In order to obtain university patronage, art must position itself as research that produces new knowledge.
Art as new knowledge?
I suppose you could just about argue this when the notion of art is retroactively fitted to various societies that traditionally don’t have a conception of art as such. Even then there are problems. Take Australian Indigenous art – a complex, multi-layered, differentiated phenomenon if ever there was one, but if we just focus on traditional art practices, we can see that art (whatever that means in this context) was intimately linked to systems of knowledge – all manner of ceremonial events were linked to the production of objects and performances that to our eyes represent forms of art. Dreamtime stories, representations of identity, culture and place were all integral to these forms of production. However there was clearly no major concern with new knowledge – it was about maintaining and communicating existing knowledge.
Leaving aside the problem of the ‘new’, we can nonetheless acknowledge that in traditional Indigenous society there is no pronounced clash between regimes of knowledge and regimes of aesthetic production. This is not the case in modern Western societies since at least the Enlightenment. Within the context of the latter knowledge is linked to scientific understanding and is carefully distinguished from the realm of aesthetics. Kant’s critical philosophy is representative. He distinguishes three broad spheres: rational understanding; ethics; and taste (aesthetic judgement). Reason produces knowledge. Ethics produces enlightened political society. Aesthetics provides a vital bridge between general regimes of reason and ethics and the particular sphere of lived experience. It represents a space of reconciliation. It does not produce knowledge as such. Nor does it produce ethical practices. Instead it serves as a non-conceptual and non-ethical basis for the other elements in the system. It is particular value is in its difference – its resistance to appetite, the instrumental, the abstractly conceptual, the practically good.
Now Kant’s categorical, differentiated system may be problematic. It certainly positions aesthetics as at once both consequential (a ground to reason and ethics) and inconsequential (cut off from knowledge, ordinary life and practical values), but at the same time this conception remain vital to contemporary art. Consider, for instance, traditions of Conceptual Art, which constantly play at the limits of rational systematization, that undermine broader regimes of the conceptual as much as distilling dimensions of order and system within art. Yet now we seem prepared to forsake this ambivalence in order to secure scholarships and academic careers. Artist-researchers are now conveniently and cravenly prepared to abandon the awkward, contradictory, productive and unproductive position of art, insisting that it simply and unproblematically produces new knowledge. Wouldn’t it be better, even in practical terms, to insist that art be valued in terms of its own difficult merits, rather than in terms that compromise whatever vitally defines it?