Impact and innovation in the arts

The text below is directed towards the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in the first instance. The reason for writing is that the concepts 'impact' and 'innovation', which play a key role in the assessment of research questions, have been defined by the NWO in an economic and social context up until now. This definition is regarded as being too limited by the Art route steering committee, and as insufficiently appropriate to research in the arts. The text proposes a redefinition of the aforementioned concepts that does justice to research in the arts.

The text is also intended as advice to the assessment committees that assess applications to the NWO in the field of the arts. Because the text may have a broader relevance to the discourse about research in the arts instead of simply being advice to the NWO, it has been published on this website.


Advice about the assessment of Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) Art route research proposals

'Impact' and ‘innovation' are two key concepts in the Dutch government policy as far as subsidising research in the arts is concerned. (The term 'the arts' is broadly interpreted here and includes all art and design disciplines). Politicians and subsidy providers require artists (once again in the broadest sense of the word: theatre makers, film makers, musicians, choreographers, visual artists, designers, etc.) to specifically demonstrate the 'social impact' (also referred to as 'social relevance') and the innovative character of artistic practices or projects. What's more, social impact and innovation are the the most important criteria for financing research in the case of research proposals that are submitted via the Dutch National Research Agenda.

In general, these concepts are only specified to a limited extent – in calls and programme descriptions – by subsidy providers. The concept of 'innovation' is derived from technoscientific developments that have long been synonymous with social progress. 'Innovation' in this context therefore primarily means: solving social problems or issues (for example: art as a contribution to safety in public space; or art that can work as a form of therapy, such as the beneficial effect of music on Alzheimer’s patients). 'Impact' is synonymous with the degree to which a successful solution is put forward for a particular problem. This limited perspective on the role and significance of the arts can be a problem when assessing research proposals.

Of course, there is nothing wrong per se with research in the arts that contributes to solving social issues. On the contrary, there are many research projects that successfully address social problems or injustices and that fins new answers to them with the help of or by means of the arts or artistic practices. That should be applauded.

There is something wrong, however, when the significance of art and design is only understood within this context. The requirement that art must have a problem-solving function is an instrumentalisation that leads to a reduction in the significance of the arts; a reduction that also has an effect on the assessment of research applications in which art plays a role. When assessing research projects, this can lead to the application of 'success factors' that are formulated in a one-sided manner, such as demonstrably successful cultural entrepreneurship, professionalisation and concrete 'deliverables'. This does not do justice to the value of art and to the scope of its power of expression.

It is important not to lose sight of the fact that art is first and foremost a way of conveying meaning, which chiefly occurs through giving expression to, and creating and stimulating, experiences. The experiential dimension of art is crucial. It’s about different ways of looking at and listening to, as well as different ways of feeling and experiencing, reality. Artistic practices are laboratory situations where experiments are conducted with this experiential dimension. Since artists and designers also carry out research within the academic context of the university, particularly that of the humanities, this practice, this laboratory situation, is integrated into a field that has traditionally been strongly dominated by theory building. The artistic practice introduces an interweaving of theory and practice, of doing and thinking, to this. This interweaving raises new questions, which can lead to the formation of new hypotheses. Artistic practices can yield new translations of existing concepts. This constitutes an ‘innovation’ of a different nature to the limited concept of innovation as described above.

The arts, as an area of research, has an intense connection with the field of work and therefore with society directly. Research in the arts is positioned by definition at a crossroads between disciplines: humanities, anthropology, social sciences, natural sciences and technical studies. In the arts, many of these differing approaches find expression in the form of story that is accessible to others, in a musical composition or dramatic from that touches many people. Art has many languages and modes of expression that are unequalled anywhere else and constantly creates new languages The need to express something is paramount. The arts are particularly able to make experiences meaningful and to continually develop new forms for this.

Do the arts have social impact and can the arts and artistic research be innovative? Of course. Given that art always plays out in the public sphere, this naturally means that it has social impact: people go to concerts and exhibitions, poetry collections are published. ‘Impact’ and ‘innovation’ do not therefore apply not least art itself. When assessing research proposals in the arts, the question is not only: what does art mean for our health, for our safety, for the market (and yes, an artwork can mean all of these things), but also: what does an art project or a research project mean to the arts? What is the artistic urgency thereof? Returning to Kant’s famous views on art: art is not an instrument to reach a goal, but has intrinsic value in its own right and means something to us in that way. The boundaries of the existing notions of what art is, of the art itself, are explored and extended in artworks. The importance of art lies herein. It’s about creating new representations, new languages, new aesthetic experiences, about penetrating behind appearances. It’s about looking critically at general assumptions, about the quest for deeper insights, by means of a practice of exploring and experimenting, of an interaction with material and immaterial. This exploration is often playful and intuitive in the arts. In the arts, ‘innovation’ often means, therefore, methodological innovation. Research in the arts can have a speculative character and be fundamental by nature.

It is therefore important when assessing research applications in the arts that the concepts of impact and innovation are used in a non-limiting and open manner, in such a way that not only the possible social solution-oriented approach of research proposals is considered, but also the nature of the art itself and the contribution to an art discourse. These concepts can then underline the importance of art and research in a fruitful and correct way.

On behalf of the NWA Art route steering committee,

Janneke Wesseling, chairwoman

Amsterdam, June 2020

1 See Isabelle Stengers: In Catastrophic Times. Resisting the Coming Barabarism, Open Humanities Press, 2015.