Our Conversation with Things and Places: an enquiry into Art and Research Methodology


I have borrowed the title of this paper from Christopher Cornford, who originated the idea of the practice-based research degree at the Royal College of Art in 1969. This borrowing from Cornford’s 1976 paper of the same name(1) seems apposite since it relates so closely to Donald A Schön’s idea of ‘the dialogue with the situation’(2) on which this paper draws extensively, but also because my own father, whose creativity was in physics, died during the course of my writing this paper.


The idea that the outcomes of creative practice in art are research outcomes is now widely accepted (3), but it remains a new idea with implications for research methodology yet to be fully resolved. If research is a process of enquiry that generates knowledge, then the key to research methodology in art will be the clarification of the nature of artistic knowledge and the identification of the processes of enquiry within artistic practice. This paper addresses these issues from the point of view of the development of practice based research degrees, and some consequent implications for a practice based taught curriculum in art which, it is argued, is vital to making the term ‘lifelong learning’ meaningful in art education.

Art, lifelong learning and research

In preparing this paper I extend the enquiry into research methodologies that was initiated in the paper Art and Lifelong Learning (4). That paper advocated the development of a research methodology that is appropriate to art in the context of lifelong learning. Such a methodology when related to practitioner based academic standards, it was argued, would be relevant to a taught curriculum at all levels of the education system as well as to practice based research degrees. Such a research based, practitioner referenced curriculum, I argued, would make real the principle of learning how to learn, and it would do so in a way that relates recent developments in research in higher education to the principle of independent study in all sectors of the education system.

The notion of practitioner related standards advanced is socially constructivist in approach, deriving standards from what it means to make a work of art, to engage with a work of art, and to engage with discourses about art and artists. No sense of necessary artistic value, nor a canon is implied, and it is intended that art be taken to be that which it is thought to be, for the purposes of engagement with learning. Thus there is no necessary distinction, for the purposes of a research process curriculum, between amateur and professional artists, works of art as validated through museology and folk art or forms of the media, nor critical theory and popular journalism as it addresses the arts(5).

Art, knowledge and knowing

Fundamental to the value placed upon research in higher education is the idea that research generates knowledge. This assumption would seem to place research in a key role within higher education, but it would also seem to place research in relation to teaching if both activities have a role in learning.

In considering research and teaching as agents of learning in art, it is appropriate to consider the term knowledge in relation to art, particularly in terms of whether knowledge is considered in a passive sense as a body of knowledge independent of an enquirer into knowledge, or whether in an active sense which depends on the activity of an enquirer.

As this enquiry into the embodiment of knowledge and enquiry within creative practice moves towards what Donald Schön calls ‘an epistemology of practice’ (6) it would be appropriate to acknowledge how some of the key conceptualisations of knowledge in art seem to have progressed in recent decades from passive to active perspectives. An analytic survey of this pattern of development would have the benefit of recontextualising a wealth of art historical knowledge within the development of the theorisation of art research. Regrettably such an important task is beyond the remit of this paper. However, it is possible to outline what appear to be some of the key landmarks, and this seems appropriate to discussing Schön’s thinking in terms of enquiry within art.

Paul H Hirst’s concept of domains of knowledge (7) include aesthetics as a distinct domain which, whilst not identified specifically with art does have a special relationship with art. His paper enquiring into fine art as a distinct domain of knowledge (8) goes a long way towards a view of art as a distinct domain of knowledge, but one which raises issues in the differing characteristics of knowledge and knowing. Ralph Phenix (9) deals with this issue in terms of ‘realms of meaning’. Again, aesthetics is not identified exclusively with art although a special relationship is acknowledged. In implying an active role on the part of the student of knowing, Phenix appears to effect a shift of emphasis which now seems particularly relevant to ideas of student centred learning. In discussing how domains of knowledge become known, Hirst (10) referred to the active ‘pursuit of knowledge’ as distinct from an apparently passive domain of knowledge. In this active context of doing, a unique and necessary relationship between aesthetics and art become feasible, as considered by this author in 1983 (11). Louis Arnaud Reid’s concept of ways of knowing (12) takes this active relationship between knowledge and meaning in art further, and his views seem to place greater emphasis on the active knower than an apparently passive body of knowledge. Richard Wollheim too (13) tacitly places the viewer in an active position in identifying an art object as inter alia that to which the viewer attends, that is to say, an object of attention. However, it is in Jerome Bruner’s alliance of feeling with cognition (14) that the character of knowledge in art can be seen as dependent on the enquirer. If this outline sketch of epistemological thinking is of use in this discussion, it is to broadly indicate how one may characterise artistic knowledge as something actively and necessarily sought by the enquirer, as opposed to a body of knowledge capable of transmission independently of the activities of the enquirer.

