Art as Research

In the British Library in London are thousands of trade cards stretching back over three hundred years. These are often postcard size and include engraved text and images. They were the equivalent of our business cards today, and were used by artists and designers to advertise their services. Through them we discover an alternative view of the past quite separate from what mainstream art history likes to promote. Creatives were not isolated ‘romantic geniuses’, nor were they ‘serious’ philosopher-poets. The majority were also not poor. Indeed, many left substantial investments, property and businesses (sometimes seven-figure sums) to their families and apprentices, all made through their work. Most were not famous in their day, nor are they famous today. They were ordinary ‘working’ artists and designers. Only a few have subsequently been turned into ‘stars’ (or convenient ‘signposts’) by later art historians and museums when they tell their stories.We are talking about successful tradespeople who were unapologetic marketeers. Unashamedly, they turned their hand to many different kinds of related work too, including glazing, plumbing, ship portraiture, sign making and cutlery design.

My point is that, as well as the media stars of contemporary times and poor old Van Gogh, the above description is also your heritage as an artist or designer. In fact, it is closer to what most artists and designers experienced at the time because what we have come to know in recent times is really due to the inventions of art history since the nineteenth century. Art as a trade is what artists did. You went in as an apprentice of fourteen and came out the other side a business professional capable of running your own practice. You did not subcontract yourself out to a gallery or dealer. You did it yourself. This is your true tradition. And we should state at this point that there were many female apprentices and technicians too, especially from the seventeenth century onwards. When you see art or design in museums, you see a tiny part of a creative’s business, and perhaps not the most lucrative part for them either. Too often, a minority (sadly, including some artists and designers) are quick to judge other artists and designers producing tea towels, cushions, t-shirts, scarves and other such items. The latter produce these without consciously wishing to make any kind of postmodern or philosophical point. This is sometimes castigated as pastiche, traditional or commercial by the former minority. The problem is not that the latter makers are somehow beneath ‘art’. Rather, it is that historical realism infects the views of the former. Bizarrely, the category ‘art’ is value laden for the former too, though they often deny it. They ‘see’ in hierarchies of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, according to their arbitrary standard but without acknowledging its contingency. Their castigation of the latter is evidence of their necessitarianism.

But is a standard in art or design possible? Standards work when they are objective. We can point to the standard of Greek sculpture for ancient Roman artists, or Graeco-Roman statues for the Italian Renaissance, or Classical statues and Italian Old Masters for the eighteenth century, or scientific naturalism for the nineteenth century. We could also point to the standard of rejecting the latter for Modernists in the early twentieth century. Collectively, a standard in art requires a clear objective rule that is shared by a society (or those in charge) because it is visible. But historically speaking, such a standard is not essential or necessary. Rather, it is artificial and contingent for a future generation. Today, no such collective standard exists (though one could argue that is itself our standard!). So, we can only talk of standards in the plural. And no such ‘art market’ exists today either. We can only talk of markets in the plural. Likewise, there is no such thing as ‘art’, which is a reification. There are many different types of makings, though these may have specific designations. And this is why I re-categorise ‘art’ according to purpose and its relation to trade.

Understanding the above is important for selling your work. Some artists and designers cannot think outside of inherited categories about what art and artists must be. Most of their beliefs were picked up at school or college and are the result of an overweening realist belief in art history, as I mentioned earlier. They become embarrassed about making different kinds of objects and even thinking about them in a different way. They lack the very kind of lateral and flexible thinking creativity demands. You cannot reimagine human endeavour, an industry or a way of life, unless you are prepared to divest all emotional attachment to what is on the table, including the very table itself and the room! Such inflexibility often determines why they do not sell because the object they display is not a product but a piece of research instead.

Art as research

Research is useful. It concerns the production of new knowledge. Through its methodology over thousands of years, human civilisation has, to some extent, developed and improved in most spheres of life. At first intuitive, the method gradually became a mixture of empiricism and mathematics from the seventeenth century onwards. The process is simple. We formulate a hypothesis (or a model) and then collect data. Bad research always tries to fit the data to the hypothesis. On the other hand, a more able researcher is prepared to modify the original hypothesis (or model) in light of data collection. The idea is that we produce a new conclusion from new data and, hence, new knowledge.

