Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Artistic Significance, Creativity, and Innovation Using Art as Research

  • Ross W. PriorEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_64-1


Introduction to Art as Research

In recent decades there has been considerable interest in research rooted in practice, which has begun to establish a range of new research paradigms that move away from scientific ways of investigating to approaches more useful to the creative practitioner where objectification, statistical analysis, and control groups may be of less usefulness. Unlike science, detachment, objectivity, controlled experimentation, random trials, and rationality do not reach the heart of artistic inquiry. In artistic research there are particular art-based considerations, which means that science or social science is not the mode of inquiry.

Approaches to research depend on epistemologies, which vary considerably across disciplines and even within specific disciplines. The range of new possibilities is complex, and this complexity is encapsulated in the emergence of a wide variety of terms or typologies, which have variably been labelled under the broader terms of practice-based research or practice as research (PaR). However, there are many terminologies in current use, and as Jacqueline Taylor (cited in Prior 2018, p. 94) points out that “these terms vary globally, by institution and discipline (even within the same institution) […] different terms are often used interchangeably and there are also a great many contradictions amongst the same terms.” These terms include practice-led research; practice-based research; art-based research (ABR); arts-based research; art practice as research; practice as research in the arts (PaRa); artistic research; research “into,” “through,” and “for” practice; research-led practice; research-informed; research by design; and art as research. Alongside art-based research (ABR), it is the latter term “art as research” that is of most relevance here as together with ABR it speaks directly to art as the vehicle or mode of inquiry.

Essentially, art as research comprises the artifact as the basis of a contribution to knowledge, by the means and outcomes of that practice, and is generally demonstrated through creative outcomes such as performances, designs, and exhibitions and is supported textually, for instance, in order to develop for others an understanding of how the research was conducted. This type of research has particular currency for creative practitioners wishing to explore their own practice and finding ways to conduct research that allows for full recognition of subjectivity and imagination. It is the reconciliation between practice and theory that has sparked the ongoing interest in the personal relationship between practice and research within practice-based or practice-led research.

Art-Based Research

One of the most useful terms within artistic inquiry is “art-based research” (McNiff 1998) which acknowledges the multiplicity of related terms or typologies in which the meaning attached to them can be fluid. Rather than settling upon a singular definition, or the specificity of particular terminology, Taylor (cited in Prior 2018, pp. 94–95) proposes that “art-based research can instead be defined precisely by its resistance to be defined; as a heterogeneous, multi-layered, highly nuanced and fluid concept that comprises various complexities, particularities, peculiarities and possibilities, and qualities such as reflexivity, interdisciplinarity, emergence and performativity.” However, Shaun McNiff (1998, p. 56), arguably the father of art-based research, provides a particularly informative definition: “Art-based research involves reflection on the interplay between these mental motivations and physical ones that appear through contact with the medium.”

Ten years on from his 1998 treatise, Shaun McNiff (cited in Prior 2018, p. 3) gives a further useful definition of the specificity of the use of the term “art-based research”:

Art-based research can be defined as the systematic use of the artistic process, the actual making of artistic expressions in all of the different forms of the arts, as a primary way of understanding and examining experience by both researchers and the people that they involve in their studies. These inquiries are distinguished from research activities where the arts may play a significant role but are essentially used as data for investigations that take place within academic disciplines that utilize more traditional scientific, verbal, and mathematic descriptions and analyses of phenomena.

However there has been a recent trend in academic writing where the plural (and fragmentary) term “arts-based research” instigated by Elliot Eisner and Tom Barone (2012) also appears in the literature, seemingly without understanding the implications of its use. However, Shaun McNiff’s term “art-based research” covers a breadth of potential usage that unifies artistic practice. The plural form “arts-based research” presents an ongoing silo approach to our scholarship when the term “art” can usefully discuss the same common denominator which is art (Prior 2018). The separations reinforce the current lack of integral vision rather than strengthening the whole community of practice, history, and future potential of art and artistic understanding to reinforce a common purpose.

