Can knowledge be found in works of art?


Jessica Herrington

Not everyone agrees that knowledge can be found in works of art.[1] [2] The problem is that when we think of knowledge we often think of ‘scientific knowledge’. Artists working today may find themselves in an uneasy position unsure of where art fits in a modern scientific world. Artists may feel the heat to compete with the sciences and prove that art is valuable in the sense that it can also provide knowledge. Here, I aim to persuade you that art is indeed capable of providing us with some kinds of knowledge of our world.

Let us first be clear about what scientific knowledge is. Scientific knowledge is testable knowledge: it is factual knowledge of our world that we can talk about. Scientific knowledge is also empirical: it can be measured through observation and experiment. This could be something as simple as knowing the answer to questions such as: ‘How many sandwiches did you eat today?’ or ‘Has the temperature changed over the last 100 years?’ Given the current trend for combining art and science you would be forgiven for thinking that knowledge from art and knowledge from science held an equal footing. However, it is important to remember that while science has strict guidelines for transferring knowledge, art has none.

Art does not just affect us, it informs us. Like all information, we can use art to build a rich picture of the world beyond which we interact everyday. One way art does this is by giving us a kind of conceptual knowledge: knowledge about our own concepts.[3] Conceptual knowledge can include our own feelings or mental states, such as having empathy for others.[4] Art then, cannot only inform us of our own mind but also give us a feeling of ‘what it is like’ to be someone else. Art can be a way of walking in someone else’s shoes.

Art can also give us moral knowledge.[5] Art can play a role in informing our opinions of what is right, wrong, justified and unjustified.[6] When standing in front of Ai Weiwei’s work for example, we might develop a different sense of knowing about corruption and human rights than simply reading a newspaper about these issues. However, we may view art with strong pre-conceptions of our own morality already made, and artworks might just reinforce our moral knowledge. Still, it is likely that art can play a role in transferring some information about morality, which cements our moral knowledge.

Knowledge of alternate possibilities is also something that art can provide.[7] For example, Patricia Piccinini’s biotechnology inspired work is a type of thought experiment that allows us to ponder and simulate alternate futures. We learn something quite different from Piccinini’s artwork that we do not learn from a piece of fictional literature such as Frankenstein. One thing that Frankenstein and Piccinini’s work have in common is they are can both be explorations into the vast, muddy subject of ethics. But in contrast to what books can provide, art gives us a specific framework to explore possible worlds.[8] Unlike fictional literature we are not bound to specific characters in specific narratives; instead we place ourselves in the artwork. We can imagine our own narratives and what the possibilities can mean for us.

Art can transfer much more information than we realise, and it can deepen and enrich our aesthetic experience of the world. Philosophers for example, often refer to what is known as ‘qualia’[9] as being the content of our aesthetic experiences. Qualia are sensory qualities like the ‘painfulness’ of pain, the taste of ‘liquorice’, or the ‘redness’ of an apple. Over time, our experiences of ‘redness’ can change how we view subsequent reds. Experiencing James Turrell’s colour fields for instance can change the way we think about colour. Through Turrell’s work we can contemplate how we perceive. Therefore, knowledge from art can deepen our experience of the world.

If this is true, then perhaps there is a specific kind of aesthetic knowledge found only in art. Art could teach us what to value aesthetically, not just in an art gallery but in our everyday cultural context. Aesthetic knowledge, while not something artists often discuss, is something that could be absorbed[10] and influence how we understand patterns[11] and relationships between objects. Knowledge in art could affect how we do things, or put things together in our everyday lives.[12]

If art can give us knowledge, then does this enhance art’s value? Put another way; are the knowledge elements of an artwork aesthetically relevant? This is an elusive question to pursue, and examples of knowledge enhancing our aesthetic evaluations have not yet been explored in depth. There is however, much research demonstrating that we are simply unaware of many aspects in our world that shape our common, everyday decisions and evaluations. Our evaluations of artworks might work in a similar way. It is not absurd then, to assume that knowledge in art might play some role in contributing to art’s aesthetic value.

Aesthetic value is likely a construct made up of many aspects, only one part of which is aesthetic knowledge. Aesthetic value itself is difficult to pin down, and is something philosophers in aesthetics argue about constantly. For the moment we might have to conclude that knowledge in art might contribute to aesthetic value ‘sometimes’. Art’s ability to provide knowledge might form just a small part of how we assess an artwork, and this factor is something we do not often address in the visual arts. The fact that we do not often talk about aesthetic knowledge in the visual arts is something that may need to change.

In any case, art needs to distinguish itself from science in its understanding of how it can contribute to knowledge. Of course, there are types of knowledge other than what I have outlined here. Currently, the debate about whether art can provide knowledge remains mostly in the realm of philosophers. Artists might benefit from joining in on the debate and contributing their own perspectives on whether knowledge in art has any aesthetic value. Developments in this area will have broad ramifications for the way we value art and the way research degrees in studio art might be conducted. Perhaps art can take advantage of the way it provides knowledge. For art is doing something quite different to science in terms of knowledge, but art is providing us with knowledge nonetheless.

 


 

[1] Diffey, T.J. “What Can We Learn From Art?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (1995): 202-11.

[2] Carroll, Noël. “The wheel of virtue: Art, literature, and moral knowledge.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60, no. 1, (2002): 3–26.

[3] Gaut, Berys. 2003. “Art and knowledge.” The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. ed. Levinson, Jerrold. (Oxford University Press, 2005): 439–441. doi:

[4] John, Eileen. Reading fiction and conceptual knowledge: Philosophical thought in literary context. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1998): 331-348. Accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/432124?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104994231077

[5] Gaut, Art and Knowledge, 439–441.

[6] Nussbaum, Martha C. Love’s knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature. (Oxford University Press, 1992).

[7] Gaut, Art and Knowledge, 439-441.

[8] Putnam, Hilary. Meaning and the Moral Sciences: Routledge Revivals. (Routledge, 2013)

[9] Ludlow, Peter, Yujin Nagasawa, and Daniel Stoljar. 2004. There’s something about Mary: essays on phenomenal consciousness and Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument. Eds. Peter Ludlow, Yujin Nagasawa, and Daniel Stoljar. (MIT Press, 2004).

[10] Balog, Katalin. “Jerry Fodor on non-conceptual content.” Synthese 170, no. 2 (2009): 311–320. doi: 10.1007/s11229-009-9585-x

[11] Gaut, Art and Knowledge, 439–441.

[12] Kieran, Mathew, “Aesthetic Knowledge” in Routledge Companion to Epistemology, ed. Bernecker, S., and Pritchard, D. (London: Taylor and Francis), pp. 369–379.


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Jessica Herrington is a visual artist who graduated with Honours from the ANU School of Art in 2008. She is currently completing a degree in...


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