In Praise of the Artist Researcher
To Cite this Article
Magrin-Chagnolleau, I. (2014). In Praise of the Artist Researcher. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org, 1.
I will start by defining the terms artist, researcher and artist researcher and then give some examples of artist researchers: Leonardo da Vinci, Constantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht and Lee Strasberg. Finally, I will address the issue of artist researcher from my own perspective, as an actor and director in particular. I will thus demonstrate the benefits of linking the practice of art with a more theoretical research of this practice, and how these two aspects – art and research – are mutually reinforcing and help creativity to flourish.
Artist, researcher, artist researcher, Leonardo da Vinci, Constantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht, Lee Strasberg, creativity, creative process, creation, actor, director, enaction, enactive creation, enactive research.
I am an artist researcher. Of course, I am other things too, but at the same time I am none of these things. If I claim to be a researcher here, however, it is because this is not self-evident within the French academic research system, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it seems that it is now no longer possible to be interested in both art and science, yet it’s not so long ago that this was irrelevant. On the other hand, we are in an era where knowledge has become over-specialised. Researchers are required to choose a discipline and stick to it, which allows researchers to be placed in the appropriate sector; in the right box. This is reinforced by the way research is structured within academic subject departments, especially in France. But I think over-specialisation of knowledge leads to intellectual impoverishment and a decline in creativity. Not so very long ago it was common to combine research activity whilst practicing an art form at the highest level; a musical instrument, for instance. In the art world too, artists are often required to compartmentalise themselves, especially if they need public funding to develop their work. I am against the over-specialisation of knowledge and against the practices of art and research, and consider myself an artist-researcher: I am an artist-researcher free to explore whatever I want to explore, with the proviso that I have set for myself – it must enhance creativity.
2. What is an artist researcher
I will start by clarifying what I mean by artist researcher.
First, what is an artist?
The Grand Robert French language dictionary gives several definitions of the word artist. Firstly, an artist can be “a person who practices a trade, a specialised skill.” An artist can also be “a person who devotes himself to the expression of beauty, practices “fine arts”; art.” An artist can be the “creator of a work of art; especially one dedicated to the visual arts.” The final definition given in Grand Robert for an artist is “a person who performs a musical, dramatic or cinematic work (as opposed to an author, composer, or writer).”
Grand Robert also offers a number of quotations to illustrate this concept of an artist. For example, this quotation from Théophile Gautier: “Any artist who deals in anything other than beauty is not an artist.” Or this quotation taken from Flaubert’s letters: “Where is the limit between inspiration and madness, foolishness and ecstasy? To be an artist, should one not see things in an entirely different way to other men?”
The first thing that emerges from all these definitions is the fact that an artist is part of an area of practice. This practice can involve either creation or performance, but in both cases it is an artistic practice. It is therefore about expression in both cases: either an expression that is created at the time, or a work that represents the expression of something created beforehand.
For me, an artist is someone who expresses himself through an artistic medium. Anyone who expresses himself through an artistic medium is an artist.
What is an artistic medium? For me, it’s a medium that allows the expression of something one feels internally, other than by conventional language. But an artistic medium can also be used to communicate something, especially something within the realm of emotions. Examples of artistic media are: painting, music, dance, theatre, performance, poetry, literature, sculpture, opera, singing, photography, film, video, etc. Literature and poetry obviously use language, but they do so in an unconventional way. What I mean by “other than by conventional language” relates to the intrinsic limits of language to convey the experience; to the extent that language is a convention that allows communication between two people, it contains in itself a limit to its ability to express the experience. It is a necessary fall-back, but it does not allow full expression. The artist must therefore look for an alternative way to express his experience, and especially what he feels in relation to his experience. This is why he uses a medium other than language: an artistic medium. Consequently, anyone who uses an artistic medium, that is, a medium other than conventional language, to share experiences and express inner feelings, is an artist. And at this stage I make no distinction between amateur and professional practices.
What is a researcher?
