The Art of Knowing

There is no shortage of people who view Art or the arts as a largely redundant luxury which, other than as time filler, seem to add very little to the total sum of human knowledge. Art for them is an entirely self-indulgent, subjective and emotion driven enterprise. Artists do not solve problems, they do not provide new avenues of thought, they do not cure diseases or build useful devices, they cannot and should not therefore be considered as contributing to what the IB calls Areas of Knowledge.  To what extent are these reasonable, evidence based claims to make and what does TOK contribute to this particular discussion? Does Art produce knowledge? If yes, how does it do so and what kind of knowledge does it generate?

There is no doubt that one of the chief reasons for the views outlined above is the fact that many people feel alienated from the kind of art which regularly, and unfathomably, makes the headlines for winning over-generous prizes for  producing something a five year old could make in five minutes flat. These pieces are often judged to be artistically worthless but also pointless and self-referential. It is worth pointing out however, that this issue is often clouded by certain assumptions about the nature of knowledge. The narrower one’s definition of the concept is, the more difficult it is to accept that Art might produce knowledge in some form as well as knowledge worth having. Art manifests itself in so many ways that it seems difficult or impossible to identify what precise form any knowledge produced might take.  If we allow for a more pluralistic and flexible concept of knowledge, then it is not difficult to accept that Art can be a cognitively enhancing activity.

How does Art produce knowledge and of what kind? This, it may be argued, will very much depend on the art form one is looking at. Each artistic branch will have its own method and means of achieving this, and this will in turn determine the kind of knowledge which is produced. It may do this in many different ways. A particularly provocative poem may challenge accepted ideas and force the audience to re-examine it’s attitudes. A novel may provide a new perspective on an age-old problem, therefore providing the viewers with a fresh way of looking at something. A drama piece may give an insight into human psychology by enabling the spectators to penetrate the inner-world of a character and give them the means of understanding what makes them tick. A sculpture may express deep truths which may only be made accessible by having them captured in a particularly concise and striking manner. A painting may stimulate our imagination in a singularly creative way and allow us to  feel things we have not felt before, and so on and so forth. Art has the capacity to inspire and move us to reflect in a way which few other human activities have the power to do.

The kind of knowledge produced by the arts is not always readily identifiable or easily captured in pre-packaged terminology. It is certainly highly individual in its nature because of the unique way in which each person responds to  a work of art; each bringing to it their own mindset and taking from it their own understanding . The arts certainly contribute to Personal Knowledge, of the world, of oneself, of others in a distinctive way but that personal knowledge goes on to be challenged and enriched whenever it is shared. In this way what begins as an entirely subjective experience becomes part of the heritage of a community, of a culture and ultimately of the world.

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