice in relation to wider artistic and non-artistic discourses and the courage and willingness to expand one’s knowledge base into areas that fall outside of the realms of discourse within the arts – these are all qualities we deem necessary for a researcher to have.

                As a form of research that deploys multiple strategies and materials for communicating its insights, it brings its own distinct challenges, not least how we might assess and evaluate quality in projects situated outside scientific paradigms of research. “Through being more than the sum of a series of individual works, artistic research is a process that contributes to development and innovation. Based on art and design practices, contextualization, method and critical reflection, artistic research increases and develops understanding and knowledge within art and design.[6]

                One aspect of arts-based research reflects the pursuit of new forms of art, the ways in which artistic expression takes form and those methods which frequently become evident in close cooperation with scientific research or its applications. While another aspect of arts-based research stands for the “creation” of works of art and for making them perceivable through reflected interpretation of an artist.

                There seems to exist a general consensus amongst the majority of artistic research community that the results of artistic research are usually presented both as creations themselves and in a written form.  Research has been a driving force for innovation in the sciences, technology and in society more broadly. In recent years the domains of the arts and academia have recognized in each other the potential for strengthening and extending their respective methodologies and areas of influence. The concept and practice of artistic research has now gathered significant momentum internationally; several countries (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Sweden, UK, etc.) already recognize the award of research degrees and public research funding for artistic research.

                Outside academic institutions, artistic research has developed an important role in fostering greater understanding of artistic practice, creativity, and imaginative thinking beyond the constraints of language – so-called tacit knowledge.  It also challenges and extends research orthodoxies through its (as yet largely unexplored) capacities as a ‘fusion method’, facilitating interdisciplinary and even trans-disciplinary research configurations.

                After performing an exploratory survey on the state of artistic research in Europe we were led to believe that this fledgling discipline, although ever growing in its reach and acceptance, deserves and even requires somewhat more clarification. Among the many definitions that we’ve encountered, the most prominent one refers to artistic research as having “(…) the artist’s own experience and insight that are the point of departure for artistic research, unlike research on the arts, which is based on looking in from the outside.”[7] As such, artistic research relies heavily on subjectivity, qualitative research and intersubjectivity, making it similar to social sciences in general, and, dare we say, to grounded theory in particular.[8] Scientific objectivity is understood in the Bohrian sense to be  a form of “coherent communicativity”[9], rather than arbitrary repeatability, non-subjectivity or an objectivity lacking a viewpoint[10]. While Norway was the first country in the region to have Artistic Research accredited on a state level through the “Act relating to universities and university colleges” of 1995, which equates Artistic Research with Scientific Research[11], the trend continues to spread throughout Europe, evident as well in extensive networking initiatives[12].


                The American philosopher Mark Johnson (2007) argues that all knowledge is embodied, and that “the arts are exemplary cases of embodied, immanent meaning” (Johnson, 2011, p. 234).                         

“The Routledge Companion to research in the arts” emphasizes the practical and non-conceptual nature of artistic knowledge and Johnson writes in his article in this anthology: “Art presents (enacts) the meaning of a situation, rather than abstractly conceptualizing it” (Johnson, 2011, p. 247).


                One of the most important early references for the phenomenon is from 1994, when Christopher Frayling, then rector of the Royal College of Art, introduced a distinction between ‘research into art, research through art or research for art‘ (Frayling, 1993/1994)[13]. Here research into art is understood as art history/theoretical research,  research through art  as something the artist him or herself is in a position to engage in, and research for art as technical development work in materials and tools. In research through art, artists communicate their own distinctive experiences and their reflections on said experiences.


                A somewhat controversial topic and a source of friction for sure, the subject of economics in artistic research needs to be mentioned anyhow. We are nowadays witnessing converging tendencies: art (already after Duchamp) is becoming increasingly more conceptual[14], thus resembling academic endeavors, and, as the traditional money sources for artists are drying up, the art research money is coming into play. This particular state of affairs, coupled with the very real need of artists to find additional ways of funding, creates a situation in which the definitions and the meaning of artistic research are being stretched to their limits. There is a danger that such tendencies to push something that is clearly art under the umbrella of artistic research, only in order to access the funds meant for science/research, can be rather harmful for the entire field of artistic research and its recognition both from the scientific community and the legislators. Far be it from us to claim that these sorts of forced interpretations are a commonplace, but we still are aware of them and would like to urge caution. Hopefully, in time, more stable interpretations of what artistic research is and isn’t will crystallize themselves and this entire discussion will be rendered moot.



[1]                      For typologies of different types of research, see Frayling 1993, Borgdorff 2006, Elkins 2003/2009.

[2]                      OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms, 2008

[3]                      McNiff and Whitehead, 2008, p.29


[5]                      “The Debate on Research in the Arts”, Borgdorff, 2007



[8]                      Eisner, E. W. (1981). “On the Differences between Scientific and Artistic Approaches to Qualitative Research”. Educational Researcher 10 (4): 5–9. doi:10.2307/1175121

[9]                      “The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr”, Ox Bow, Woodbridge 1987, vol. 3, p.7; cited in Plotnitsky (2002, 23)

[10]                   Mika Hannula, Juha Suoranta, Tere Vadén: Artistic Research. Theories, Methods and Practices, Gothenburg 2005.


[12]                   ELIA and the SHARE Networks, EARN, EUFRAD, SAR etc.

[13]                   Frayling, C. (1993/1994): “Research in Art and Design”. Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1), 1-5.

[14]           Georg Hajdu refers to this as “post-artistic phase” and points out that after 1960s and the work done by Lachenmann it’s getting increasingly hard to lay claim on bringing/creating new playing techniques. Younger generations of composers, such as Johannes Kreidler, are turning their backs to these kinds of approaches and are basing their art ever more in conceptualism.