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Christopher Earley

Philosophy, University of Warwick

Thesis title:

A Defence of the Cognitive Value of Contemporary Avant-Garde Art

In contemporary art, works of boundless formal and material variety aim to seriously engage with the issues of their own time. The philosophical question is how can we make sense of this strange conjunction of heterogeneity and engagement. Can artistic experimentation provide the means for dealing with deeply rooted problems that spill far beyond the artwork, or is this simply so much misplaced artworld optimism? In this thesis, I will argue that such a conjunction can be clarified and defended by correctly understanding the cognitive dimension of contemporary art: by improving our cognitive standing artworks improve our engagement with issues. To make this argument, I move against two common assumptions: 1) cognitive achievement is primarily discovered in the content of the artwork; 2) art’s cognitive impact consists in the provision of knowledge. First, I argue that contemporary artworks play the role of cognitive tools that mediate our thinking about issues, prompting and constraining our investigations. Second, I propose that contemporary art pushes us towards engagement by improving our understanding of an issue. Unlike knowledge, understanding aims not simply at facts, but rather aims at gaining a grasp of the complex arrangements of fact and falsehood that constitute subject matters. Finally, I propose that if we can make sense of the relationship between artistic tools and good understanding, then we can provide novel answers concerning the value of art qua art and the importance of the epistemology of art in contemporary life. In arguing for the cognitive value of contemporary art, this thesis aims to advance the sparse philosophical literature on contemporary art, giving a novel philosophical framework for understanding its aims and achievements. 

Research Area

  • Philosophy


'Defining Contemporary Art' (2021)

European Society of Aesthetics Conference, Estonian Academy of Arts


'Art Has No Discipline: Reckoning with Art's Epistemic Fluidity' (TBC)

Edgington Lectures Workshop with Catherine Elgin, Birkbeck College, University of London


'Hypothesis Generators' (2020)

Warwick Graduate Welcome Conference, University of Warwick

Respondent: Professor Eileen John


'"ENERGY = YES, QUALITY = NO": Participatory Art and Aesthetic Experience' (2019)

5th British Society of Aesthetics PG Conference, University of York


'Cognitivism, Imagination and the Avant-Garde' (2018)

Philosophy Graduate Seminar Series, King's College London


'Knot Songs: Maths and Poetry' (2015)

Public lecture, Slade School of Fine Art


'The Poet and the Engineer: Writing Infrastructure and Matter' (2015)

Conference presentation at the Northumbria Poetry Symposium (Work, Performance, Poetry), University of Northumbria