Reflection and research

This increased emphasis on the active dimension of knowing finds particular relevance to art research in Donald A Schön’s concepts of ‘knowledge in practice’ and ‘reflection in action’. Schön’s overarching concept of the ‘reflective practitioner’ relates Gramsci’s concept of ‘praxis’ (15) to potentially any situation in which a professional practitioner may operate. In seeking the ‘demystification of professional knowledge’ (16) with a view to establishing an ‘epistemology of practice which places problem solving within a broader context of reflective enquiry…’ (17) Schön argues against a dichotomy of thinking and action. ‘When a practitioner keeps inquiry moving…he does not abstain from action in order to sink into endless thought. Continuity of inquiry entails a continual weaving of thinking and doing’. (18). In this respect he is of particular interest to those concerned with art and design practice which has traditionally recognised a practice/theory split within undergraduate courses (80%practice:20% theory), as if an artist or student disengages from thinking when in process of practical action. Schon’s ‘reflection in action’ is characterised as a form of enquiry, ‘a conversation with the situation’(19), whilst his ‘knowing in practice’ seems to offer a potential basis for a theorisation of intuition.

Schön outlines four kinds of research to characterise a ‘shared pattern of enquiry’ within the ‘conversation with the situation’ across a range of professions: ‘frame analysis; repertoire building research; research on fundamental methods and overarching theories; and research on the process of reflection-in-action’ (20). Schön’s approach to problem-solving which is permeated by reflection on the nature of problems and solutions seems to derive from the ‘design methods movement’ of the 1950-70s (21), and has a ready familiarity and appeal to those familiar with notions of problem solving What differs from previous accounts of problem-solving is the dual emphasis on enquiry and dialogue within the problem solving process. The ‘dialogue with the situation’ seems equally applicable to the professional: client relationship and the professional’s inner dialogue with him/herself.

Art research and methodology

For the development of research methodology in art, the character of the ‘dialogue with the situation’ is crucial. One may look to the history of research and the history of art practice for precedents and exemplars. This paper will deal with just two examples of such a dialogue, one from each of these histories, yet one may feel confident of there being many more that will be valuable for the purposes of clarifying research methodology in art.

The first example has been suggested to this author by John Chris Jones, whose Design Methods and Designing Designing (22) deal with a wealth of approaches to methods of enquiry The records and correspondence of Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday (23) record and reflect on each’s research activity Jones suggests that these records, in the form of a day book represent a proto-journal of the kind that has become essential to scientific research (24). The maintenance of a log-book has become virtually standard practice amongst research students. What is crucial about Davy’s and Faraday’s records and exchanges, however, is the level of reflection on what has been done and may be done within the context of a record of what has been done. These documents contain both discourse and meta-discourse. For a log book to become integral to the research enquiry, rather than as so often merely a record of that enquiry, it must become a tool in the pursuit of enquiry.

The second example seems to suggest itself in response to the first example. The sketch-book has long been a convention of the art student experience, but its role and methods for its use have been less obvious. Early examples, such as those of JWM Turner (25), were used sometimes to record transient images in the field in preparation for subsequent elaboration in the studio. Such sketch books are a store of visual information, often lacking the aesthetic qualities of ‘finished’ works of art, but necessary to their production. Other examples have been a container or vehicle for small works of art done in the field and have been contingent on their portablility. Later examples, such as those encouraged by Richard Hamilton and others (26) in the early days of the ‘basic design’ movement, were used to develop ideas, record unexplored possibilities for potential future use. Further examples would include the collection of visual material from primary and/or secondary sources. Any comparison of the sketchbook and the scientific research logbook is likely to be incomplete if the reflection in practice, or meta-discourse, is not a systematic element. If the content of the sketchbook is largely visual rather than verbal, as may be expected of the log book, it may not be obvious as to how the meta-discourse is made explicit, unless this is done explicitly, for example by using only alternate pages within the sketchbook for the discourse of the enquiry, leaving the other alternate pages blank for subsequent meta-discourse entries.

