Against Discipline

Presentation at the Material Encounters colloquium, Birmingham City University, July 2021.

What does discipline mean in art? Does it relate to medium, like painting or sculpture? Does it relate to genre, like abstraction, the documentary, or social practice? Because we routinely come across painting next to political video art in exhibitions, such distinctions may seem obsolete. 

So is discipline the one thing that unites all these ideas, wherever they play out? 

It may come as some surprise that the formulation of art as a discipline in the art school is relatively recent. In fact, the disciplinary definitions of the array of humanities and sciences practiced in the university only come into being in the 18th century. What we may recognise as art schools have of course existed far longer than that, but in the context of disciplinary discourse, art is a surprising late-comer. 

The story of art as a sui generis discipline is one of difference and distinction. In the US, for example, art education had to define itself against the rise in the status of the sciences in the 1960s.[1]Efland, A. D. (1988) ‘Studies in Art Education: Fourth Invited Lecture How Art Became a Discipline: Looking at Our Recent History’, Studies in Art Education, 29(3), pp. 262–274. doi: 10.1080/00393541.1988.11650678. In light of the forthcoming higher education funding changes in the UK, we may consider that this struggle is far from finished.

But this is also a story of anxiety that begins at home. In the early 2000s, a dean of the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, identified a question within the discipline itself, observing a rift between the singularity of the education of her school and the multiplicity of the practices she witnessed in exhibitions.[2]Fouquet, M. (2003) ‘Art School and Interdisciplinarity: A Case for Anxiety’, C+C: an interdisciplinary journal of critical + cultural studies, 1(1), pp. 33–42.

For many of us, the answer has been to engage with ideas of multi and interdisciplinarity, a set of protocols that explain why artists have been able to extend their practices into areas as diverse as performance, economics, material studies, or community building. In well-practiced pairings like art and science or arts in health, the term used more often is transdisciplinarity. For Charles Esche, art’s strength is its adisciplinarity, that is its refusal to commit to a discipline – which is a paradox at best.[3]Esche, C. (2009) ‘Include Me Out : Preparing Artists to Undo the Art World’, in Madoff, S. H. (ed.) Art School : propositions for the 21st century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 101–113.

All this suggests that art’s interactions with other disciplines deserve some further attention and that denying disciplinary distinction is not quite enough. Is it not the case that art practice is unavoidably shaped by its own disciplinarity definitions and relationships, even if so much art practice seems to cross boundaries between multiple disciplines?

I propose that the best way to examine these relationships without becoming entangled in the politics of institutions such as universities, museums, or funding bodies, is to consider the epistemic properties of disciplines as they come into contact within art practice. What knowledge is at play when artists make work about climate change? Is, in this example, art knowledge in play with climate science knowledge? Is this relationship one of knowledge exchange? Does the artist need to know climate science to make interdisciplinary work about climate change?

I have picked this science example to draw out what I think is a fundamental characteristic of the humanities and art practice – that is the belief that knowledge is socially constructed. In contrast, science is usually assumed to be positivist, that is independent of the human knowing. The two ideas have been in fundamental opposition since the Kant’s Copernican Revolution. 

And yet, artists overcome that barrier every day. What is it that allows the artist to treat science as a knowledge and material, even if it is so opposed to art’s view of how we come to know things? Eric Hayot suggests that this is because no humanist actually believes that there is no ‘fixed’ positivist knowledge and that the rejection of the ‘hard’ scientific reason is in part a defence mechanism brought about by disciplinary antagonisms.[4]Hayot, E. (2021) Humanist Reason: A History. an Argument. a Plan. Columbia University Press.

How does this develop? My worry is that art’s strongest tool is ignorance, which is often described as an asset, for example by Donald Barthelme or by the romanticised history of deskilling.[5]Barthelme, D. (1985) ‘Not-knowing’, The Georgia Review, 39(3), pp. 509–522. Mick Wilson observes that it’s hard to acknowledge that an artist may actually not know things after all, 

While within the arts we might readily recognise the disconnection when non-specialists talk about the arts, it is less easy for us to identify the same process when artists move into other disciplinary discourses – say, for example, producing political economic analyses or of post-Fordism and immaterial labour. We may be less ready to recognise the potential for reductive misreadings of other disciplines and professions by artists and assume special exemption from these risks.[6]Wilson, M. (2013) ‘Discipline problems and the ethos of research’, in Wilson, M. and van Ruiten, S. (eds) SHARE Handbook for artistic research education. Amsterdam: ELIA European League of Institutes of the Arts, pp. 203–217.

Is this a problem? I suggest that any disciplinary practice that overlooks the fundamental epistemic ideas of its neighbours places itself at a disadvantage, not only because the neighbouring disciplines have struggled to accept art’s knowledge claims, but because art has struggled to influence theirs without becoming instrumentalised.

I suggest that the best way to overcome this barrier is to investigate anew the meaning of interdisciplinarity. In contrast with the trans-, multi- and a-disciplinary varieties, interdisciplinarity is an enterprise that brings together disparate disciplinary knowledges and evaluates their methods to find the best model for production of new knowledge. True interdisciplinarity, in a strict sense, would require the artists to be a trained climate scientist. In practice, it requires much more than the study of Wikipedia articles and representations of climate science.

I’m not proposing that art should become subjugated to whichever discipline it crosses paths with. In fact, I believe that art has a unique ability to subvert disciplinary knowledges to its own advantage. That advantage, however, is only fully realised when art embraces the notion of research-led practice, avoiding the siren call of practice-led research.

Cover image: CCAC North Library/flickr, CC2.0