Developing Art With Scientific Methods

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Scientific study of art has since long stabilized itself into a few paradigms or discourses of research, such as history of art, aesthetics, and semiotics. Until today, each of these paradigms has produced thousands of reports. Almost all these projects have had purely descriptive or "disinterested" goals, which means that the researcher tries to describe the object of study objectively and avoids generating any changes to it. In accord with the best principles of disinterested science most researchers have maintained the impartial nature of their study by avoiding too close contacts with people who might have strong opinions on art, including professional artists and the general public.

The impartial, disinterested purpose has been reflected also in the selection of questions that are taken up in research. They have seldom concerned practical needs of artists or wishes of the public. Researchers did not need to sell their work to any users, being financed mostly from public funds. They were thus able to select their problems inside the scientific community, either among problems that were theoretically interesting, or simply among problems that had habitually been studied in the research community and for which there were well-tried methods.

To sum it up, the paradigms in the study of art seem to be what Thomas Kuhn has called "normal science". Indeed, it is often a quite rational technique for accumulating scientific knowledge. Its weakness is that because only few research projects originate from the needs of artists, the expenditures invested in research give relatively small benefits to the object of study, art itself, and to the quality of new work or to the processes of making it. Consequently, artists only seldom can find any use for the reports of scientific studies of art.

The basic reason why scientific studies of art so often fail to serve artists is in the very nature of disinterested research. Its goal is to describe impartially existing works of art, but such information is seldom of prime interest to an artist who wants to create new works which comply with contemporary requirements better than earlier works could do. The concept of 'better' entails necessarily evaluations, which reflects the general character of artistic creation which is essentially goal-oriented. Research that is intended to assist in this work must be oriented to the same goals, or in other words, it must be normative. Moreover, its goals must reflect the needs of people today or, better still, of tomorrow.

Normative research exists in two variants, depending whether its aim is to assist generally a class of productions, or to assist just one work of art.

To sum up, there are three important types of research which have either a direct or indirect relation to the production of new art. They can be presented as the diagram that follows:

Artistic research

The above diagram is intended to show the logical connections between research and art. It can be useful if you want to study how art is created, but it does not insist that you should use this approach for creating art, or that you could create better art with it. Beside, the latter question can get a final answer only after there has been enough normative research to base artistic work on.

If you want to create a unique and up-to-date work of art, theory can probably give only a point of departure. The reason is that research always takes time and therefore lags behind, and it tends to reveal just average opinions. Theory can be compared to a cook-book, which is useful for students and average people, but not to the great masters. Research and technology are excellent tools in producing commonplace products, and with their help we could probably build art-automats with the same methods that we use for coffee-makers. But there must always be avant-garde artists, too, that work without theory and give the public things that nobody could predict being necessary one day.

Research which is planned and carried out in the purpose of assisting the creation of art has sometimes been called scientific art, artistic research, and practice-based research. Research and artistic creation are often combined into one project and carried out by one person. Note that in these projects the final aim is to create art, and research assists it. Another possibility is that the principal aim of the combination is scientific, i.e. to collect knowledge, and the methods of art are used in order to assist research. This alternative is discussed on another page under the title Art as Analysis.

Descriptive research of art

Descriptive research examines existing works of art, describes how they were made and how the public experiences them. Although a mere description cannot much help an artist producing new works of art, it nevertheless can uncover and explain hidden structures in art and thus it can assist in the creation of normative theory. Besides, is useful in the education of a new generation of artists.

Most descriptive studies of art until now have been historical treatises, but there are also many useful reports in perception psychology and physiology which explain timeless mechanisms in the processes of experiencing art. Moreover, there are studies about the roles that works of art play in human society. These venerated paradigms of study have their role to fulfil, even if they are not directly concerned with the creation of new works of art, as is normative research.

Normative development of the theory of art

General normative research aims to assist new production of works of art, not directly, but by composing theory that artists then can use later, when creating works of a certain type.

