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Italian fine arts academies have doctorates. Italian fine arts academies do not have doctorates. Italian fine arts academies have doctorates. Italian fine arts academies do not have doctorates. Italian fine arts academies have doctorates. Italian fine arts academies do not have doctorates. I could go on writing the same words till I have filled the pages available to me, or stop at random out of inertia, boredom or lack of space, concluding with either one of these two statements, and no one could say that I was lying.

The infamous Law 508/99 — which green-lighted the transfer of institutes of Higher Education in Art, Music, and Dance (in Italy known as AFAM) to the university — established the possibility of creating PhDs. Yet more than twenty years later, there has still been no administrative order allowing academies, conservatories and higher institutes for artistic industries (ISIA) to award the title of PhD independently, as a dispensing and administrative authority.

In spring 2022, after long deliberations and intense discussions, the Academic Council of the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome chose to act — and to lay a foundation stone pointing in this direction, as it established two research grants to be awarded to graduates. Sometimes, as the little piece of paper in the fortune cookie tells us, “dreaming the impossible is the first step to achieving it”.

A few months later, together with other AFAM institutions, we managed to get some doctorates up and running in partnership with universities, although the lack of a specific administrative order and norms of implementation remains an ongoing problem.

With the University of Rome Tor Vergata, the Accademia di Roma launched a doctorate of national interest in cultural heritage studies, with its own pathway in ‘New media for the communication and valorisation of the artistic patrimony’. Together with the Department of Philosophy, Communication and Performing Arts at the University of Roma Tre, it created a doctorate in Cultures, Practices and Technologies of Cinema, Media, Music, Theatre and Dance. This was the first practice-based doctorate in Italy, achieved by the artist — a former student of the Accademia di Roma — Chiara Mu.

While it may seem a paradoxical statement, especially to those working in the arts, the possible future of AFAM doctorates in Italy seems conditioned by the need to define artistic research itself.

Until recently, the curricula of many art academies were clearly dominated by an art-history model thinking; this implied a clear ─ and, in my opinion, gratuitous ─ duality: on the one hand, artists produced works, on the other hand, critics and historians provided the frameworks and methods for their interpretation. But today’s art practice eschews monolithic thinking framed in the binary models of truth (the interpretative method) and illusion (the visual creative method). Art practices also demonstrate that art and method often correspond to equivalent and, most importantly, interdependent elements in the “construction” of the work. All this has generated a shift from artistic practices focused on “products” to ones concerned with experimental and laboratory environments and the search for new forms of knowledge and experience.

Probably, in order to define artistic research and admit that its value and usefulness are analogous to those of scientific research, it would be sufficient to read the definition that the Treccani dictionary gives of the latter: “The term ‘scientific research’ is commonly used to refer to all activities aimed at the discovery and utilisation of scientific knowledge. It encompasses both ‘fundamental research’, which is the systematic study of nature and its laws for purely cognitive purposes, irrespective of immediately practical aims, and ‘applied research’, which is instead aimed at identifying and testing possible practical applications of the knowledge acquired’.

One only has to look, even superficially, at images of the most important works created by artists over the centuries to realise that art is a form of systematic study of reality and its laws for cognitive purposes. Moreover, since the beginning of the twentieth century, it is artists themselves who have defined their work in terms of “research”. Examples are the Bureau de recherches surréalistes and the Situationist International, or, more recently, the Free International University (FIU) for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, founded by Joseph Beuys in 1973: “a free university, which complements the state educational system with interdisciplinary work and cooperation between the sciences and the arts, and which fights for legal equality within educational systems”. Currently, collectives dealing with transdisciplinary research constitute one of the most interesting artistic phenomena, especially in non-Western countries; indeed, the international exhibition documenta 15 in 2022 was curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa.

The debate on artistic research, its definition and its non-belonging to what is commonly understood as “research”, has taken on a political and epistemological character in Italy, which does not provide any simple solutions. Yet, in Europe, it has also been clearly institutionalised in the field of education. In June 2020, seven European higher education organisations (art schools, conservatoires, film schools and architecture faculties) and two art school accreditation bodies ─ Culture Action Europe and the Society for Artistic Research — signed the Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research, which states: “Excellent AR is research through means of high level artistic practice and reflection; it is an epistemic inquiry, directed towards increasing knowledge, insight, understanding and skills. Within this frame, AR is aligned in all aspects with the five main criteria that constitute Research & Development in the Frascati Manual. Through topics and problems stemming from and relevant to artistic practice, AR also addresses key issues of a broader cultural, social and economic significance.”

I believe that these statements highlight that research cannot be considered a coherent and unified concept. Rather, it is a word whose semantics rest on a social consensus; in linguistic terminology, research could be compared to a “floating signifier”.

Assuming that there is indeed a need to define artistic research, it is not necessary to situate art in the realm of the empirical sciences, nor to claim that there is a way to rationalise and decode the experiences of sensory perception into holistic interpretative schemas. Rather, what is necessary is to liberate reason and endow art itself with a necessary credential of investigation.

Artistic thought is “naturally” difficult to orient, as it is bound to what is yet to come. This is also why art’s “inutility” and (non-)definition count among its important characteristics, enabling it to operate — in ideal terms — at some remove from the typical circuits of information and exchange.

On the other hand, the fact that we are even talking about so-called practice-based research demonstrates the existence of a shared language, or at least a common set of problems and questions that define artistic research. That is, in the idea that art is a discipline, but also part of a set of discourses, and that there are rules according to which we have shared expectations and adopt common conventions that mediate its products within natural, everyday language.

The definition of artistic research and doctorates related to it should base itself on this dual perspective.