Art and Representation: Contributions to Contemporary Aesthetics

By Ananta Ch. Sukla | Go to book overview
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Representation and Epistemology


The oldest theory about the nature of art is that what makes an artifact art is that it represents. It does not necessarily represent something that exists. A painter can represent Pallas Athene who, it is generally thought nowadays, does not exist, as well as the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which many people still believe to have been a historical fact. The concept, of course, goes back to Greek times, and our word “representation,” as used in aesthetics, is a translation of mimesis. Though any translation of such a term is at best approximate, it is true to say that the English word “representation,” when used in the context of art, has taken on some of the overtones of the Greek original. For we think of a representation as having something of imitation about it, suggesting the creation of an artifact that, though it perhaps could not be mistaken for an original, is closer to the original than a nonartistic representation might be. A map is a paradigm of a representation, but it shares far fewer characteristics with its original than a painting or a drama does. Equally a fictional narrative is a much fuller picture of an action than a bare recital of facts.

When we come to consider what knowledge a representation gives us, it will be important to bear in mind the comparatively replete nature of artistic representations. What do we learn from representations? What do they tell us that we did not know before? In the case of some representations the answer is easy. A map is a representation. From it, we learn the route from London to Wales or from Delhi to Bombay. A diagram of the wiring for an electric plug shows me which colored cable to attach to which terminal. At the end of examining it I know something that I did not know before.

Many philosophers write as though a sentence is a representation. Some, though not all, speak of thoughts as representations. Neither idea is quite right, though there is perhaps more to be said for the first than the second. For if a thought is a representation, then, without regress, it is obvious that the thought


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Art and Representation: Contributions to Contemporary Aesthetics


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