Art as Research

“I never made a painting as a work of art, it’s all research” (Pablo Picasso)

Here is a short, very academic reflection upon art as a research process. It’s from my doctoral thesis, with a few adaptions.

Making art is not so much a form of self-expression as a process by which an artist can develop their practice beyond the limits of self-expression and art school training. Art-making is really a research process, an exploration of a meeting of self and world through some form of material or substance, where “creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications” OECD (2015).

What follows is a brief discussion of the difference between conceptualising art-making as a “search through a problem space”, a cognitivist view, as opposed to it being a “phenomenon of emergence,” as phenomenologists and other such people consider it.

Creative problem-centred approaches conceptualise creative thinking in terms of a “search through a problem space” (Gaut 2010, p. 1042). This cognitive paradigm has two approaches, problem solving and problem finding. These have been developed separately, the latter in response to the former, but in practice, their processes are less distinguishable. Central to both is the idea there is a ‘problem’, a complication or hindrance of some sort, between the creator and his or her goal, but the recognition of this complication may be a purely subjective response, “a personal interpretation” (Runco 1994a, cited in Runco 2014, p. 16) of the context. Problem solving and problem finding have been mentioned as terms strongly associated with creativity in Part One: Disciplinary Distinctions; the following section compares them from a theoretical perspective.

Problem solving is a form of mental processing that concerns closing the gap between what is known and what is unknown. It requires some level of domain-specific expertise and, though it seeks to explain a type of cognitive process, is basically solution-oriented. As noted in the previous section, problem solving approaches are modelled around the concept of some resistance to be overcome, perhaps a gap or barrier to be bridged. However, more sophisticated problem-solving theories, such as Design Thinking, which uses an abductive thinking model, nevertheless recognise that, in practice, ill-defined or even paradoxical problems are the norm, rather than the exception.

Problem solving theories have considerable support in creativity research but have also been criticised as too computational, since they can only model rational, conscious cognitive processes. They do not recognise intuitive or originative elements, making problem solving closer in conception to innovation than creativity. Moreover, problem solving cannot account for phenomena such as Historical creativity  and, though acquiescent to empirical study in scientifically orientated research, it is less amenable to the more subjectively oriented field of arts-based research or, indeed, in the natural environment of everyday experience.

Problem finding is less solution-oriented than problem solving. Instead, it approaches the source of the creative process, since a ‘problem’ must first be discovered (Csikszentmihalyi 2015) or identified (Runco 2014). Therefore problem finding also requires a more exploratory and open cognitive framework than problem solving. Further, the precise nature of the problem, the “problem-expression” (Runco 2014, p. 17), is defined, as in sense-making, entirely by an individual’s subjective experiences, making it less easy to theorise than problem solving, though models based on Wallas Stage theory are sometimes proposed as incorporating a problem-finding stage in the first stage of preparation. Problem finding could be described as “wandering without goal”, making it difficult to evidence because the exact structure of the problem-finding process is unclear. Further, it has a different relationship to the process than problem solving, because a solution is not the ultimate goal and because problem-finders, typified by the creative artist, do not necessarily conceptualise their creative process as a ‘problem space’. As Dewey (1980) states, an artist:

“does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total” (p. 15).

However, this statement does not indicate that Dewey regarded such moments as ‘problems’ but it does conceptualise problem finding as an experience, rather than as an abstracted process.

The very notion that creativity can be conceptualised as a “search through a problem space” is characteristic of the cognitivist’s desire for rational theories that search for certainty. And whether problem solving and problem finding in practice are quite distinct processes is still debated (Csikszentmihalyi 2015; Runco 2014). Perhaps they are better seen as a continuum than as distinctive. Schön’s (1983) reflective practice, which contains both knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action, blurs the divide, since “in an action-present our thinking serves to reshape what we are doing while we are doing it” (Schön 1983, p.26). As Nickerson (1999) says, when reflection and action are integrated, finding and solving may be almost indistinguishable. But problem finding puts the emphasis on the question rather than the answer; for this reason, it may be important to distinguish them, especially since problem finding is often considered to be more important of the two processes. As Einstein said: “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution (Einstein & Infeld 1938, cited in Csikszentmihalyi 2015, p. 2)

The line between problem solving and problem finding is a fine one. It may depend on how the ‘problem space’ is characterised (Runco 2014). If a gap or hindrance or some form of constraint is foregrounded, then the process leans more towards problem solving. But if the expression of the problem is more important than its resolution or the process is more important than the solution, then problem finding is a better conceptualisation of the process. However, the limitation of any problem-centred framework, in creativity research or Information Studies, is that it relies on conscious information gathering and existing knowledge to interpret that information, so cannot adequately account for less rational or less conscious processes, such as intuition. Further, when an approach is framed in terms of a ‘problem space,’ then it is always conceptualised as seeking certainty and resolution.

As Merleau-Ponty (2002, p. xviii) says: The world is not what I think, but what I live through. The dialectic nature of the creative process as described in experiential research is, therefore, something of a challenge to cognitive process theories such as the stage theories. Their abstract linearity and proscribed steps, even when a recursive stage is added, still cannot adequately embrace the merging that arises out of the interactive complexity of the person-object interaction. Moreover, the incubation stage of the Stage Theory models where unconscious processing takes place has not been sufficiently investigated, other than to regard it as an inactive gap in the conscious process where insights and intuitions mysteriously emerge. As the findings of this study show, experiential research can provide insights into the nature of this gap, even if it cannot evidence concrete, verifiable mechanisms for the unconscious processing.