The first definition that Grand Robert gives is a very simple: a researcher is “a person who researches (something).” Grand Robert also provides this definition: “a person who dedicates himself to scientific research.” So there are two types of research: “scientific” research and just “research”, in other words, non-scientific research. What is it that makes research scientific? One could assert that research becomes scientific by dint of following the rules of scientific method. But scientific method, as proposed specifically by Descartes, does not apply as such to all disciplines. We have seen new methods put forward, particularly in the social sciences. We could say that research is scientific to the extent that someone uses a method to conduct research, and endeavours to follow this method.
A researcher then is someone who researches; that is, someone who asks himself a question and looks for an answer. A slightly more scientific definition of a researcher would be someone who formulates a hypothesis then tries to prove or disprove it, using a method. Anyone who asks themselves a question is a researcher. Anyone who asks themselves a question uses research to find the answer. They are therefore doing research. And this research is scientific when they use a rigorous research methodology.
2.3. Artist researcher
So there are several ways of conceiving the artist researcher. An artist researcher may be an artist who asks himself questions; in other words, someone who expresses himself through an artistic medium whilst seeking answers to questions. Or it could be someone who seeks answers to questions by means of artistic expression. It could also be someone who seeks answers to questions, then expresses them through an artistic medium. Finally, it could be someone who is on the one hand an artist; that is, who expresses himself through an artistic medium, and on the other hand a researcher; that is, someone who seeks answers to questions. To simplify, let’s say that an artist researcher is a person who has an artistic activity and a research activity. This broadest of definitions is the one I will use in the rest of this article.
3. Some examples of artist researchers
3.1. Leonardo da Vinci
The first example that comes to mind is Leonardo da Vinci (Vecce 1998). His great talent as a painter is of course well known. We are also aware of his enthusiasm and genius for a string of all inventions of all kinds, such as the helicopter, which he did not invent but of which he considerably influenced the prototype. He was also renowned for his ability to organise large and magnificent celebrations; he was a kind of organiser of great, lavish events. These are just a few examples of the different activities in which Leonardo da Vinci could put his creative genius to effect.
3.2. Constantin Stanislavski
Constantin Stanislavski is a very interesting example of an artist researcher. He started his career as an actor, then became a director, and then gave the training of actors a great deal of consideration and finally developed an entire theory of acting (Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 1937; Stanislavski, Building A Character, 1950; Stanislavski, Creating A Role, 1961; Stanislavski, My Life in Art, 1948). But this acting theory is based entirely on his experience as an actor and director, and so it is his vast artistic experience that allowed him to carry out this research on the role of acting and come up with a method that is still used as a reference today. He would not have been able to write what he did if he had not first been an actor and a director. It’s about experience, not quality. It turns out that, in Constantin Stanislavski’s case, his experience as an actor and director was also of high quality; at least, this is what we gather from the many testimonies that have been written on the subject. But even if he hadn’t been a very good actor or director, the important thing is that he had experience as an actor and director. It is this extensive experience that allowed him to theorise on the role of the actor and offer an incredibly rich critique of what the embodiment of a character entails. Moreover, this research was so extremely relevant, precisely because it was based on intensive artistic practice, that it is still used as a reference today. Constantin Stanislavski’s writings have influenced several generations of actors and stage directors, and continue to influence them today.
3.3. Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht is another very interesting example of an artist researcher. He was actually an actor and director before he started to write as a theorist on the theatre (Brecht 2000). Of course, he is known more for his work as a director than as an actor, and as the artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble Theatre, but all his theoretical writings are based on his experience as an artist. He has written more on stage direction than the role of the actor, which is consistent with him having been primarily a director. He was mainly concerned with the possibility that art, and in his case the theatre, can be a tool for social change and consequently developed an entire theory of directing as a tool to make audience participation as active as possible, and thus induce a change in mentality. This is what he called the estrangement effect. But everything that he developed in the way of theory was based essentially on his practice as a director.
