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Against the supplement. Some reflections on artistic research

Dieter Lesage
RITCS, Erasmushogeschool Brussel

There are many misunderstandings about artistic research. Contrary to those academic trends that expect artistic research to conform to scientific standards, Dieter Lesage argues for the recognition of the arts as a specific form of writing. The doctorate in the arts therefore does not require a written supplement. The artistic portfolio is the artist’s manuscript.

Over artistiek onderzoek bestaan nogal wat misverstanden. Als reactie tegen academische tendensen die artistiek onderzoek willen conformeren aan wetenschappelijke standaarden, houdt Dieter Lesage een pleidooi voor de erkenning van kunst als een specifieke vorm van schrijven. Het doctoraat in de kunsten behoeft dan ook geen schriftelijk supplement. Het artistieke portfolio is het handschrift van de kunstenaar.

The main reason not to endorse a total refusal to engage in the Bologna Process is that besides the maddening bureaucratic e-work that makes Bologna so infamous, it also meant the long-due introduction of research into the mission of art academies all over Europe.1 Whereas in pre-Bologna times, art academies had been mainly places of teaching, the Bologna Process opens up a discursive space in which art academies can begin to understand themselves also as laboratories of artistic research. Of course, as the sciences lay claim to the definition of research, many people working at art academies sincerely thought that introducing research at art academies meant that academies had to become more scientific. This is still a very widespread and persistent misunderstanding of the so-called academization process in which the art academies have engaged themselves. I would like to be very clear about this: for art academies, the academization process is absolutely not about becoming more scientific; it is about becoming more... artistic.2 Indeed, the academization process should be seen as a thorough reflexion on the mission of art academies. Just as most universities consider it an important part of their mission to engage in top scientific research, art academies should be the places of the most advanced artistic research.

Ina Wudtke, A Portrait of the Artist as a Worker (rmx.), 2006, video. Exhibition A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher 2.0., Beursschouwburg Brussel, 2008. Photo: Tiziana Penna.

The artist as a researcher

In a very basic sense, to portray the artist as a researcher is one way among many to problematize a still widespread popular understanding of art as merely irreflective, spontaneous, intuitive, etc.3 This shouldn't lead us to think that intuition or spontaneity are not constitutive of research, whether scientific or artistic. Rather it should remind us of the fact that decisive moments of intuition that may lead to scientific discoveries or artistic creations only occur across a long horizon of time spent on careful reflection, patient investigation, and rigorous experimentation. There is no doubt that flashes of insight, moments of vision or whatever one wishes to call them, occasionally may lead to a dazzling acceleration of artistic or scientific processes. It is understandable that the spectacular character of these moments captures the imagination of outsiders more than the boring rituals of the artistic or scientific profession that they may interrupt. There is no doubt either, however, that a popular fixation on these moments, no matter how constitutive and important they may be, has led to a considerably distorted portrait of the artist as well as of the scientist in popular imagination. As far as the artist is concerned the prevalence of this popular misconception may well explain why until some years ago a doctorate in the arts seemed something foolish. Indeed, a wide horizon of time - which is what the doctorate is in an abstract sense - seemed incompatible with the idea of art as something non-reflective, spontaneous, intuitive, etc. Even today, it is a real political challenge to give artists time: most people seem to believe that to give artists time can only mean allowing them to spend even more time in bars.

Our understanding of the artist as a researcher is not a definition we try to impose on the artist. Rather, it is how many artists over the last fifty years have been describing themselves, either implicitly or explicitly. Over the last five decades, artists have been describing their work as involving an investigation into..., as a research on..., even to the point where they argued that the investigation or the research process as such was artistically much more important than all its eventual output in the form of performances, exhibitions, or art works. For those who know – and we all do – under how much pressure researchers today are to produce output, it may be quite ironic to be reminded of the fact that the self-description of artists as researchers was usually accompanied by a strong opposition against tendencies to evaluate the usefulness of artistic funding through output evaluation.4 It seems as if artists must have thought that the image of the researcher would be helpful in order to explain that art is primarily about a process of reflection, of questioning, of thinking, not about its eventual output.

The self-description of the artist as researcher may have been nurtured by a romantic image of the researcher, who, entirely divested of any material interest, has all the time of the world to struggle with problems or questions just for the sake of intellectual struggle and the little intrinsic pleasures that come with it. Of course as a researcher or as someone who knows about the actual unromantic state of research today, one could take quite some cynical pleasure from unmasking the poor naiveté of the artist who still believes that researchers are primarily driven by an intrinsic interest in the questions and problems they are dealing with.