Normative study is thus not interested in the past, but instead in the present and in the future. It uses as its material earlier works of art, but more important material are the problems that people have today, and the ideas that they have about the future: Why are we creating art? What kind of art we need? Do I like present art? Does it give anything to me? What could be better?

All the questions above will have very different answers depending on who is giving the answer. It becomes thus imperative to define whose point of view shall be used in the study. It is often a certain group of the public or of artists, or several groups in parallel. "Objective" normative study does not exist.

It is usual in normative research that the practical problem exists already long before anybody begins to think about a research project. It is the problem that seeks a researcher, not the other way round, and once a willing researcher is found, a normative research project can begin. Its starting point will be that several people feel a need for an improvement, and its the target will be finding out how the improvement can be made to happen.

Normative general research is called for, when the need for improvement concerns a great number of cases and it would be impossible to regulate directly all of them. Instead, the strategy in general normative study is to plan and describe the necessary improvements in general format which can then later be applied to a great number of cases. This general description is here called normative theory. The principle of general normative research can be seen below.

Theory of design

Two important classes of practical cases which can be improved with the help of normative theory are activities and products. For products, the normative theory is often called theory of design. For each important type of product there is a branch of theory which is published primarily as handbooks and periodicals for designers, such as "Modern packaging" or "Manual of garden design". Besides, there are branches of theory for such important topics that are common to a group of products. Important theories of this type deal with the desirable properties that new products should have, such as usability, beauty, symbolic meaning, ecology, economy and safety. Many of these normative theories use as a starting point the descriptive theory of the same topic, such as aesthetics and semiotics.

The properties that we expect from a work of art differ in many respects from what we expect from industrial products, but there are also common themes, especially concerning the theories of beauty and message. In modern industry it is normal practice that researchers are hired for the task of finding out what the public expects from new products, and then finding out how these expectations have been fulfilled in the past and how they generally can be fulfilled. It should be possible to use the same approach when developing various genres of art.

Although the approach of normative theory could be similar for arts and for technology, the format of presentation is different. The technological design theory contains mostly exact models, standards and algorithms which immediately achieve the desired properties in the product, such as usability, economy or safety, for example. Such rational instructions and calculations would be useless in the creation of works of art, which creation instead makes use of subconscious and intuitive maturation of ideas. To be sure, there are a few "rules of thumb" that master artists have always taught to their pupils. These rules concern, for example, balance, rhythm, repetition and variation of elements, placing a dominant element, proportion, harmony, contrast, or dramatic tension. These formulas are not meant to be unbreakable laws - on the contrary, the mark of a great master is the ability to break conventional rules - but they anyhow are a collection of helpful and proven recommendations, suitable to be handed over to the next generation of artists, and they thus play very much the same role as theory has in a branch of science.

The "rules of thumb" or artistic recommendations are seldom very exactly formulated, on the contrary they often exist mostly in tacit form. The reason is that the rule is often quite complicated, it can include innumerable exeptions, the artist master who knows the rule is unwilling or unable to write it down, and a researcher that comes from outside does not fully understand the matter. For these reasons the number of written theoretical rules in any branch of art is usually quite small. Instead, the normative theory for arts operates mostly with exemplars, i.e. important earlier works of art, as commented from contemporary point of view by experts.

Research projects which aim at developing normative theory for art, might use, beside the methods of descriptive studies, the following operations:

1. Defining the point of view. Because the starting point of a general normative study always is a more or less widely felt practical problem or a general opinion that something should be improved, it follows that the problem exists only as seen from somebody's point of view. It could be the government, a large manufacturer, a group of the general public, a group of artists, or just the research team itself. In any case, it is essential that the researcher delimits this group of people.

2. Defining and analyzing goals. What is wrong in the present situation, or what could be bettered in earlier works of art? This is a question that should be asked from the people that were defined in the initial stage of the project. The standard methods of descriptive interview and questionnaire can be used here.

3. Testing the validity of theories that have earlier been presented in the field of aesthetics and other descriptive studies of art, by making a series of variants of a work of art. Possible methods are enumerated under the title: Beauty of Products: Research Methods. - For theories in the field of descriptive semiotics comparable methods are found in: Semiotics of Products: Research Methods.

