Gerald Bast


A Necessary Treatise on the Obvious.

Research = Science?

Can artists be researchers? For more than a decade this question has preoccupied experts with a growing intensity. Artistic research or the commonly used term “arts-based research” is one of the biggest themes in art universities and academies. Interestingly enough, it is still primarily the art historians who travel from symposium to symposium and publish about artistic research under this or many other more or less synonymous terminological constructions.


"When I take part in various international research conferences, I discover that what is going on under the heading of ‘artistic research’ is primarily the application of ‘scientific’ perspectives to artistic works. This research takes place from without rather than from within,”[1] states Efva Lilja, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, Sweden, about her experiences in the international conference circuit. The fact that only a relatively small number of artists publicly address this topic (whether or not they just do research is another thing) is more than telling about who has the say in the debate on artistic progress. And if nothing else, it is evidence of the absence of an artistic community, which as a counterpart to the scientific community could also exert a developmental power in their own sector with the autonomous networking and evaluation of its production. For it is the scientific community with their “power instruments” of publication, mutual citation, and reciprocal assessment of scientific production—especially with regard to its inner quality and externally effective power of scientific renewal—who monitors, directs, and stimulates the progress of the sciences (at least in the realm of basic research).


There was a time when the sciences were seen as being part of the cosmos of the arts and the trials to make scientific progress as an artistic act. Today we are dealing with a reverse phenomenon: the sciences have monopolized the term “research” for their own field. Research in relation to the arts is generally still seen as scientific (!) research about art or, in the best case, as scientific research with artistic illustration. This development even led in part to a sort of desperate reflex attempt to stylize art as a type of science, probably in order to infuse art with the aura of meaning that it apparently lost in the meanwhile. And naturally this change in art’s societal weight had, if nothing else, a political and economic background: in the new political and economic power constellations, the representatives of the new societal forces obviously found other, more effective methods and media than the arts to secure and extend their power. The so-called autonomization of art, which was anything but a self-determined act of liberating the artist, had its price. 

Science Versus Art

In the at times acrimonious debate about whether “artistic research” is even a permissible compound term, it is often pointed out that scientific research is marked by objectivity, rationality, and systematics, whereas art is characterized by subjectivity, emotion, and intuition: in short, as if the terms “art” and “research” would be mutually incompatible. The fact that a logical loophole opens up in this reasoning is deliberately overlooked. Here it can be seen once again that semantic connotations with long traditions are highly resistant to reflection. Given the role of intuition in groundbreaking research as documented in the history of science and in light of the vagueness of traditional connotations of objectivity and reality that emerged with quantum physics at the latest, a border between science and art becomes blurred on this level. 

Leonardo da Vinci allegedly once said: “I don’t paint with the brush, I paint with the mind.” He is seen as the poster child of the universalistic Renaissance Man, having set new standards both as a visual artist and as an inventor of technical devices. And yet: Leonardo spoke about painting and not about technology when he emphasized the indispensability of intellectual endeavor in—precisely artistic—production processes.

For Nelson Goodman, the difference between art and science doesn’t lie in the difference “between feeling and reality” rather in the “difference in the dominance of certain specific characteristics and symbols”.[2]

Robert Pfaller vividly describes and analyzes the multilayered misunderstandings in the relationship between science and art: “Art in itself often already performs artistic research—and not firstly in that what it says or writes about it. […] Art is not just a tolerant subject of the sciences, waiting like a bare-chested patient to be examined, considered, tapped at, and monitored. It also doesn’t need to become its own doctor and begin to prepare diagnoses for itself. Instead, art should be seen as an ally of the sciences. It participates on the same side on the same work in the same fight.”[3]

Oswald Oberhuber approaches this topic from another—artistic—side: In his view, art, in contrast to the sciences or technology, does not have to do with development, which always represents improvement at the same time. “Art is different, it doesn’t improve anything, a picture is not three times better than a previous picture, and this is the main difference.”[4] For Oberhuber, “permanent change”[5] is one of the most significant features of art. In the sciences, change and renewal are always accompanied by either rebuttal and displacement of existing knowledge or at least the extension and expansion of knowledge, in other words the filling in of knowledge gaps. The difference between science and art also lies in the fact that aesthetic renewal does not make predecessors obsolete. The discoveries of Copernicus refuted those of Ptolemy, thus making them obsolete. Picasso neither refuted van Gogh nor diminished his importance. Hence, change in art is equally an extension, whereas renewal in science represents both an expansion and a replacement of the state of the art.