However, one could also adopt a very different attitude: to be thankful that artists, through their naive pre- or anti-neoliberal self-description as researchers, have in fact been trying to save the idea of the autonomous researcher. In the same vein, the institution of the doctorate in the arts should be welcomed and applauded as an incredible chance to reinstall at academies and universities a space of autonomous reflection, which seems under threat, if it is not already lost, in the science departments of many universities. Often, scientists are supposed to subscribe to the idea that they are only good scientists if they are able to develop an idea that can be valorised and sold as a product on the market, ideally by spin-off firms, which will then be happy to welcome the scientist as a well-earning member of its executive board. In our view, the doctorate in the arts is to be defended as a space of autonomy within an institution whose autonomy is severely under threat. To portray the artist as a researcher is nothing more, but certainly nothing less either, than a plea to give the artist the unproductive time needed to become productive in an innovative way. Innovative production can only emerge across a long horizon of time.

A written supplement?

Although academics involved in the establishment of the rules for the doctorate in the arts did pay attention to the demand that the new doctorate should respect the specificity of an artistic education — to the extent that they accepted the idea that artists present a portfolio of their work as a doctorate — many of them have fiercely defended and still defend the idea that a doctorate in the arts would be inconceivable without a written supplement. As a result, the format of the doctorate in the arts almost always requires both an artistic portfolio and a 'written supplement'. The insistence on the obligation to produce a written supplement appears to demonstrate a lack of confidence, either in the capacity of the arts to speak in a meaningful, complex, and critical way in their own medium, or in the academics’ own capability to make sound judgments about the meaning, complexity and criticality of artistic output as such. For this reason, I hold the idea that the presentation of the results of artistic research in general - of which the doctorate in the arts is only one particular example - does not necessarily require an explanatory text as a supplement.

For an evaluation by peers, the art work itself (be it theatre, dance or musical performance, an installation, a film, a video, or a fashion show), which is the result of artistic research, should be and is sufficient for evaluating its originality and relevance. Although there are notable exceptions, in most cases the demand for a supplement is voiced in the most insistent way, not by peers, but by non-peers, that is by people who are not acquainted with the arts and understandably feel insecure about its evaluation. In my experience, peers have mostly been able to evaluate artistic research in a competent and convincing way, even if there wasn't any supplementary text explaining anything. Artists, as peers, see and hear in a way non-artists cannot. Their audio-visual literacy enables them to read the artistic research that is to be evaluated, even if, in a certain sense, there is nothing to read.

Now that this mentality of requiring a supplement, which I would like to refer to as 'supplementality', is imposing itself as constitutive of the format of the presentation of artistic research, what might happen and is in fact already happening is that because it complies with the long-standing format of the doctorate, juries of a doctorate in the arts will base their assessments primarily on a reading of the written supplement, as if it were the doctorate itself, at the same time being tempted to consider the artistic portfolio as merely its supplementary illustration.5

The evaluation of a doctorate in the arts, or of a master of arts for that matter, should focus on the capacity of doctoral or master students to speak in the medium of their choice. And if this medium is film, or video, or painting, or sculpture, or sound, or fashion, or if the doctoral or master student wants to mix media, it will obviously require of a jury ways of reading, interpretation, and discussion other than those required by an academic text. To impose a medium on the artist is to fail to recognize the artist as an artist. Artists who wish to obtain a doctorate in the arts or a master of arts should be given the academic freedom to choose their own medium. Even then it would still be possible that they choose text as we ordinarily understand it as the most appropriate medium for their artistic purposes.

Lately, some of those who defend the idea that a doctorate in the arts should not only consist of an artistic portfolio but also of a textual supplement have been modifying their position by claiming that this textual supplement should of course not necessarily take an academic form. As we are speaking of a doctorate in the arts, we should adopt a pluralist attitude towards the demand of a text as a supplement to the artistic portfolio as part of the doctorate in the arts and therefore could accept textual supplements that take a very artistic form. As long as it looks like text, it could be a literary text, a diary, maybe even a theatre play or a series of poems. Artists who want to obtain a doctorate in the arts should not be frightened by the requirement to write an academic text. It could also be an artistic text.

