Art as Research

Frances Phillips

Two years ago, in a meeting with leaders of the arts program at the San Francisco Unified School District, a group of advisors was brainstorming a list of qualities that distinguish good teaching and learning in the arts. Professor Julia Marshall from the Art Department at San Francisco State, added to the list, “Contemporary art is research. It’s research just like science is research. It’s an investigation.”

Since then I’ve been turning this “art as research” idea over in my head, musing on the particular qualities of research done by artists. When I raised the topic with coeditor Tommer Peterson, he proposed inviting a cluster of artists to write about their research processes or about the general concept of “artmaking as research” for the Reader. We are thankful to playwrights Erik Ehn and Dan Hoyle, writers and visual artists Jaime Cortez and Barbara Earl Thomas, and scholar Steven J. Tepper for their responses.

One thing I love about the five essays is that they are very different from one another in style, yet they bounce off and anticipate one another. Steven J. Tepper’s overview would have been of great help to that roomful of advisors at the school district those years ago. While his prose is quite different from Erik Ehn’s, I swear that I hear them in conversation:

Tepper: Scholars have found that epistemic curiosity is associated with the positive feelings associated with the anticipation of learning something new.”

Ehn (quoting ethicist John Paul Lederach): “Art moves forward with paradoxical curiosity (conundrum, the knot, is invitation).”

Tepper’s piece goes on to introduce the theme “doing is learning,” which nicely ties in with Jaime Cortez’s, Dan Hoyle’s and Barbara Earl Thomas’s pieces. Dan Hoyle writes of a process of uncovering his subject through field research; “I get my best material not in formal one-off interviews but by getting to know my research subjects over time.” “Doing is learning” is illustrated in the poignancy of Jaime Cortez’s research for his graphic novel about his father’s history of labor. In his investigation, Cortez retraced the course his father walked as a young boy between Mexicali, Baja California, and Calexico, California. Barbara Earl Thomas writes, “My research demands that I excavate my internal landscape.” She goes on to immerse herself in the belief that if she eats meat, she must live through the killing of the animal: “I’m required by my personal rigor to stretch my definition of what is acceptable when taking a life.’’

Hoyle brings the subject to its crux for our readers: How can funders best contribute to authentic research by artists? The key lies in investing in the artists and their discovery processes, not in predetermined products. It depends upon philanthropy that is built on trust, flexibility, and permission. Both artist and funder have to be eager for the experience — the doing, the immersion — to change the art being made, so that it can move forward with genuine paradoxical curiosity.

  — Frances Phillips

The essays in response: