Art and Knowledge

Art and Knowledge

Art and Knowledge

Art and Knowledge


Art and Knowledge argues that the experience of art is rewarding because it can be an important source of knowledge about ourselves, our relation to each other and to the world. Young reflects on the essence of art and argues that it ought to provide insight as well as pleasure. He argues that all the arts, including music, are importantly representational. This kind of representation is fundamentally different from that found in the sciences, but it can provide insights as important and profound as available from the sciences. Art and Knowledge is an exceptionally clear and interesting, as well as controversial, exploration of what art is and why it is valuable.


Keats famously asserted that beauty is truth. I would not put the point in these terms (I am a philosopher, not a poet) but, roughly speaking, Keats was right. At least, he was right about the beauty frequently ascribed to works of art. We can mean many things when we call something beautiful, but sometimes when we say that a work of art is beautiful we mean that it provides insight into the truth. More generally, a work of art can be beautiful because it is a source of knowledge. I will call this Keats’s hypothesis.

Keats has not been the only person to suggest that beauty and knowledge are intimately connected. Many other poets have maintained that readers can learn from their works. Horace, Tasso, Sidney, Pope, Shelley, and a host of others have held as much. Dylan Thomas once said that, ‘A good poem … helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.’ Painters (such as Reynolds and Constable), novelists (among them Trollope and James) and composers (Mendelssohn, for example) have made similar claims about their arts. Artists are not the only people who have endorsed Keats’s hypothesis. Philosophers from Aristotle to Nelson Goodman and critics from Dr Johnson to F. R. Leavis have also done so.

Although Keats’s hypothesis has had distinguished advocates, it remains controversial. The problem is that it has more frequently been asserted than defended. Philosophers have paid it insufficient attention. When they have considered the hypothesis, their defences have often been sketchy or unsuccessful. Many advocates of Keats’s hypothesis have probably thought that it is obviously true. The hypothesis has obvious attractions. For example, it can explain why art is more important and valuable than either entertainment or decoration. The view that art, at its best, is a more important enterprise than the production of perfume or upholstery is not mere snobbery. Any enterprise that can provide knowledge will have an importance that entertainment and decoration cannot possess. Nevertheless, for all its intuitive appeal, Keats’s hypothesis is in need of defence. This essay has been written in the hope of providing a more persuasive defence of the hypothesis than philosophers have hitherto presented.

Throughout this essay, I illustrate my arguments with examples of actual artworks. I have tried to choose examples that will be familiar to most of my

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