For an aesthetic mode of thought beyond the “linguistic turn”

Dieter Mersch

Research in the Realm of Aesthetics

Übersetzt von Laura Radosh

Aus: Epistemologies of Aesthetics, S. 17 – 60

Thinking in painting is thinking as paint.

James Elkins


For some time now, the supposedly provocative concept of artistic research—or art as research—has sparked enormous controversy about the practice of art. In one fell swoop, it has lifted art out of the shadow of science. Not only has art been given a new mission, it has itself been defined as a kind of research, as an epistemological practice. It seems strange that this idea should be ­controversial. Ever since Alexander Baumgarten rang in the philosophy of aesthetics in the eighteenth century, art has been affiliated with knowledge and with truth. Such notions were central to Hegel’s philosophy, and were explored further by ­Theodor W. Adorno and Martin Heidegger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in reference to Paul Cézanne, insisted that painting was a kind of “research” and that painters always engaged in a kind of “mute ‘thinking’.” Painting itself can be seen as a theōria in the original meaning of the word, a ‘sight’, ‘spectacle’ or ‘vision’ that is always also innately cerebral. This is by no means only true of the fine arts, but also of music, architecture, and poetry. Art’s specific way of ‘thinking’, or speculating in the sense of ‘spectator’, is grounded in the exploration of concrete phenomena, and of the ways in which they are observed and become visible or audible. Each work can create its own universe through sensitivity to nuance and intellectual attentiveness to the exact shade and materiality of color, or to the multi­farious differentiations between sequences of notes, lines, space, and rhythm. The exposition of this universe—not its construction—is the result of years of practice (askēsis). The perseverance of this practice is comparable to that of ­scientific exploration. 

In addition, the painter’s or composer’s studio has been likened to the scientist’s laboratory. Both are sites of productive chaos, of constant searching, of breaking off and starting anew, and of the joys of discovery. These characteristics are stressed to demonstrate the propinquity or even secret collusion of art and science. But despite the obvious experimental character of aesthetic practices, they are not experimental systems as defined by Hans-Jörg ­Rheinberger. In the latter, tools, log books, and observation aid systematic research, while art tends towards the faltering, the chaotic, and the erratic. It seems more correct instead to agree with James Elkins’ contention that there is an affinity between the atelier and the alchemist’s kitchen, in which substances are continually remixed and boiled down in a testum. The art of the early and mid-twentieth century, especially s performance art and new music, explicitly embraced the terms ‘experimental’ and ‘artistic research’. At the same time, there was an insistence on the provisional nature of the artistic process, and on its unpredictability. “A purposeless play,” as John Cage described it in his lecture Experimental Music, “an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we‘re living.” Like the process of writing, it has no end, it collapses in on itself and despairs of ever achieving closure. The artistic experiment has no utilitarian result. It is content with the adventure of finding the paths that can be taken (meta hodos), and their endless labyrinthine branches are a source equally of agony and enjoyment. Consequently, it is in moments of creation—poiēsis—that art celebrates the exceptionality of its knowledge or its alternative epistēmē. This knowledge cannot be reduced to any other form of knowledge; neither to the hermeneutic knowledge of interpretation, nor to the propositional knowledge of statements, nor to the discursive knowledge of argumentation. Neither, although the claim is often made, is it related to tacit knowledge, the implicit understanding of practical experience (we shall return to this point later). Rather the artistic ‘search’—close not only to experimentation, but also to the practice of writing essays (from exagium, weighing)—its continuous exercises and probing passageways (experiri), are the true mediums of this knowledge. It is therefore not enough to merely take in art or to want to understand it or to reconstruct its logos 

and its immanent aspirations. Instead we must, as the following attempts to do, meticulously delineate those effects that disclose art as a different form of knowledge—non-discursive epistēmē—arrived at by following a thoroughly idiosyncratic concept of ‘research’ that takes us far away from the scientific understanding of the term. Thus we shall focus not only on the similarities of the research processes, but also on their disparities, so as to better measure the distance between them. Our interest is in the willfulness of the arts, the other side of rationality, or non-rationality, which is just as legitimate as, and sometimes goes further than, scientific practices of knowledge, and which must even be seen as a sui generis practice of knowledge.

Art lacks a clearly delineated territory. At its ­inception is neither a research question nor a ‘de-finition’ in the sense of a demarcation of the problems to be worked upon. Instead, art slips erratically through the register of the symbolic, which is why no discipline can grasp it completely; its deterritorialization eludes a unified ‘language’ or pragmatization. Art’s activities do not aim at any particular knowledge, nor do they obey any political or economic teleology. Instead, terms commonly associated with ‘research’—such as ‘hypothesis’, ‘methods’, ‘theory’ or ‘analysis’—become chronically uncertain in the field of art. The claim to exotericism, central to the sciences since the Enlightenment, is here as questionable as science’s concern with progress and the advancement of knowledge. The present exploration endeavors to shift the vocabulary and at the same time elucidate an epistemology of aesthetics. In this undertaking, ‘labor of the aesthetic realm’—which can be read as a complement to Hegel’s musings on dialectics as a “labor of the notion”—is taken seriously as a sui generis research process. The aim is to demonstrate three points: First, the arts are related more closely to philosophy and to philosophical research than to a scientific practice of research (there are of course differences that must be elucidated). Second, in contrast to philosophy, artistic research retains a kind of defiance which enables us to describe it not only as a different kind of philosophy, but also as other than philosophy (in the sense of metaphysics). Heidegger’s concept of ‘thinking’ and ‘poetizing’, which run parallel to one another and need one another, can help us to better understand this—we shall explore and critique this metaphor more deeply in chapter two. Third, research or labor in the realm of aesthetics keeps a slight distance to art and artistic research, because it is founded first and foremost on the senses and is based on perception rather than the specifics of artistic processes; i.e. it is important to differentiate between aisthetics (the science of perception) and artistic practices. We can perhaps only truly differentiate between these two inextricably linked concepts on the terminological level, but such a demarcation intimates that although there is no art that is not based on aisthetics, there are aesthetic practices that explore the surrounding world—or conduct research—without achieving the status of art. Such explorations of the aesthetic realm can for example be found in pop art or conceptual art, despite Arthur Danto’s claim that they operate only with signs on the immaterial level and thus work with the sameness of the sensuous and the non-sensuous. Even the development of pop art logos or poster typeface—flat mirrors of capitalist production and aesthetics—or concept art, in fact the entirety of classical conceit (concetto), is just as dependent upon sensory experience, imagination, and ideas as it is upon the drafts generated in an endless chain of illustrations and designs. What is more, research in the realm of aesthetics comprises more than just art, namely the processes of curating or exhibiting as well as planning (in architecture) and the creation of prototypes (in design). Artistic expertise is an exception and just one possibility among many. We shall wander down these two meandering pathways—the ­

