In areas of knowledge such as the arts and the sciences, do we learn more from work that follows or that breaks with accepted conventions? It is widely believed that science is the most successful form of human knowledge, and that it has developed progressively from its early beginnings in ancient Greece. Comparatively, the value of the arts is often held to be giving pleasure, being beautiful, or communicating feeling, rather than conveying knowledge. Kant’s successor G. W. F. Hegel argues, however, “the value of art is neither hedonic, aesthetic, nor emotive, but cognitive, valuable as a source of knowledge and understanding”.
1 But as it is known, by its very nature, works of art cannot be easily understood by ones other than the creator. And, while scientists ultimately aim to root out facts, imagination is needed to float ideas. Thus the two areas of knowledge-the arts and the sciences- must be taken as modes of enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding. Because neither the arts nor the sciences fully follow or break with accepted conventions, it is just to say that such areas of knowledge are of equal value as a source of learning.
The first step that must be taken in order to assess different areas of knowledge is to define each as to be understood in this discussion. Creativity is the main component of the arts that interests and compels the people. Since based on an individual’s special reverence and concern, lack of universality and lack of uniformity are accepted in the arts. Hence, it can be said to be a formative knowledge, in which the making of it directly affects the insight achieved from it. On the other hand, strive for acceptance and objectivity is seen in the sciences.
In order to avoid being just one of many yet to be proven theories, scientists must strive for accuracy and objectivity that the majority can acknowledge of. As I see it, one can learn from the arts and the sciences; from works that break with accepted conventions and also from works that follow them. Nevertheless, the arts and the sciences have distinctive methods of passing information to the minds. There lies a certain intimacy between a work of art and its creator, which often times transcends as an unpredictable but also disciplined outcome.
It can also be said that the clear distinction between evidence and hypothesis cannot be found in the arts. What inspired an artist to create the work? How many times did the artist have to modify his/her work before reaching the satisfactory state? Questions as such will remain unanswered. And yet, this is how one can learn from the arts. Without laid down rules by which it must precede, the arts freely directs the mind as one struggles to understand something so dispensable. One-sided passivity can be commonly found in well-known artworks.
In compositions done by a Dutch painter Piet Mondrian straight black lines are placed vertically and horizontally to form rectangular blocks, which were left colorless except for a very few painted with primary colors. At a glance, his works seem effortless. Mondrian justified his simplistic style by saying, “… perpendicular and flat lines can be seen everywhere in nature; by using a diagonal line I would be canceling that out. But I’m inclined to say that this cannot be combined with perpendicular and flat lines or with different kinds of slanting lines.
“2 As is seen with Mondrian’s works, artistic insights cannot be paraphrased; whatever Mondrian has to tell, the others can only be told as Mondrian told it. If a paraphrase was to be substituted, that would result in destroying of the artwork itself since the arts is consisted of self-determining acts. Consequently, in the arts, we learn through the process of understanding that a mind goes through in an effort to speculate the contained messages that artists intended to convey. The sciences direct the mind through a progress of thought in a similar way.
Admittedly, much more is required than a hypothesis and an experiment in this area of knowledge. An idea must be confirmed over and over and finally arrive at an accurate and universal state to be accepted in the sciences. But prior to anything, scientists use their imagination to float ideas as an artist would before further steps are taken to yield the facts. For example, how else would the scientists have discovered planets without using their imagination? How would they have found out much later that there are actually at least ten planets if it wasn’t for their on-going curiosity and imagination?
After all, it is the experimenting component of the sciences which takes our mind through a progress of thought to an advance of knowledge. Whereas paraphrasing of artistic insight and understanding results in destruction, it is otherwise in the sciences. All-ideas, evidence, argument, hypotheses, and conclusions-can be explained in differing ways. An explanation can be better than another; a formulation can be less good than another. If an individual was asked to explain String Theory, there are different ways the answer can be said.
Then does this quality of the sciences make it a superior source of learning compared to the arts? Is presenting a point of view the best that the arts can do? No, certainly not. Through self-articulation an artist can express and discover oneself in the arts. The rest can learn as they uncover the contained messages an artist intended to convey. Even so, it is feasible for one to argue that if art cannot be independently stated, and cannot therefore be tested outside the artistic medium, it carries little value as a source of learning.
Taking into account that artworks are products of the imagination, the question of whether it can direct us to the truth may also be raised. So what can be concluded from the discussion above? It is certain that the arts can be spoken of in terms of understanding of something, even if it deals in particulars. But because the arts are free from almost any constraint, it is not the best assertion of truth. Most importantly though, the question presented was ‘Do we learn more from work that follows or that breaks with accepted conventions?
‘ Learning does not necessarily mean learning from a school textbook, or memorizing scientific formulas. Established scientific theories are undeniably phenomenal in a sense that each one of them took decades or even centuries to progress from an idea to a universal truth that is widely accepted all throughout. Still, the arts and the sciences both have something very valuable to teach us. The formative process of creating a work of art can influence one’s own being. Knowledge is also gained by anyone other than the creator who takes the mind through the process of finding the end or the purpose of an artwork.
In the sciences, the mind is directed by first making imaginative conjectures, then constructing proofs and assembling evidence. Once an idea is established as ‘truth’ after it is acknowledged by the majority, then the knowledge can be shared by all. After all, whether an area of knowledge follows or breaks with accepted conventions is not significant in assessing how good of a learning medium it is. In any area of knowledge, we will learn as much as we desire to as long as we put our minds to work.