The degree to which art is integral to our way of life is scarcely worth noting. Most of us accept without question that access to art, both historic and contemporary, is part of any community and the diversity of contemporary art practice touches almost every aspect of our lives-public, commercial, creative and social. Experimental and media Arts reflect, enhance and influence culture and enrich our daily experience, while individual art choices provide a source of personal fulfillment and satisfaction. At a broader level it is the products of visual culture—the art, design and architecture—which direct our travels; it is the museums, galleries, buildings and spaces of past as well as present visual culture, which shape much of our holiday itinerary and our purpose in traveling. At a panoramic level it is not too extravagant to claim that it is the visual which shapes our experience of the world; every building we enter, every object we use and every image we enjoy is the product of a creative visual impulse, every city is the outcome of conscious aesthetic decisions, some good some bad, some motivated by function not excellence, but all in part visual.
The visual environment is so fundamental that we do not think about it. We accept the outcomes of art, design, architecture and the proliferation of visual forms, but we fail to acknowledge their status. We appreciate and enjoy the individual example, but as a category of learning with its own academic integrity, we do not accord it an equivalent recognition to the sciences, humanities or technologies.
As this paper explains, it is time we took art seriously, accepted it as a domain of knowledge and integrated it and its associated visual forms into the broader context of our knowledge culture.
Art and the Knowledge Environment
Research has become an increasingly important concept in the visual arts. Encouraged by government policy, universities place increased emphasis on research output. Artists and art educators describe art making in terms of research and academic art staff apply for grants as a source of research income. Disciplines known for their creativity are now equally acknowledged for their research. ‘Practice-led’ or ‘practice based’ research is becoming an aspect of research discussion, in part to establish the prestige of academic institutions, but also to link with the push for innovation and new outcomes from research knowledge, as government policies attempt to justify expenditure on research.
The UK tertiary sector has undergone a series of Research Assessment Exercises which evaluated the research outputs nationally. These mechanisms for quality assurance required the demonstration of research outcomes and accountability for research. An academic hierarchy of institutions has resulted from these Exercises along with a system of institutional funding based on research excellence. New Zealand has performed a similar exercise, Australia is about to do the same and other nations may well follow. Integral to this research data gathering is the inclusion of research in visual culture, not research about the visual, undertaken through the humanities, but research in the visual-Art as Research. This discussion contends that research in art and the visual contributes to knowledge in the same way as all disciplines do – research results in new knowledge and the final test of new knowledge is what it contributes to the human condition.
Research and Culture
Consider the relationship between the development of knowledge and its contribution to culture in the following disciplines:
New knowledge in science contributes to new technological development
Benjamin Franklin is well known for his experiments with electricity. In 1746, while watching a summer storm, it occurred to him that lightening looked like an electrical phenomenon, resembling the spark generated from an electrified body in his experiments. His research showed that a pointed object, like a finger or an electrified body attracted electrical discharges. Applying this discovery in nature, he found that lightning was attracted to such objects, confirming his suspicion it was electrical. He then invented the lightning rod – a simple, but effective device to dispel the destructive energy of these electrical impulses. He wrote: “may not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships and cont, from the stroke of lighting, by directing us to fix on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle…”. The lightning conductor is now integral to technologies associated with building, navigation and the environment (Koestler, 1970).
New knowledge in medicine results in improved health care
In 1879, Louis Pasteur was working on a cure for chicken cholera, a devastating poultry disease that was the nineteenth century version of bird flu. He was injecting healthy chickens with laboratory cultures of the disease and then attempting to treat the infected birds. During the summer his work was delayed for several months, and when he returned to his experiments, he found that chickens injected with the culture which had stood in his laboratory unused through the hot summer months, did not develop all the symptoms of the cholera, but contracted what appeared to be a very mild dose of the disease. Further testing confirmed that the weak culture had vaccinated the chickens against the cholera. Extrapolating from this example, Pasteur initiated a system of preventative medicine which has been integral to healthcare ever since (Koestler, 1970).
New knowledge in microbiology results in improved medical treatment
In 1922 Alexander Fleming was working at St Mary’s hospital in London when by chance he discovered that an active ingredient in nasal mucus, what he identified as lysozyme, had the ability to destroy bacteria. Although it was not a powerful germ killer, it pointed the way for his future research until seven years later he discovered penicillin. This laid the foundations of microbiology and the revolutionary impact antibiotics have had on improved health care ever since (Koestler, 1970).
New knowledge in engineering contributes to better structures and machines
In December 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright mounted an engine onto a glider they had built and flew for 59 seconds, covering a distance of about 260 metres they effectively launched the aeronautical industry. What was revolutionary about the Wright brothers’ work was neither the glider nor the engine, although each was a significant development on existing technology; it was the shaping and structure of the wing which allowed a pilot to manipulate the aerodynamic impact on the structure while in flight; it was an issue of structural design. The whole aircraft industry reflects the innovations which flowed from their research. (Mc Farland, 1953).
