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Thinking Art – presentation lecture Nov 15, 2016…

December 8, 2016

…of my book, Thinking Art – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Applied Aesthetics, at the opening of the symposium, Unfolding the Process, given by The Arne Nordheim Centre for Artistic Research (NordART)

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(Note: Some of the slide illustrations are indicated by a link to a website, due to copyright considerations)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to present my book at the opening of this symposium, and a special thanks to the Arne Nordheim Center with its director Darla Crispin and the Norwegian Academy of Music for supporting the publication. I appreciate that very much.

The new book is based on a previous book with the title Den Tenkende Kunstner, which was first published in 1995, and then revised in 2011. The main target group among its readers is art students of any   discipline. This English version, which I have titled Thinking Art – An interdisciplinary Approach to Applied Aesthetics, has been subject to modification and further elaboration from the original book of 1995.

In this half hour presentation, I want to speak to you about basis for the book and give some examples of topics discussed, where I wish to bring about an awareness in the reader of how looking into other fields of art expression can be a learning experience.

The book deals with basic concepts and modes of thinking to be found in the common domain of all disciplines of art. I believe that all artists, regardless of medium, be it music, stage arts, visual arts or literature, enjoy a mutual field of competency which is detached from the specificities belonging to their individual field of expression alone. The basic belief underlying the book is that all expressions of art have more in common than not, and that the quality of a fine arts study can only be considered sound and complete when a broad interdisciplinary aesthetical insight is valued on the same level, as that which is required of professional skills and knowledge. By isolating the various expressions of art within separate schools of study the potential for acquiring artistic wisdom in their vast common domain is lost. Thinking Art presents a methodology whereby students are given access into the realm of interdisciplinary thinking and doing.

I use the term “inter-disciplinary”, because “inter” refers to an in-betweenness which appeals to me. The term interdisciplinary points right at the tension field existing between the various art expression, not just the situation where two or more disciplines are present. It refers to the discourse afforded only in the ongoing dynamic dialogue between the arts. As implied in the term “interest – or inter-esse”, the “essence in between”, it is essential for sustaining a vital rapport.

All through my years of teaching, the interdisciplinary perspective has evolved as a firm platform for exploring artistic reflection on and around issues arising within a given expression. This has to do with a didactic philosophy, which transcends my specific field of study as such and permeates all my professional teaching and is thus the foundation of the book, Thinking Art. Only when my point of departure is based on this platform of interdisciplinarity do I feel that I can contribute to develop artistic awareness, in the form of transferable insights. When such insights are acquired, acknowledged and applied, I am convinced that it opens up for a broader and more profound understanding of one’s own field of study.

Aesthetics, as you well know, is a relative term used in art theory and philosophy, dealing with the knowledge we get through our senses, with the aim of establishing principles for meaning and validity in a critical assessment of art works. But while aesthetics as a field of study is concerned with knowledge, its theories and history, the term: applied aesthetics, which is used in the book’s subtitle, deals with praxis. Applied aesthetics has to do with the awareness of the deliberation that is required when confronted with making choices in the course of a creative process. This is by nature an aptitude all people exercise in their daily life, artist or not. However, as artists we need to hone and refine this ability through conscious exploration. This, I believe, is a basic competence that all artists share.

The book’s subtitle – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Applied Aesthetics – refers also to artistic reflexivity and reflection, detached from the specific knowledge belonging to a given art discipline alone, when in the act of creating – the thinking in doing – and the thinking about doing, before and after the act.

The term applied aesthetics, incidentally, has also to do with art experience and the aesthetic awareness that is developed through being an active participant in art experience, like going to concerts, dance performances, art exhibitions. That is why we, as teachers of art and cultural insights, must heed the good audience. We must learn from lovers of art about their rich experience, acknowledging that such experience constitutes a unique and important aesthetic competence in itself, apart from professional knowledge, skills, and terminology. It is therefore my opinion that all artists, regardless of medium, also will enhance their reflective resources through the awareness of the poesy that colors the art experience by non-artist laymen.




As an introductory portal of entry for the reader, I direct attention to the various phases of the entire “life cycle” of an art work. This is moving from the initial idea, through the development of subsequent concepts, on through the composing based on a chosen concept, production, communication, and into the experience of the participating audience. All these phases, whether in the creation or participation domain, are equally important in the curriculum of art studies. The intention of the artist is not necessarily congruent with the intentionality which is communicated by the art work, as individually perceived and experienced by the participating public. This is why the interpretation gap is indicated between the two domains on this slide.

Besides bringing about an awareness of all the phases encompassed in the birth and life of an art work, there is also, in a situation of teaching and supervision, equally important to place the unique métier of the student into a broader professional and social perspective.

Fig 3 BK.jpg

This may be illustrated as six levels of perspectives, where three are inside the institutions of fine arts learning and three are in the society on the outside. The individual expression of the student is the centre of attention at level 1, here, as an example, a student being coached in the art of playing the cello. The other levels may be illustrated in the form of questions pertaining to each level in turn: Concerning level 2, to what degree is the student made aware of how playing the cello relates to other supporting subject areas within music, such as music aesthetics, history of music, aural training, and music theory, not to mention basic knowledge of the character and use of other musical instruments? As for level 3, how is the cello playing put in perspective to other disciplines of art, like dance, architecture, and drama  – on an interdisciplinary level?