un/familiarity between art and philosophy on the one hand and the difference between aisthetics and artistic practice on the other—in an attempt to delineate differences in the completely overgrown and bitterly contested terrain named ‘artistic research’. The aim is not only to clarify that which has been obfuscated, but also to pick up what has been dropped by the wayside or forgotten and to integrate it into productive research in the realm of ­aesthetics.

Artistic research

For clarity, we can map the current discussion on the topos of artistic research onto a four-quadrant coordinate grid. The different quadrants illustrate different epistemological viewpoints and political/institutional perspectives. In the first, art is and always has been a research practice. In the second, ‘artistic research’ is a new kind of art that stands alone in the post-avant-garde era. According to the third, science itself is a kind of art that is not aware of its immanent aesthetic nature. And those who adhere to the fourth believe that the demand that art should conduct research professionalizes the arts which, in post-modern times, have both converged with a new understanding of science and are simultaneously in competition with science. Thus we are confronted with a horizontal and a vertical line of argumentation. One line runs between the difficult relationship between art and science and their respective epistemologies. The other transverses discourses in search of practical and political consequences in an attempt to formulate criteria for, or find a raison d’être for, artistic research. The ends of these lines connect art and knowledge and art and science with one another in a manner that demystifies science and robs it of its privileged position, while according art its own access to cultural epistēmai and their ‘regimes of truth’. Most of the controversy is between the second and the fourth poles that, framed by more radical positions, seem moderate in contrast and concentrate mostly on questions of genre as well as institutional problems.

The first quadrant is linked to the enduring and sweeping argument of the truth of art—the next chapter deals with this debate in more detail. One representative of this quadrant is Dirk Baecker, who asserts that art has always “asked questions,” “experimented,” “theorized,” and speculated by means of “methods and chance.” Kenneth Clark, Nelson Goodman, and Arthur Danto have made similar claims. In this view, artistic practice is always a form of ‘research’ involving the investigation of perception and of media as well as the stakeholders, producers, and recipients of the art world. Seen in this way, art is basic research in aesthetics and is grounded in processes that bring together emotions and affects, and their varying intensities, while also reflecting on the act of creation itself; on the materiality and palpability of objects as well as on the imagination and on artistic poiēsis. At the same time, art 

deconstructs the artist as author and authority, as subject, as social body, as a machine of desire, as a participant in the dominant economy, and much more. Under scrutiny is the singularity of the violence or subjectification of our entanglement in the world; the meticulous labor of art is to reveal each of these aspects as well as the unseen and the hidden, and to give them voice and visibility. This goes hand in hand with art’s obsession, its permanent creation of scandal by uncovering the repressed, the monstrous or the uncanny, as well as with art’s unique ability to explore possibilities or worlds that lie outside scientific explicability and yet form facts that cannot be revealed otherwise. Art always begins anew. There is no finality in the arts, no satisfying closure, state of peace, or generalizable results. At most there is the singular, the disturbing exception that does not lead to cognitive gains and their supposed truths, but rather to a break in or destabilization of the reigning codes of knowledge. This is why Marcel Cobussen has referred to art as an “intruder” that disturbs the order of social certainties, upsetting the public sphere, including archives and memories. We are referring less to the positive event of opening to new experiences or perspectives, in the sense of a creative dispositif that is immanent to art—art does not argue by multiplying potentialities—and more to art’s aplomb and its danger, grounded in doubting hegemonic perceptions and their structures as well as in an ability to show up implicit blind spots, dissimulations or paradoxes. The means of art are many: provocation, exaggerated affirmation that flips into its opposite, the formulation of “impossible” alternatives, and criticism in its literal meanings of krinein (separate, decide, judge) and krisis (separation, division). When art is understood as true research, then always as a critical process that refines its sights on the precarious and the unlikely as well as on the singular, the inconspicuous or fragile detail and its fleeting presence. 

This apotheosis of a critique can be placed squarely in modernism between avant-garde and neo-avant-garde, which sees the epistemic power of art in its ability to act as a continuous auto-da-fé. In contrast, the sway of the second concept of artistic research—and herein lies its true propagandistic success—stems from the specifics of a post-avant-garde practice that has shed the permanence of avant-garde self-referentiality and also differs from all other historical artistic practices. In this case, we need to distinguish between art and artistic research, almost as if we were dealing with another species, or a changed genre that has redefined art and added a contemporary, socially relevant dimension. Or, as Christopher Frayling put it: “Some art counts as research … some art doesn’t. … Whatever definition we end up with, it can never …—in principle or in practice—fit all art activities.” While Frayling was referring primarily to design, ‘artistic research’ has meanwhile expanded to include all art forms from media art to design, theater, and film, up to music, dance, and research itself. Artistic research thus seems to transcend disciplinary borders. But in the diversity of the arts, a new line of demarcation has been drawn, a ‘folding in’ so to speak, that divides the arts into the disparate modalities of researching and not-researching. The application of the research paradigm itself experiments with and has fundamentally transformed art. Art has been catapulted away from its traditional framework, an aesthetics of autonomy and of the artworks themselves, into a sphere of social and political or public meaningfulness. Art “after the end of art” (Danto) has been freed from the lofty attributes of transcendence and sublimity, as well as from the need to permanently practice self-criticism and navel-­gazing. It has been professionalized, and has become a ­procedure that makes use of a broad spectrum of ­strategies that, although 

their focus and aims are different, are on an equal footing with scientific methodology in terms of ­exactitude and discipline. These methods include ­observation, research into materials and places, rehearsals, modeling, and the systematic study of varying sources or experiments in home-made laboratories, to name only a few. Although they correspond with scientific procedure, there is a shift of perspective in that art researches the research or the methods of research in order to confuse the material, disturb the trials, and question the work as work in its relation to production and to chance, as well as to methods of publishing, documenting, and exhibiting.

