Epistemic Artistry

Thoughts on art, science, research and epistemology.

Javier Party

Art & ScienceNeither & Both
Artistic ResearchThree Perspectives
Art's Epistemic PotentialUnspeakable Knowledge

1. Art & Science

Humankind has long tried to define art without much success. There are indeed many attempts but they all seem to make two common mistakes. First, they usually take art for something static with clear boundaries; and second, they tend to base art's definition on differentiation. After one has been posed the question “what is art?”, it is easy to begin thinking about what is not art. In the same line of thought you will soon find yourself reducing the subject to the very pragmatic but much more superficial question of where to draw the line: where does art stop being art?

Other kinds of approaches which are maybe less straightforward but nonetheless rewarding are questions like: What characterizes art? What do we find in art that we do not find anywhere else? When do we speak of art and when of handicraft? Or even: who decides what art is?, a consensus?, each observer individually?, the government?, our friends?, science?, philosophy? Even though these questions are highly interesting, because they are based on the principle that art is an object and thus it must be understood in a similar way as all other objects are understood, they continue to rely on static characterization and clarification of its boundaries while forcing you to resort to differentiation.

I would like to argue, that art must be understood, in the first place, as something dynamic. By doing so, at least we have to accept the possibility that art might be a process instead of an object. To put it differently, art should not be observed isolated as an object in which you can find its definition, like, for example, a ball. To understand art it is much more significant to be aware of its contextuality than to be able to differentiate it from other non-art-things. A crucial part of this contextuality is, like in almost everything else, time. I do not share the position that considers art to be timeless. I am not even sure that music composed one thousand years ago should be considered art today. What do you think? A good example to begin to think about this point critically is the inconsistency between sculptures, cave paintings, rock paintings and petroglyphs from roughly forty thousand years ago, which are widely considered to be art pieces, and the talented and very artistic work of an artisan today, which is widely not considered to be art. This topic gives enough fuel for long and passionate discussions and I do not pretend to offer you any kind of absolute answer.

Science became popular in western societies much later than art, at least in the way we understand science today. In relation to art, for example, containers that may have been used to hold paints have been found dating as far back as a hundred thousand years. Science on the other hand, even if we consider it in its original sense as a type of knowledge, namely as what the ancient Greeks used to call epistemē, would be less than three thousand years old. Not to mention modern science, which is less than one thousand years old, and which actually represents what people understand by science nowadays. Well, you could ask, how can we know that those one hundred thousand-year old paint containers were not being used for something else than art? The right answer for me is that maybe they did not even make any distinction between art, science, technology, design, or whatever, like we do today. So eventually they were doing science on the rocks, some kind of topography maybe. What about chemistry with sand, clay, gravel and other materials they could easily find on the surface of the somewhat younger Earth (a name, by the way, that was given to our planet much, much later).

Science seems to be easier to define than art. In contrast to art, five minutes of research on the Internet will in fact give you some degree of intellectual satisfaction. You could even come up with your own definition of science. There are of course some nuances in the way some cultures use the word they have for science in their language. In any case, what is clear to all of us, is that science, like art, is something we people do. We could approach this by judging the means by their end. So depending on what we achieve, we would know if what we did to get there was science, art or something else. We could do it the other way around, that is, we could base our judgment of the results on the activities pursued to achieve them. In this way, depending on how and what we did, we would know if the results are science, art or something else. Does this sound acceptable to you?

Seeing things from another point of view, maybe it does not matter that much, how and why we do something. Maybe one thing can be both art and science at the same time. Maybe it would be smarter to call certain things neither science nor art. The problem is, that we change our actions because of this categorization a priori. We even feel differently if we think we are doing art, or if we feel we are doing science. What change of direction would the development of the world take if we started doing things without the necessity of knowing what category of activity we are carrying out. It is nice to dream but in our day to day reality we know for example how differently the political priorities regarding art and science are respectively set. Where does this lead us to? Is it possible to assign value to these things in a legitimate way? You may say, firstly I want to be able to cure my illness before I can enjoy a concert at all. So the priority and thus the money should be for go to science. But, do you think we are going to be free from illness any soon? And, if there is no concert to enjoy, what do you want to be so healthy for?

Are we prepared to assimilate what we do as neither science nor art, or as both science and art?

2. Artistic Research

Artistic research can be dealt with in different ways. One legitimate and very common way is through perspectivism. I will show you three perspectives from which it can be observed, and I will give you a well-defined starting point for reflecting on the somewhat murky twists and turns of artistic research. These perspectives are: research for the creation process, research through the creation process and the creation process as research.

