What if Donald Rumsfeld was right?: Art-derived knowledge as a known unknown

Dr Chris McAuliffe
2015 Conference

The orders of knowledge constituted through creative practice are a strategic as well as theoretical matter for schools of art and design, even after the acknowledgement of so-called non-traditional outputs in research definitions and metrics. The character of practice-derived knowledge has been repeatedly parsed and located on a spectrum ranging from the material and technical (knowing how), through the classically analytical (knowing of) and on into the quasi-metaphysical (boundary thought). Seeking knowledge beyond the horizon of expectation, art appears to juggle the known and unknown. Following George Bataille’s model of nonknowledge, this paper argues that art’s peculiar challenge to knowledge lies in treating unknowns as persistently, rather than the resolvably, unknown. Bataille’s abandonment of the will to know, anticipated results and subordinated things materialises in artistic practices that Gerhard Richter likens to ‘the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible’. Henk Borgdorff suggests that for university-based art schools, ‘the crux of the matter is whether a phenomenon like research in the arts exists—an endeavour in which the production of art is itself a fundamental part of the research process, and whereby art is partly the result of research’. Bataille’s nonknowledge suggests an epistemological location for such an order of knowledge. Nonknowledge is a practice; admittedly one redolent of crisis. Artistic practice is a kind of thought that ‘accomplishes its shipwreck … within thought, in other words, in a thought where the consciousness of foundering persists’. Following Bataille, research-led artistic practice entails both suspension and discovery of orders of knowing: ‘One must continue thinking in order to discover the world of someone who knows that he knows nothing’.

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About the author

Dr Chris McAuliffe is Professor of Art (Practice-led research) at the School of Art, ANU. From 2000–2013 he was Director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne. He taught art history at the University of Melbourne (1988-2000) and was Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University (2011–12). Dr McAuliffe’s publications include Art and Suburbia (1996), Linda Marrinon: let her try (2007) and Jon Cattapan: possible histories (2008). He is currently a partner investigator in the ARC-funded project ‘Fringe to famous: Contemporary Australian culture as an innovation system,’ Monash University.