Whether a scientific or artistic process of gaining knowledge is research or not, the really relevant question is if the process of attaining new scientific or artistic knowledge is documented and thereby comprehensible. What scientific and artistic research also have in common is that both depart from the state of the art, consciously placing it at the beginning—not only assuming it as a departure point, but openly signposting and quoting it as such. In science this is generally an understood tradition and good scientific practice, whereas in the artistic research process this approach would entail the more or less arduous task of first breaking away from the traditional concept of artistic genius, where the new emerges by virtue of own genius. In light of science and art’s different traditions, Dombois rightly refers to this central and indispensible premise for the claim to research: “In research nothing comes from nothing. The researcher is not a natural phenomenon that draws from itself so that nature can be articulated through him or her. Genius rhetoric makes no sense among researchers. One gains the right to research through one’s own skills and the knowledge of predecessors. Every image, every sentence, every sound stands in relation to the former. Research is embedded in a historical and societal context.”[6]

PEEK – A Paradigm Break

With the 2009 Austrian Program for Arts-based Research (PEEK)—an initiative of art universities set up after long, tenacious discussions—a cultural-political paradigm shift occurred in the perception and treatment of artistic research. Organizationally anchored within the Austrian Science Fund – FWF (!), the program document of this instrument for the stimulation of aesthetic innovation takes up the main conflict and problem zones in the discourse about artistic research and arrives at definitional statements with remarkable clarity and conciseness. “All artistic productions are based on the work and the creativity of artists who apply artistic methods and skills to particular forms of artistic expression. The focus of the FWF’s Program for Arts-based Research (PEEK) is different: the production of artistic knowledge that is accompanied by reflection and so leads to an increase and advancement in society’s knowledge. […] However, the creative process and its adoption must be reflected intersubjectively, documented and presented in a manner that makes it available for future discourse and research in a lasting way for it to fall within the scope of the Program.”[7]

In order to create a distinction from non-research-based artistic production, it is often stated that the process is the essence of artistic research. However, to imply that artistic research ends before a result of this research process is as insufficient as reducing scientific research to the research process. Naturally, it is also not understood that every research process in the realm of artistic research must necessarily lead to a positive research result, namely to an actual new aesthetic knowledge, an increase in artistic knowledge, or even to an artistic artifact.  

Why Artistic Research?

Why is it so important actually whether there is artistic research or not, whether it can or may exist? Why does this question surface exactly at this moment? The decisive factor is a situation which art universities, colleges, and academies (whatever they are called or might have been called in the past) must painfully come to terms with: contrary to scientific universities, they as institutions play so little as no genuine role in the development of aesthetics. Although the development of the arts—the counterpart to the development of the sciences—has been anchored in the Austrian university law and in the service law for teachers and professors for a longer time, in reality it is, when at all, only of marginal importance at art universities.

The development of the arts is excessively outsourced to extramural activities or moreover to the artist’s private realm, whereby the term “outsourced” can indeed be called into question when one looks at the history of art universities, colleges, and academies in their institutional relation to aesthetic innovation. In any case, it is the art market that for some time now controls the direction of aesthetic innovation, and only it can bestow value and reputation. The likes of a scientific community, which judges quality at least in scientific basic research and thereby guides scientific progress, does not exist in the realm of the arts. The situation in the arts when transposed to the sciences would suggest that only the chemical industry can decide which new research approaches in chemistry are good and important, or that the number of works in the humane, social, and economic sciences sold in the bookstores defines the scientific merit of these works.

That art universities have been actively working for several years to gain at least a part of the power to define artistic progress is not only a question of institutional vanity and power hunger, rather it is a question of institutional self-conception within the concert of academic institutions and a question of the significance of art and art universities in society. Art universities that act as purely educational establishments, merely delivering human resources to a sector where (as opposed to art colleges) actual important art is produced and where artistic progress and knowledge are generated, suffer in particular in our competition-oriented perception from a recognition and value deficit in society. This is not only a psychological problem; in times of economic tension it increasingly also becomes a latent existential danger for art universities. But there is a far greater danger behind it for art itself and for the social system in which it takes place: if the power to define progress is in the hands of the art market and quota-dependent museums and art houses, then this will not go without consequences for the content. Imagine the situation the sciences would be in today when there would be no generally independent, state-financed, and scientific community-led basic research, rather solely industry-financed application-oriented research. The implementation of artistic research—or art-based research—in the range of tasks of art universities has to do with nothing less than the future of art and its prospective position in society.