An important distinction is that Elliot Eisner and Tom Barone use the term “arts-based research” within a social science context and define it as “a process that uses the expressive qualities of form to convey meaning” (2012, p. xii). Essentially these authors were interested in the role of artistry in projects of social inquiry – an important area – but artistic inquiry has broader potential in creativity and innovation. While Eisner and Barone have made a contribution, the earlier scholarship on art-based research, and the subsequent scholarship, offers much in the way of understanding art as inquiry.

Overall, however, the philosophy of art-based research does not emphasize dividing the fields of “art”; the principle of art-based research is art as the research methodology. By direct implication the term art-based research affirms a community of art and artists including all of the arts (McNiff 1998). The integrality of “art” is significant, and this models the more comprehensive connectedness in combating the dominant silos of education, “subjects,” thought, and research methods, whereas the “plural term” continues to reinforce separation.

Art as a Research Methodology

As a useful distinction to this type of research methodology, art as research (McNiff 2013; Prior 2018) involves a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performed artworks, expressing the artist’s imaginative and/or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional impact. Art as research is essentially not random but uses systematic investigation into the study of process, materials, and sources in order to understand art more completely and reach new conclusions. The primary components in using art as research are documentation, discovery, and interpretation for the purpose of the advancement of artistic knowledge and furthering understanding of all of life and other disciplines too (Prior 2018, p. 3).

McNiff (2009, p. 144) directs artist-researchers to the potential of the art form itself in responding to issues of research rather than relying upon other methodologies. He recognizes that historically in the arts and in arts therapy, these fields have been “so thoroughly tied to traditional social science methods of research and the more general notions of scientism that we have not appreciated our own unique potential to further human understanding.”

The key here is art for understanding. Embracing all of the arts as one, McNiff advances “an appreciation of the natural processes found within art-making that can provide artists with the answers they seek within their own work (Prior 2018). Initially faster to catch on more widely in the United Kingdom and Europe than in the USA, using art as methodology is proving to be a highly relevant way of conducting artistic research which allows artists to further understand what it is they do. The artistic process allows for doing research to find questions, not only to find answers. Art-based research is more than examining the finished product hanging on a wall or witnessed on a stage. Art can provide the topic of research, the process of research and indeed the outcome of research (Prior 2018). Experimentation with the method and learning more about it can even be a primary outcome of the research and an aide to future professional applications. Practitioner research is concerned with answering the question: ‘How can I do it better?” And this question is of most use to artists. Art-based researchers tend to immerse themselves in the studies of how artists research personal and social experiences. They also acquaint themselves with how art has served as a primary agent of change in the world throughout time.

Artistic Significance, Creativity, and Innovation in Education

Art can be a difficult concept to pin down in precise terms as it has a fluidity of meaning and intention. Alongside art itself frequently comes interpretation since people seek to understand or make meaning as an essential response to any human experience. However, the act of interpreting can be a depleting exercise that reduces art to mere renderings of meaning. However, art can never be reduced to a single interpretation or single interpretation of what expressions might mean. Labelling and fixed interpretation may be seen as a defense against the complexity of artistic expression. This resistance or defiance to be defined makes art particularly alluring but also unsettling as it is at odds to what can be measured and precisely defined. Art intentionally plays with the ambiguity of expression. Respecting the “otherness” of art and focusing on art’s significance are key distinctive qualities of all art forms.

A challenge for educators in the twenty-first century is in combating the tendency for standardization and a metrics-driven culture while fostering creativity, innovation, and inventiveness in the curriculum, a frequent call appearing in educational agendas. However, creativity and innovation in these recent years have become economically linked as key drivers in what has variably been labelled the “creative economy” and “clever economy.” Creativity has been linked to industry with the growing use of the term “creative industries” to represent the considerable contribution to gross economic output. Employers and others are not only concerned about what graduates know but are also concerned with their creative abilities to think about things in new and innovative ways.