The sketchbook becomes a viable research tool if one takes the expanded view of drawing taken by Jacqueline Goodnow (27) when she identifies the tacit meta-discourse within a drawing. A drawing, she argues, depicts not only that which it is the intention of the drawer (a child within the terms of her research but equally valid for an adult artist) to represent, but also the pattern of the formation of the drawers thinking, what she describes drawings as ‘visible thinking’. In this sense, the meta-discourse is immediately accessible within the dialogue with the situation.

It is possible to expand this approach to research methodology if one looks for a wider range of examples of research tools comparable to the log book and the sketch book. Indeed, the diarising approach to information and enquiry readily suggests many historical examples that may be useful in expanding a sketch book approach to art research. It would seem that much useful work remains to be done in this respect.

The importance of the discourse/meta-discourse relationship to the ‘dialogue with the situation’ would seem to be two fold. First is the importance of the thrust of the enquiry itself as supported by the reflection of the enquiry into the enquiry. In this sense the internal dialogue of the researcher reconstructs that of the researcher and the research community. Second is the recording of this dialogue at two simultaneous levels providing the accountability required within the academic examination of research degrees.

The dialogue of the researcher with his/her research community, as seen in prototype in the correspondence between Davy and Faraday, has taken on new forms in recent years with the advent of internet bulletin boards and e-mail discussion lists. These new forums provide a level of informality in research discourse that seems new by contemporary standards but which might have seemed familiar in principle to Davy or Faraday. What would be entirely unfamiliar to those historical figures is the speed of communication across national boundaries and the quickness of response. Mailbase discussion lists such as that of the Design Research Society (28), or websites such as John Chris Jones’’softopia’ (29) and ‘internet and everyone’ (30) facilitate a range and intimacy of informal discussion that almost bring into question the slow formality of the published periodical journal. What will happen to that formal means of printed communication as research communities discover and explore electronic means of disseminating ideas remains to be seen.

The embodiment of knowledge

In differentiating knowledge in action from knowledge on reflection, Schon provides two perspectives from which to consider the embodiment of knowledge, and these may be recognised as the points of view of the artist and the audience for art.

Knowledge in the artist’s action of making art would seem capable of characterisation in a number of ways from the artist’s point of view, and the following, which draws upon Schon’s four kinds of research discussed above (31), are offered as a provisional typology:

  • the framing of one’s actions in which one orients action in terms of how enquiry may proceed. Here one engages with the questions that are intrinsically or explicitly asked in the action of making art;

  • the physical act of making or doing in which one engages with aspects of a process such as the creative potential of materials, methods or techniques;

  • the act of seeing in which the visual dimension of subject matter or of the product itself, in which perception can be creatively explored;

  • the active engagement with cultural heritage in which artistic precedents are recalled, reacted to or rejected. Here one engages with what it means to be an artist;

  • the act of reflecting upon one’s actions, relating outcome to intention and precedent as one proceeds within in the act of making art.

Knowledge within the audience’s reflection upon action may similarly be characterised in a number of ways, and fortunately for this essay a typology of critical discourse is beyond the remit of this enquiry.

It was suggested earlier that a research methodology that does justice to the notion that artistic knowledge is embodied in works of art will be invaluable not only to the further development of research degrees but also to a research based taught curriculum. Perhaps the key concept within the notion of lifelong leaning is that of learning how to learn. It would seem that the idea of a meta-discourse embodied within the enquiry discourse of creative practice epitomises that key concept of lifelong learning. Perhaps lifelong learning will come to depend on a research based enquiry-process curriculum that centres on the learner’s own ‘discourse with the situation’ of his or her own learning intentions. Should that become the case in art then any notion that there is a cultural inheritance, canon, or body of knowledge that can be transmitted through education should become redundant. Lifelong learning in art should depend on enquiry through a direct engagement with art as it is found to be in a socially constructed sense. The research methodology that may be developed through research degrees is likely to have a direct relevance to lifelong learning in art, but just as lifelong learning de-privileges and democratises the learning experience, so learning becomes user-sensitive. Such a methodology is unlikely to seem entirely unfamiliar to art practitioners, but the familiar aspects of art practice such as the sketch book can be expected to take on new dimensions as the knowledge base of art practice becomes increasingly demystified and increasingly sensitised to the interests and needs of a rapidly diversifying range of art research practitioners.

