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Art as Research

As humanity faces enormous problems that challenge our survival, interdisciplinary approaches must include artists, whose unconventional approaches make them adept at daring and creative problem solving.

There is much interest in “innovation” these days, so much so that the word has almost lost its meaning. Still, in November 2013, 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 tenth 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, 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.” 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 or in what way art might help us to think about how new ideas emerge and the conditions in which they thrive.

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 a type of 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, which 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 “holding environment” – the psychoanalytic space in which the total person feels safe enough to emerge.

The goal is to create an experimental laboratory where, as in science, there is an expectation of risk and recognition of the inevitability of failure. “Fail. Fail again. Fail better,” Beckett said. Those who educate artists – who, for the most part, are other artists – encourage them to move from one question to the next, knowing, as scientists do, that to assume outcomes or answers limits real discovery.

I have heard business school deans express concern that when their students first arrive they are interesting but that, by the time they leave, many are homogenized – wanting the same job and motivated by the same life goals. Art school students are interesting when they arrive and typically are even more interesting and actualized when they leave, because the work they are encouraged to do is original to their own person. Their research comes from the inside out. That is why artists can be understood as creators of new knowledge.

Increasingly, there is recognition that artists also are inherently problem solvers and could be useful in all conversations about how to address the world’s complex challenges. This is why there is such excitement and possibility about the future proximities of the Columbia University Manhattanville campus, where the school’s artists, working in the new Lenfest Center for the Arts, will be right next door to the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientists in the university’s Mind Brain and Behavior Institute.

Such experimentation is in the air. The New Museum in New York City is starting an incubator program where 70 engineers, tech developers, architects and artists will conduct research to address concerns including “the city, the environment, communication, poverty, food.” This endeavor will be the first of its kind within a museum context, so it is inevitable that artists will serve on the teams of the projects that emerge. The city, the Ford Foundation and The New Museum board already have provided seed money to kick off the project.

Curators have observed that many artists already are trying to address world problems with original solutions – artists’ types of solutions – based on their aptitude for living in the present while reading the signs of the future. These artists prefer to expand their work beyond the art and entertainment spheres. Artist Olafur Eliasson, for example, worked with engineers to invent the Little Sun, a beautifully designed solar light-source solution for underdeveloped societies. This object has positively affected the lives of 1.6 billion people. Eliasson has said of his revolutionary project, “It is a work of art that works in life.” He began with the poetic desire to hold onto the fading light and in the process developed a very practical way to eliminate children’s use of toxic kerosene lamps to do homework and help them to move safely in unlit rural areas at night.

It is clear that pressing global challenges, such as economic inequality, migration, climate change, aging societies and food security, present problems too difficult for any one discipline to solve. It will take teams of thinkers working across disciplines. And, given the interconnectivity and global scale of these issues, the solutions will have to look and feel completely new. Artists, with their preference for unconventional approaches and unique forms of representation, are adept at this type of daring and creative problem solving. Increasingly welcomed into these conversations, they can help move consciousness forward, as they always have.

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