4. Updating the rules of thumb of old masters. The methods mentioned above can be used.

5. Selecting and updating exemplars. Exemplars, i.e. celebrated earlier works of art serve often in artistic theory the same purpose as conceptual models do in technological design theory: they can be used as starting points in the design of the new work. Like any models, exemplars can in time collect dust and lose their ability to help solving modern problems.

The usability of ancient exemplars for the artists of today could perhaps be enhanced by updating, which could be done by complementing them with contemporary expert commentaries from professional critics, artists in the field, or other pertinent and competent interest groups, see item 1, above, and Public critique in product development.

For collecting the opinions of various interest groups, the normal methods of interrogating or feedback and critique can be used. For the task of commenting the exemplars, it is worth noticing also the usual lecturing style of Finnish architects: they show in parallel two slides from two slightly different buildings, and explain verbally the differences in theory and execution. In this way, it is easier to notice even such slight differences which would be difficult to explicate in words.

Scientific development of a single work of art

Project-specific artistic development purports to assist the creation of a single work of art (or a series of them), and it is usually carried out by the artist him/herself.

In the normative study of art, a frequently applied model can be seen here on the right. It includes the term feedback, borrowed from the theory of cybernetics, which is an important factor in the creation of works of art - or of any products - and which appears in the form of criticism. The figure has been borrowed, slightly modified, from Herbert Franke.

Research in a small scale has always belonged to the normal artistic creation process. "It belongs to the tradition of pictorial arts that artists want theorize, analyze and manifest their thoughts in respect to the paradigms of artistic tradition, philosophy and problems of presentation" writes Kiljunen (2001, 20). Artists want to analyze their creations verbally, writes, among others, Kantokorpi (2001, 113 and 121): discussions between artists contain more and more references to research, and at every art exhibition you can find "an A4 sheet, where the artist or his friend more proficient in penmanship tells us what this is all about. Art is being verbalized more than ever."

If artists want to do research, it must be because they know that it can be fruitful as preparation for their creative work. It seems credible that an intensive use of research and theory will result in better works of art, just as research is today used in almost all successful industrial product development.

Beside facilitating the artist's creative work and improving the results, published artistic research can probably help other artists in the field. When an outstanding artist reflects on his or her methods of work and documents them, later artists will have the possibility of learning strategies of action that they can adopt and try to improve further (Scrivener, 42).

It has often been noted that progress in science depends on the effective dissemination and on collective critique of research findings and of new theory. The same strategy of mutual learning and critique has always operated in arts, though the criterions of evaluation and the practical procedures are different. It seems reasonable to follow similar principles of publication and critique in the field of artistic research, as well. The Higher Education Funding Council of England is certainly aiming at the right direction when recommending that "professional practice in art and design qualifies as research when it can be shown to be firmly located within a research context, to be subject to interrogation and critical review and to impact on and influence the work of peers, policy and practice" (quoted from Scrivener, 33).

Scrivener uses the name of "creative production" for the research projects (especially doctoral ones) that include creation of artefacts. He proposes the following basic structure for these projects (Scrivener and Chapman, slightly abridged):

  1. Pre-project reflection on the practice of creating these artefacts normally including identification of current issues, concerns and interests.
  2. Identification of resource domains relevant to one's practice and formulation of acquisition strategies. Application and refinement of these throughout the project.
  3. Cycles which comprise production of work, reflection on productive phase in terms of action and practice, possible revision of issues, concerns and interests, and possibly search for resources relevant to modified issues, concerns and interests.
  4. Post-project reflection on the project as a whole.

An artist desiring to base his or her work on research often encounters that it is difficult to find suitable methods, especially of the normative kind which could directly be applied to benefit new production. Descriptive methods and research findings on various questions of art would be easy to find, but they are seldom directly useful for this purpose, as we noted above.