While trying to save the requirement of the textual supplement, its defenders are in fact proving that their requirement has never been anything but a form of bureaucratic conformism. At first we were told that the demand for a textual supplement was prompted by fear that it would be impossible to judge an artistic portfolio, not because it is a portfolio, but because it is artistic. Therefore a textual supplement was needed that could be judged more easily, because it would be more articulate. But if now the supplement itself also becomes artistic, why would it be easier to judge than an artistic portfolio? The idea seems to be that artistic output can only be adequately judged if there is some form of text, academic or not, to supplement it. So we are led to believe that we need some form of text in order to decipher the artistic work of the artist who wants to become a doctor in the arts in order to know whether that work deserves a doctorate in the arts at all.

What is writing?

Defenders of the textual supplement as a necessary part of the format of the doctorate in the arts may claim that they take a more intellectual or reflective approach to the arts. Obvious as this claim may seem, I nevertheless would like to contest it. Indeed, I would say, this claim cherishes a notion of text that is uninformed by the major intellectual reflections on text and therefore isn’t that reflective or intellectual at all. The major contribution to the philosophy of text in the last five decades has been the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and it seems to me that the defenders of the textual supplement as necessary part of a presentation of the results of artistic research, such as the doctorate in the arts, haven't understood one word of his philosophy. It is quite interesting to note that Derrida's philosophy of text was in fact born out of a pragmatic reflection on how to write... a doctoral thesis. For Derrida as a philosopher it was inconceivable to write a philosophical thesis without ever asking the philosophical question 'what is writing?'.

For Derrida, the project of writing a doctor's thesis led him to an impressive intellectual struggle with the question of writing. Derrida strongly resisted traditional academic standards and expectations concerning writing.6 Only in 1980, at the age of 50, did Jacques Derrida obtain the so-called Doctorat d'Etat, a special type of doctorat that until 1985 existed in France and was awarded not on the basis of a conventional doctoral thesis, but on the basis of one's.... 'work'. Indeed, for his Doctorat d'Etat, Derrida presented and defended – in a long oral examination by a jury – three books, which all deal with the question of writing in one way or another. In a sense, one can say that Derrida's doctorate merely consisted of a philosophical portfolio, without an academic supplement. One of the main reasons for this is that Derrida simply couldn't accept that a traditional doctorate in philosophy would not reflect a fundamental thinking on the question of writing in the way it was written.

Derrida's philosophy of writing, as he developed it in the books that constituted the portfolio which he finally presented as his doctorate, is very helpful in discussing the sense or nonsense of the format of the doctorate in the arts. The idea that an artistic portfolio should be supplemented with a text in order to obtain a meaning which can be discussed inter-subjectively misses the point that the artistic portfolio itself is always already text. This is a consequence of the famous Derridian dictum that says 'il n'y a pas de hors-texte', there is no outside to text. A firmly established and quite ridiculous misunderstanding of his philosophy that there is nothing but text is to say that Derrida would have claimed that there is no outside world. Derrida's idea that there is nothing but text means that the outside world is itself text too. Not: text is everything, but everything is text. In an interview at the end of a book in which he discusses, among others things, J.L. Austin's and John Searle's philosophies of language, Derrida said, angry at the way in which some American philosophers had been trying to ridicule his philosophy as an absurd form of scepticism:

‘I wanted to recall that the concept of text I propose is limited neither to the graphic, nor to the book, nor even to discourse, and even less to the semantic, representational, symbolic, ideal, or ideological sphere. What I call “text” implies all the structures called “real”, “economic”, “historical”, “socio-institutional”, in short: all possible referents. Another way of recalling once again that “there is nothing outside the text” ... It does mean that every referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace, and that one cannot refer to this 'real' except in an interpretive experience. The latter neither yields meaning nor assumes it except in a movement of differential referring’.7

So a portfolio which is a selection of art works is definitely always already text in itself. As a matter of fact, a portfolio will most likely be a presentation and/or a documentation of art works, rather than the works themselves, which means that it is, in its presentation or documentation, already differentially mediating and reflecting the art works, and that text in the narrow sense of the word is even already part of it. The artistic portfolio as a documenting and representing form already speaks of the work, rather than that it would be the work itself. At the same time it is also work done by the artist, an artistic work that represents and documents other artistic work by the artist. The portfolio itself has to be qualified as text, both in the expanded and in the narrow sense of the term. Derrida's expanded concept of 'text' implies the need for an expanded notion of 'reading' as well as for an expanded notion of 'writing'. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology:

‘And thus we say “writing” for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural “writing"’.8

A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher, poster for the group exhibition (with Herman Asselberghs, Dieter Lesage, Office: Kersten Geers and David Van Severen, Annette Wehrmann, Ina Wudtke), freiraum/quartier 21, Museumsquartier Wien, juli-augustus 2007. Photo: Dieter Lesage.