Such practices are not informed by the classical dichotomies of aesthetics from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries: between form and material, between disegno and colore, between imagination and rationalization or between tradition and originality. Rather they are part of the performative turn that stimulated the transformation of art in postmodernity. Thus the concept of artistic research is based on a particular theory of art that aims to go beyond modernity by tearing down the borders—entrenched since the mid-nineteenth century—between art and science. The formation and justification of knowledge is thus displaced and readjusted. This has also been the indirect result of fairly recent developments in science studies and in historical epistemology, which have attempted to delineate the effects of medial and aesthetic inscriptions in the generation of knowledge. The aim has been both to confront the sciences with the reality of contingencies—the many caesura and unpredictabilities of science—and remind scientists of the logic of intervention that has always been inherent to cultural technologies, and which subconsciously enters their work. Apparatuses, systems of recording, and the varied and habituating laboratory practices and their theatricalization have a decisive effect on results. They remind scientists of the indispensability of aesthetics and technology; of practices of invention, narratives, white noise, and the uncontrollability of objects and their insubordinate repercussions. This makes clear that the discursivity of knowledge and of academic research takes place in a manifestly opaque environment, which has led scientists to become unmistakably blind towards mediality and aesthetic conditions. Artistic research positions itself as a necessary corrective. It can compensate this lack by bringing to light that which scientific research obfuscates. This is both the justification and the pathos of research in the aesthetic realm. Art not only describes another, repressed side of science by illuminating its margins, its outside, its disparate spaces or its abandoned trauma; art also shows how that which has been cast aside lives on at the very core of scientific practices and processes, double-crossing these practices and questioning their validity. This implicit critique of science, this aesthetic enlightenment, has given artistic research such a strong position, securing it a new and necessary place for art in the era of science. 

The third stance in this polyphonic debate takes the above as its starting point and focuses on the historical differentiation between art and science, which only goes back to the rationalism of the eighteenth century and its ideal of objectivity. Only then did science begin to assert itself in opposition to artistic practice, which was degraded as “subjective.” During the Middle Ages, ars was considered the height of scientia, so that the two were intersecting—not competing—forms of knowledge. Art and science enriched one another in mutual correlation. Leonardo da Vinci practiced both and understood himself to be an artist and a scientist. What is more, he extolled painting as the most exact of all sciences, claiming that it led to truth because it is related to the eyes, which see things as they are. The third branch of the artistic research debate follows da Vinci’s lead. It propagates an end to the hierarchization of epistēmai and the return to the union of art and science, conjuring up the old term ars to stress the fact that both are at the foundation of technē in its meaning as the ‘virtue’ of poiein—making and poetizing. It is this interweaving of making and poetizing, their intersection and interlinking in the context of creation, that drives this discussion and gives it its edge. But the claims go further: Art, which rests equally on technē and on ars, is even better than science, which is grounded only in the former, since all scientific practices, methods, and discourses are, in the end, simply artisanship, which is founded not on logos, but on ‘fabrication’ (technē) or artifice; just as the basis of language is not the term, but its rhetorical nature or figurativeness. For this reason, radical anarchist epistemologists of the s, in particular Paul Feyerabend, called for an end to the supremacy of methods, claiming that, “in principle” myth and science are the same. All that exists are narratives, which have replaced explanations and their justifications, judged only by our desire to believe them; just as we tend to believe the phantasmagorical inventions and fictions of art.

This position has been charged with a tendency to­wards postmodern leveling, and corresponds with the development of technoscience, which also pragmatizes science and often makes use of aesthetic processes, aligning them with scientific methods. Through these processes, the differences between art-based research and research-based art are obliterated, giving birth to a third space between technoscience and technoart. In this undefined interstice, the practices of both are amalgamated, modifying the meaning of both science and art. From here, it is not too far-fetched to again turn relations in on themselves, culminating in an aesthetically understood science-art or art-sciencea crossing into a new era, a new topography of knowledge that merges ars, technology, art, and science into a single unit; a kind of design. The emblem of this development is the aesthetic, technical, and scientific constructivism of the last four decades. There has also been a corresponding and fundamental shift in the production of knowledge, which Michael Gibbons attempted to diagnose as early as the s with his division into “Mode-” and “Mode-” science. This concept addresses a caesura, a fundamental rupture with traditional scientific conventions that marks a turn from basic research which explores scientific principles to technical, pragmatic science that conducts practical, applied research, in the main for industry or for independent research institutes. This new self-image has been accompanied by the dissolving of individual disciplines in favor of transdisciplinarity, geared towards the radical marketization of knowledge. Such processes need the aestheticization of research practice to drive innovation. Thus Mode- science is the expression of a paradigm shift from the primacy of theōria to an always provisional pragmatism based on probability models. The social science counterpart is the ‘postmodern condition’ diagnosed by Jean-François Lyotard in and characterized as a move from the legitimation to the performativity of knowledge. Within this condition, what is said is judged no longer by its discursivity or rationality, but solely by productivity and effectiveness of results, the latter based less on validity and more on usability, manageability, and economic relevance. The debate on artistic research is firmly within this reference system when it demands that art should become more professional and latently serve the so-called creative industries. It is important neither what art ‘thinks’ nor whether it is ‘artistic’, but only whether it has a place in the circulation of knowledge and the distribution of creativity.

