Key-Features of Arts-Based Research

1. Reflexivity: Connects to the self yet distances us from ourselves, acting as a mirror. By its very nature, artistic self-expression taps into and reveals aspects of the self and puts us in closer touch with how we really feel and look and act, leading, potentially, to a deepening of the self-study. Yet paradoxically, such acts as self-photographs, drawings of or by the researcher, and putting oneself into a role for autobiographic performance also force us to take a step back and look at ourselves from the new perspective provided by the medium itself, increasing the potential for a deeper self-analysis.

2. Can be used to capture the ineffable, the hard-to-put-into-words: Eisner (1995) views the aesthetic as inherent to our need to make sense of experience, and argues that visual forms afford us an “all-at-once-ness” that reveals what would be hard to grasp through language and numbers alone (p.1). Arts-based methods of inquiry can help us access those elusive hard-to-put-into-words aspects of our practitioner knowledge that might otherwise remaining hidden, even from ourselves.

3. Is memorable, can not be easily ignored—demands our sensorial, emotional, and intellectual attention: Art is a heightened experience, one that simultaneously engages our senses, our emotions, and our intellect. The reason we need and create art has to do with its ability to make us feel alive and to discover what we didn’t know we knew, or to see what we never noticed before, even when it was right in front of our noses. Because the visual and the artistic elicit a multi-sensory and emotional as well as intellectual response, they can be more memorable than many written texts are and therefore more likely to have influence. Images or experiences that have emotional overtones stay with us, although perhaps, hidden, for a while in a corner of our consciousness, only to come back and provoke later. Using artistic modes of representation thus increases the likelihood of finding a voice, of making an impact (whether negative or positive) on the reader/ viewer/ community—and, of course, on oneself.

4. Can be used to communicate more holistically simultaneously keeping the whole and the part in view: Those who put up billboards or design magazine ads know that it is possible to convey a lot of things with just one image. For example, looking at a telling and artful juxtaposition of candid snapshots of our students, or of ourselves at work can sometimes reveal as much information as several pages of written text, or convey a different kind of information that keeps a context always present. Or consider the power of the statement a teacher makes when she draws herself in her classroom gagged and tied up, or swaddled like a baby and portrayed as sitting in the large white masculine hands of a school administrator.

5. Through visual detail and context, shows why and how study of the one can resonate with the lives of many: Artful representation works well when it facilitates empathy or enables us to see through the researcher-artist’s eye. Hearing or seeing or feeling the details of a lived experience, its textures and shapes, helps make the representation trustworthy or believable, and helps the viewers see how the researcher-artist’s experience relates to their own as well as the ways in which it differs. As Eisner (1995) writes, artistically crafted work creates a paradox, revealing what is universal by examining in detail what is particular (p.3). The more visual detail that is provided about the context of the researcher’s experience and interpretations, the better able the audience is to judge how it may or may not apply to their practice or concerns, and the more trustworthy the work appears, leaving the reader to decide or “see” for themselves.

6. Through metaphor and symbol, can carry theory elegantly and eloquently: The possibilities for the visual to use cultural codes to make effective and economical theoretical statements is, for the most part, dismally under-tapped and under valued in Education, except by those statisticians who use graphs effectively. The advertising industry and political cartoonists seem to be way ahead of education in this regard. Imagine, for example, a cartoon or collage or manipulated photo display of a teacher educator knocked-down, reeling, half-lying against a brick wall while a menacing, bomb-shaped missile labeled “program objectives and standards” heads directly for his head. Such a visual statement may be simplistic and not necessarily artistic (it could be), but it very quickly alludes to a model or view of our work. Some visual statements are deliberately more ambiguous or nuanced, like Escher’s provocative graphics, or Magrite’s memorable drawings of a pipe that is labeled “this is not a pipe.” Such art conveys multiple meanings that can be used to evoke the complexity of our work and the contradictions that are inherent to it.

7. Makes the ordinary seem extraordinary—Provokes, innovates, and breaks through common resistance, forcing us to consider new ways of seeing or doing things: As Grumet (1988) observes, “the aesthetic is distinguished from the flow of daily experience, the phone conversations, the walk to the corner store, only by the intensity, completeness, and unity of its elements and by a form that calls forth a level of perception that is, in itself, satisfying.” (p. 88). There was nothing extraordinary about the ubiquitous Campbell soup can until Warhol thrust it in our faces, writ large. Giving a new symbolic twist to plain old things works well because we do not have our guard up against the mundane. This makes it a powerful weapon for breaking through our everyday perceptions. Accordingly, self-study art installations, plays, or photo essays may feature novel uses or attention to such mundane objects as pointers, apples, school bells, desks, books, school uniforms, academic caps, shoes and so forth.

8. Involves embodiment and provokes embodied responses: If educators are acknowledging the importance of the body to models of learning in their rhetoric, it is important to acknowledge that self-study, like all research, is an embodied enterprise (see chapter 4 “Undressing and redressing the teacher’s body” in Mitchell and Weber, 1999, for a detailed discussion). We are not ideas, but flesh and blood beings learning through our senses. Visual methods help researchers keep their own bodies and their students’ bodies in mind and push for a more sophisticated analysis and theorizing that consider learning and teaching as embodied.

9. Can be more accessible than most forms of academic discourse: We agree with Williams & Bendelow (1998) that artistic forms of representations provide a refreshing and necessary challenge to prevailing modes of academic discourse. The use of widely-shared cultural codes and popular images make some visual expressions far more accessible than the usual academic language. To the degree that the mandate of the academy is to provoke discussion and thinking, and to communicate research to a broader audience (even within the academy) the use of the visual arts becomes significant.

10. Makes the personal social and the private public. Going public leads researchers to assume a more activist stance: As Florence Krall (1988) so eloquently puts it, “the journey inward becomes an ongoing process that leads out-ward to a more complete understanding of the human condition. Self- understanding is not merely a reflection on what we are but what we are in relation to the world” (1988, p.119). When the purpose of art is “to break through the conventionalized and routine consciousness,” arts informed representations become the medium for messages needing to be heard (Dewey, 1958, p. 184). And, contrary to the stereotypes some might hold of self-study as a private activity of self-indulgence—we contend that self-studies need to be heard.


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