Art Knowledge 

Sally O'Reilly 

Among the university departments, fine art is one of the more undisciplined. As a subject of study, no one can point to its epicentre, nor find the boundary that separates it from literature or anthropology or maths, should an artist feel inclined towards such things. There can be no definitive syllabus; all methodologies are permissible; any outcome is viable.


Originally, fine art departments would have been rooted in formal conventions and canonical techniques. The teaching of carving and colour theory will have mutated to reflect the contemporaneous art world, albeit with a time lag built in to keep the avant-garde a step ahead. But I like to imagine Contemporary Art (who, odds on, would have been a man in the 1970s, when the contemporary moment is often deemed to have begun), turning up at the door of the university, his sculptor’s muscles making light work of the heavy knocker, which, along with his conceptualist’s wit, the dons find disturbing. They usher him in and offer him a drink, intent on finding his impulsiveness clownish and his wilful ambiguity a mark of idiocy. They invite him to dinner and laugh up their sleeves at his obliviousness to minor rules of decorum: he fails to slurp his soup, and he bites into his peach, neglecting to cut it into fussy slivers with a knife.


But there is something about Contemporary Art they find compelling. His speech is disorderly and his stories unpredictable. He produces things that they can’t name, sending them into pleasant tremors of uncertainty. Academics are drawn to the unknown, and so they invite him to stay. They show him how to use a knife for his fruit, which he duly uses when they are looking (one must pick one’s battles after all); they give him a gown and some students and some space under the spires, and he sets to work.


But no one taught him how or what to teach, most likely because they didn’t know what he knew. ‘We have Contemporary Art at our university,’ lecturers would say to colleagues at conferences abroad. ‘By which methods does he teach his subject?’ people would ask. ‘By not actually having a subject,’ they would reply. ‘But if there’s no subject to learn, what are the students doing all day?’ This is still a good question. What have they been up to for three years? One answer might be that artists, from their first fumblings to their last gasps, are trying to find their subject, while simultaneously fighting the urge to turn it into knowledge. They are honing their understanding, while trying to preserve their lack of discipline. The day is spent crystallising ideas, while making sure they remain forever on the verge of dissolving back into meaninglessness.