Wednesday, 10 August 2011

New Knowledge

Increasingly in academia there arises an emphasis upon “new knowledge” and in tandem with this comes a growing pressure upon senior art students and art teachers to unearth and explain how their work and research provides a contribution to knowledge. Knowledge, it is felt, is the major commodity of academia, an exalted substance through which intellectual, social, cultural and economic progress is made and in and through which learning is inscribed and enhanced. By focussing specifically upon new knowledge we are able to prioritise those innovations and discoveries at the forefront of human intelligence and ensure that unnecessary repetition and duplication are avoided thereby saving valuable resources and maximising efficiency.

In order to measure up to this formidable objective, substantial amounts of intellectual energy have been and are being expended to establish exactly how and to what extent art might embody or generate knowledge and in the process a litany of philosophers and philosophical theories are being mobilised to underpin the claim that art is indeed a significant, though tricky, producer of new knowledge.

Impressed as I am by the arguments, I can’t help wondering that if it takes such convoluted and complex argumentation to stake this claim then there must surely be something wrong. Aren’t we simply looking in the wrong place? Whilst knowledge might result from artistic endeavour it’s hardly a principle objective.

It seems to me that art is the soil upon which ideas and knowledge are cultivated. This soil is not directly responsible for any knowledge generated but rather it provides the conditions by which knowledge might emerge and flourish. ‘Good’ artworks are those that sustain extended discourse, that keep the conversation going - that continually generate new questions, thoughts and ideas and occasionally new artworks. In this sense art is like an interlocutor who stimulates rich discussion. Knowledge, when it occurs, is not a product of any singular individual or event but is a dynamic outcome of an interaction with already existing and emergent ideas.

We can applaud the perspicacity and rapport of a good interlocutor but I think we’d be perfectly justified in doubting any claim they might make to having singularly generated new knowledge in any significantly involved conversation with us. This might explain why it’s so difficult to ascribe knowledge directly to those artefacts we call artworks. It might also reassure us that the soil we create as artists need not be barren due to lack of care, skill or ingenuity on our part but may simply be waiting for exposure to light, water or the right seed to bring its potential to life.


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