The methodology of industrial product development contains a very large arsenal of normative project-specific research methods. An artist might consider adopting some of its procedures, though it is possible that some of them would need some simplification for the purposes of a solitary artist.

Below is a selection of usual operations of artistic creation where some normal procedures of either scientific study or industrial product development might be used, suitably modified.

1. Defining the intended public. Sometimes a work of art will be tailor-made for a client, e.g. for the owner of the locale where the work shall be placed. Otherwise, there may be a segment of the general public that the artist intends to address his work to. In either case it will be useful to define the future public and try to find out its expectations. Appropriate procedures in product development are explained under the title Defining Target Customers. There is also a more general discussion of the topic on the page Demarcating the Study.

2. Defining the goals for the work of art can facilitate fulfilling them: it is easier to get somewhere, if you first decide where you want to go. The goal could be, for example, to give a symbolic message to the public, or to attain among the public some kind of effect, such as an aesthetic impression of beauty. For setting targets to an industrial product there are special methods, explained under Strategic Design, but these are arduous because industrial projects often have many contrasting targets simultaneously.

3. For the composition of the content or motif of the work of art, only little can be learned from descriptive science. When the artist selects which elements should be included in the future work of art, the objective has some resemblance with Case Study where the scientist searches from the object such features or structures which might recur also in other objects, thus having general interest. A similar purpose can be seen also in the phenomenological method, where the target is to find the "essence" of an object.

Analysis-synthesis-evaluationNormative approach of study would probably harmonize with artistic creation better than the above mentioned descriptive methods. Its principal phases (see Process of Normative Research) are evaluative description, analysis, and proposal for improvement. All these phases are repeated until an acceptable proposal is found. Typical methods of analysis are described on the page Normative Analysis and Preparing the Proposal.

When a normative study project continues from analysis into development, its methods become more interesting from the viewpoint of an artist. Especially the methods of industrial product development often include phases of searching a product idea, refining it with iteration or with subconscious maturing and innovation of the proposal, which activities resemble artistic creation, though these methods are not often quite well known nor documented.

4. The entire process of creating a work of art could be taken as an object of study and improvement. Two usual scientific methods for developing an activity are:

5. Presenting the results of the artistic study could quite well include elements from both art and science. Some possible combinations of scientific and artistic expression are:

6. Testing a few proposals as prototypes of the final work. There are well-tried descriptive methods of experimentation and normative methods of prototype testing. In any case, you should continue the experiment with analyzing its results and presenting them to be used for improving the subsequent works.

7. Marketing of the work of art. The length of time that the public experiences a work of art, can be very short: only a few seconds for a canvas in an exhibition, one or two hours for a comedy. Such a brevity of efficient use means that immediate attractiveness is very important for such works of art that normally are bought without long deliberations. A theoretical model for such a marketing situation is the "AIDA" formula which defines the stages of successful selling: the product should awaken first the customer's Attention, then Interest, Desire and finally willingness to Action, i.e. of buying the product.

8. Obtaining feedback for the work of art that was created, from either the public, critics or colleagues in the field of art. For collecting opinions there are proven methods of Thematic Interview and Customer Feedback.

Before you start registering feedback, i.e. opinions on works of art you should note that the opinions in itself can be difficult to decipher without some additional information. Of primary interest are the person's original expectations. A layman's expectations are often simple and easy to satisfy, while an expert on art has perhaps ostentatious expectations and few works of art can fulfill them. Therefore you should try to register beside the opinion, also an indication of the person's level of expectations, and of course all those characteristics of the person that could give background to the opinion.

Artistic team work. The procedures above are as suitable for an artist working alone as for a team work of artists, such as presentations in a theatre or on tv. It is easy to include even other scientific procedures in artistic team work where all the drafts and proposals must be recorded repeatedly to be used as a basis for common discussions or decisions, and the work therefore remains on a tangible and explicit level which resembles typical scientific team work. One possibility is to include a researcher in the work group for the task of a definite scientific operation such as a query or an analysis. Such an symbiosis is, indeed, normal practice in the production of tv documentaries.

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi