research and poetics

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I  share the letters here.]


11 March 2013

Dear friends,

I am writing this letter as I wait, with some expectancy, for your packets to arrive. I look forward to continuing the conversations we began in Vermont, and to learning how you’ve stepped from ideas to action. I find that packet one is the most hopeful of packets – full of energy from residency and aspiration for what might be accomplished over the semester. I very much do hope that it’s been a good month for you and that you feel on track – and that you do feel hope and aspiration!

(As I mentioned in my earlier letter to you, this preface letter is being sent to the entire advising group. My individual response to your packet follows after the break.)

Since we last spoke, I’ve been thinking about the residency—especially the residency theme of “research”—and the ways that this concept vexes me as an artist. Before I launch into what might be read as a critique, I need to admit something. I led the committee that created the theme, and I was in large part the author of the theme statement. So, this isn’t an externalized critique of my colleagues or of the program, but rather a reflection on something conceptual – of a concept that is very “hot” in art discourses right now. It’s also a reflection of my desire to have a critical engagement with the concept of research in the arts. I didn’t find space for this at the residency, where I felt it was implied that we should accept the value of research in the arts as a fait accompli. I’m conspiratorial enough in my worldview to still be asking what do we really mean by research?

And don’t get me wrong, I think research is legitimate terrain for artists. I think research—in its many forms—can be an integral part of an art practice. I think using any number of research techniques or examining the methods of research strategies can be a point of interrogation for artists. I think very robust artworks can be developed through a critical engagement with the concept and many disciplinary methods of research. But I also believe that artists’ embrace of research—conceptually and rhetorically—feels like a means through which artists are justifying themselves and competing for resources and prestige within the academy (and in the culture in general). This is troubling to me, in part because it’s painful to see anyone in a position of justifying one’s existence, but most deeply because I fear that art’s embrace of the methods and rationale of other disciplines risks subsuming or even erasing the distinct value of the arts.

Perhaps more hopefully, I find myself wondering, whenever I hear of research being connected with the arts, whether this is simply a matter of metaphor. Is “research” in the arts just a contemporary way of speaking to artists’ enduring search for or shaping of content in their work? I heard some of this in Liz Lerman’s presentation, when she spoke of using dance to understand the big questions she encounters in life. I heard it in her point about how artists undertaking research aren’t held hostage by hypotheses – opening iterative possibility beyond what’s allowed in the sciences. And I heard it when she again differentiated research in the arts from science by affirming that art research can uncover a multiplicity of real outcomes through the same process.

But I’m still uncertain about this trend toward research; I’m still concerned that this is about further isolating the arts from the everyday. I’m concerned that by bringing the arts further into the academy, which is largely governed by the sheer gravity of scientific discourse, we are further eroding the role arts can play in public discourse – and eroding the democratic vitality of the arts through ever-greater specialization. I want the arts to matter to people. I want them to matter in the everyday—as well as in exceptional moments (like museum visits, concerts, and performances).

I’m perhaps acutely aware of these issues because of some feedback I received about my work recently. I’ve been writing a book and gave the first section to a reader for preliminary feedback. In the weeks right before residency I’d worked on this section and been influenced by my pre-residency conversations with colleagues about research. I’d added a lot of material, based on my reading of psychology and social science. The result is a bifurcation in the writing, leading my reader to remark (I’m paraphrasing): Your storytelling is persuasive, but your analytical voice detracts from your ability to persuade.

This is jarring feedback. I’m grateful that it affirms my poetic voice. However, it also destabilizes significant assumptions I’ve been holding about the place from which my authority will be recognized. In the greater scheme of things, this is all good; however in the short term, it’s forcing me to acknowledge that the value of my work isn’t in my ability to situate my experience in the social sciences (and the authority they hold). And it’s forcing me to embrace my confidence as a storyteller. It is far easier for me to use my analytical voice—and hide in the safety of “getting it right”—than it is to risk speaking from a place of personal truth. It’s easier to justify my experience with the voices of others than to rely on the veracity of my own experience. And by citing so many sources, I sidestep my own palpable fears of being solipsistic.  It’s easier to see value and authority in the words of others than it is to trust that my artistic work can embody knowledge—and I don’t mean “universal” knowledge, but rather experience that is both personal and meaningful to (some) others.