In his essay “The Mode of Knowledge Production in Artistic Research,” Henk Borgdorff expressed a sneaking suspicion that Mode- science is being used as a blueprint for the researching arts. However we should hold on to the specific differences between the terms ‘research’ and ‘experimental’ as used in art and in science, which make the two incommensurable. For if we compare the types of experimental processes on which the two are based, we are confronted with such profound structural divergences, it seems impossible to relate one to the other. We go into these differences in more depth in the next chapter. For the time being, let it suffice to say that classical scientific experiments link not-knowing to prospective knowledge; they start with hypotheses and theories and go on to either prove or disprove them. Art, on the other hand, unveils its own phenomena through the process of exploring them. Among the most important characteristics of scientific procedure are internal and external control of experiments and a trajectory towards truth. Today the ideal of exoteric control, born in the Enlightenment, only applies somewhat, since even experts lack the necessary equipment to test highly technical trials, and are unable to completely comprehend their structure, process, and results, much less repeat and reconstruct them. The search for truth through science retains a chronic impenetrability that systematically subverts its striving for definiteness. Hence, science, despite its emphasis on enlightened elucidation, has an irredeemable esoteric element that cannot be eliminated. John Isaacs plays upon this situation in his sarcastic sculpture Say it isn’t so (). A ‘mad scientist’, who has mutated into a laboratory rat, triumphantly holds up his “proof” to the viewer, almost losing his balance—but his test tube is empty, we don’t have the slightest chance of analyzing his results. Thus the criterion of the definiteness of truth also falls away, because the process of research can only at best generate probabilities, the truth of which cannot even be doubted as truth, but remains systematically unverifiable. 

The mirror image of this immunity against skepticism is an intense focus on the future and a belief in the absolute progress of science—a belief based at best on trust, which, as which we know, circles endlessly around itself; we can only trust in trust. Thus the experimental framework of science has become instable at its very core—the concept of experimentation underlying technoscience is no longer based on theories and laws, but on functionality alone. Put another way, experiments in Mode- science operate in a pragmatizing manner. They are not guided by causal logic, but only by their own constructability; their final goal is not to generate knowledge, but to create stable objects. In this way, they are close to design, as they create artifacts that are based exclusively on mathematical models or algorithms. This is especially true of practical technosciences such as medicine, genetics, neurology or nanoscience. Examples include tumor imaging, marking substances, and making activities visible; in all three, explanations are not as important as the possibility of error-free representation. Accordingly, technoscientific experiments are based on computer simulations, which themselves stem from mathematical calculations and constructions, for which existences are not the decisive factor, but rather consistent forms. This exclusively numerical concept of existence recognizes only that which can be formulated without contradiction. There is thus an unbridgeable gap between the “real” and the mathematical, which is why knowledge gained from simulations can only be reconstructive. At most, sufficient and necessary conditions can be named under which a system, for example a population of evolutionary agents, can function. Technoscience experiments do not serve as proof of theoretical conjectures, but merely aim to create objects or calculations based on the validity of a ‘pragmatic definiteness’ that can go no further than an unsustainable mathematical space of possibilities. It seems that such experiments, to the extent that they are operating in fictional realms or within ontologies of possible worlds, are virtually identical to the ‘as if’ of aesthetic experiments. In this manner techoscience and artistic practice—at least a certain kind of artistic research—are so similar you can barely tell them apart. Yet what looks alike need not necessarily be alike. The mirror play of technē, ars, and epistēmē, and of technoscience and artscience, is like an ongoing ‘intrigue’ with instable borders that can permeate one another. 

The fourth camp of the artistic research debate reacts to this fraying of the borders between art and science that has been ongoing since the early s. This faction orients the practice of artistic research towards scientific explorations, both to partake of its successes and to measure itself against them. For example, in an attempt to defend the equality of art and science, the director of Documenta , Okwui Enwezor, instead inadvertently brought the arts down a notch by asking, in conversation with the historian of science Peter Galison, whether scientific knowledge might not act as a model for a new kind of artistic competence. In so doing he made an error of judgment, coupling art with epistemic power, whose standards are set by the sciences, rather than defining independent standards for art. This is perhaps the most usual and widespread art research discourse. It demands that fundamental “competency standards” be set for art, similar to research principles, and simultaneously adapted to the new university curricula dictated by the Bologna Process. The implementation of such standards goes hand-in-hand with a call for professionalization and for recognition of the “occupation” of the artist, as well as for the creation of a PhD specifically for the arts, breaking with an apotheosis of autonomy that is more than two hundred years old in order to—ideologically—reconnect it with the practice of early modern artists’ studios. Except that now artists are not vassals to nobility, but enslaved to the ruthless dynamics of a relentless capitalist economy. The highly explosive nature of this institutional scheme lies in the supposed objection of the arts to the hegemony of the sciences, in particular the technosciences, as dominating power. However while it may be an expression of art’s independent value and a call for a sovereign zone within academia and its universitas, it is flanked by such a plethora of legal definitions that a dual trap has been created. On the one hand, there is an attempt to determine the indeterminate and, on the other hand, to subsume the arts under science’s dispositif of legitimation, turning artistic “research” into nothing more than a servant of technical and scientific standards and their directives.