Each of the above developments contributed to the betterment of the human condition; they also contribute within their disciplinary domain to culture. As a result culture improves in intellectual and material terms and we have an enhanced quality of life. Similarly, art produces new knowledge by a parallel contribution to culture, in which new art directly adds to the quality of cultural experience.
Art and Culture
Consider the following examples of developments in art that have contributed to cultural quality and experience:
New knowledge in environmental art contributes to a richer experience of nature
In the early 1840s a number of painters interested in recording the landscape were working in the small village of Barbizon, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, near Paris. Although not a formal group they are often collectively called the Barbizon painters, due to the similar themes their work conveys in the celebrating of nature and recording the beauty of the landscape. Different artists produced work that fluctuated between realism and romanticism, but each was inspired by working directly from nature. One of the foremost artists associated with Barbizon was Theadore Rousseau, whose painting fell at the more realistic end of the scale. He recognized that the expansion of industry in Paris, the growth of the city beyond its walls and the popular indifference to nature, was devastating the forest. He sucessfully petitioned the Emperor of France, Napoleon III to establish a protected park in the forest and in 1863, 1,097 hectares of the Fontainebleau forest was set aside as a réserve artistique, which could not be exploited commercially. This was the first protected nature reserve and began a world wide movement to preserve the environment, still gaining momentum today. Rousseau and the Barbizon painters had considerable impact in the USA, reflecting the impact of the Hudson River Painters. This celebration of the land contributed, in 1864, to Abraham Lincoln signing a declaration of protection for the Yosemite Valley. In 1872 the American Congress established Yosemite National Park – the world’s first protected wild life reserve and forest. The Barbizon and Hudson River artists succeeded in awakening cultural sensibilities to the pleasures of nature (Chagnon-Burke, 2004).
New knowledge in populist art contributes to a richer experience of popular culture
In Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century a number of artists emerged who celebrated the Parisian nightlife and popular society. Linked mostly with the Impressionists and Post Impressionists, they used cafes, bars, dance halls and theatres as their subjects, shaping some of the most memorable images of early Modernism. Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881) and the Moulin Rouge paintings of Lautrec introduce popular entertainment as the subject of art; the scenes of ballet and opera by Degas show us the world of the Parisian elite as they enjoy the pleasures of the new Garnier Opera House; the paintings by Berthe Morisot provide insights into the more restricted female world, the domestic environment, family and entertainments of the upper middle class. These artists and many others of the period, bring us the everyday world as the content of art, the entertainments, celebrations, private moments and debaucheries, the contemptuous underbelly of polite society which had previously been eschewed by art. This opened the door to popular culture and the richness and diversity of art which deals with the world around us, culminating in the Pop Art of the 1960s and its celebration of modern life. It spawned the vast use of ‘the popular’ as content in advertising, media, films and all of the other offshoot entertainments which enrich our lives; these 19th century artistic insights turned cultural awareness away from high art to the enjoyment of popular culture which is integral to modern living.
New knowledge in art and design contributes to beautifying our surroundings
In 1861 the firm of Marshall, Morris, Faulkner and Co. was formed in London to craft furniture based on truth to materials, celebrating their natural beauty; and simplicity of design, rather than overlays of decoration. Reacting to the excesses of Victorian abundance and poor quality industrial production, William Morris and his friends began what turned into the Arts and Crafts Movement. Their inspiration came from nature and a romanticized notion of Mediaeval times when happy craftsman celebrated their skills in the creation of beauty. The ideal led to a revolution in both art and design with major artists and designers working together to beautify and refine furnishings, revive historic ideals and improve the quality of life. While the social ambitions of the Movement might have fallen short, their aesthetic ideals influenced generations of artists and designers and are integral to craft design today.
New knowledge in perception contributes to richer personal experience
In 1910 in the village of Murnau in the Bavarian Alps, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky painted the first intentionally abstract painting, a small watercolour that set him on the pursuit of abstract imagery as the subject matter of art. His book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, outlines his theories, explaining how abstract colours and forms carried meaning that could enrich our experience. Through the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and the work of other abstract artists, the expressive and communicative power of colour, line, texture and form became evident to a broader audience. Aspects of image construction, previously regarded as the building blocks of meaning, were recognized as having expressive meaning of their own. It was as if a new sensibility had been unleashed as artists, architects and designers of all types adopted the power of colour and simple, direct form to enliven their creations. Abstraction has since become an integral aspect of all visual communication, in which the components of making any image – shape, colour, tone and texture – are as least as important for the message as the image itself. The whole visual spectrum has developed using the perceptual innovations of the early abstractionists (Kandinsky, 1977).