The idea of the embodiment of knowledge within a work of art is capable of theorisation in a number of ways, and Merlieu-Ponty’s (32) notion of ‘carnal formulae’ is particularly relevant in this. Comparable as it is with the object relations idea of the ‘object’ in a work of art being ‘the object of attention’, the idea of embodied knowledge allows for a work of art to be related to as if it was a person. In this sense we may converse with works of art both through attending (or listening) to them and through ourselves communicating. To communicate (or speak) in this sense would be to make and do, to form works of art as surrogate fellow beings within the broader world of discourse. For this conversation with things and places to be characterised as research, one needs only to form the conversation in terms of enquiry. We may question ourselves in making and doing at the same time as interrogating the working processes in which we engage, notably through the analytic eye of drawing. We may also find ourselves unexpectedly challenged. That works of art may be knowledge bearing and communicative may be demonstrated experientially as well as theoretically. How often has one visited an exhibition to respond with surprise and pleasure at what has been encountered. Such surprise can reasonably be seen as a measure of new knowledge embodied in the works of art. Equally, there are those exhibitions which are self evidently derivative or predictable, with no claims to newness of knowledge. Judgements like this are made every time one visits an exhibition, and they evidence our conversation with the exhibits. It is worth distinguishing here between the will to shock that has become the ineffectively commonplace in much avant garde art, and the surprise that actuually puts one at odds with one’s previous knowledge of art.

The sense of surprise in such encounters can reasonably be taken as a benchmark of new knowledge, and one that is characterised in extermis by Rainer Maria Rilke in his poem ‘Antique Bust of Apollo’ (33) (33), which concludes with the sculpture addressing the viewer with the words, ‘You must change your life!’


1. Christopher Cornford, Our Conversation With Things and Places, course unit for TAD292 ‘Art

and Environment’, Open University, 1976

2. Donald A Schon, The Refelective Practitioner, how professionals think in action, Ashgate, Arena,

Aldershot, 1983

3. HEFC et al, Research Assessment Exercise 2001, RAE 1/98, Higher Education Funding Council.

  1. Tim Jones, Art and Lifelong Learning, Journal of Art and Design Education, 1999,

5. ibid, p 139

6. Donald A Schon, The Refelective Practitioner, how professionals think in action, Ashgate, Arena,

Aldershot, 1983, p69

7. Paul H. Hirst, Knowledge and the Curriculum: a Collection of Philosophical Papers,

8. Paul H Hirst, xxxxxx in Field, D and Newick, ‘Art and Art Education’

9. Ralph Phenix, Realms of Meaning, New York, McGraw, 1964

10. in a personal letter to this author, 1980

11 Tim Jones, A Case for the Inclusion of Art in a Common Core Curriculum, unpublished Med dissertation, University College, Cardiff, 1983

12. Louis Arnaud Reid, Ways of Understanding and Education

13. Richard Wolllheim, Art and its Objects, Harmondsworth Penguin, 1970

14. Jerome Bruner, On Knowing, Essays for the Left Hand, Harvard University Press, 1979

15. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from thePrison Notebooks, ed. Q. Hoare, London and New York, lawrence and Wishart

16. Donald A Schon, The Refelective Practitioner, how professionals think in action, Ashgate, Arena,

Aldershot, 1983

17. ibid, p69

18. ibid, p280

19. ibid, p76

20. ibid, p x

21. The design methods movement was a number of designers, educationists and theorists including Christopher Alexander, Bruce Archer, John Chris Jones and others who found a point of focus in the Design Research Society, established in 1967. One common premis was that design is intrinsic to a wide range of activities of which the professional activities of designers is only one part. This movement continues to thrive and is now more commonly known as the design research movement.

22. John Chris Jones, Design Methods, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1992, and

Designing Designing, Phaidon/ADT Press, London 1991

23. See Library of the Royal Institute of Great Britain, Albermarle Street, London

24 In pivate conversation with this author.

25. See Clore Gallery, the Tate Gallery, London

26. In 1953 Richard Hamilton began to teach at Kings College, University of Durham with Victor Pasmore. There, he developed a ‘basic design course’, the procedural exercise and project basis of which became a major influence on art foundation courses throughout the UK, and on ways in which students were widely encouraged to use sketch books.

27. Jacqueline Goodnow, Children Drawing, 1977

28. Design Research Society, www.drs.ac.uk

29. John Chris Jones, www.softopia.demon.co.uk

30. John Chris Jones, www.ellipsis.com/i+e

31. Donald A Schon, The Refelective Practitioner, how professionals think in action, Ashgate, Arena,

Aldershot, 1983

32. Maurice Merlieu-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge

33. Rainer Maria Rilke,