An examination of varying international ‘artistic re­search’ programs and their frameworks quickly shows the extent to which conventional scientific standards have been adapted to fit the arts. Norway’s law of higher education, for example, puts artistic and scientific research on an equal footing and recognizes the former as the foundation for education in aesthetics. However the provisions of the same law—as in other countries with a similar institutional recognition of artistic research—are blatantly oriented towards the latter. Guiding principles are provided by national and international research councils. The OECD and the British Research Assessment Exercise and Arts and Humanities Research Council, which deal with scientific rigor, understand “research” as an “original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding.” Further criteria include clear methodology, and the reproducibility and publication of results. These definitions are taken verbatim for artistic research, for example in the Netherlands, where academic recognition of a doctor artium is coupled with the presentation of a research proposal including clearly formulated questions, or in Finland, where demands are made that artistic research include a written account of the work. It is easy to find similar examples of scientific paradigms that call for “result-oriented” research or for “documentation” that objectifies artistic processes and makes them available to critical scrutiny. This of course privileges the clear result, barring both the incalculable as well as unforeseen or unforeseeable coincidences, which have played a major role in neo-avant-garde art. It also fails to encompass Aristotelian empeiría, the observation of phenomena, which is not necessarily result-oriented, but geared towards increasing attentiveness. When formalized criteria are nevertheless set for art PhDs, despite all of these ontological, epistemological, and methodological differences between art and science, then, as a rule, the fundamentals of scientific research are simply replicated and adapted for aesthetic practices, without any clarification of what this might mean in an art context.

Concomitantly, the dominant discourse is as a rule too narrow and sets too many preconditions. For one, there is a focus on establishing university-like training programs with regulations similar to those for the sciences, programs that reinstate outdated scientific standards and dispositifs. In this way, the concept of ‘research’ in art is contaminated from the beginning. This also holds true for those approaches that, in the name of ‘practice-led research’, focus on practical as opposed to theoretical knowledge, while still postulating a latent disparity between the two. David Carr and Donald Schön, for example, have (from different perspectives) traced the distinctiveness of artistic knowledge and practical reasoning. This in turn can be connected, as Henk Borgdorff has done, to Aristotelian phronēsis. But Borgdorff links this not to the esprit or wit of the eighteenth century, to which one might ascribe an inherent cognizance, but rather to implicit or “unarticulated,” “embodied” knowledge, an incomplete discursive concept that lacks a solid foundation. Reference is repeatedly made to Michael Polanyi’s concept of ‘tacit knowledge’—knowing how rather than knowing that—which one must however be able to reconstruct in language if its validity is to be discussed, so that the telos of putting into words remains dominant. This is particularly clear when a difference is made between the artistic doxa as an epistēmē that cannot be generalized and theōria as true scientific knowledge—reinstating the old hierarchies through the back door. It is as if aesthetic epistēmē has been closed in and domesticated by discourse, as if the professionalization of art has been bought by subordinating it to the laws of language and judgment. But artistic knowledge is neither prereflexive nor prelinguistic, it is simply unsayable. Rather it is just as presentable as it is reflexive—it shows itself asunder (sich zer-zeigend).

Christopher Frayling () therefore rightly stated in “Research in Art and Design” that a distorted image of scientific research informs the debate, narrowing the definition. The arts have voluntarily subsumed themselves under a cliché, turning art itself into a caricature. However, this is not true for the first and third quadrant of the debate, which do not place art below science, but put them at the same level or even put art on top. Art is ­particularly well-geared towards criticizing that which critical intervention abhors, as it threatens its core. In some ways, this conviction coincides with critiques of rationality, ubiquitous in postmodern philosophy, and expresses itself in an artistic reflexivity that undermines science and scientific methods. One example would be the Yes Men, founded by Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, who impersonate ­industry representatives and as such are invited to conferences where they, complete with all the accouterments of ­modern science (including the rhetoric), give talks that bring the economic consequences of modern ­technoscience to their hyperbolic logical conclusion. In the Yes Men’s relentless politics of aesthetic inversion, affirmation flips and becomes negation. The same could be said for John Isaacs’ grotesque sculptures, whose pseudo-scientific positions do not refute real ­scientific practices. Rather they audaciously use exaggeration in an attempt to shed light on the hidden side of science, its promises of power and banal interests. Hannes Rickli also works in this vein, albeit quite differently, when he collects the rejected output of digital data collection, data which literally shows ‘nothing’, and exhibits it, thus using ­aesthetic reflection to turn latent or unrecognizable aspects of technology back into something recognizable.

Art thinks

Strangely enough, the question of the epistemic in art and of an epistemology of aesthetics has not yet been touched upon in this discussion. Rather the focus has instead been on the relationship between knowledge and art, on the extent to which art is a kind of knowledge and on what kind of knowledge or research art is, without subsuming it under or making it the direct object of the scientific concept of research. In no way is the current study meant to reject the concept or usefulness of artscience. Instead it is an interrogation of art itself. The question is whether art creates (poiein) knowledge at all, and if so, how art and epistēmē go together, or, in the codified language of metaphysics, how aisthēsis and truth interact or conflict with one another. Before institutionalizing PhDs in art, thus shifting the practical and discursive axes of art and science, we should first pose the philosophical question and remember that knowledge is based on thought. 

Since antiquity, the concept of ‘thought’ has been predicated on ‘dialectics’ or ‘exegesis’ in the sense of ‘speaking out’ or ‘leading out’, open to interpretation and thus to discussion. From the beginning, language is hence the ruling regime; knowledge and the truth thereof are subject to the sentence or, more precisely, to the apophantic judgment and its interpretation. Only that which can be expressed clare et distincte, as Descartes later put it, is recognized and categorized as coherent, and therefore also discursive, and meaningful. Theaomai, theōria, and theatron—‘to gaze’, ‘to contemplate’ or ‘look upon’, and ‘insight’ or ‘clarity’ of meaning (as in ‘clearly defined’ or ‘in front of your eyes’)—all of these sight/thought metaphors for seeing rest on videre and its unsurpassed ‘evidence’, but only to insist on their position as coming after logos and the replicability of the sign. Thought then takes place only within a schema or within propositional speech or at the site where differentiations that make differences can be made—where the real has always been subject to primary classification, that is to say to the texture of the symbolic and its discrimination.

