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'Because I can swim in the immense', Ruchama Noorda, Appel arts centre - Photo: Margherita Soldati

‘The almost impossible task of being both artist and observer'

How can artist PhD candidates research their own work? They need to be good at switching from maker to critical observer and their research has to have a solid theoretical basis. This is the premise of Professor Janneke Wesseling. The aesthetic value of their work also has to be up for discussion. Inaugural lecture 19 September.

A PhD at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts

Wesseling stresses in her lecture the added value of artists who research their own work. Their dual role brings new insights into how art comes about and the relationship between art and the surrounding world. Wesseling is Professor of Practice and Theory in Research on the Visual Arts at Leiden University, where she supervises artists who carry out PhD research at the Academy  of Creative and Performing Arts. This PhD option has been available since 2001. Wesseling: ‘To a certain extent artists have always done research, but what's new is that they now analyse their work in a systematic and consistent way, which lays bare the underlying assumptions.'

Creativity and political engagement

Wesseling believes it is crucial that artist PhD candidates carry out solid methodological research. This means they have to be consistent in how they approach such concepts as creativity, political engagement, expression and the visual element. In the coming years Wesseling will continue to developing theories and concepts that will allow them to study and define the relationship between the process of creating the artwork and the ideas behind it.

Insider and outsider

Her findings have resulted in a book on the methodology of artistic research. The book zooms in on the challenges and dilemmas that she encounters in supervising her PhD candidates. 'The artists have to do the almost impossible. On the one hand they are the insider in the creative process, and on the other hand they have to be an outsider in order to  reflect critically on their own work and to position it in a world context.'

Aesthetic value can make the difference

In the coming years Wesseling will broaden her research to include the aesthetics of reception theory: how a work of art is received by the viewer. The relationship with the environment is important, but it should not dominate over everything else, in Wessling's opinion. 'Today, a lot of attention is paid to the political and social value of a work of art and its impact; both artists and theoreticians all too readily ignore the notion of aesthetics as an outdated and no longer relevant concept. To my mind, that's a mistake. I am convinced that aesthetics always has political and moral consequences and the reason I think that is that it is the aesthetic value that can make the difference.' 

Janneke Wesseling is also art critic for NRC Handelsblad.

Photo: 'Because I can swim in the immense' by Ruchama Noorda, Appel arts centre. Noorda, the woman on the photo, obtained her PhD in 2015 at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts.


The Academy of Creative and Performing Arts is a partnership between Leiden University and the University of the Arts The Hague (HdK). The HdK comprises the Royal Conservatory and the Royal Academy of Art. 


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