Creative learning is not only being seen as an important factor in addressing the economy, but also it is increasingly being seen as a contributor to social change agendas. Creativity allows for innovation in the wider field. Within this context, creativity can be defined as the creation of novel, original knowledge that changes a field and is recognized as such by its experts. To move beyond subject expertise, students need to be encouraged to think in different ways, to integrate knowledge across disciplines, to encourage appropriate risk-taking, and to persevere in the face of challenges. To these ends many innovative breakthroughs usually come from those who examine a problem from different conceptual frameworks, disciplines, and viewpoints, which is why there is frequent emphasis upon interdisciplinary and integrative work. While arguably creativity itself may not be able to be taught, creative learning is an intentional process that can be developed in students. Curricular and extracurricular opportunities that encourage students to pursue challenging inquiry and require them to address significant questions of practice contribute to transforming education and valuing arts education at all levels.

Artists call upon multiple ways of knowing, which are likely to become further enhanced through the experience of practice. These complex understandings are entwined within the act of doing and being, and because they can be so embodied, the outsider may grossly underestimate all that is involved with being an artist (Prior 2018). Therefore within this complexity, Eisner acknowledged that “knowledge is less a discovery than it is a construction” (cited in Prior 2018, p. 7). Knowledge acquisition is generally understood as not being linear but is gained more as a web of understanding over time and frequently involves the interaction with others.

In art and artistry, knowledge is constructed in and through artistic practice. In more recent years, there has been a growing awakening of understanding that has led to an acceptance of embodied knowledge, situated knowledge, and enacted knowledge which offer artist-researchers more useful insights than might be gained through scientific-type experimentation. Artistic practice and artistic experimentation tend to place the artist firmly in the middle, and every situation is entirely unique and experiential.

Again, Eisner argues that knowing depends upon experience “either the kind of experience that emanates from the sentient being’s contrast with the qualities of the environment or from the experiences born of the imagination” (cited in Prior 2018, p. 7). These types of experiential knowing for artists are derived through, for example, accident, playfulness, repetition, improvisation, intuition, inspiration, emotional response, and experience itself – none of which resemble the orthodoxy of scientific inquiry although have, as history has shown, also produced scientific innovation and discovery.

An earlier figure to considerably influence educational thought and who understood the significance of art was John Dewey. He wrote the highly distinguished book Art as Experience (1934) in which Dewey expressed the idea that art functions as experience. He places great value on the processes of inquiry: looking and finding meaning. Dewey highly values the various components of artistry that involve hard to pin-down qualities such as intuition, impulse, invocation, and spontaneity – all tenants of creativity and innovation. He understood the entwined and embodied nature of meaning contained within art:

As long as “meaning” is a matter of association and suggestion, it falls apart from the qualities of the sensuous medium and form is disturbed. Sense qualities are the carriers of meanings, not as vehicles carry goods but as a mother carries a baby when the baby is part of her own organism. Works of art, like words, are literally pregnant with meaning. (Dewey 2005, pp. 122–123)

John Dewey promoted the thought that “new ideas come leisurely yet promptly to consciousness only when work has previously been done in forming the right doors by which they may gain entrance” (Dewey 2005, p. 76). He also places emphasis upon the subconscious process, which precedes creative production. “The direct effort of “wit and will” of itself never gave birth to anything that is not mechanical; their function is necessary, but it is to let loose allies that exist outside their scope” (p. 76).

Undoubtedly much has changed for artistic researchers since the initial rise in the interest in artistic research in the 1990s. Where both Elliot Eisner and Shaun McNiff explore this terrain throughout their respective careers, McNiff’s 1998 Art-Based Research was the first book to name and consolidate the approach to research which has expanded significantly in the second decade of the twenty-first century as academics have moved away from social science models of inquiry within the arts.

