Contribution to an understanding of the knowledge base in the field of visual arts
National College of Art and Design, NO
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The purpose of this paper is to advance a preliminary, but general understanding of the knowledge base in the field of visual arts. The paper contributes to the efforts of:
a) understanding why the field of visual art seems to have no scientific basis, and
b) establishing the beginning of a theoretical knowledge basis in the visual arts built from within, from the perspective of the artist.
The feeling of not knowing is familiar to anyone who starts working on a new project, and it may be understood as a necessary condition for creators of new solutions and innovation, whether art or design. Most professional artists are educated for years in proper institutions, and although they continuously experience uncertainty in their work, they have their basis of knowledge on which their practice is built. A profession is, strictly speaking, grounded on a systematic knowledge base that is thought to have four essential properties: it should be specialized, firmly bounded, scientific, and standardized (Schön 1983: 23). The field of visual arts clearly does not count as a profession in this sense. As an artist, I feel bewildered and ask myself what kind of knowledge do artists have, since they study for years without belonging to a profession?
Traditionally, finished works of art are studied by humanistic fields; documented and described by ethnologists and art historians, and described and evaluated by art historians and philosophers of art. This approach represents an outside perspective that has taken little interest in the processes that lead to the finished art objects, let alone new pieces of art. Since the outside perspectives belong to the humanistic fields, the humanists have defined not only their object of study, art, but have also included the producers of art, the artists, as obvious part of their field. However, seen from the inside, from the artists perspective, we have our own field that deals with the numerous choices and problems that the work offers during the process before the artworks come into being. The knowledge required and practiced by artists is not, and cannot be standardized because of perpetually new situations and ideas. Thus the field of visual art does not belong to any established scientific field, even if one may draw knowledge from any of them.
Design and architecture have recently defined themselves as making discipline that arise from making practices and find their identity in the interplay between theory for practice and the exercise of theory (Dunin-Woyseth and Bruskeland Amundsen 1995). The question is whether the visual arts likewise will develop into a making discipline and a profession in an academic sense that voices its own field (see Dunin-Woyseth and Michl 2001; and Friedman 1997). If one asks why, the words spoken by the ageing American painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) may be helpful:
The meaning of a word - to me - is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Colors and shapes make more definite statement than words. I write this because such odd things have been done about me with words. I have often been told what to paint. I am often amazed at the spoken and written word telling me what I have painted. I make this effort because no one else can know how my paintings happen.
Where I was born and where I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest. (O'Keeffe 1978: 1).
This paper has three parts. The first is my personal story of seeking knowledge and truth. The second examines the tradition and reason for why the field of visual art did not develop its own tradition of theory, and why practical knowledge and intellectuality has been underestimated. The third deals with the process of producing art and presents terms that relate to the knowledge practitioners exhibit in their work. It also suggests a simple model of the basic knowledge that is operative in artistic practice.
To illustrate the situation of the field of visual arts in relation to other fields, I will present the outlines of my journey through the academic world as a personal case study.
In the early 1970s when I was to choose a higher education, art was regarded a subject open to those who failed in school. Since I did equally well in all subjects, it was no option to study art. Everyone in my surroundings, family, teachers, even teachers in the art school, agreed that if you were capable of doing anything but art, you should stick to that. This consensus swept away any idea of personal preferences. However, contrary to the priority on non-artistic abilities, my choice of educational subject was based on intuition and aesthetic feeling. Before I knew what to study, I decided where to go and applied for a Master course at the University of Agriculture that is situated in a lovely park in a beautiful landscape.
The subjects of study were, from the aesthetic perspective, not quite in harmony with the place. I was taught the basics of biology and nature from an instrumental point of view, and took interest in understanding how nature is and works. After five years, however, I had been taught to regard everything in nature from an agricultural perspective as a potential for utilisation. At the time, I was not aware that I had almost lost the ability to look at nature aesthetically. Appreciation might be present in either case, but not of the same kind. Inspired by Zen-Buddhism, I realized that meditative looking might also be a way of gaining understanding, but I was unsure about what. Gradually, I became aware of the difference between these approaches; how could, for instance, a tree defined as ugly from an agricultural point of view, be praised as beautiful aesthetically? I had difficulties in combining these two perspectives on the same object, the one based on utility and science, the other including the emotional dimension of pleasure and feeling. It seemed as if the mere perception of natural objects was changed during my study, things that were useful, were beautiful; things that were useless, were ugly, sunsets did not count, but for signalling good weather for the harvest.
Then, I entered art school. But my academic training made me ask wrong questions of why and expecting arguments for the curriculum and teaching. From being called too "artistic" in the university context, I was declared too "scientific" for becoming an artist in the art school context, the refrain went: "you think too much". I have later come to the conclusion that I, and others in the field, have been thinking too little, and that is our common problem.
