The live streaming of the Tate Modern exhibition of 120 of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, created during the last 10 years of his life when he was at his most frail, did not disappoint. The streamed exhibition was an exuberance of colour, dance and music, with explanations of how the exhibition was mounted and insights into Matisse’s latter years.
I found myself thinking of Matisse as a researcher. Perhaps all artists are researchers. His life was devoted to exploration and discovery. He looked to nature, music and dance in his life-long exploration into how to express himself. It is interesting that some of the quotes attributed to him can be thought of in relation to an approach to research. For example:
To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.
An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc.
The artist must summon all his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty in order to shatter the old clichés that come so easily to hand while working (Henri Matisse)
But Matisse did not take a scientific approach to his work or start with a question. Rather questions emerged through immersion in his work. He recognised the complexity of the real-world. If we think of his work as ‘research’, then he took an approach similar to that which Stephen Downes discussed in his recent presentation – Digital Research Methodologies Redux – which I reported on in a recent post.
Of course as Peter Checkland has explained, a scientific approach to research has served us well for centuries and will continue to do so. In his work on systems thinking, Checkland writes about the 3 Rs of hard sciences – reductionism, repeatability and refutation.
‘We may define that method [the method of science] in terms of three characteristics: reductionism, repeatability and refutation. By means of it a continuously refined account of the universe is built up. This account is a successful guide of many kinds of action.’ (Checkland, 1999, p.13).
But, he then goes on to say that it is not a successful guide for all kinds of action and particularly not for the study of living and social systems and their ‘real-world’ problems. This is the point also made by Stephen Downes in his recent presentation.
In a similar vein, Ronald Barnett writes of the necessity for students to ‘live with uncertainty’ and ‘to come to a state of self-criticality’ , explaining that ‘…..this criticality is achieved in the context of the spirit of research’. He goes on to say:
‘Such a spirit – the spirit of research – supplies a tentativeness not just to the student’s enquiries, but also to her profferings, her claims and her actions.’ (Barnett, 2007, p.127)
Matisse, Checkland, Barnett and Downes all seem to have a similar world-view, one where life is full of uncertainty and complexity. As Checkland has been heard to say many times …..
‘Let the situation talk to you’.
…. don’t try and pre-empt the situation by framing questions in advance. Immerse yourself in the situation and open yourself up to uncertainty and emergence. And
Iterate, understand the situation, enhance your understanding, visualize, act on it, and iterate again.
There isn’t a problem situation. There is just a situation, a context, a system, and we’re improving it continuously. (Checkland quoted in IASummit Conference Library)
What I learn from this is that a researcher who strives to do all this and keep an ‘open’ mind, in every sense of the word ‘open’, needs courage, as Matisse so insightfully recognised.
I also learn that research is not a one-off project. It is a life-long endeavour of inquiry, exploration and discovery. It is a way of life.
Barnett, R. (2007). A Will to Learn. Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty. Open University Press.
Checkland, P. (1999). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. John Wiley & Sons.
Hilary Spurling. 29th March 2014. The Guardian. Henri Matisse: Drawing with scissors
The Tate Blog: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs
Jon-Ross Le Haye. 4th Ocobter 2013. Cut and paste: Designing the Matisse poster