Narrative, like numbers, can have limitations as it also provides a symbolic representation. Frequently traditional research favors the written word as the single linguistic communication system rather than other non-dominant communication systems, for example, the nonverbal, pictorial, idiomatic, symbolic, and metaphoric. Images can of course offer rich meaning which add yet another form of representation. Art and science frequently both share a need to interpret the world by constructing images to make concepts perceptible and understandable. Equally “narratives, films, video, theatre, even poems and collages can be used to deepen one’s understanding of aspects of educational practice and its consequences” (Eisner cited in Prior 2018).

Any form of research, be it experimental or not, must as an essential tenant be sufficiently open to allow the indistinct to become apparent and sufficient space to facilitate the discovery of what is not yet known. Art-based research offers learners, educators, and art-researchers considerable opportunities. Undoubtedly one of the strongest claims within art-based research is that the artistic experience is central to understanding and that written interpretations are not a higher form of knowing within the research process, although traditional doctoral theses very much privilege the written word.

The educational experience in all of the arts in higher education can be enriched with a greater understanding and active application of art as research (Prior 2018). Artists interested in research – which significantly includes artists desiring to know more about their own practices – will come to recognize that the whole gamut of the artist’s personal experience plays a part. McNiff and others understand and respect the artistic process that requires a helpful precondition to artistry: a “letting go,” a freedom from the constraints of formal analysis, and overthinking before one commences to make, do, or become. Acknowledgment of this provides artist-researchers an immensely rich terrain in which to operate. It would be remiss of educators to deny this explicit exploration with students.


This entry has described the essential tenants of artistic significance and the place of creativity and innovation using art as research with a view to highlighting some educational possibilities. Key critical themes are revealed through the interdisciplinary perspective of art. Seeing art as a process in which understanding is constructed and co-constructed with others is very much at the heart of using art as research. While artistic research differs from science and the social sciences, it is simply a mode of inquiry that best suits the form, as it is the form that is of empirical interest alongside the artistic process. Once this is fully understood within higher education, we may begin to see the dissolve of the divides pitting artist versus researcher and practitioner versus teacher.

Using art as research provides a natural educational cadence for those who do not see necessary borders between artist, researcher, and educator in and through the production of art. A convergence of roles allows for artist and academic to become one. Art as research seeks to reveal and understand that which is bound in aesthetic experience and is enacted and embodied both in and through artistic processes.

Dewey (2005) neatly summarizes that the potential limits in aesthetics are determined experientially and by what the artists make out of it in practice, by stating that “the medium of expression is neither subjective nor objective, but is an experience in which they are integrated in a new object” (p. 299, original emphasis). To these ends, artists often use more than one artistic mode to express their experiences, underlining the application of exploring the commonalities across the various art forms. Artistic inquiry, whether it is within the context of research or an individual person’s creative expression, usually starts with the honest realization that you cannot define the final outcome when you are planning to do the work. At its core, artistic significance is found in its openness to simply experience.



  1. Dewey, J. ([1934] 2005). Art as experience. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  2. Eisner, E., & Barone, T. (2012). Arts based research. Los Angeles: Sage.Google Scholar
  3. McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. McNiff, S. (2009). Integrating the arts in therapy: history, theory, and practice, Springfield: Charles C Thomas.Google Scholar
  5. McNiff, S. (Ed.). (2013). Art as research. Bristol: Intellect.Google Scholar
  6. Prior, R. W. (Ed.). (2018). Using art as research in learning and teaching: Multidisciplinary approaches across the arts. Bristol: Intellect.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WolverhamptonWolverhamptonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Christopher Wilson
    • 1
  • Sarah Hayes
    • 2
  • Petar Jandrić
    • 3
  1. 1.Aston UniversityBirminghamUK
  2. 2.Aston UniversityBirminghamUK
  3. 3.Department of Informatics and ComputingZagreb University of Applied SciencesZagrebCroatia