Un Magazine 7.1

Theses on art and knowledge

Danny Butt




Local Time, Water Action 16/05/2012, 0900 +1200, photograph: Melissa Laing

‘Knowledge’, as described by educational institutions, is disciplinary knowledge. There is no way to know how much knowledge is held in an object of knowledge (a report, for example) until one has done the work to understand how a field of knowledge is constructed. No report is self-authoring, containing all the knowledge needed to understand what is within. This knowledge-containing work needs other works. The visual arts are no different—and it may be the field where this idea is most evident. Scientific knowledge, including the more scientific classifying tendencies of modern art history, do not help us much when it comes to analysing works of contemporary art. The stable conceptual frames that scientific innovation seeks to propose, stabilise, renovate, extend and consensually advance are largely absent. Even historical taxonomies of the avant-garde seem only made by the art historian to be broken by the artist. Works of contemporary art can only be engaged in the moment, where one gives oneself over to the work or moves with the work to some other place. To adopt a formulation from Irit Rogoff, the goal of the critical viewer is to singularise the work through the experience of the work. The scientific model of knowledge, by contrast, rests on an author who is ideally fully in control of their own work and its reception, adopting the immunity of objectivity. Dissemination will be a largely technical matter of reputation management, but the work itself is done and its purpose is never in doubt. In the creative arts such authors are boring, and therefore useless, except for academic justification. Art in the legacy of the avant-garde seeks instead invention, a Romantic desire to escape the pre-programming of the artist and artistic outputs. Lorraine Daston described the moral economy of modern scientific objectivity as emerging in late Protestant culture from a fear of idolatry, seduction, and projection by the gentlemanly researcher. These are exactly the scandalous means by which the creative artist makes their mark, and therefore their own contribution to knowledge that is shared with others. For this reason, importation of scientific or social scientific methods (shared and agreed propositional questions, consensually defined methods, falsifiable results) offers little to the artistic knowledge-creator except so far as it generates interest as opposed to disinterest. But any interest can only be invited, not compelled.

Works of art escape their constraints—whether set by curators, dealers, historians or, most critically, the artist themselves—in a future encounter with an audience. Artworks have a certain ‘operationality’. They work in the domain of J. L. Austin’s ‘performative acts’—they make something happen directly in the meeting between work and viewer, in an unpredictable way. It is true that in light of institutional critique the audience is not some fully permeable and neutral entity, ready to respond to whatever the work creates. There are banal sociological and political-economic parameters that construct an audience for which the work can work. However, the work itself is never quite readable from these constraints. As deconstruction teaches us, knowing the rules of the game is not the same as knowing how to play. There is something child-like or childish about the relation of contemporary artists to the rules, but this is not a lack of seriousness—adults learn to forget that for the child play is completely serious, a way of crossing lines between the known and the unknown. The materiality of the aesthetic work can invite our interest precisely because it is a ‘boundary object’, combining sensations, concepts and affects that are both generically familiar and singularly unknowable. In a form of hybridisation, the art object draws us outside ourselves and into it, while we in turn ingest the aesthetic experience of the work. The ‘secret’ in the work is that which cannot be fully incorporated into ourselves or transmitted to another: the work is an index to the ‘multiplicity of realities’ that become a motor for further discovery: more looking, more listening, more learning, more work.

Since Alberti in the 15th century, this unique instability in visual arts production has been erratically theorised as a form of world-making that can be classed as writing, in the broad sense. After Derrida, we can understand reading and writing as terms that can be used for the operation of sign and trace across all media: oral, alphabetic, audio-visual, biological, production and reproduction. Spivak defines writing as precisely ‘a place where the absence of the weaver from the web is structurally necessary’.1 It is a thing (whether alphabetic or audiovisual text) created for a reader who will take up that work and make it their own, perhaps even remaking themselves with the work. Therefore, despite the efforts of the Protestant sciences to make an individual responsible for their own knowledge, a writer is inevitably dependent on a suitably prepared reader, and it is this other reader, not the writer, who can account for the knowledge-effects generated. Respect for the reader or viewer’s role in creating the scene of knowledge requires that the work be available for independent critical interpretation—a freedom and independence that since Kant has been essential to the operation of the aesthetic. It is here that we can understand a shared interest between viewers in the visual arts and readers in a humanities tradition. Exegetical writings that seek to explain or account for the artist’s activity in the scientific paradigm thus run counter to knowledge-production in the work except as far as they enhance or constitute the freedom and independence of the work. Explanatory writing by the artist may be useful in resisting the synchronisation of the artwork to the art sales market, but at the expense of synchronising the artistic practice to the university market. The radical growth and rationalisation of university teaching of the creative disciplines may now make the art school market a larger and more important mechanism than the art sales market for capital to exert its torque on artists.

Keeping analysis close to home, the most important knowledge-making in the visual arts is precisely—ironically—a critique of these emerging constraints of artistic production: the research university’s knowledge-making practices. The archive of university knowledge is figured in the technoscientific paradigm as a smooth globe of knowledge to be ‘contributed to’ by an appropriately defined research enquiry. An open-access database in the cloud. We know, however, that the idea of ‘knowledge in the world’ through an expanded European university system, is a contradictory historical tangle, resting on the material and political assumptions of colonial capitalism. This system was designed to bring a missionary ‘light’ to the dark corners of the earth to make them safe for occupation and exploitation—these institutions of secular enlightenment have a Christian heritage not too far in their past, even as the sponsoring institution has moved from the state to the market. It is a culturally specific mode of knowledge which is being sustained even as the canon of university knowledge is globalised. There are many ways of knowing that exceed the narrow parameters of techno-scientific knowledge in a globally validated form that allow agency under capitalism. The visual arts perhaps collectively senses these constraints in the university, because the most influential criteria that delineate its own disciplinary boundaries have until very recently been held outside the university, in a quite different (though no less constraining) version of official culture expanded into a neoliberal market.

A lineage of conceptual artistic practice could take these questions of endemic forms of knowing to be the very basis of their contribution to knowledge. This may be an area where art can identify what epistemological presuppositions are at work within the kinds of knowledge validated in the scientific research paradigm more effectively than science can itself. At the birth of the modern scientific university in the early nineteenth century, the goal of knowledge was to expand to encompass the world, a powerful transformation of the theological call to forget our material limits in favour of universal principles. However, Heidegger recovered from Greek philosophy the idea that the ‘work of art’ initiated a world by creating a presence working in an oppositional direction to positivist knowledge. The experience of encountering work was not to take us into the future, but to prompt an experience of unconcealement or emplacement—to become more where one already was. Art can then help us remember a world outside ourselves, which capitalism would much rather have us forget in our chase to more efficiently improve what we already know. As artistic production is incorporated uneasily into the constraints of university knowledge, perhaps it becomes capable of pushing the future university to understand more deeply how to live on the planet we inhabit, rather than one we produce in our own image.

Danny Butt is Research Fellow at the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. He is a member of the collective Local Time.

  1. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 58.