Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

24 December 2013

Ontology and Epistemology in Visual Art

Originally published December 19, 2006

Since I and others have been tossing philosophical terms around rather glibly, I think a slightly "teacherly" presentation is in order here, to make certain that we are all on the same page. Most artists and artworld denizens have little reason to deal with the terminology of aesthetics regularly, so probably have forgotten what a few key terms we love to bandy about actually concern. The two main ones that will pop up time and again, are ontology and epistemology.

First is ontology. It is "the study of being or existence. It seeks to describe or posit the basic categories and relationships of being or existence to define entities and types of entities within its framework." In short, it concerns definition, what makes a thing be what it is, or what makes us call it thusly, or recognize it. How do we define 'bird' or 'toy' or anything else. Often this is most usefully discussed in terms of what characteristics are necessary and sufficient to establishing what a thing is.

One result of the discovery of using ontology to inspire art is the “Danto-Dickey Institutional Theory of Art.” The assertion is that an object becomes art through being accepted by those with power in the artworld. Arthur Danto views the entire history of western art as an evolution in this direction. This structurally mimics Clement Greenberg’s view of the history of art as a progressive reduction to genre-specific elements, yet refines it intellectually. Danto feels that fine art peaked with Duchamp and his followers, especially Andy Warhol. In these artists’ works, art has become its own philosophy, actually its own ontology, finally merging with everyday objects.

One great problem I see in the ontology of art (which I, however, find exciting) is that art as now experienced, since about the Renaissance at least, appears to be THE category or concept which includes in its characteristics the desire to always expand, or at least alter or question, its very definition. This is seldom addressed in current Neo-Conceptual artworks based in ontological concerns.

Probably more important for the future, What is epistemology?: Epistemology is the "investigation into the grounds and nature of knowledge itself." Epistemological studies are usually focused upon our means for acquiring knowledge and, as a consequence, modern epistemology generally involves a debate between rationalism and empiricism, or the question of whether knowledge can be acquired a priori or a posteriori.
Empiricism: knowledge is obtained through experience.
Rationalism: knowledge can be acquired through the use of reason.
Others feel that this is a false, or at least futile dichotomy, and are beginning to raise new issues of knowledge, and of interpretation and understanding as knowledge-seeking. Note that epistemology concerns "knowledge" and NOT "learning."

Some of the Big Questions in Epistemology:
What can we know?
How can we know it?
Why do we know some things, but not others?
How do we acquire knowledge?
Is knowledge possible?
Can knowledge be certain?
Are their various or multiple "knowledges"?
Does the experience of artworks (novels, paintings, films, etc.) supply knowledge, or the opportunity for knowledge? And of what kind(s)?

Epistemology is important because it is an essential form of probing into the way in which we come-to-understand, not just think. It is the attempt to grasp how we acquire knowledge, --- not just the phenomenology of our thoughts, and not just how we are "trained" or how we memorize facts (hence not behaviorism nor any other form of the psychology of learning) ---; it is the attempt to understand how we rely upon our senses, and how we construct concepts in our minds. A firm epistemology is an aid to grounding sound thinking and reasoning — this is why so much philosophical literature in this field can involve seemingly abstruse discussions about the nature of knowledge. Questions of epistemology have seldom been directly addressed in visual art, but then, until Duchamp's beatification in the 60s, neither were questions of ontology much addressed.

Epistemological questions about art have recently resurfaced, probably due to the changed attitude to arts funding, art's situation in the academy, and certain Late-Neo-Conceptual practices, e.g., much now revolves around considering art practice as ‘research.’ This presents both a new prospect and a peril – an opportunity to reframe art practice as an enquiry (or at least to make more explicit the questioning nature of art), and a danger of falling into a pseudo-scientific mode of investigation.

Concerning questions of epistemology in (not about) art: its importance could lie in subsuming and opposing the above mentioned absorption in ontology. This was a rich new area for art, but has outlived its usefulness, now most often generating rather vacuous art illustrating truisms (supposedly) derived from Duchamp --- a total about-face of his spirit, I firmly believe. David Carrier, one of my favorite philosophers in aesthetics, in his battles with the Institutional Theory of Ontology is indeed inventing a controversial “superior epistemology” which could replace the mannerist concept of the "endless endgame of art" which the academic infatuation with ontology has brought us. (I say controversial because Carrier has been 'accused' of this; and I think this is true --- yet laudable, whereas his critic who claimed that meant it as an objection.)

What could epistemology bring to art? Some intriguing questions, as a starter. Ones that might stimulate exciting art in philosophically-minded artists (like me), and subsume the questions of ontology. One praiseworthy aspect of philosophy is that one cannot just ignore an opponent, or appeal to mystical insight, or make claims to be "newer" or more "fashionable," as is often the case in the artworld. In philosophy, one has to counter an argument with a better argument, and best of all one which "takes over," absorbs, ones opponents' views while "improving" or redirecting them.

Some quick notes on epistemological questions in art:
Where is the locus of meaning in art?
What constitutes artistic understanding?
Can art be "true"?
Does it matter if art is "true" or not?
Is sincerity a form of knowledge?
Is irony a form of knowledge, or a disavowal of knowledge?
Can art offer knowledge of the world?
What world?
How does the artist's interaction/dialectic of intent and technique (material) offer knowledge, or even perhaps "better" knowledge than simple theorizing?
Are our beliefs that art gives us some kind of insight justified?
How does each new artwork throw our expectations of what we know off balance?
Does art most clearly embody Gadamer's hermeneutic circle of understanding (/interpretation/knowledge) of experience?
How does arts continual dialogue with its past (art history) and its present affect claims to knowledge?
What is the process whereby the artist attempts to posit and test, thereby seek, knowledge in his or her art?

And many more.

Whew, that was a whole lotta lecturing. I hope I was clear and didn't bore you too much. But I think this is very important and could offer an important doorway out of the closed pedantic circle of thought now hegemonic.



Mark, I stand corrected. I did my homework, ArtForum, March, 1982. Buchloh w/ lots of critical apparatus borrowed from Baudrillard (wedding Lacan's 'constitution in language' w/ Marx's mode of production stuff) goes along w/ the Polke/Richter positions of confining parody of 'Modernist paradigms', which he never defines, and low end art, warily citing these positions as more or less the only way for these third generation Modernists to proceed. Interestingly, no PoMo talk arises. His case for the subversiveness of the parodying consumer fetishes balanced against his realization that the dreaded false consciousness of consumer reification remains intact. He does take a swipe initially at he Neo-X's of the day (your Baselitz's) and the Fluxus group. Doesn't Hal Foster seem the same, they all seem to sound like Jameson w/ all the mode of production stuff. Anwyay, intersting to go back to this clearly older criticsim since they still base everything on the mode of production individual, whereas today this poor individual not only is alienated from their class, but their race and gender as well, the latter two glaringly missing from Buchloh. Ca va. Lastly, in the same issue, Kuspit does a eulogy to Penck. Does he more believe in a Kieffer's kinda of atavistic Teutonic spiel? Would this count as the 'false consciousness'?

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