Thinking in painting is thinking as paint.
For some time now, the supposedly provocative concept of artistic research—or art as research—has sparked enormous controversy about the practice of art. In one fell swoop, it has lifted art out of the shadow of science. Not only has art been given a new mission, it has itself been defined as a kind of research, as an epistemological practice. It seems strange that this idea should be controversial. Ever since Alexander Baumgarten rang in the philosophy of aesthetics in the eighteenth century, art has been affiliated with knowledge and with truth. Such notions were central to Hegel’s philosophy, and were explored further by Theodor W. Adorno and Martin Heidegger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in reference to Paul Cézanne, insisted that painting was a kind of “research” and that painters always engaged in a kind of “mute ‘thinking’.” Painting itself can be seen as a theōria in the original meaning of the word, a ‘sight’, ‘spectacle’ or ‘vision’ that is always also innately cerebral. This is by no means only true of the fine arts, but also of music, architecture, and poetry. Art’s specific way of ‘thinking’, or speculating in the sense of ‘spectator’, is grounded in the exploration of concrete phenomena, and of the ways in which they are observed and become visible or audible. Each work can create its own universe through sensitivity to nuance and intellectual attentiveness to the exact shade and materiality of color, or to the multifarious differentiations between sequences of notes, lines, space, and rhythm. The exposition of this universe—not its construction—is the result of years of practice (askēsis). The perseverance of this practice is comparable to that of scientific exploration.
In addition, the painter’s or composer’s studio has been likened to the scientist’s laboratory. Both are sites of productive chaos, of constant searching, of breaking off and starting anew, and of the joys of discovery. These characteristics are stressed to demonstrate the propinquity or even secret collusion of art and science. But despite the obvious experimental character of aesthetic practices, they are not experimental systems as defined by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. In the latter, tools, log books, and observation aid systematic research, while art tends towards the faltering, the chaotic, and the erratic. It seems more correct instead to agree with James Elkins’ contention that there is an affinity between the atelier and the alchemist’s kitchen, in which...