Thursday 4 August 2022

Artistic Studying


We are all familiar with the term artistic research. This terminology and the related work is often justified with the idea that art is related to science through the research and experimentation involved in both art-making and science. 
I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with this terminology, and the resulting works, remarking that not uncommonly the research part of artistic research is deeply lacking. At the time of writing I have also just completed my propaedeutic year of a B.Sc. in Chemistry and although I was working in a laboratory every week, very little of what I did would qualify as either research or experiment. In fact, most of my time was spent studying. I would argue that the research and experimentation associated with science doesn't start until the scientist in question has done thousands of hours of studying behind the scenes.

Yet I have never heard anybody in the arts claim that they were doing 'artistic studying', even if studying is a necessary step before any meaningful research. Routinely practising applying the aufbau principle, valance bond theory, standard electrode potentials, naming conventions of functional groups and so on aren't as appealing as the cool experiment you can use them for, but it is an absolute requirement for being able to design and perform that experiment, as well as comprehend its results. This last part is especially important considering that many artists don't do the research themselves, but instead 'collaborate' with eminent scientists. Without strong mutual understanding, however, it's difficult to acertain if both parties grasp the others' intentions and data.

So while this boring studying is less glamorous than research and experimentation, without it one can't truly claim to be doing any worthwhile. If the research is openly presented as a mere aesthetic veneer applied to the work, then there is some merit to these kind of works, but if the research is meant to be taken seriously, then more often than not it is lacking foundational studying and underlying understanding.
A recent example I encountered was an exhibition by Ane Graff, who 'is a research fellow at the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, where she works in close collaboration with the Department of Biosciences at the University of Oslo'. Her works are often accompanied by extensive, yet incongruous, lists of materials that are used in making her works.
In one of these descriptions calcium acetate was mentioned. This was marked with an asterisk and the following 'explanation' in a footnote: 

 'Calcium acetate is the calcium salt of acetic acid. An older name is acetate of lime.'
This sounds like an explanation of what calcium acetate is, but consists of more unknown terms that seem very scientific and learned. In reality this statement is nothing but a pointless tautology. In this context, acetic acid and acetate both refer to the same molecule, while a salt is the result of a when a positively charged ion, such as calcium, binds with a negatively charged ion, such as acetate. To anybody with basic knowledge of chemistry, the first sentence thus reads as nothing more than 'the combination of calcium and CH3COO- is the combination of calcium and CH3COO- '. The reference to the older name in the second sentence doesn't do much to change this either, as 'lime' is still used today as a generic name for salts that contain calcium.
Statements like these are not wrong per se, but they feign scientific acumen to a gullible audience and as such it feels dishonest. While I fully support and applaud artists for having an interest in other fields than those that are traditionally considered artistic, having an interest in a subject isn't automatically converted into any degree of proficiency and it would be better if artists could be upfront about their lack of studying instead of posing for pictures in a lab coat.