In 2020, doctoral student Bogdan Szyber’s thesis was rejected by Stockholm University of the Arts. He said that the field of artistic research is “fake” and that "the empress has no clothes." (All translations by Per Zetterfalk, unless otherwise noted.) This has led to a debate about artistic research in Sweden. Research where art and academia meet. The field is difficult to fix and many are challenged. Well-known Swedish artists and critics such as Lars Vilks, Marianne Lindberg De Geer and Lars O. Ericsson have spoken. One of those, art historian Carl Henrik Svenstedt, writes that artistic research is a skvader (Swedish for a fantasy animal whose front is a hare and back is a capercaillie, implying a strange or less successful combination). Instead, he wants art and research to be two separate things: “It is difficult to understand why the two cannot be kept apart. It does not have to be a contradiction, but a division of labour.” I oppose both Carl Henrik Svenstedt's and Bogdan Szyber's critique of artistic research.
The discussion then and now
In 1992, the term ‘artistic practice’, as something different from ‘scholarship’, is presented in the Swedish Higher Education Act. In 2000, artistic research is first mentioned as a research field in a Swedish research bill and in 2013, the term artistic research is written into Swedish law.
In the early 2000s, when I started my doctorate in artistic research, there was much discussion about what this new thing called artistic research would be – and not be. The area was undergoing rapid transformation. The exchange of views could often be characterized by drama, and a lack of sharpness and reflection. There was mythification and sweeping argumentation. Pioneering spirit, enthusiasm and a sense of awe about all the possibilities, were mixed with signs of an incipient rigidity, when routines began to take shape and methods were named. Boundaries were drawn and gatekeepers stationed themselves. The 2020 debate on artistic research in Sweden shows that the research and discussion still follow this suit. This also says something.
Artistic research is heterogenous
On the surface, the debate is still about truth-seeking and formalities. Representatives of both art and academic research are concerned about the goals and dimensions of the new activities. Roughly speaking, academic researchers fear diluted reflection, while artists fear a limiting one – rules, procedures, conformity. Representatives of art also fear that its forms of expression will lessen its impact. Some want to equate art with research and develop their own conditions, such as when Stockholm University of the Arts presented Bogdan Szyber's doctoral thesis. Stockholm University of the Arts, where text is not a necessary part of the research result, is one of the universities in Sweden which have gone the furthest in the discourse around ‘art as research’. Others believe that academic research means following in the tradition of transparency, analysis and argumentation. That good doctoral theses describe, sketch the contours of the map and draw up guidelines for the development of the research field. That subjects that want to be called academic should adapt to this.
This reasoning is based on a false contradiction between the traditions – that art and science, by their nature, would be uniform and incompatible. In fact, the traditions are heterogeneous and fragmented. There are many different branches, genres and disciplines. The individual actors have very different positions. Art and science are dynamic and also develop in many different ways. It is this movement that artistic research will shape.
Despite the nature of artistic research, the dualistic perspective is the usual approach to it. Regardless of which camp you belong to and despite the fact that there are all sorts of variations in between. Svenstedt seems to belong to the ‘old school’, where art is art and science is science – the two do not meet. There, we also find Szyber and the proponents of his view on artistic research, and here are some examples of this perspective:
Artist, art historian Lars Vilks writes: “the artist must be silent. If the artist begins to speak or write about his art, he becomes one of the interpreters”;
Artist Marianne Lindberg De Geer writes: “The mystery, that which chafes and is left in peace, that good art has, you know that which cannot be put into words, easily disappears through academism, in favor of the explanatory”;
Art critic Lars O. Ericsson writes: “Art as research remains a utopia as long as art is not allowed to establish its own research rules and remain free.”
They all seem to be on one side of the fence or the other, agreeing only upon where the fence stands. What Svenstedt calls “division of labour”. In both art and science there are more conservative and more experimental ones. Who is who depends on from which position you look at the matter. Those cited above appear to fear mixed forms – b-research and b-art. Their opinions are based on the notion that intermediate, interdisciplinary forms of classical categories would be inferior variants. This is the reason why the field artistic research is looked upon as, according to Svenstedt, a strange or less successful combination and, according to Szyber, a fake.
