Artmaking as Irreverent Research

By (Carol Becker)

There is much interest in “innovation” these days, so much so that the word has almost lost its meaning. Still, in November of this year, I accepted an invitation to participate in a symposium on that very topic. I joined professors of energy, nanoscience, computer and electrical engineering, Nobel laureates and other colleagues in the humanities to launch the inauguration of the 10th chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Nicholas B. Dirks. Continuing vital conversations begun during his tenure as vice president of arts and sciences at Columbia University, Chancellor Dirks chose three topics as essential to the future of the university: undergraduate education, the role of the global university, and innovation — basic and applied research.

You might think it surprising that, as the dean of an art school, I was invited to participate in this category of “research” because when people talk about innovation in a university context, they rarely include the arts. Few understand the type of research artists and art school environments engage, and fewer still can contextualize how such practices intersect with the mission of a research university.

Despite common misperceptions, the work artists do is a type of research into the complexity of human concerns — for example, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time on the nature of personal memory, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave on collective memory, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Picasso’s Guernica on how the individual intersects with society or James Turrell’s Sky Spaces on the way form affects, morphs and transforms perception.

One could say that artists engage in irreverent and unorthodox research that refuses conventional “deliverables” measured by traditional data-driven matrices. Yet artists’ unquantifiable results are essential to the well-being and evolution of the species’ consciousness.

Artists will use any form, any discipline, and take ideas from anyone to further their goal of answering the questions they have posed for themselves or calling attention to concerns they feel should be addressed by the society. In this sense, much of the work is inevitably interdisciplinary — a perfect 21st century model for addressing complex problems.

To understand where this proclivity in artists’ work originates, we need to look at how most artists are educated — the environments that transform potential artists into accomplished professionals. How do art schools encourage this type of useful irreverence? They do it by pursuing and legitimating multiple types of consciousness, not just the conscious mind, but also dreams, fantasies, imagination, play, intuition, the unconscious, the metaphoric, the symbolic and visionary — the total possibilities of thought.

Artists typically don’t use the word “innovation” to characterize their work, because innovation implies the instrumentalization of these multiple forms of consciousness to achieve a specific goal. Rather, they talk about creativity, a word that signifies a more open-ended conversation — one that is process-oriented instead of goal-oriented. Art schools attempt to foster an environment that is safe for this open-ended creative process to unfold. In this way, their intent is not unlike psychoanalytic theorist D. W. Winnicott’s concept of a …read more

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