A question of research

Professor Christopher Frayling
Course Director of the Faculty of Humanities, RCA

There's a heated debate going on at the moment - in the world of higher education - about the meaning of the word research. With the formation of the Higher Education Funding Council, which will eventually include within its remit all Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges in this country, and which is intended to break down the age-old barriers between 'hands-on' and 'minds-on,' 'practice' and 'theory' in post-school education, the question has taken on a renewed significance.

At its most extreme, the debate has become polarised between fine artists who argue that the practice of art in itself constitutes a kind of research and its exhibition a kind of publication, and laboratory scientists who argue - from a traditional model of 'doing Science' - that research must take the form of a systematic enquiry whose goal is communicable new knowledge (communicable, that is, beyond the artefact or the practical experiment alone). At times, in recent months, the question has come to resemble the famous exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice, in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass:
'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'Whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Which is to master? Or, to put it another way, where does the legitimisation for the word come from? From a peer group, or an institution, or a funding structure, or an invisible College, or a section of society at large - or from within the nature of the activity of 'research' itself? There are widely shared assumptions - stereotypes is perhaps a better term - on both sides of the debate. Where the scientist is concerned, the fine artist is someone who goes around with both feet planted firmly in the air, producing highly ambiguous pictures which express more or less what is on his or her mind: the art is autobiographical rather than conceptual or rational. Where the artist is concerned, the scientist is someone who researches a subject which exists outside him - or herself - someone who must submerge all subjectivity and personality: the scientist tackles a problem, makes tentative conjectures regarding the answer to it and keeps revising the answer in the light of neat, well-ordered experiments which must be repeatable or replicable. In short, a critical rationalist who doesn't exactly shout 'Eureka,' but who has a hypothesis and sets about proving or disputing it. Then, maybe, he shouts 'Eureka!'

It all seems so simple. And yet, of course, both stereotypes bear very little resemblance to what 'art' or 'science' are usually like. They are far too neat and glib - the sort of images which belong more to the realm of television advertising than to the real-life studio or laboratory. Take the stereotype of the fine artist. In the history of art since the Renaissance, there have of course been countless examples of artists who have explored their materials for what they are, and not simply as 'raw materials.' Who have worked in a cognitive rather than an expressive idiom. George Stubbs' researches on animal anatomy - involving portfolios of drawings of dissections, which were also used by scientists - these researches made possible George Stubbs' animal paintings and they have lived in parallel with the pictures. John Constable's researches into cloud formation - all those cloud drawings and paintings - made possible John Constable's landscape paintings. This is not to suggest that Stubbs and Constable were, respectively, vet and weatherman, but that they operated - quite consciously - in a cognitive idiom, researching subjects which existed outside themselves and their own personalities. In this century, one could cite artists who explore the doors of perception such as op artists - or computer artists - or artists as semiologists - as their heirs in this sense. An exploration which involves re-search for art and, sometimes research through art, as well. One problem is that the classic examples of this - Leonardo, Stubbs, Constable - date from a long time ago. Their drawings would be unlikely to be at the cutting edge of such research today; in the era of electron-microscopes and other ways of enhancing the image.

As Tom Jones has written (in the magazine Leonardo, 13, 1980): 'While Leonardo da Vinci's drawings pioneered anatomical re-search, any work an artist does now in this vein can only be reference material, the study of anatomy having progressed far beyond what can be observed by the unaided eye. Additionally, the medical skills now required are so specialised that they are unlikely to be possessed by any artist. Indeed, given current scientific understanding, it is difficult to conceive that much research into subject-matter m the sense in which it has been defined relative to Stubbs, Constable and Leonardo da Vinci) is possible nowadays.'

It is much more likely to be a matter of referencing the subject or illustrating it in ways that photography cannot achieve.

Nevertheless, the examples show a) that artists have worked just as often in the cognitive idiom as the expressive b) that some art counts as research by anyone's definition and c) that some art doesn't.
Where the stereotype of the re-search scientist is concerned, the image of the scientist-as- critical-rationalist - who relies on making everything explicit, by revealing the methods of his/her logic and justifying his/her conclusions, and who has at the heart of the scientific enterprise a belief in clarity - has also taken quite a beating  In recent years. Sociologists such as Paul Feyeraband, have stresses that in science - as in everything else - there may well be conjunctures but many of them are unconscious and they tend to be changed or modified with out any explicit discussion, and they tend to involve significant measures of subjectivity. Changing Order, according to Harry Collins, involves irrationality, craftsman's knowledge, negotiating rather that hypothesizing about it, above all tacit knowledge rather than propositional knowledge (and when there is propositional knowledge, a fair amount of tacit knowledge is in there too). In the history and philosophy of science, historians such as David Gooding - who studied the methods of Michael Faraday -  are now stressing the links between experimental scientists and creative artists (through the joint uses of imagination, intuition and craft practice), especially in the nineteenth century. Where the artist sometimes has difficulty persuading people of the connection of art with research, the scientist (whose research expertise has until recently been taken for granted) has exactly the same problem with creativity - which is generally seen as the prerogative of the artist rather than the scientist. This is partly why the process of discovery has been virtually ignored until recently, and why the activity of fine art is of increasing interest to historians of science. Look at the Double Helix: it could almost be an artist's autobiography.

So, in the current debate about 'research,' both extremes seem to be promoting an untenable image of the other: fine art is just as likely to be cognitive as expressive; laboratory science is just as likely to involve messy thinking as orderly thinking. The term 're-search' may or may not be applica-
ble to either of them. And there's no need to bring Humpty Dumpty into the picture at all.

Where does conservation come into all this? Well, it seems to me that, at a time when educators are trying to break down the distinction between 'hands-on' and 'minds-on,' the
practice of conservation - and especially its good practice - could play a key part in the future of 'research' within a higher education context. After all, conservation combines a practice which is the result of careful thinking, with the orderly procedures of laboratory science: in a sense, every artefact which is properly conserved both embodies the conservator's research-in-progress and requires that that research be communicable beyond the artefact itself. The discipline exists at the interface between science (as traditionally defined) and art (in its cognitive meaning), and could as a result become a significant force for integration - when all the emphasis of the debate seems to be on disintegration. Above all, the conservator must have an unusual amount of formal knowledge (or access to it) and must also have the tacit knowledge (or craftsman's knowledge) to make full use of it.

However the current debate resolves itself, the practice of conservation is one of the few activities which 'fits' every single one of the range of definitions on offer - involving as it does (to hi-jack John Ruskin's famous phrase) 'the head, the heart and the hand' in almost equal measure. Maybe a chance is presenting itself to expand and enhance conservation research, and conservation-asresearch, and to launch it - in some cases for the first time - into the consciousness of hard scientists, humanities scholars and fine artists. With the arrival of the Higher Education Funding Council, all three of these groups of people will find themselves in the same system - competing for the same resources: maybe conservation will help to bring them together.