In comparison, the stringency of artistic labor, its conscientiousness and care, is of another nature. Clearly, it works with perception or the perceivable, so that knowledge correlates with that which can be comprehended by the senses before it is expressed in an argument or, as Jacques Derrida would have it, changed by writing and difference. Nevertheless it is not only, as one might think, about opening up possible experiences or ­reproducing that which can be perceived. Art does not present any examples of overwhelming—or of monstrosity, to stay in the realm of fascination. Rather art aims to reflect the ­perceivable through perception, and the experiential through experience; to push these to their margins or peri­pheries where their aporia and caesura become visible. That is why the ordering of argumentation, justification, and applicability—and the opposites thereof—cannot be paradigms for aesthetic practice. Art does not enter the slim space between truth and falsity, just as little as art could be rejected for being ‘false’, ‘immoderate’ or ‘insufferable’. Artistic work shows. Showing has no true-false dichotomies. Rather it is subsumed in a ‘conjunctionality’; a sum of ‘this’, and ‘this’, and ‘this’, and so on. It does not compete with, surpass or supplant other works in the way that scientific theories are displaced by those that later prove or demonstrate their own superiority. Rather the power of art stems from a sudden heuristics, a jumping out at, an unexpected perspective or the Beuysian leap to the side that makes use of ‘a-logic’ and inconsistencies within aisthēsis, creating its own ‘evidence’. In this way we are dealing with—similar to philosophy—another thought, another way of thinking or something other than thought (in its metaphysical meaning). This begs the questions of what ‘research’ might mean in connection to art. Is research an adequate term in this context and what is the relation of such thought—other-than-metaphysical-thought—to the distinguished labels ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’? Traditional philosophy closed the door on these and similar speculations by rejecting aisthēsis as incapable of truth, and thus separating thought and aesthetics. Is not all perception particularly subject to deception? Hegel, in his polemic against the singularity of perception, claimed that it believes merely in the “present,” in the “moment,” only to quickly again become “stale.” The same could be said for witnessing and witnesses, who may be recognized and questioned as authorities in a court of law, but whose trustworthiness is always taken with reservation, because witnessing relies on sight and on the other senses. For this reason, must there not first have been a cut placing, so to speak, other media within perception as an as, deferring (differencing) and creating ‘distantiality’ (Abständigkeit) through a system of caesura (différance) to first make perception capable of attaining knowledge? From the beginning, philosophy has therefore been skeptical of perception as a source of knowledge, at the latest since Descartes’ rationalist arguments. Thus the achievements of art, which are always based on perception, were doubted from the beginning. At best art was seen as an illusory appearance (Scheinhaftigkeit—Hegel) or at worst, a “lie” (Nietzsche). But then how does art unleash its disturbing effect, its long-lasting irritation not only of the senses, but often also of the very foundations of thought, making logos rather than aisthēsis vulnerable to deception and pulling both into an abyss, a common night? Perhaps we should cite not only Hegel but also Heidegger and Adorno, who both spoke of ‘truth in art’, according art’s labor of the aesthetic and the aisthetic a place side-by-side with philosophy and science. Put another way, when and how does a practice ‘beyond’ discursiveness and language begin to become another, other-than-conceptual thought that nevertheless has its own legitimacy or necessity? How can we describe what happens between philosophy, art, and science? How do their respective functions concede that art is irreducible in concert with each of the others, guaranteeing art its own essential mark on the scale of those epistēmai that Hegel, as regards their closeness to the absolute, believed to be hierarchical? And, finally, what is the relation of this exploration to art itself, which does not seem to care about the answer in its continuous, rapturous frenzy?

Of essence is the question of what kind of thought other-than-conceptual thought—particularly when it is apostrophized as ‘non-propositional’ or ‘non-discursive’ thought—might be, and what kind of knowledge it might induce. This focus comprises a two-fold shift from our starting point; the debate on art as research. First, it rejects the manifest scientific characterization of the term ‘research’ and lays the foundations where they belong—in the promise of an epistemology of aesthetics grounded first and foremost in the recognition of practices, whereby art differentiates itself from both philosophy and science. Knowledge in practice does not in any way change the problematic topos of ‘implicit’ or ‘tacit’ knowledge, but it does bring epistemic processes back to the theory-practices of aesthetic reflexivity. Second, this change of perspective avoids reducing the arts to its particularities or mystifications by returning to its foundations. Rather than calling on the artistic in the arts, it seeks to ground itself in aisthetics and in an ecology of perceptions in order to expose perception’s inherent potential to think or to know. The following chapters should be read as an attempt at such a shift. Although they repeatedly refer to art and to exemplary artworks, these explorations are meant as paradigms on which we can school and delineate our thoughts to reveal, through radical examples, forms of knowledge.

Inseparable from these investigations is the other central and still unanswered question of what aesthetic ‘research’ might mean as a specific mode of thought. In his seminal essay, Christopher Frayling early on distinguished between three modes of research, “research into,” “research through” and “research for” art and design. The prepositions mark the different vectors through which varying ‘folds’ of knowledge become visible. Into refers simply to research in objectifying foundations, for example when a discipline such as art history makes art the object of its inquiry. This perspective on, this look into art aims to define the indefinable or find terms to grasp the ungraspable. Through art, on the other hand, denotes the many special sciences that accompany artistic design—materials science for design, chromatics for painting, geometry for visual perspective or acoustics in the case of tonal structure. They act as reference lines, so to speak, and prepare a background against which artistic ‘results’ can arise from drafts. This is quite different from research for art—­research that feeds art and results in art for art’s sake. However, as useful as Frayling’s categorization is, for the sake of clarity I propose exchanging the prepositions ‘for’ and ‘through’. The distinct facet of research through art (Latin per and Greek dia), is that it addresses mediality as the performative of instauration, the strength of which is that it brings or puts something into the world or creates (poiein), so that art itself becomes a means of producing knowledge. ‘Per-/Dia-’ must, however, be differentiated from ‘com-‘, ‘meta-‘ or ‘trans-‘, the common prefixes for media or mediation in the sense of communication or translation, transmission or transition, because these processes delineate a transformation and create a meta-basis, a transition that takes place without reason or causality. The relation they describe takes the form of a leap, a ‘transcendence’ or a sudden displacement. These should be looked at using the figures of immanence dia or per, which exist in the instantiation of effects and take place in the world. We must reconstruct art as a medium of knowledge from this starting point. To put it another way, an epistemology of aesthetics that is rooted in praxis must delineate exactly those performative elements which generate the power of reflexivity within the aesthetic, that is, within the perceivable. Aesthetic knowledge is reflexive knowledge and the epistēmē of art is the result of such practices. Artistic knowledge takes many forms and cannot be canonized. It is closed to all forms of causality. ­Nevertheless, it exhibits typical strategies such as interruption and the staging of disruption. It thrives on the establishment of katastrophē, revolution which stems from tensions, rifts or dissonances and is in turn able to create evidence and give pause for thought. It is, in other words, ‘excedent’ (exzedentisches) knowledge, a passageway made out of discards that come from gaps, unbridgeable tears and interstices that cannot be worked on or represented, and that constantly evade discursive reconstruction. Its dual character—the simultaneity of precision at work and the impossibility of coding or classifying the manner of work—shall prove to be constitutive for the epistemology of aesthetics.