Art as an Antithesis to Specialization and Fragmentation?

The example of scientific research and research-led scientific teaching illustrates that there can also be problematic consequences when the development of knowledge advancement is given over to systems generally built upon personal competition (like universities or the scientific community) all too unconditionally. The history of the sciences has increasingly become a history of specialization, division, and delimitation. Subdisciplinary niche education was and is the contemporary model of success for scientific recognition and career. Each for him- or herself. Transdisciplinary scientific or even scientific-artistic works and collaborations are exceptional in universities—both in research and in teaching. Today, studies consist for the most part of the consecutive completion of a myriad of small examination modules on specialized course content from the scientific niche garden. More and more, the multiple-choice test becomes the standard method of communication. There is not enough time or other resources to develop links between various fields of knowledge. In the arts the aforementioned tendencies are not (yet) so excessively propagated. On the contrary: a wide range of the arts and the study of them were and still are the virtual antithesis of fragmentation and specialization. In the last few years, we in fact notice a renewed interest in collaborations and convergences between science and art, and it appears to be more mutual than ever. Artists’ enhanced focus on the sciences in the 1920s and 30s is well known; this significantly affected the emergence of the modern in architecture, design, and visual art. In the 1960s a second wave had causal influence on the development of electronic music, video art, and interactive art. Science’s growing interest of late in artistic production processes and methods has numerous reasons. On the one hand, new findings in physics (experimental quantum physics), biosciences (genetics in particular), and brain research have put the dogma of strict deductive analytical methods of research partially into question and reveal definite parallels between scientific and artistic developmental processes. On the other hand, it is becoming clear in precisely these most innovative scientific branches that images are often a necessary requirement for the advancement of scientific research strategies. Visualization is becoming the basis for further work on new theoretical levels. Conversely, art has always seized new technologies in order to make use of them as “new media” for artistic work. The still today titled “new media” imaging techniques in the form of photography, video, and digital computer technologies are in the meanwhile decades-old technologies, which opened up new possibilities for art. The current and freshly developed techniques establish new dimensions for scientific research in “invisible” realms of micro- and nanoworlds. Biotechnology, imaging techniques for exploring micro- and nanostructures, as well as the connection of temporal and spatial dimensions represent still widely unused media potentials for art. And recent phenomena such as “urban art” reveal still widely unused potentials for synergetic interactions between art, social sciences, and urban studies. In this regard, it is more than logical that the Austrian Program for Arts-based Research (PEEK) mentions interdisciplinary networking between science and art as an essential element of artistic research: “The Program seeks to promote arts-based research that undertakes creative consideration of themes and issues in the light of the development and reception of new forms of art and of ways and methods of artistic expression, generally in close connection with scientific research or its application. The Program also seeks to promote reflection on the interpretation of works of art and thus includes capacity building arrangements as well as new strategies for the dissemination of artistic productions.”[8]