Likewise, process theories such as problem solving that conceptualise creativity as having a gap to be bridged or problem to be solved simplify the complexity and ambiguity of creativity. As the findings of this study reveal, a gap may be experienced as a potential opening for new insights to arise, a momentary pause for reflection or a deeper dwelling that leads to developing a new idea. But more importantly, such breaks in the flow have the capacity to change the structure of the process, not only adapting it but also disrupting it and the habitual patterns of processing that people easily fall into in their everyday, taken-for-granted relationship to the world. Formalised models, even if not linear, cannot encompass the disruptive, fluctuating and unpredictable tendency of the creative experience. As Holdrege and Talbott (2010) state, “The world breaks every fixed template into which we try to pour it” (p. 165).

Conceptualising creativity as having a problem space in a creative process, whether as a gap or a barrier, has a number of issues. Firstly, the concept of ‘problem’ suggests a need for certainty and resolution, which limits the emergent nature of the phenomenon. It does not even allow for creativity to be phenomenal but keeps it in the realm of familiar, everyday information processing. This leads to the second issue: ‘problem’ references a conscious awareness of something obstructed or constrained, where the self directs the process of resolving the problem. ‘Problem’ also implies there is a obstacle to be reduced, a blip in the flow of creative processing rather than an integral, often underlying, resisting force that is essential for creativity to appear. Again, framing problem solving and, to a lesser degree, problem finding in terms of situation, goal and obstacle is too abstracted from the lived experience; neither problem solving nor problem finding addresses unconscious processing or the dynamic, continually recursive nature of the lived interaction. Nor can they encompass conscious but transcendent immersive states such as flow.

Having said this, there is some correlation between the more exploratory problem finding, which is not goal-oriented and where the ‘problem’ is intrinsically felt rather than explicitly known, with the dialogic interaction experienced by participants in this study. However, the dialogic structure of the participant responses rarely showed any explicitly logical progression, most field notes being fragmentary in structure. There was one exception to this: the responses to Set Four (see Chapter Four: About the Choice of Drawing Exercises) often revealed a higher level of cognitive engagement, with less affect and more logical thought progression, though thinking was usually considered a constraint, unless it was the not-thinking form of cognition described in Chapter Five. Nevertheless, participants commented on needing to think more in this task, so these field notes sometimes had a more puzzling-through-a-problem quality, more in common with Schön’s (1983) thinking-in-action than the typical fragmented and multi-faceted levels of awareness captured by field notes from other sets. However, the Set Four exercises, based on the water meander form, were designed with problem finding in mind and the responses often reflected this.

What problem finding cannot account for is the relinquishing of ‘me’ being the controller or director of the process, which has been found as essential to creative activity in this study and other phenomenological studies. Although the structure of problem finding is unclear and it may incorporate sudden insights or felt thinking, it is still a cognitive model, and cognitive models are self directed in that they only model the conscious, rational processes where the self can remain the director of the interaction between person and object. Runco (2014) has challenged this conscious, rational control, stating affect and metacognition are also involved in problem finding. However, like information processing models in general, problem finding still relies on existing knowledge and experience to interpret what is coming to meet a person from the process. In light of this, there is a question as to whether problem solving and problem finding can be considered creative processes at all, since they do not address the relinquishing of control by the person at any time during the process.

Conceptualizing creativity as problem-centred or as incomplete information sets the agenda for how we respond to it. Gaps and constraints are seen as difficulties, whereas generative creativity characterises these spaces as emergent. When we conceptualise out of a problem space, the self first defines the issue, then finds a way to adapt or innovate it. But in creativity, the self is diffused into the emergent space, becomes part of something else that is not all about oneself, and allows something transformative to take place. The ‘something’ that emerges is different to ‘something’ that overcomes, bridges or solves. I would suggest ‘emergent space’ is a more descriptive term than ‘problem space’ for creativity, since it recognises the transcendent quality of the creative process. Without transcendence, some kind of transformation of one’s self, even for just a short time, creativity cannot be born out of the meeting of self and world.

“The world is not what I think, but what I live through” (Merleau-Ponty)


  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2015, The Systems Model of Creativity: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Springer.
  • Dewey, J. [1934], 1980, Art as experience, New York: GP Putnam’s Sons.
  • Gaut, B. 2010, ‘The Philosophy of Creativity’, Philosophy Compass, vol. 5, no. 12, pp. 1034-46.
  • Holdrege, C. & Talbott, S. 2010, Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering, University Press of Kentucky.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. 2002, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith, Routledge Classics, London.
  • Nickerson, R.S. 1999, ‘Enhancing Creativity’, in R. Sternberg (ed.), Handbook of creativity, Cambridge University Press, pp. 392-430.
  • Runco, M.A. 2014, Creativity: theories and themes: research, development, and practice, 2nd edn, Elsevier Science, Burlington.
  • Schön, D.A. 1983, The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action, Basic Books, New York.

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