The difficulty for me through the years has been to understand how to think in the field of art. Most books dealing with art were, in my opinion, too theoretical and led towards more theory and not to art practice, although exceptions exist. Still, the difference between artists books and academic books was difficult to grasp. I could simply not understand, or accept, why an artists book on her own work that provided reflections on her work, should be labelled unscientific and be of less value, than books on the artist that were defined scientific? I felt embarrassed on behalf of my chosen field, and it became a personal challenge that artists should be taken seriously in academic contexts, a challenge that finally ended in a doctoral dissertation (Refsum 2000).
The economy in the 15th and16th centuries generated the establishment of a secular art market that allowed the visual artists to free themselves from the supreme patronage of the Church and their guilds. During this period some artists worked like scientists and contributed to the common efforts of understanding the world around them; the most well-known representative of the artists stand being Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). In his Trattato della Pittura from the later 15th century Leonardo intended to write down the scientific aspects of painting like anatomy, optics, perspective, trees and plants characteristics, the movement of water, studies of proportions, the ethics of painting, the lifestyle of artists, and a philosophy of art in general (White 2001: 260-61). However, the visual arts did not develop into a scientific branch in itself. Before long the artists became dependent of the new buyers of their work, the humanistic intellectuals of the time. The artists placed themselves under the protection and spiritual guardianship of this group who from then on started to define the field of art, its iconography and the criteria of quality (Hauser 1968: 44-45). It seems to me, that artists never took the power back to define their own field and, therefore, still suffers from this subordination and dominance from the humanistic fields.
Since the 16th century, the history of the West has been shaped by the rise of science and technology. As the scientific world-view gained dominance, so did the idea that human progress would be achieved by science and technology. It was in this spirit that Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in the first half of the 19th century, expressed the three principal doctrines of Positivism: first, the conviction that empirical science was the only source of positive knowledge; second, there was an intention to get rid of superstition, and pseudo-knowledge; and finally, there was a program of extending scientific knowledge and technical control to human society (Schön 1983: 33). The American social scientist Donald Schön sums up: "propositions which were neither analytically nor empirically testable, were held to have no meaning at all. They were dismissed as emotive utterance, poetry, or mere nonsense" (Schön 1983: 33). Concerning practical knowledge as such, Schön continues: "in the light of such Positivist doctrines as these, practice appeared as a puzzling anomaly. Practical knowledge exits, but it does not fit neatly into the Positivist categories" (Schön 1983: 33). In the Positivist epistemology (from Greek episteme, knowledge, the study of the nature and validity of knowledge [EB, mac. vol. 6:925]) of practice, craft and artistry had, according to Schön, no lasting place. In the hierarchy of knowledge, types other than those who create new theory were thought to be higher up on the ladder of status than those who apply the theory; in consequence, universities became superior to art schools (Schön 1983: 37).
Another reason for expelling art and design from the scientific arena may be found in the Western notion of dualism that is rooted in ancient Greek thinking. According to the American architect Mark Gelernter, the ancient Greek philosophers in order to explain the relationship between humans and the world they inhibit, set up a dualistic conception for themselves that allowed two simultaneous, but mutually exclusive interpretations. On the one hand, humans can be seen as physical objects in nature whose actions and behaviour are completely determined by laws of the universe. On the other hand, humans can be regarded as freely acting, creative beings determined by personal inner drives and desires, free from external coercion. This dualism led to the notion that a person either take in existing knowledge that is objective from the outside world (scientific approach), or the person invents subjectively new information from the inside that is given to the world (artistic approach). Gelernter writes: "Immediately such a duality was set up, no end of problems emerged when explaining the interactions between the individual and the outside world." (Gelernter 1995: 27-28). Accordingly, Western theories of design cluster into the same dualistic pattern, into theories claiming that the source of design lies outside the designer, or theories that attribute the source of form to the designers mind. The logic of this duality leads to the notion that either the artist/designer perceives the art/design ideas from the outside world, transpersonal objective material, or the artist/designer creates them from within, autonomously and subjectively; the latter being the notion of the period we call Romanticism that developed in the late 18th century (Gelernter 1995: Introduction).
to cite this journal article:
Refsum, G. (2002) Contribution to an understanding of the knowledge base in the field of visual arts. Working Papers in Art and Design 2
Retrieved <date> from URL http://sitem.herts.ac.uk/artdes_research/
Today the field of visual art suffers from the reminiscences of Romanticism that focused on the individual genius of the artist, and Positivism (see the dissertation by the Norwegian art historian Siri Meyer from 1993.)