Research Measurement, Scientification, and Academization

It is interesting that in German-speaking countries the term “Forschung” is attributed to the sciences in a much more pronounced way than the term “research” is in English-speaking countries. This may have to do with the fact that the debate around artistic research began a bit earlier in English-speaking countries and in Northern Europe than it did in the rest of Europe—namely in the realm of the art universities and schools. The fact that the promotion of activity in the field of artistic research had a direct connection with the expansion of the formula-based finance system of the universities—as seen in the British university system—is an aspect which certainly contributed to the often semantic and content-related unclarities around the term artistic research. The pressure on universities to deliver purely quantitative evidence of increased research activities in order to receive the budget required for sustaining their operations contributed—probably more than in scientific research—to a partial relativization of the content certainty on the notion of research and the quality of the research output. The conscious use of the term “research” in the realm of art should not only be understood as an attempt to displace the traditional “genius artist” role models but perhaps also as a sign of how strong the societal pressure of an increasing scientification—the academic debate culture’s growing likeness to a natural science—is on art. With terminology like “laboratory”, “incubator”, “test set-up”, or “experiment”, there was obviously an attempt in art to better fulfill the laws of the “economy of attention”[9] that underlie the scientific and (even though Franck does not expressly refer to it) artistic worlds. Often seen internationally, a nearly exclusive attribution of artistic research to the sector of university doctoral studies in art (PhD in practice, Doctor artium) also seems to be more the success of influences from outside of the art world. On one hand, the art academies have been subject, for many reasons, to an increasing pressure of academization since years, which demands conformation to an internationally standardized hierarchy of academic educational institutions (bachelor – master – doctor) with the argument—one not always applicable to artistic studies—of formally comparable academic degrees. On the other hand, the lack of sufficient financial and organizational research structures for artists in and outside art universities and academies brings about a logical step toward doctoral studies in art if one wants to enter into the sector of artistic research: art universities lack sufficient personnel positions, studios, and other resources such as the workplaces for researchers in technical-natural science faculties, and there is a lack of research support instruments for artistic research projects like the Austrian Science Fund—PEEK is an encouraging start. And yet, the conclusion that an engagement with artistic research at art universities would make the establishment of artistic doctoral programs mandatory is not understandable. Naturally, artistic research at art universities must also be possible without formal academization or study law regulations. Also in the sciences research exists not because there are doctoral studies, rather the other way around: since scientific research is part of the tasks and activities of university teachers and receives financial and structural support, scientific research takes place at universities not only in the context of doctoral programs but also—and often more importantly—in the framework of a professional activity as a researcher. This needs to be possible—and precisely at the art universities—if one takes into consideration that the professional mobility of artists is far less dependent on formal university degrees than is the case, for example, in the fields of economic science or engineering.

Artistic Research Is Taking Place

In light of the discernible requirements and developmental tendencies in the art system, so much is certain: there is no question that artistic research must and will become a central task at art universities in the coming years. The following is already applicable: 

1.     Artistic research is taking place without specifically being called as such.

2.     Structures for the systematic support of projects in the realm of artistic research (such as the unique PEEK program and its consequently formulated content, which the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research—the body responsible for art universities—commissioned the FWF Science Fund to organize) are urgently necessary, when not indispensible, for the stimulation and further development of the arts.

3.    In artistic research projects, artists must have control over the content; scientists can be involved when the artistic research takes place in the inter- or transdisciplinary sector of Art&Science—this would be highly fruitful for both domains.

4.     The completion of artistic research is not bound to a doctoral program. Artistic research can be conducted both as a part of studies in the framework of PhD programs and as independent research activities. The organizational connection to an art university or potentially also to a non-university artistic research institute (what today, when at all, only exists in rudimentary forms in contrast to the sciences) appears to be necessary—with regard to the immanent communication and distribution components of a sensible research process—up to the point when an artistic community is established with comparable activities and efficacy as that of the scientific community.

The incredibly simple-sounding answer to the question, why do we need “art as research”? is provided by Florian Dombois: “Because science can successfully explain the world, but not in its entirety. An alternative is needed to bring what it has ignored back into the picture.”[10] That neither science nor art will be able to fully explain the world is as common to both as the irrational fervent refusal to accept this fact. Only the experience of failure in this endeavor was and is perhaps harder to accept for some scientists—who have succumbed to the illusion of the rationality of the truth—than for artists who, like Walter Benjamin, can self-assuredly see art as “magic, freed from lies to be the truth”.[11]


in: J. Ritterman, G. Bast, J. Mittelstrass (Ed.), Art and Research, Springer Wien NewYork, 2011

[1] Efva Lilja, “Words on Artistic Research”,

[2] Nelson Goodman, Sprachen der Kunst (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), 234.

[3] Robert Pfaller, “Erfrischungen ohne Ablage. Wie die Kunst manchmal der Wissenschaft auf die Sprünge hilft,” in Art and Now, eds. Gerald Bast and Brigitte Felderer (Vienna: SpringerWienNewYork, 2010), 46ff.

[4] Oswald Oberhuber, Wie Kunst entsteht: Eine Kunstgeschichte im Gespräch mit Ursula Riederer

 (Vienna: Metroverlag, 2009), 14.

[5] Ibid., 281ff.

[6] Florian Dombois, “Kunst als Forschung,” in Art and Now, eds. Gerald Bast and Brigitte Felderer (Vienna: SpringerWienNewYork, 2010), 85.

[7] Program for Arts-based Research (PEEK),” FWF Program Document 2009, p. 3.

[8] Program for Arts-based Research (PEEK),” p. 3.

[9] Georg Franck, Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit (Frankfurt am Main: DTV, 2007).

[10] Dombois, “Kunst als Forschung,” 86.

[11] Theodeor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984), 254.