This finding brings us back to the understanding of ‘artistic research’, the ‘nature’ of which is so different from scientific research that it seems wrong to subsume both under the same term. Heidegger argued that “the essence of what is today science is research,” characterized by “projection,” “rigor” and “securing” results. But exactly the opposite is true for aesthetic processes, which delve into the realm of the uninsurable and are an ex-perience or journey of no return, an entanglement within the world that repeatedly becomes tangled along the way. And although there are no ‘results’, in the course of this process all participants are nevertheless turned into Others. While science takes place through investigation, it is not, as Heidegger stressed in “The Age of the World Picture,” the experiment that makes the research, but the other way around. It is research that comes first and determines and gives stature to the experiment. The scientific system is the medium through which experiments are first constituted; “only because contemporary physics … is essentially mathematical [is it] capable of being experimental.” In the arts, this relation is turned around; it is the experiri of the experimentum that is the medium through which artistic research takes place. Surrender to the event and its experience demarcates art and its key elements: first, singularity; second, the alterity within iteration; and third, passio or passibility and their precedence over actio. And while Heidegger went on to say, in reference to scientific research, that “to set up an experiment is to set up a condition,” which includes setting up a law and controlling the frame of reference, aesthetic research decontrols the conditions and opens them for other states. It seeks 

out the unexpected or the strange, and rather than hope for progress in knowledge, an increase of objectivity, and stable models, it induces the oscillation of phenomena and instigates a moment of transformation, a conversio or inversion in observers.

Artistic thought is the outcome of such conversions or turn-arounds. It is not the result of a directional chain of procedures (meta-hodos) or the precise implemen­tation of a scheme that must be followed. Rather its events come without warning, unexpectedly, and often as an epiphany or flash of inspiration. Consequently, what thinking means and being “within thinking, on the way of thinking” necessitates susceptibility without a way ­(mé-hodos), which unfolds along conspicuous tracks: ­attentiveness to nuances, to details, to fragile and often overlooked marginal perceptual phenomena and their vibrations. For this reason, we can name four ­characteristics of the ‘experimentality’ (in the literal sense of ­experiment) of aesthetic research as the experience of and true expetere of a coincidence that throws us. First, it ­follows the original ­meaning of empeiría, ‘to open to risks’ and ‘make visible’ (exponere) that which binds and allows for ex-perience. Second, self-referentiality or self-reflexivity is the main access to as well as pull of the ‘esoteric’ of such a wealth of experience, so that it is at the same time an experimental experience and an experiencing (itself) in the experimental. Here the aesthetic esoteric, as the entrance to within, is consciously being contrasted with the supposedly scientific exoteric, the ‘exit’ to the public realm. Their interplay, their dialectic, reminds us of, third, the essential impossibility of the objectification of phenomena. They cannot be negated, they are cumbersome and opaque and their presence, fourth, becomes known only through labor in aesthetics, through a ‘­meeting’ in the sensate. This is the basis of the primordiality of artistic research or, better, research in aesthetics, as well as its justification and necessity as not just an alternative, but also an indispensable form of knowledge that is lifted through its efforts to the status of an apriority. 

Ereunistics versus zētēsis

We can neither play science against art, nor art against science. Rather both are situated in different territories that, however, reference one another. It seems clear that there can be no research without the simultaneity and equiprimordiality (Gleichursprünglichkeit) of aesthetic research, just as there can be no culture of science worthy of the name that does not give art and its epistemology its rightful place. If we can now see the outlines of the particular nature of artistic ‘knowledge’ and its ‘truth’ in contrast to scientific knowledge, the specificity of this knowledge, its disparity and difference within the concept of research, remains obscure in the adventure of our discourse. On the surface we seem to be able to find only negative attributes; an other than that owes its ex-perience in the experiential to the categories of attraction (affectus), passibility, the passage, and empeiría. We thus must take one last initial step closer to what we might rightly name aesthetic research or knowledge or thought. One signpost is the dual use of the word ‘research’ for both ‘inquiry’ and ‘critical investigation’. Both imply a search, but the first stresses the questioning or interrogation inherent to detective work, while the latter suggests critical reflection, the course of which does not necessarily end in (the procedures of) discourse, which, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, consists more or less of going around in circles. The latter is true, in varying ways, of both the humanities and the arts. But we should make a distinction, a ‘fold’ in relation to the mode of this ‘dis-cursus’. Knowledge through interpretation, research, and the critical assessment of sources on the one hand, and through careful probing, testing, and reflection on the other hand, is immanent to—or so the claim—philosophy and artistic practice. Neither adheres to a strict academic norm. As regards approach, we can distinguish between at least five concepts of research:

—Methodologies of the natural sciences including ­experiment, empiricism, and mathematical modelling (mathēmata);

—methodologies of the humanities including commentary, interpretation, and critical reading (krinein, theoria);

—methodologies of the social sciences including qualitative and quantitative processes for describing and creating theories (diēgēsis, theoria);

—methodologies of philosophy including analysis and ­reflection (logos), and, lastly;

—practices of the arts including productive heuristics, building singular models, and self-reflexivity (heuresis, exagium, experiri).