Here, Derrida's examples of writing are (still) all artistic. Later, Derrida would expand the concept of writing even more, but the first and self-evident move in his expansion of the concept of writing was to include all art forms. Film, dance, music, painting, sculpture: all of them are in themselves forms of writing. Art is writing and is therefore to be read. Reading however is not just about decoding the meaning of signs. Reading has to come to terms with the fact that it will never be possible to determine the meaning of the world once and for all. The demand for a textual supplement to the artistic portfolio may be explained by fear for the constitutive abysmal character of meaning. But it also reveals a presentist philosophy of text, which since Derrida, has long been proven unsatisfactory. To ask for a textual supplement is obviously not going to save us from the problem of interpretation. As if text would allow us to avoid the annoying possibility of interpretation. Instead of asking for an explanatory supplement, juries should confront their own fear and have the courage to try to read what is already written.

The argument that I hold against the textual supplement should not be understood as the idea that the art work in itself is already full of meaning, but rather that there is no way to remedy this with the abysmal structure of meaning inherent in the art work itself. The demand for the supplement suggests that there might be a way to fill the gap. What is at work in this demand is one particular logic of ‘supplementality’, which one might define as the fiction that the open meaning of the art work can and should be revealed by a supplementary explanation.

However, one should stress the difference between the supplement to the art work as an academic requirement for having the right explanation on the one hand and a certain aesthetics of the supplement which is inherent in the work of many artists on the other hand, where the supplement is not seen as the explanation of the work, but rather as constitutive of the work itself. This artist's supplement is not what gives us the solution, the answer, the right interpretation, but rather postpones the solution, the answer, the right interpretation even more. So 'supplementality' can also be defined as an artistic strategy to escape the closure of interpretation, to leave all interpretations open, or to make interpretation an even more complex issue than it always already is.

Artistic research and autonomy

In the actual state of the discussion on the format of the presentation of the results of artistic research in general and of the doctorate in the arts in particular, one may observe a tendency to gratefully appropriate the artist's supplement as if it were conforming to the spirit of the required academic supplement, while in fact its logic is quite the opposite. Of course there are art works that involve certain kinds of supplements and there are aspects of art works that could be considered as supplements. One could argue, for instance, that the title of a painting is already a supplement to the painting. The question then becomes at what point exactly a supplement to an art work, which may be considered by the artist as inherent to the art work, becomes the kind of supplement that is considered a necessary requirement in order to present the results of artistic research in an academic way. What is annoying about this 'academic' requirement of a textual supplement to the art work if it is to be considered a legitimate presentation of the results of artistic research, is that it doesn't take serious the art work itself and all the writing that is involved in the production of the art work. In other words, the academic requirement of a textual supplement to an art work seriously lacks seriousness. In most cases, it seems more like a bureaucratic attempt at 'keeping up appearances'.

Artistic research can involve many different things: avidly reading about a specific subject matter, randomly visiting exhibitions and confronting oneself with other artistic positions, trying out the visual, acoustic, or haptic impressions of different materials, or even ritually going to the flea market in search of nothing in particular, as Eran Schaerf once described, beautifully and convincingly, one aspect of his practice of 'artistic research'.9 What all these different practices have in common, is the need for time, time to think, time to see, time to waste. As time is money, time is never given to anyone for free, and certainly not to the artist. As a consequence, everybody is under extreme pressure to explain why they need this much time for such and such. Therefore one cannot rule out that part of the actual discourse on artistic research is in fact rhetoric that is used, needed or devised in order to convince funding authorities that are known to subscribe to the dogma of research and development, that the artistic practice that is to be funded is in fact also research.

In a few European countries, part of the research budget is now specifically allocated to artistic research. This is a great strike for the academies in these countries, because it allows them to become major sites of artistic production and to establish themselves more self-consciously within the arts field, not on its doorstep. It was in this sense that, in my 2009 e-flux essay 'The Academy is Back', I meant to say that the academy is back.10 The Academy is back as a credible partner in the arts world, as a site of artistic production, of artistic research. However, the comeback of the Academy, which one should admit has only just started, is already in a precarious state. The greatest vigilance will be necessary to prevent that this strike for the Academy doesn't turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

There is an urgent battle to be fought against a discourse which tends to slip into the Academy in the wake of the discourse on artistic research. Whereas I am convinced that the discourse on artistic research allows people working in art academies to reinvent the Academy as an autonomous site of production, we should refuse a supplementary rhetoric that presents itself as an inevitable corollary to the discourse on artistic research. Wherever art academies get funded for their artistic research, there is also an increasingly insistent discourse about the need of a 'return on investment', of 'research output assessment', of 'matching funds', etc. It is an attempt to use the research mission of the art academies as a means to capitalistically discipline the art academies. It won't be long before professors at academies will be expected to establish spin-off firms in order to valorise their artistic output. As art academies have been producers or co-producers of artistic work that became successful out there, it might become a prime 'academic' preoccupation to get one's money back, if not to make more money.