Research for the creation process is without any doubt the clearest of the three. It refers to the acquisition of knowledge before the actual artistic act. It could even be discussed, if it is a kind of artistic research or not. If we judge this investigative prelude, that is, this preparation by its end, which we would, for explanatory purposes, take for a work of art, it would then utterly be a part of the creation process and therefore a legitimate sort of artistic research. This is not close to be irrefutable and this may be because of how indistinct and sometimes even ambivalent the terms “artistic” and “research” are. It does happen very often that when we give names to things, while thinking this would be helpful, we are in the fact making things more difficult to ourselves. As I mentioned before, the categorization of our activities condemn them to certain results.

Artistic research understood from this perspective would be for example the study of Birdsong that French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) carried out in the most methodical fashion. He transcribed the melodies sung by the birds very precisely considering pitch, rhythm, dynamics and articulations. He compared them and established connections between them for later artistic use in his compositions. By the way, Messiaen presented himself also as an ornithologist (a scientist who studies birds), which says a lot about the strong interrelations between so called artistic and scientific undertakings. It must be added, that his work as an ornithologist did not stop once he used the gathered information as musical material for a composition, it was much more done in parallel to his artistic development as a composer. In this way, his artistic research not only was essential for the conception of some of his music but his music influenced his scientific path as well.

As we promptly see, as long as we stubbornly keep on differentiating art from science and science from art, assuming they are wholly separated worlds, we will not be able to free ourselves from the burden of the shortcomings of conceptuality and obstacles in our understanding endeavors, which do not serve the purpose they were thought to serve in the first place, that is, to help us understand our world. This kind of research which occurs before the artistic creation process but owes its existence to it, might be better described with a more straightforward expression like “knowledge acquisition with an artistic purpose”. By doing so we would avoid some conceptual ambiguity. Then we would have to clean up the way and consider the concept of artistic research either as an activity which includes “knowledge acquisition with an artistic purpose” or one that excludes it.

On the other hand, we could just accept the global grasp of artistic research and add to it a third word to specify it further according to its context or taking other criteria into account. We would then end with something like: preparatory artistic research, or scientific artistic research, or maybe artistic pre-research.

To come back to my suggestion of activities being free from categorization, that is, to understand them neither as science nor as art, or to see them as science and art a the same time, one could perfectly state that this kind of artistic research might be both science and art at the same time. Perhaps sometimes science and sometimes art.

Research through the creation process is maybe the most difficult to accept of the three perspectives, as it daringly implies that, in this context, to create and to research are, if not the same, at least parallel, interconnected and mutually dependent processes. Here is where we begin to glimpse the epistemic potential of art. If we accept this form of artistic research we accept implicitly the epistemic nature of art. Even though we have not yet gotten into what kind of “knowledge” art would provide, we would understand the factual reality of art as a process of knowledge generation.

Artistic research from this point of view could be exemplified through the formal structure of musical variations in a composition, where a specific and mostly explicit musical material with a defined identity is varied in different ways. The composer runs a series of variations, which might as well be described as tests, over this musical material, presenting the audible results at the same time. These variations consist on changing one, some or every parameter of the original material while maintaining consistency with its identity. This technique can also be found in other arts such as photography, where for instance the subject of a series of photographs remains the same but the light, the perspective, the distance, the context, or any other parameter is being tested, treated, altered or varied.

In many cases the knowledge generated from research made through an artistic creation process would be artistic knowledge or discoveries related to the artistic technique. This epistemic facet is clearly not the most challenging one, as one can rapidly imagine a token of such knowledge: a new melody, for example, or a certain new harmonic relation which has some specific musical characteristics. The more revolutionary but also undermining facet of art's epistemology is art's potential to generate new knowledge which transcends its own artistic frontiers. Is this possible? I would like to argue that it is. One must nevertheless keep in mind that these new realities that arise from art cannot be described with the conceptuality available because there is no conceptuality for it at all. I will develop this point more extensively later on.

The creation process as research. Although this perspective is not very difficult to understand, it is very complicated to imagine in a concrete way. How can a piece of art be the product of an investigation? Or put the other way around, how can the product of an investigation be a piece of art? And if we accept this as possible, then, how can we tell art from science or technology?

If we understand the artistic creation process as a kind of research, that is to say, as an exemplification of research, it would lead us to the conclusion that the means of art are the same or at least equivalent to those of science. It would mean that works of art and scientific discoveries are in some unclear way the same as well.

I like this perspective particularly because it challenges the common and eventually harmful separation of art and science. It bears out the thesis that art and science may coexist in one activity. It highlights the possibility that the artistic creation process might be understood as science and scientific research as art.