New knowledge in the scope of art contributes to a broader appreciation of culture
The creative excitement of Russia in the early twentieth century is best evidenced through two major design movements, the Suprematists, founded by the painter and designer, Kasimir Malevich and the Constructivists, who are linked most closely with the designer for social needs, Vladimir Tatlin. A major figure who spanned both movements was Isador El Lissitsky, an engineer, architect and designer who, fascinated by the discoveries of science, sought to represent these movements’ inspirational ideas in geometric shapes and composite lines. Lissitsky’s drawings and designs, inspired by speculations on a fourth dimension, provided a conceptual leap into a new way of considering space and introduced visual forms that suggested the interplay of science and life, paralleling the innovations of Kandinsky and Mondrian in their impact on visual culture expressed through typography, architecture and industrial design (Hoffert, 1995).
New knowledge in the application of art contributes to a richer quality of human experience
In 1916 the Expressionist, then Cubist and eventually abstract painter, Piet Mondrian, joined the Dutch group De Stijl, which combined artists and designers in a search for a style that represented the needs of the twentieth century. Influenced by the Theosophical teachings of Madam Blavatsky and using the terminology of the philosopher, H J M Schoenmaekers, Mondrian refined his visual language to the artists’ primaries, red, yellow and blue and the tones, black grey and white. This was the language of his art for the remainder of his life, used in different formal relationships and always built around a formal geometric basis. Mondrian and his colleagues defined a style of design which has permeated the last 80 years, applied through architecture and interiors, furniture and fabrics. Who has not walked on Mondrian linoleum or worn a Mondrian jumper? So strong was the impact of De Stijl that its characteristic design is better known today than it was when it was begun in the 1920s (Hoffert, 1995).
The list of additions to art knowledge is almost endless, the innovations of Russolo’s noise music in the development of pop; the impact of Futurist theatre on modern performance, both as theatre and as art; the insights of Surrealist and Pop Artists which have fed advertising, media and now multimedia imagery. All demonstrate the vast contribution that research in art has made to culture; new knowledge has been developed in art and this has led to development, enrichment, diversification and expansion in culture at large.
These examples demonstrate that while art contributes to culture, within the domain of its discipline, it also creates new knowledge which enables/inspires other disciplines to contribute to culture within their domains. Both functions are research developments, evolving from art practice. In recognizing this, the challenge becomes to establish the academic infrastructure and a research methodology through which art can be undertaken as research in university degrees; to allow practice based research the same recognition and status accorded other research. To achieve this is a major task of art education.
A Proposal for Research Degrees in Art
As mentioned earlier, increasingly art schools are addressing the research potential of visual culture; in the UK research in art was integral to the Research Assessment exercises and the same will be the case in Australia.
Research degrees in art practice have been established at Master’s level since the 1980s and studio-based PhD degrees emerged during the 1990s in the UK and Australia, attracting major artists and artist-academics as well as younger artists using the university context, with its seminars, critiques and interrogative engagement, as a means of further their practice.
The Faculty of Art & Design at Monash University has been developing formats for research degrees in art and design for the last fifteen years. Monash is one of Australia’s major research universities and all its academic disciplines are required to contribute to the university’s research objectives. The Faculty addressed this demand by developing an approach to visual research which has developed into the largest, practice based research degree program in the country and one of the largest in the world. The problem was to recognize the quality and achievement of professional visual production and to reformulate art production as research without compromising its quality as art.
The Monash research degree program is structured around an exhibition, which is the outcome of the research process. This is supported by a dissertation which bridges the expectations of professional art practice and university expectations of PhD degrees, to contextualize the visual research. Coursework components facilitate the integration of practice and theory, but the dominant emphasis is on the development of a body of studio research, for examination. With over 250 candidates at Masters and PhD level, the program’s success has been as a result of the support system developed to translate the expectations of professional art practice into research. The methodology coursework subjects explore issues of terminology and ways for visual research to be contextualized, to demonstrate its innovation. They also develop a theoretical context by which professional production can be taken further into the realms of research and cultural production. Seminars and critiques underpin the creative interaction within the program. The outcome has been a community of artist-scholars who create, discuss and critique each other’s art as part of the process of enhancing their visual output. They are art professionals who use their visual exploration to inspire visual research, using the academic experience to build and enhance their understanding of and contribution to visual culture. Art becomes an equal partner in the academic disciplines of the academy as a bastion of research and innovation within society.
‘Taking Art Seriously’ means we understand not just its creative potential, but how we can use its research knowledge to contribute, parallel to other disciplines, in the development of culture.