To exemplify how the repudiation of practical work, design and art, still is passed on, it is worth mentioning that in Norwegian universities all new students have to pass an introductory course called Examen Philosophicum, which is meant to give the students a foundation in the philosophy of science. In one of the popular and recommended books in the syllabus is said about the Migration period, from the 6th -13th century: “in this period practically everything that was left from the culture of Antiquity disappeared: art, justice, trade, crafts, technology, political institutions […] Scientific knowledge and attitudes were absent” (Wormnæs 1991: 15 [my translation]). In this text the new student is told that for a period of seven hundred years nothing of importance happened in Europe in regards of science. In this same period Viking ships, stave churches, woodcutting, and metalwork were produced in Norway.
From a philosophical perspective, the production of these objects may have nothing to do with scientific knowledge or attitudes. But, from the perspective of the practitioner, designer or artist, this account of the intellectual climate of the times sounds strange. The fact that other books can show other approaches when dealing with this period (see for instance the work on education in the early Middle Ages by Pierre Riché from 1978) does not remove the impact of such misleading teaching. It is the same underlying attitude that one may observe in oneself or in others when faced with Nordic material heritage; popular thinking goes like: “how clever they were - they had only the axe!” The underlying premises for such statements are: first, we are superior to historical persons and, therefore, may evaluate them; second, to connect certain phenomena to some individuals, who you may identify with, disregards the traditions of knowledge that made such material production possible. What we may admire in the past, is the acquired knowledge base, the successful accumulation of knowledge rooted in experience and shared expertise, precisely the components that in our time belong to scientific milieus and research. I do not allege that practical knowledge traditions are equally good or effective as research just that similarities may be found (see the book section by Ken Friedman from 1997, in which he has dealt with this topic.) Since the medieval designers and artists did not write down their knowledge it was lost. It has been commonly accepted that since there existed no writings, there could be no theory of design, architecture, or art in the Middle Ages. However, the practical intellectual contribution from the time still exists, and contemporary scholars may disclose the process of design and production from the historical objects themselves (see the dissertation of the Norwegian architect Jørgen Jensenius from 2001, who treats the early wooden churches).
Towards a New Understanding
The British philosopher of religion John Macmurray holds that humans have three major modes of reflective activity: science, art, and religion, each of which has its particular limitation and strength of expressing human experience that cannot be replaced by any other category (Macmurray 1961). According to Macmurray, scientific reflection is analytical, while the reflective element in art is contemplation that primarily is an emotional activity, and the religious reflective activity is to take part in religious ceremonies, in Christian contexts, liturgy. The Norwegian philosopher Steinar Mathisen speaks about science, moral, and art as the three different arenas in our culture to which the three modes of experience, theoretical, moral, and aesthetic, correspond (Mathisen 1999: 172). Mathisen holds that since art is based on experience, and experience is bound to some kind of objectivity, also art shares in this objectivity (Mathisen 1999: 171-73). According to Macmurray, artists reflect by making art, and the artworks inherit their reflections, which by being materialized into the objects of art have been brought from merely subjective impressions and perceptions that anyone may have, to an artistic objectivity expressed through the artworks themselves. The US art historian Thomas Mathews presents a similar attitude when he treats the visual images of Christ from the early Church as visual theological reflections. Mathews says: “the images were their [the artists’] way of thinking out loud on the problem of Christ. Indeed, the images are the thinking process itself” (Mathews 1995: 141). US professor of religion and art John Dixon Jr. who deals with visual objects related to religion, shares the same attitude, he writes: “by means of the image we know something about religions we could not otherwise know” (Dixon 1996: xiv). Dixon continues: “In academia, knowledge is still too linked to verbal propositions […] in the teaching of religion, imagery is increasingly acceptable as a part of the scholarly literature on religion […] Images are not only part of the evidence for what people in religion do, they are evidence for what the people mean” (Dixon 1996: xiv). Macmurray, Mathews, and Dixon all argue for the value of art as the most adequate expression of phenomena that cannot be stated in other ways than they are.
Since practitioners often are unable or unwilling to describe their work, they have in the perspective of Positivism and Romanticism respectively been accused of lacking intellectual capability, or generating mysterious knowledge that often is labelled ‘tacit’. Taken further, the ordinary practitioner is popularly regarded a bit stupid, while the clever one is seen as a genius. Donald Schön helps explaining artistic work in a more contemporary and satisfying way. He asserts that the competent practitioner exhibits an unarticulated ‘knowing-in-practice’ while she/he works, and is able to reflect on her/his intuitive knowing in the midst of action. This ability has a distinctive structure that is both like and unlike research and controlled experiment, and which Schön denotes ‘reflection-in-action’ (Schön 1983: viii-ix). Characteristic of the ‘knowing-in-action’ is that it can hardly be verbally expressed, because it is operative in action (Schön 1983: 49).