I think about this in relation to the degree criteria, and especially in the ways our program communicates messages about theory. On the one hand, I think there’s a perception that faculty want students to write long essays in high-academic language. On the other, there’s a strain of anti-intellectualism in the resistance (some) students have toward academic theory. While I’m not sure that either of these perspectives is right, these perceptions tends to come to a head during the portfolio process, when it is easier to see theory in a critical essay that cites the voices of others than it is to see criticality in the art that’s been made. In part, this is a result of the same quandary I’m facing. If the art doesn’t come from the artist’s confident understanding of their experience—understanding and confidence that are contextualized, well articulated, and integrated within the artist’s worldview—it won’t be evident in the work; it will be neither embodied nor enacted in what’s presented. Powerful, transformational art most often (in my experience) comes from artists who’ve risked claiming space and voice.

I think we intuitively know these things (I think intuitively I know these things). In receiving feedback on my writing, any sense of chagrin that I feel comes from recognizing—in service to allaying my fears about my own inauthenticity—that I’ve neglected something I know to be true about art. I know that by citing others, by relying on my analytical voice, and by apologizing for the poetics of my story I’m trying to appease an imagined (and previously experienced) jury of critics. I also know that by setting these things aside and embracing fully the complexity of my own voice and vision, there is a chance that I can say something greater than my rote analysis would allow. So, I’m trying to trust these intuitive truths, and in trusting them to make them fully conscious.

I don’t think the “research” I’ve done in this process—reading psychology, history and social science related to the topic, or talking with others who share the experiences about which I’m writing—is for naught. It’s provided me with a context and deeper understanding of my terrain. It’s helped me to articulate and name experiences that previously I only felt.  But I think my reliance on the research methods of social science need to stop there. I think my “analysis” needs to now come through different methodologies. And, rather than “research,” I’d prefer to call those methodologies “art.” And I’d like the products of my labor to be seen as art, not as social science.

Clearly this letter is just a sketch of some of my thinking—and much more could be said on the topic of research in the arts. I’m also aware that I’ve inferred a number of bigger dialogues that I didn’t explore fully, and that I set out a very broad critique of research in the arts. My intention isn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to open some space for conversation about the nature of the relationship between research and artmaking. As I noted in “packet zero,” you should feel no compunction to respond to my preface letters, but I wanted to keep alive and open up space for the conversation about research. And, it truly is something I’m pondering right now. So, I look forward to talking with you about these matters if it makes sense to you.

I started this letter with a reflection on the hopefulness and aspiration of packet one. It’s also been my experience that packet two letters often begin with a phrase like I’m a little concerned that this isn’t my best packet…. I’ve come to understand that there’s a pattern and flow to the packet cycle. I’m not offering this reflection to suggest that you take a break at packet two—or to deterministically lay a rubric over the packet cycle—but rather to ask you to consider how you work, where the ebbs and flows of the semester are for you, and how you can optimize the arc of the semester by using each packet period in the best way possible. I also want to remind you that each packet need not be exactly the same, with all the same pieces, the same number of pages, et cetera. Being intentional about how you’re using each packet—as a reflection of practice, an opportunity to document reading and engagement with the arts, or as a point of dialogue about the big questions in your practice—will help you maximize our time together. So, if packet two is different from packet one, let me know what’s up, what your intentions are, and how our conversation can advance your aspirations for the semester. The aim isn’t for cookie cutter progress each packet, but steady overall progress in service to really and truly achieving your goals. So, keep it real.

I’m feeling a little bit of spring on Cape Cod these days—I saw my first flower the other day, and then it snowed (ah, New England!). Seeing the flower is very good; being reminded of snow isn’t so bad either. I hope you are enjoying the shift of season where you are.

All my best, Pete

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