However, succumbing to this way of reasoning leads to seeing research exclusively from the perspective of valorisation. Against these capitalistic tendencies, we should see artistic research as a way of recognizing artistic labour time. The discourse on artistic research seems an adequate way to explain why artists need time, and therefore money, in order to create, and to consider the art academy as an excellent site of artistic production. Artistic creation is not just about materials to buy or spaces to rent, it is also about time needed to dedicate oneself to reflection, to study, to thinking.

As a matter of fact, the notion of artistic research is quite subversive for a field that got used to pay high prices for art works, completely independent from the amount of labour involved. The concept of artistic research is also about the recognition of artists as workers, as people who work so many hours, so many days, and who might want to get some money for all the things they do. The concept of artistic research is not at all about an attempt to conform the arts to the sciences, to become more methodological, to become more discursive, or to become more technological. It is about the recognition of art as a form of cognitive labour and about a wage struggle for artists, who no longer accept that they work for an exhibition and get production money for works, but almost never get any fee for all the work they do in preparing that exhibition. All the time, artists are told to invest in their work, to speculate on the future value of their work. The discourse which presents artists as researchers should be an empowering discursive force, which values the artist as a worker and which contributes to the recognition of the need to pay for artistic labour.


Dieter Lesage

studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven, where he obtained his doctorate in 1993. He teaches political theory and philosophy of culture at the RITCS (Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound, Brussels), which he led from 2013 to 2015 as director. He is the author of a dozen books, including Art, Research and Politics. Essays in Curatorial Criticism (1999-2014). Les presses du réel, 2015.



  1. This article is an abbreviated version of my essay “Art, Research, Entertainment.” Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm. Realism versus Cynicism, ed. Pascal Gielen & Paul De Bruyne, Valiz, 2012, pp. 113-127.
  2. See Lesage, Dieter. “Akademisierung.” Künstlerische Forschung. Ein Handbuch, red. Anke Haarmann, Anton Rey, Christoph Schenker, Dieter Mersch, Germán Toro Pérez, Jens Badura, Selma Dubach, diaphanes Verlag, 2015, pp. 221-223.
  3. See Lesage Dieter & Busch Kathrin (red.). A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher: The Academy and the Bologna Process. (AS. A visual culture quarterly, No. 179). Antwerp 2007, pp. 108-112.
  4. See Lesage Dieter. “Who’s Afraid of Artistic Research? On Measuring Artistic Research Output.” Art & Research. A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, No. 2 (2009) www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n2/lesage.html (December 27, 2016).
  5. See Lesage, Dieter. “On Supplementality.” Agonistic Academies, red. Jan Cools & Henk Slager, Sint-Lukas Books Brussels, 2011, pp. 75-86. Zie ook Lesage, Dieter. “Portafolio y suplemento.” En torno a la investigación artística. Pensar y enseñar arte: entre la práctica y la especulación teórica, Tony Brown, Guadalupe Echevarria, Dora García, Dieter Lesage, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Jan Verwoert, (ContraTextos, No. 10). Barcelona 2011, pp. 67-85.
  6. Derrida beautifully described this struggle in the presentation of his doctorate: Derrida, Jacques. “Ponctuations: Le temps de la thèse.” Du droit à la philosophie, Galilée 1991, pp. 439-459.
  7. Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc., Northwestern University Press, 1988, p. 148.
  8. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, p. 9.
  9. Schaerf, Eran. “Unsubstantiated Investigation.” A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher. The Academy and the Bologna Process, red. Dieter Lesage & Kathrin Busch, AS. A visual culture quarterly, No. 179, Antwerp 2007, pp. 108-112.
  10. Lesage, Dieter. “The Academy is Back: On Education, the Bologna Process and the Doctorate in the Arts.” e-flux journal, vol. 04, 2009, www.e-flux.com/journal/04/68577/the-academy-is-back-on-education-the-bologna-process-and-the-doctorate-in-the-arts. (December 27, 2016).