My interest in “art epistemology” originally derived, already more than a decade ago, from a continuously growing frustration with critical theory’s teachings, and let alone, from words themselves as they indefatigably attempted to organize my conceptual vortex in a clear manner—often, however, without any luck. It seemed as if even a fairly clear-cut and polished sentence was bound to betray, at the end of the day, what I felt had finally become indeed comprehensible, but in fact merely made apparent the dishomogeneity between intention and evidence, draft and knowledge. As W. G. Sebald wrote, “I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature, and the sight of it increasingly filled me with feelings of horror and shame.” From an epistemological point of view, I hoped for a solid ground of art to sprout above the sea level of thought; and so I went to Rome, looking for Jerusalem.
In late October of 2018, I chaired a panel on art epistemology at the annual conference of the Universities Art Association of Canada – L’association d’art des universités du Canada (UAAC/AAUC). The panel, paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, tried to sound out the artistic object under the lingering gaze of thought. It asked: is there such thing as “artistic knowledge”? What kind of knowledge can supposedly be produced only within the “traditional studio”? Will this knowledge mutate when worked through “post-studio” practices (for example, archival or relational practices)? How is it different than other forms of knowledge? Is it a form of knowledge that bypasses traditional intellectual research and passes through the speculative and imaginary (via materiality)? If so, what is the status of such knowledge? Is there an artistic research methodology that can generate knowledge relationally at the intersection of the discourses of the humanities?
The list of speakers in the panel included (in order of appearance) Stephane Gaulin-Brown, Jessica Veevers, Angela Joosse, Laura Aguilera, and Michael Schwab—artists, scholars, writers, and performers sharing a common interest in art epistemology, each from his or her own point of departure and sensuality (which due to the scope of this text must remain unfortunately somewhat unstated). Nonetheless, our inventory roughly included the following: hermeneutics, Heidegger’s Dasein, visual representation, architecture, Jean Paris, Mother Mary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Robert Smithson, Marcel Duchamp, and Cezanne; the materialization of Guido Molinari’s hardedge painting, materiality, material epistemology, post-studio practices, Harry Cooper, and Karen Barad; body hermeneutics, Samuel Mallin, and consciousness; conceptual dualism between materiality and meaning, realism, and scientific positivism; radical epistemology, history, subjectivity, Friedrich Nietzsche, pieces for solo piano, the ME21 collective, and artistic research at large.
Once the panel ended, at the time of preliminary stocktaking over the highways back to Toronto, one thing became clear to me—that accumulated information turns into feeling through historicizing. In this instance the diapason of relations and their qualities is a necessary condition (for this turn) but not a sufficient one; one’s intendment is further required as well as one’s willing engrossment. Only then art epistemology can be rendered thinkable.
Giorgio Agamben reminds us, on various occasions throughout his oeuvre, of the primacy of the cognitive paradigm in nowadays Western culture, as well as of the fact that philosophy has become, after Kant, a doctrine of knowledge rather than one of anthropogenesis (that is, the becoming human of man). Consider, for instance, the Benjaminian art of “citing without quotation marks.” In adopting it, Agamben is able to call into question “the automatic support of a tradition turned into a f o r t r e s s o f k n o w l e d g e” and to vindicate “an anti-authoritarian experience of language which measures its truth value only against its own merits.”
These claims present an acute challenge, not only for grappling with the epistemological paradigm or epistemological threshold of the human sciences, but also for the role art performs (if one can still speak of art in terms of having a role) in this evolving story. Is this at all a quest for knowledge? In his lecture “What is a Paradigm?”, given at The European Graduate School in 2008, Agamben said: “The title of my presentation is ‘What is a Paradigm?’. This title seems to suggest that my presentation will focus on epistemological and methodological questions. I do not feel at all at ease with this kind of questions, I do not like this kind of problems, I always have the impression, like once Heidegger put it, that ‘here we have people busy in sharpening knives when there is nothing left to cut’.” Agamben provoked the sharpening metaphor, in relation to criticism and its epistemological character, already in his early work Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture: “What is now more and more frequently concealed by the endless sharpening of knives on behalf of a methodology with nothing left to cut—namely, the realization that the object to have been grasped has finally evaded knowledge—is instead reasserted by criticism as its own specific character.”
It may be the case that epistemological questions or discourses of knowledge have merely moderate significance for a research process intertwining theoretical and practical artistic tendencies, since the act of research alone (physical rummaging, working with materials, archive searching, etc.) creates a comprehensive diapason of acquaintances, comprised of diverse degrees of relation of, by, and with its object; and this familiarity at least equally pertains to ontology and certainly no less to ethics. For the inquirer, one of the fundamental difficulties, whether in the conceptual or studio-based research phase, is that of communicating the insights thus accumulated to an interlocutor, most adequately and to the best of one’s abilities. Also the interpreter’s act (as well as that of the reader or the listener), in and of itself, always remains partial and limited in its means to appropriate the knowledge generated, and presented as if objectively, by and with the (art)work. A historical and epistemological dishomogeneity is constitutive of any attempt in art. Furthermore, even under the assumption that the process of sending and receiving knowledge is completed as fully as possible (after all, this is just an assumption, as well as a tentative process which might not necessarily include other possibilities of acquiring knowledge), knowledge formation is subjected to social conditions and restrains; in other words, as tirelessly repeated, knowledge is conditioned by the episteme and the operational power struggle that derives from it. Knowledge that is accepted as a norm, as a crystallized discourse, is forever liable to individuals’ exchange of words over the blue-gray gleaming silver trail, forever understood as “to the best of our knowledge,” thus endangered in becoming outdated and nonstandard.
Somewhat ironically, in this sense, it was no other than Michel Foucault who marked that knowledge, as a field of historicity, is free of any constitutive activity, liberated from referring backwards to an origin or forwards to a historical or transcendental teleology. Knowledge, according to this definition, is a “series of denials,” it is not constitutive of anything, and thus is “epistemologically natural—not value-free, but saturated with all values … knowledge is … the possibility of everything we know.”
By means of contemplative concepts, philosophy—so it seems—does not constitute “substantive” knowledge but, as the word’s etymology indicates, simply (not so simply) the love or passion for knowledge and wisdom (Socrates, we recall, never really defines the subject matter he interrogates but joyfully hovers over it; Aristotelian rhetoric uses enthymemes; etc.).
Art is likewise a manner of reflection, but also simultaneously a (graduated) material attempt to actually intensify epistemological precariousness while standing in contrast to two reductive and opposite attempts for acquiring knowledge of a thing: what it is made of and/or what it does. What is then the consequence of art epistemology?
A project for a review will commence as follows (somewhat resonating with the speculations that our panel, at least provisionally, seemed to reach): artistic research is a meadow for creating ideas. The research is not made in order to find facts and/or to present certain ideas, but in order to generate them. Knowledge that was supposedly generated by artistic research cannot, in principle, be ultimately defined since any (artistic) knowledge always-already carries with it the whole of Being, with its multiple and diverse knowledges thus accumulated prior to research.