Art and New Knowledge

In order to obtain university patronage, art must position itself as research that produces new knowledge.

Art as new knowledge?

I suppose you could just about argue this when the notion of art is retroactively fitted to various societies that traditionally don’t have a conception of art as such. Even then there are problems. Take Australian Indigenous art – a complex, multi-layered, differentiated phenomenon if ever there was one, but if we just focus on traditional art practices, we can see that art (whatever that means in this context) was intimately linked to systems of knowledge – all manner of ceremonial events were linked to the production of objects and performances that to our eyes represent forms of art. Dreamtime stories, representations of identity, culture and place were all integral to these forms of production. However there was clearly no major concern with new knowledge – it was about maintaining and communicating existing knowledge.

Leaving aside the problem of the ‘new’, we can nonetheless acknowledge that in traditional Indigenous society there is no pronounced clash between regimes of knowledge and regimes of aesthetic production. This is not the case in modern Western societies since at least the Enlightenment. Within the context of the latter knowledge is linked to scientific understanding and is carefully distinguished from the realm of aesthetics. Kant’s critical philosophy is representative. He distinguishes three broad spheres: rational understanding; ethics; and taste (aesthetic judgement). Reason produces knowledge. Ethics produces enlightened political society. Aesthetics provides a vital bridge between general regimes of reason and ethics and the particular sphere of lived experience. It represents a space of reconciliation. It does not produce knowledge as such. Nor does it produce ethical practices. Instead it serves as a non-conceptual and non-ethical basis for the other elements in the system. It is particular value is in its difference – its resistance to appetite, the instrumental, the abstractly conceptual, the practically good.

Now Kant’s categorical, differentiated system may be problematic. It certainly positions aesthetics as at once both consequential (a ground to reason and ethics) and inconsequential (cut off from knowledge, ordinary life and practical values), but at the same time this conception remain vital to contemporary art. Consider, for instance, traditions of Conceptual Art, which constantly play at the limits of rational systematization, that undermine broader regimes of the conceptual as much as distilling dimensions of order and system within art. Yet now we seem prepared to forsake this ambivalence in order to secure scholarships and academic careers. Artist-researchers are now conveniently and cravenly prepared to abandon the awkward, contradictory, productive and unproductive position of art, insisting that it simply and unproblematically produces new knowledge. Wouldn’t it be better, even in practical terms, to insist that art be valued in terms of its own difficult merits, rather than in terms that compromise whatever vitally defines it?

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2 Responses to Art and New Knowledge

  1. Lucas says:

    …yes, but the definition of knowledge is up for grabs, innit? I mean, there’s a few different types, off the top of my head… (the following doesn’t address your notion of art within traditional societies):

    There’s knowledge produced through the research generated in the making of an artwork. I’m thinking of the represented “content” of a photograph, blog, or film. This is a sort of factual knowledge about a particular situation, for which the artwork is the carrier

    There’s also knowledge produced in the making process itself – the “know-how” or methodology, which in principle may be transmissible to other practitioners, in diverse circumstances. This might involve the skillful innovation in working with materials, or the invention of a new approach born of difficulty or challenge.

    And of course there’s the field of knowledge which lives within the discourse surrounding artworks and their reception, role in society and so on. I guess that’s usually called art history and/or theory.

    It seems to me that even without the academy’s support, all three of these knowledge areas will continue to flourish, simply because when you get a bunch of people in a community working away, and showing their findings to each other, they inevitably look for ways to borrow, steal, innovate, influence, and transmit ways of doing stuff.

    That’s new knowledge, innit? In this sense, it’s the academy which is late coming to the art-as-new-knowledge party… The challenge, perhaps, is in reminding the academy that it’s not got exclusive rights to this notion – that it’s inherent in art generally.

  2. brogan says:

    Yes, agree, those are all forms of knowledge – but they are forms of knowledge associated with the production and reception of art. That does not necessarily render art itself a form of new knowledge. I take your point that we may like to subvert the traditional conception of knowledge as a rationally-determined quantity that gradually, progressively accumulates over time – to rethink its cultural possibility – but why this concern to reinvent art in terms of the concept of new knowledge if not to secure a place in the academy? And why this deliberate forgetting of what knowledge has meant and represented in the critical literature for at least the last three hundred years? The experience of knowledge and art have been typically distinguished and opposed. Why are we not at least interrogating this tradition and making a coherent philosophical case for positioning art as new knowledge. Just one example from Bachelard’s Poetics of Space:

    And whereas philosophical reflection applied to scientific thinking elaborated over a long period of time requires any new idea to to become integrated in a body of tested ideas, even though this body of ideas be subjected to profound change by the new idea […], the philosophy of poetry must acknowledge that the poetic act has no past, at least no recent past, in which its preparation and appearance could be followed. (xv)

    It’s not that I necessarily agree with Bachelard’s view, but surely there is a need to at least engage with these traditional conceptions of the difference between knowledge and art?

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