Considering this pluralism, limiting research to research in the natural sciences would be reductionism. As it happens, the scientific concepts of research themselves are aware of this ambiguity. For this reason alone, it would be groundless to deny that art is research, because it is unclear what scientific research is, much less aesthetic research or research in philosophy. Demarcating research, as most attempts at definition do, as a methodological search that aims for results and a gain in knowledge is not particularly helpful, since the terms ‘search’ (zētēsis, eureuna), ‘method’ (praxis, met‘hodos, dikē), and ‘knowledge’ (epistēmē, gnosis, noēsis) are just as indeterminate as the definiendum itself. Conversely, the potential of aesthetic epistēmē is lost from the beginning when it is adapted to scientific processes and made to fit their rules. While the latter deals with proof, deduction, and explanation, all aimed at, as Heidegger has said, “securing” a projected plan, the former is interested solely in showing or making manifest (deiknynei, phainein, dēloun). The similarity of the terms (dēlōsis, dēloun) is obvious (dēlos). Thus mutual border crossings are not difficult. While discourse or language (logos) reigns in science, and perception (aisthēsis) in art, things can nevertheless be ‘shown’ through language (after all deiknynei refers to both ‘to show’ and ‘to say’), just as they can be made manifest (dēloun) and perceivable (aisthētos) both in argument and in visible or audible phenomena. Opening or revealing is the telos of both, but they differ greatly in the ways in which they interrogate and reflect.

This irritating overlap or lack of difference also says something about the plurality of epistēmē beyond the classical differences between theoria and aisthēsis or what can be seen (horaton) and the object of thought (noēton). It is revealing that antiquity, which until today determines how ‘scientific’ science and its fundamental concepts are, not only knew different facets of knowledge—namely epistēmē that aimed at theoría and thus ‘seeing’ or ‘insight’ (whereby the aesthetic was always the benchmark), as well as poiēsis, which belongs to the realm of doing or creating and has at its core technē, as an ethos of optimization and a way of thinking through (dia-noeōn) that belongs wholly to ability and artistry—but also two types of research, albeit the concept of ‘research’ played only a marginal and non-constitutive role in the discourse. As it happens, we are confronted with the same duality that informs the difference between inquiry and investigation. On the one hand ereuna or, as verb, ereunaō, ‘detection’, and on the other hand zētēsis or, as verb, zētein or zēteomai, ‘thoughtful search’ or ‘self-searching’. Looking at their etymology, ereuna refers to digging up roots, or extracting knowledge from the raw or nescient, while zētēsis stems from or, indo-European, ja and dja, meaning something like ‘attain’, ‘strive’ or ‘look for’. Zētein or zēteō or zēteomai consequently denotes an examination or study through inquiry which was the province of the zētētes, the judge or the zētētixos, the philosopher who adhered to a particular school of skepticism, cultivated as a stance (ethos), while ereuna exetasis is research into or an interrogation in the sense of empirical study—study that is immanently violent, as perhaps best expressed in Francis Bacon’s proposal to “hound” and “torture” nature for the sake of research. Zētēsis in contrast denotes something else. It is not a teleological analysis with a clear goal that ends in a result, but an open search as a continuous self-questioning that begins with perception and attempts to grasp phenomena ‘through’ (dia/per) its medium. This is not research as it is usually meant, but a continuous skepticism, a passion that does not put results first.

In short, it is research in the realm of aesthetics that has krinō or krinein as its kritērion, the separation or differentiation into the sensuous and thus in particular into an aesthetic critique. Aesthetic research and especially artistic research are situated here and hereby derive their capabilities. They conduct research according to that second definition, not inquiry in the sense of proceedings, which always also connotes proceedings against, i.e. not ereunistic, but zetetic procedures. This research researches itself and while doing so continually separates (partage)—as Jacques Rancière put it—the perceivable anew to make new borders, new divisions, and new partitions, and thus bring what has been invisible, inaudible or barely perceivable to light or to the ear. Zetetic research is based, in contrast to scientific ‘ereunistics’, on a fundamental openness, including an openness for the unknown, unexpected or entangled, into which it is drawn and in which it allows itself to become enmeshed.

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Dieter Mersch

Dieter Mersch

war bis zu seiner Emeritierung Professor für Ästhetik an der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste und ist Präsident der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Ästhetik. Studium der Mathematik und Philosophie in Köln, Bochum und Darmstadt. Mitherausgeber des Internationalen Jahrbuchs für Medienphilosophie. Arbeitsschwerpunkte: Philosophische Ästhetik, Kunsttheorie, Medienphilosophie, Bildtheorie, Musikphilosophie und kontinentale Philosophie des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts.

Weitere Texte von Dieter Mersch bei DIAPHANES
Dieter Mersch: Epistemologies of Aesthetics

Dieter Mersch

Epistemologies of Aesthetics

Übersetzt von Laura Radosh

Broschur, 176 Seiten

PDF, 176 Seiten

The idea of “art as research” and “research as art” have risen over the past two decades as important critical focuses for the philosophy of media, aesthetics, and art. Of particular interest is how the methodologies of art and science might be merged to create a better conceptual understanding of art-based research.
In Epistemologies of Aesthetics, Dieter Mersch deconstructs and displaces the terminology that typically accompanies the question of the relationship between art and scientific truth. Identifying artistic practices as modes of thought that do not make use of language in a way that can easily be translated into scientific discourse, Mersch advocates for an aesthetic mode of thought beyond the “linguistic turn,” a way of thinking that cannot be substituted by any other disciplinary system.