3.4. Lee Strasberg
Finally I will take the example of Lee Strasberg, who is an actor and director of American theatre, as well as a great theorist on the art of acting. Lee Strasberg and Stanislavski met when Stanislavski was in New York. Strasberg was also part of the great adventure that was Group Theatre, and was in fact one of its co-founders (Clurman, The Fervent Years 1945). After the Second World War, he was contacted by Elia Kazan to become one of the artistic directors of the Actor’s Studio. It was mainly from his position at the Actors Studio that he was able to experiment and develop his theory on the art of acting (Hethmon 1965; Strasberg 1987; Cohen 2010), but it is also a result of his extensive experience as an actor and theatre director. It is impossible to separate them. His research consisted of both his own work as an actor and director and as an acting coach and director for other actors.
4. My own experience as an artist researcher.
I now come to my own experience as an artist researcher. I practice a number of artistic activities related to theatre, film, photography and writing. On top of that, I also carry out research into aesthetics and philosophy of art. As such, I try to combine these activities so that they are mutually enhancing. My artistic work serves as a grounding for my research, and my research allows me to intensify my artistic work, so there is a perfect harmony between my activities. Each impacts on the other in a process of mutual interaction and feedback, which Francisco Varela (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991) called enaction.
I would like to introduce two examples from my artistic practices that illustrate the reciprocal process between artistic activity and research. I’ll being with acting. I first trained for two years under Elizabeth Saint-Blancat at the Théâtre des clochards célestes in Lyon, followed by a 3-year course at the Actors Studio in New York. Since my training, I have so far had about fifteen major roles, both in theatre and cinema. Over this time I have read many works on acting theory and on the work of the actor (Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares 1937; Stanislavski, Building A Character 1950; Stanislavski, Creating A Role, 1961; Stanislavski, My Life in Art, 1948; Strasberg, 1987; Cohen, 2010, etc.) I have also coached, trained and directed many other actors. Throughout this work I have carried out reflective activity and writing in order to form my own ideas and develop my own exercises, to grow as an actor and to help others to grow as actors. I am currently in the process of completing a book on the Actors Studio method in which I detail the various concepts that the method includes; as a result this writing has allowed me to progress even further in my own practice of this method. This switching between artistic practice, research and teaching has improved my understanding of how actors work and has generated wisdom for myself and others.
This same interaction is true for my work as a director. I also trained in theatre staging during my three years at the Actors Studio, and I have directed about a dozen productions. I have also trained and coached a number of directors. I have read many books on directing and the work of the director (Clurman, On Directing, 1972; Vaughan, 1992; Brook, The Empty Space, 1968; Brook, The Shifting Point, 1987; Brook, The Open Door, 1993; Jones, 1986; Bartow, 1988; Feral, 1997/1998 etc.) and alongside these activities I have tried to formulate my own understanding and my own practice as a working director. Again, it is this constant interaction between all these activities that has enabled me to further my understanding and my work as a director, and so generate knowledge for myself and others. I have thus been able to develop an approach to directing that comprises several well-defined stages, and this has guided me in each production that I’ve directed. I have used this approach with the trainees and student directors that I’ve coached, and it will shortly become the subject of a book and a number of articles.
In this article, I have tried to demonstrate all the interest shown in being both a practitioner and a theorist in areas such as aesthetics and philosophy of art. I do not disagree that researchers without a solid grounding in artistic practice are able to articulate extremely coherent and useful ideas, but I believe it is also essential to put forward theoretical perspectives from practitioners. I also believe it is extremely useful to hear the views of practitioners on their work, though they may not have a recognised background in theory. I will even go so far as to say that an opinion based on practice may prove to be more useful, at least where is not aimed at a handful of specialist researchers.
I also wanted to demonstrate the interest there is in engaging in several different fields simultaneously, and in the boundaries that divide them. In my experience, creativity flourishes when it is allowed to go in several directions at the same time.
These two points of view deserve greater substantiation, which they will probably receive in future communications, but if this article has served in a modest way to help expand entry to the academic world and break down barriers between disciplines and between practitioners and theorists, then I have fulfilled my purpose.
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