Saturday, October 22, 2011

Responses 004 (Nov 2012)

The infamous list has thrown up an uneven field of obstacles as usual. Obstacle Question #4 asks: What counts as knowledge in the arts? Discuss by comparing to one other area of knowledge.

This is a hoary old chestnut, so to speak. The debate over what constitutes 'the arts', and hence by extension what counts as knowledge in the arts, is a very old one. The crafty Greeks got around it by using the word technë, which means 'art', 'craft' and 'skill' all at once. Their legacy is a range of modern words, including 'technology', 'technique', 'technical', and 'polytechnic', which are all supposed to have something to do with the arts but seem more to do with the sciences these days.

The picture is complicated by classical ideas of what constituted the arts. Here is a list of what the Greeks thought the arts were, in the personifications of the Nine Muses. Included were agriculture, astronomy, geometry and history.

Indeed, history and philosophy are the parents of the sciences — the natural sciences are the descendants of the disciplines which we used to call 'natural history' and 'natural philosophy'; the term 'natural science' in its present-day meaning is relatively new and was not often the term of choice till perhaps the late 19th century. [See Ngram here.]

This argues for a response that contrasts the arts with the sciences, using technology and engineering, architecture and design, as battlefields. It also means that whoever answers this question might have to draw a line of some sort between 'arts' and 'humanities' — not to mention the line between 'technology' and 'science'. Haha.

That said, how do we define knowledge in the arts themselves? I would argue that there are at least two kinds of knowledge: procedural knowledge (how it is done) and conceptual knowledge (what it is that is done) — for example, knowledge of how to paint vs knowledge of what painting is, or knowledge of how to write poetry vs knowledge of what poetry is. (We require most teachers of visual or performing arts to be practitioners to some extent; sadly, this is less true of the language arts.) How else can artistic (or 'aesthetic') knowledge be defined?

My instinct tells me that this essay topic is an easy one to handle. But it will require a disciplined approach that draws on personal experience and interpretation, coupled with the ability to examine disciplines critically.

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