An example of an artistic creation process which serves as a scientific research could only be found in a world where we can see beyond our historic horizon. I guess it would be possible to categorize a certain creation process as research afterwards, when it has accidentally produced results which are widely accepted as scientific. Seen from the other side, it would be possible to categorize a certain scientific endeavor as art afterwards, when it has unexpectedly produced results which are consensually accepted as art. The fact that the categorization of something may change with time says a lot about how little philosophical weight the names we give to the activity have. Of greater philosophical weight seems to be the context in which the activity is being carried out considering the reason why it is being carried out and the end result of such activity, and ultimately our observation perspective.

3. Art's Epistemic Potential

American philosopher Nelson Goodman says in his book “Ways of Worldmaking”, chapter I - Notes of Knowing:

"An increase in acuity of insight or in range of comprehension, rather than a change in belief, occurs when we find in a pictured forest a face we already knew was there, or learn to distinguish stylistic differences among works already classified by artist or composer or writer, or study a picture or a concerto or a treatise until we see or hear or grasp features and structures we could not discern before. Such growth in knowledge is not by formation or fixation or belief but by the advancement of understanding".

As I said before, the more interesting but also challenging facet of art's epistemology is art's potential to generate new knowledge beyond its intrinsic artistic nature. Here we have to be very tolerant with the frustrating feeling of being constantly missing the point, because we lack the suitable conceptuality to talk about this knowledge from artistic origin. We must therefore approach this topic from the outside.

To understand the language with which art talks to us we have to use metaphors. We do this all the time. The very expression “this music is sad” is a kind of metaphor. The concept of sadness is something we understand, something we can quite easily talk about, something we can describe using other concepts, which we also understand and can describe. We rely on this cognitive symbolic system based on conceptuality to explain the world. The enigmatic part of the metaphorical expression “this music is sad” is the one being referred to: that unspeakable side of knowledge that suddenly leaves us dumb, for it seems impossible to talk about it. But this does not imply that we cannot reach this knowledge. In fact we can, and we do.

There are some examples which are often used to give a sense of what this knowledge can be. Although these are remarkably enlightening, they are very simple and do not represent the whole range of possible kinds of unspeakable knowledge at all. Some of them are: colors. Try to describe the color red. No chance. But you understand very well what is red and what is not red. You do not doubt the existence of the color red, even though you cannot say anything about it. You can see it. You can even imagine it. And sounds. Do you know how a clarinet sounds? I would hope you do. Nevertheless the relevant question here is, can you describe it to me? Certainly not.

So we use metaphors to approach this kind of knowledge. We make comparisons as objective as possible, we say, “the sound of the clarinet is like that of the saxophone but less nasal”. In a naive but convinced subjective way, we say things like, “it is much prettier than the sound of the trumpet”. Apart from attempting to achieve an adequate description by making comparisons, we also try to describe these things with adjectives, which do give us some idea of what certain unspeakable knowledge may be about. We say “red is warm” or “red is an intense color”, maybe “a disturbing one”. Anyhow, all these attempts are not even close to being satisfactory.

This knowledge I call unspeakable knowledge is not new to us. The color red has been present in human history since the beginning of time and our lives do not lose any value because of the fact that we cannot describe it.

Metaphors, references, suggestions, allusions, exemplification, denotation and other kinds of cognitive interrelations are an essential part of art. All of these entail new connotations and lead to new interpretations and new understandings of reality. In other words, art makes new realities possible which without art just would not exist. In this way our whole conception of truth is extended as well. But art is not only metaphors and references.

Another key artistic resource is the power of contextualization and decontextualization of different phenomena, which allows for new ways of viewing them, and for an understanding that, probably, would otherwise not exist. Apart from chance and error, only art generates the circumstances needed for the unexpected, that does not obey the laws of cause and effect so characteristic of today's predominant pragmatism. Only art makes realities possible which do not follow the ways of all activities that are necessary as a means to higher ends, such as engineering, politics, medicine, science in general but also everyday activities such as talking, walking and cooking.

I have given you a starting point for critical thinking in relation to art and science. From here you may start challenging potentially harmful categorizations and then consider the somewhat disturbing idea of an activity which is both art and science at the same time. I have shown you three legitimate perspectives from which artistic research can be analyzed. I have proposed that, for the sake of understanding, our terminology should either be used more specifically or with greater tolerance. At the end and in the hope of opening a small window into the confinement of unspeakable knowledge, I have demonstrated the epistemic potential of art and left you with some examples to think about.

2017 © Javier Party