By Professor Jeri Kroll
‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his [sic] complete meaning alone….you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.’
(T S Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’)
‘But what is the new knowledge you’re producing?’ Recently I was asked this question at dinner with a colleague from the social sciences, who didn’t intend to challenge the creative arts sector. She really wanted to understand how researchers in the arts went about their work. After explaining as best I could, I realised that having these conversations were eminently useful, because they make us, as creative artists, distill what we do. So what did I say?
I began by giving examples. When in doubt, start with case studies to engage your audience. For example, a visual arts practitioner might contribute to new knowledge by developing an innovative printing technique; a poet might subvert forms to reflect the way in which we communicate online in the twenty-first century; a novelist conducting background research might discover a lost colonial play and highlight its cultural significance; or a dramatist might examine how the paratexts of a script enhance a play’s identity as theatre for social change. Researchers embed these discoveries in the creative project and, if a doctoral candidate, in the exegesis or critical essay so that the thesis forms an integrated whole. For creative artists in the academy, the dissemination of new knowledge can, therefore, take multiple forms. Aside from the creative artifact, traditional or non-traditional articles can contextualise it, just as exhibition catalogues, playbills or program notes can underpin research significance and impact, not to mention the requisite ERA statements.
Questions that practitioners ask about their relationship to their materials and craft might have seemed clear at the beginning of the research journey, or might only through its course reveal themselves. Sometimes creative artists feel buried under a mass of information collected during a long-term project; sorting through layers is part of the process of uncovering the essential core. But this, of course, takes time. Uncertainty or tenuousness does not negate creative work’s benefits. As so much late 20th century writing on scientific creativity argues, lateral thinking and serendipity can be as productive as methodological rigour. ‘Domain knowledge,’ accompanied by understanding of peers and precursors, is nevertheless compulsory in order for us to position ourselves. T S Eliot’s seminal essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ still makes a valid case for practitioners to be on speaking terms with the past.
Since the Strand report (1998), scholars have been unpacking the manifold ways in which creative works can be research. Explaining the usefulness of questions to doctoral candidates not only keeps supervisors honest, but also keeps at the forefront of everyone’s mind why theory is unavoidable. Practice-led research is amorphous, an umbrella term like literary criticism. Defining the framework allows students to determine what methodology (and associated terminology) suits it. Often postgraduates will complain, ‘But I don’t want to use theory.’ Deleuze’s no-frill’s explanation of theory is an efficient rejoinder: ‘…a theory is exactly like a box of tools . . . It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself’ (Foucault and Deleuze, ‘Intellectuals and Power’ 1972). The phrase ‘no text is innocent’ reminds us that we always come to artistic works with preconceptions. No researcher wants capital ‘T’ theory to straitjacket their texts. But choosing the proper theory equates with finding the right toolkit. Theory does not mean chaining our intellects, but scaffolding our knowledge, allowing us to climb higher. We might even mix tools and terminologies in interdisciplinary projects. Frameworks help creative arts researchers to articulate the questions they need to ask and, as work progresses, those might be refined and sharpened, or indeed new questions might arise. ‘Blue skies’ or curiosity-driven scientists face similar challenges in articulating what they might discover. This is the practice-led research loop in action – the irregular rhythm of intellectual and creative engagement whereby pathways lead in more than one direction and where some might be abandoned.
In sum, creative artists make ‘original contributions to knowledge’ or culture, as the OECD definition suggests, by following a variety of routes leading to non-traditional and traditional research outcomes. That ‘creative systematic activity’ requires a framework and questions posed throughout the research cycle. Results must be disseminated in order to be useful to others in the intellectual and artistic community, which does not ask peer reviewers or examiners to apply the mercurial label of ‘excellence.’ Research projects should not close doors but open them, which does not require them to supply definitive answers. Finishing one book or series of paintings can mean, for writers or artists, that they have discovered what needs to be done next.
Jeri Kroll is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University. Recent books are ‘Old and New, Tried and Untried’: Creativity and Research in the 21st Century University (2016) and a verse novel, Vanishing Point, shortlisted for the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards and adapted for the stage in America.