The Swedish philosopher Bengt Molander extends this thinking, saying that it is a common misunderstanding that a craft is a kind of manual labour (Molander 1993: 122). According to Molander, practical knowledge accompanies the human species, and this knowledge in action is both theoretical and practical. Therefore, the practical knowledge that underlies the production of art and design should not be called tacit, since it is formed into objects that carry meaning and may be decoded (Molander 2001). Following Molander, practical knowledge is characterised by attention. This understanding brings associations to the concept of ‘awareness’ in Zen-Buddhism, the ability to be mentally and bodily focussed on what you do. It sheds light upon my confusion in earlier days about what kind of knowledge I might gain from meditation; simply the ability to focus and be attentive. According to Molander, knowing as a form of attention requires curiosity and courage to go beyond the already established (Molander 1993: 118). These ideas may explain the artist’s feeling of not knowing, because every practical situation is new, unpredictable, and on its way demanding “not-seen-before” solutions.
The dualistic thinking inherited from the Greek tradition finally is outdated. Research has proven that practitioners just like children, learn by trial and error, and build up a repertoire of complex knowledge that comprises both theoretical and practical understanding and skill. Faced with a new task, the practitioner first searches through her/his existing repertoire for a solution that may be appropriate. During the working process adjustments will be imposed until she/he reaches a satisfying result. The final solution and the experience gained through the process then add to the practitioners’ repertoire, and become the starting point for new processes (Gelernter 1995: 266-68).
The Knowledge Base in Visual Art<
There are two principally different perspectives from which the field of visual arts may be discussed, which are related to either before or after the artwork is finished.
Artists and the field of visual arts deal primarily with that which happens before artworks are made, this is their specialist arena, what comes afterwards is the arena of the humanistic disciplines. If the field of visual arts wants to establish itself as a profession with a theoretical framework it must, in my opinion, build its theory production on that which happens before art is produced, that is, the processes that leads to the finished objects of art.
Seen from the bird’s-eye view the production of objects, whether it is craft, art, or design, involves a process of several stages and along with it different kinds of knowledge are activated. At the most general level, the Greek concept of techne is activated, understood as the intellectuality that gives form to ideas and things, and which has to embody the conception of what the object to be produced will look like, how it should be produced, and how it will be used. The process of producing art may be explained and categorized in various ways. For my needs, a simple model of six stages suffices. The process starts with a) a task that may be a commission or a personal intention of producing something; there may or may not be b) some premises, or basic claims for the work to be produced, whether ideological, physical, economic, or something else that must be considered; then arrives c) the visual idea, motif, or the content of the artwork to be; which generates d) the artistic idea, or the planning of the actual artwork, the materials, techniques, composition, form etc. that the artist intends to apply; then comes the e) implementation; and finally f) the finished work of art (Refsum 2000: 22). The whole process involves a series of judgements, choices, and adjustments as the process “talks-back”, and it requires a considerable amount of mental energy. Such judgements are based on a unit of attention, experience, trust, and time. To communicate their knowledge and discuss problems throughout their creative processes, practitioners have developed effective “languages” that combine, for instance, drawing and talking (see Schön 1983: chapter 3). When the artistic working processes are successful and finished one can see the material result of the artist’s knowledge and thereby reflect upon it.
Seen from the practising artist’s perspective one needs knowledge to perform. The visual artist combines all her/his experience and knowledge into continuously new works of art. The knowledge base in the field of visual arts consists of a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge. Tentatively it may be distinguished as:
Verbally formulated knowledge
The visual artist expresses herself/himself through her/his art that arises from practical intellectual working processes. She/he is not stupid as the French proverb in the title implies, but the practical intellect has been underestimated due to several factors, not least the thinking in the 18th century. However, the field of visual arts and its practitioners have not developed intellectually as one might have expected from outstanding forerunners like Leonardo da Vinci, and in this sense, deserve perhaps the popular phrase of being stupid. By losing their opportunity of defining their field themselves in the 16th century, the visual artists have accepted a tradition of being defined by other fields. The question today is whether visual artists wish to take part in, and keep pace with, the theoretical development that is ongoing in their neighbouring fields design and architecture. By articulating the shared knowledge in the field of visual arts and formulating a theoretical framework and a discourse that relate to its particular problems, a foundation is laid for a development of an epistemology in the field. If visual artists want to do research in matters of importance to their practice, the field may well become a profession proper and find its place in the academic world.
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