Most art made in university art colleges is a piece of research. The context of a university demands this output. Indeed, there are even doctorates in fine art today. To some extent, a fine art undergraduate degree is more advanced than other undergraduate courses. The latter involve ‘spoon-feeding’. This is where undergraduates are fed course material that they are expected to memorise and repeat in exams and essays. A great deal of undergraduate work is simply memory testing. By contrast, the young fine art student is encouraged to embark, perhaps before they are actually ready, on a process of individual research. Most students usually only encounter this level of self-direction on a postgraduate degree.

The research process can take different forms in a university art college. A student might study a number of artists in a particular field and/or read in a particular area, perhaps within politics, art history or philosophy. The series of art objects, made over the course of a number of years, might take different forms. They can be thought of in two ways. Firstly, the art objects are like drafts. Much in the way a researcher would ‘write up’ their research for others to read, the art student produces art objects that communicate the topic of research and its conclusion. Secondly, the art objects themselves can be thought of as research. Accordingly, the conclusion is about the interface between visual and textual information. Perhaps we can think of the second as metaphysical, in the sense of being focussed on method.

This is largely the kind of art that most people, within a small but powerful circle of the industry, would classify as ‘Contemporary’ (or other nomenclatures implying that the art or practitioner is at the forefront of knowledge production). Indeed, some of them would only consider this type of object as art. Everything else is pastiche and irrelevant. The problem with this approach is that it presupposes a realist art history, and this functions by assuming that physical objects ‘contain’ moments of time, which can be read like a text. This approach to art interpretation is metaphysical and ‘mystical’. It is against lived experience, as I have stated in other places. Most university posts go to practitioners of ‘art as research’, most grants are also awarded in this area and the ‘media stars’ of the art world, some more loosely, reside in this camp. Contemporary museum acquisitions are also collected with this criterion in mind, the ‘newness’ of the knowledge is determined by art-historical contextualism. Of course, there are other problems with this approach to art making beyond the one already stated. For example, most artists are not trained philosophers or even specialists in the areas they read. The sum total of their art, the actual conclusions they want their audience to engage with, can be superficial and amateurish for specialists. It also raises the question whether physical objects are capable of communicating intricate literary ideas, initially cast in syntactical and grammatical logic, and even whether literature might be a more appropriate form of communication. That said, ‘art as research’ dominates our idea of what art should be if it is to reflect our present world. But that does not mean that it does reflect our present world. Indeed, it more likely reflects a particular academic tradition today.

When an artist, more often a recent graduate, exhibits this type of work in a commercial environment, they usually do not sell anything. This is because it is a piece of research. The problem occurs when an artist fails to consider this, or does not even realise, and actively seeks to sell the work. The problem is confounded by the fact that, on balance, little research is of practical value for society at large, especially in the arts, the objects mainly perceived as securities. Indeed, most research is of interest to a small circle of people and usually not for commercial reasons. So, an artist trying to sell this kind of work is likely going to fail. But some artists in this category sell for millions at auction, right? No. Their work may have started out as a piece of research initially, but it is now thoroughly commercial, in the sense that it is merely a stock for investors to trade on a market. The artist is really a brand. Indeed, they may even repeat their work numerous times exactly and for the entirety of their career. This is to exploit the market on the advice of dealers and auction houses. Work that sells for millions at auction tends to be confused with ‘art as research’. However, true ‘art as research’ is not funded commercially but is instead funded through grants and art residencies. In its purest form, it is deliberately non-commercial. Hence, the artist who then tries to sell it usually fails.

For an artist wishing to sell their work and make a living, ‘art as research’ is the obstacle to be overcome, especially if they have been to art college and were inculcated into a particular logic about the meaning, production and purpose of art. It can be extremely difficult to break away from this due to a false identification between real art and ‘art as research’. The artist who wishes to sell should avoid grants and art residencies, no matter how tempting. They are excellent if you wish to make ‘art as research’, and it may be important to do that early in your career, but, ultimately, they will encourage you to stop thinking about business and marketing. Indeed, ‘art as research’ and ‘art as product’ are made in different ways. You cannot simply take the former and insert it into the latter mode after your art residency completes. Let us be clear, the ‘financial space’ that art residencies confer is part of the problem because ‘art as product’ does not arise in a vacuum. It is driven by the needs of a market. We all know of businesses that borrow heavily and are in far too much debt before they even know what their product is or whether it meets any real need. They are known as ‘zombie’ companies. Eventually, debt absorbs income and cash flow ceases. It is a similar principle. We will have more to say about this shortly.

Extract from A Guide to Selling Art by Dr C G Barlow. Copyright © 2022 C. G. Barlow.

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