A research discipline
Artistic research is – it should be a matter of course – a research discipline. It includes or is based on formative works of an artistic nature, where the researcher himself or herself has been involved as a creator. When research is art, is a matter for interpreters. The artist, to oppose Lars Vilks, must not be silent about his or her art. Artists often speak and write about their practice, and sometimes to good advantage. The ‘mystery’ of art, to question Marianne Lindberg de Geer, does not disappear because of explanatory research. The connection to an artistic vision may be deep, but it is a process of consciousness to bring the content to the surface. To regard seeing as natural is anti-intellectual. The problem for artistic research, to argue with Lars O. Ericsson, might not be too little freedom, but too much. Research needs to be open to a greater conversation in society and should not be quiet, ‘mysterious’ and self-absorbed. It is a problem when, like at Stockholm University of the Arts, there is no requirement for theory in a doctoral thesis. Research produces facts and theory provides a context for those facts. Without theory, the ‘research’ is simply a collection of unrelated ‘facts’. Working with theory – as well as art – is demanding, and research – as well as art – is not for everyone.
Research aims for knowledge
The 2013 wording of the Swedish Higher Education Act, ”As the accountable authority, the Government shall establish higher education institutions for the provision of […] research and artistic research”, creates problems. Research, whether scientific or artistic, aims for knowledge, and the distinction between art and science is nothing but absolute. Therefore, drawing boundaries between one and the other in advance is the wrong approach to take. The risk with generalizations is inevitable simplifications that hinder more than they help. Art and science have not been as separate as is often claimed. The two paradigms can be seen as parallel methods in a changing relationship. Svenstedt writes “art should fly freely, that is how it can develop within the conditions and challenges of art”. What conditions and challenges, and how can a research project fall outside these?
A creative breakthrough in improvisation presupposes that you already know a lot. Focus and boundaries provide space for freedom and spontaneity. Creativity is a basic element in both art and science. The ability to see meaningful patterns beyond given patterns, already known phenomena, relate to tradition and transcend it. What is a pattern for one, can be chaos for others. There is no place without history. Just different approaches to what has been. Free research explores these.
The importance of competence
Academia, including artistic institutions such as Stockholm University of the Arts, is about power and the right to dispose of resources. One aspect of knowledge seeking, especially in the introduction of new fields, is economics. The struggle for funding between the institutions characterizes research and its territorial disputes. Carl Henrik Svenstedt speaks for the art historians, who he believes should "conduct research on art". Today, Stockholm University of the Arts has a large slice of this cake in Sweden. In 2014, the University was founded to grow into an institution unifying all art university colleges in Stockholm, and the lack of artistic doctoral education in Sweden was one of the major reasons for its formation, giving it the responsibility for the development of artistic research in Sweden. This became a reality in 2016, when the institution applied to be allowed to issue an artistic degree at doctoral level in artistic practices. With this in mind, as Bogdan Szyber himself says – the rejection of his thesis is a rejection of Stockholm University of the Arts:
"The absurd thing about this whole situation is that the entire Stockholm University of the Arts has by extension been failed, as everyone at the school supported the presentation of the thesis."
The 2020 Stockholm University of the Arts rejection and following debate on artistic research in Sweden illustrate the great need for a Swedish forum with competence in artistic research, to the benefit of researchers, teachers, doctoral students and students. It is important that the Swedish Government’s high ambition with Stockholm University of the Arts is embodied in recruitment and employment of people with necessary artistic research experience.
A field of potential
Artistic research is a field of potential. The meeting between art and science is a matter of knowledge in the broadest sense, in the exploration and solution of the eternally existential questions of humanity. In this meeting of traditions, the artistic researcher uses both artistic and scientific practices. These practices are not each other’s opposites. Artistic research is based on a dialogue between various forms of art and science. It combines the sensual and intuitive forms of artistic knowledge, the mode of perception embodied in art, with the rational concepts of declarative knowledge. This allows for both interpretations on a descriptive level and theoretical analysis of process and results: the ways in which the researcher makes choices, what he or she strives for and how the work is presented.
Artistic formation and artistic interpretation provide space to discuss artistic practices. By extension, it also affects the overall shape of the presentation. This raises a number of epistemologically difficult questions about goals, methods, results and criteria.
In 2008, Per Zetterfalk defended his doctoral thesis at the University College of Film, Radio, Television and Theatre – Dramatiska Institutet, in Stockholm. Today, Dramatiska Institutet is part of Stockholm University of the Arts. The artistic research project consists of the doctoral thesis Inter esse and the film Norén's Drama (about Lars Norén's work process in the theatre). The subject is artistic formation and artistic interpretation, specializing in directing. It is a study in the act of creation, a combination of artistic and scholarly methods and results, and emanates from the idea of research as a creative element.
The media thumb of this text shows: Man and Pegasus by Carl Milles. Millesgården, Lidingö, Sweden, by Håkan Svensson. It is available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C_Milles_Millesgarden_Man_and_Pegasus.jpg under the CC BY 3.0 licence.