Moving to the exterior common society, on to level 4, how does playing the cello relate to the art environment, and on level 5, to the general cultural society, ending with level 6, the society at large. Ultimately, the question is how playing the cello relates to one’s own life. What opportunities are offered a performing music student to transcend the intimate relationship with the instrument and acknowledge how the value of transferable professional insights helps to develop existential awareness and identity?

A meaningful exercise, for both teacher and student, is, in a similar way, to reformulate a specific professional terminology into a common language for all to understand, without lowering the level of insight value. It has to do with communicating your professional competency, with all its knowledge matter, the understanding, skills and experience, as a reflective wisdom. Here is, for the sake of argument, an illustration of five conceivable levels of terminology, from the esoteric specific professional terms, here at the bottom, to the exoteric, more general language. All five of these levels are characterized by a unique set of references which defines you as being in or out.


  1. Societry at large
  2. The interested society
  3. Interdisciplinary domain
  4. Related professions
  5. Specific profession


If an artist is capable of communicating her professional insights within any of these levels, without having to water down professional integrity and credibility, then it is at the same time an expression of her deeper and fuller understanding of what her profession is all about.

Topic example 1

I believe improvisation to be the essence of all art expression, regardless of discipline, where intuitive and spontaneous action gives the impetus, and imaginative and innovative thought shapes the form. One of the main chapters in the book deals therefore with improvisation as a model of understanding how the dynamic action of creativity is guided alternately by intuitive impulse and strategic thinking. This process proceeds either seemingly simultaneous – in time, or over longer periods where one or the other prevails – outside time.

In the case of improvising in time, as in performing music or dance, the two levels of awareness work together in playful interaction, driving the continuum of inventiveness through the drama of an improvisation. Conceptually, the constellation of committing impromtu to the moment on the one hand, and engaging in the strategy of development and form on the other, immediately appears contradictory.  Is it possible to sustain both simultaneously? And how does an awareness of such a possibility serve as a model for artistic reflection on an interdisciplinary level? These questions address among others the complexity of time in music.

Fig 14 BK.jpg

The illustration in this slide is based on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology of temporal awareness. It shows a horizontal chronological timeline, from left to right, intersected by a vertical line at the moment of now. The past is then represented on the left of now, and the future on the right.

The point is that Husserl’s ‘now’ is not a point, but a field of space in the consciousness of being in time. In this space of now, there is an immediate past, in the field of retention, and an immediate future, in the field of protention, as perceived on either side of the primal impression, as Husserl calls it. This may be called a chronotope, a defined space of here and now. Inside this chronotope is where reflexivity rules the course of action.

In the time space beyond the immediate retention field, there are the recollections of events gone by. Likewise, beyond the immediate protention field in the future, lies expectations of events to come. This is the reflective domain. They are discrete memories of the past and expectations of the future, detatched from the chronology of time, as opposed to the continuous flow of events within the reflexive domain. as in the immediate experience of music, dance, and film.

My model is inspired by the three ancient temporal modes of kronos, kairos and aion.  More important  it relates to Friedrich Schiller’s basic human drives. These include 1) the sensuous drive, where we perceive all that our senses gather, 2) the formal drive, where these perceptions are structured into an awareness of temporal reality, and 3) the play drive, where the essential will to interpret and participate in life takes place. This resembles in all ways the dialogue between spontaneity and control present in the act of improvisation.

In other words, in this nexus, or core of the now, there is a vibrant oscillation between intuition and thought, spontaneous creativity and deliberate composition, in which the will to sustain a balance between the two is a prerequisite.

In temporal art forms, like music, stage and screen arts, this interplay is evident. But is there also a similar dialogue in the process of creating, for example, a painting and an architectural design? After all, these are said to be predominantly spatial art forms, not temporal. In my practice of painting pictures and composing music, side by side, I experience clearly when I paint, the dialogue between spontaneous and deliberate action, much like I do when I compose.

There are, of course, numerous approaches to the making of a painting or an architectural drawing.

As one of many examples available, we look at this painter’s (see Knut Rose, Waiting) technique, where, in an initial phase of the work, he paints as though by instinct. Shapes and colors are applied in a random fashion to the canvas, with no apparent aim, guided only by intuition. The result may seem like a chaotic abstract texture. The canvas is flat on the floor with no specified upside or downside, so as not to suggest any directional balance. The similarity between this activity and music improvisation, also when composing, is evident. But here, the deliberation of compositional strategy is willfully avoided, to the extent of one’s ability.

After this initial working phase, the painting becomes the object of reflection and afterthought, maybe for weeks, letting the eyes roam freely throughout the entire picture from all angles, from all upside or downside directions and distance perspectives. At some point in time, certain figurations or masses of entities emerge, and stand out as compositional elements that beg to be heightened. The thought process is then converted to active painting again, but this time under the control of careful deliberation, where the shapes that have surfaced are defined and details are savored and highlighted, as in the case of this painting by Knut Rose, titled, “Waiting”. His work process is by the way described in detail in a book by art historian Cecilie Malm Brundtland.

Again, on a more personal note, I enjoy using the same technique myself when I paint. You can see the result in a few paintings that are exhibited in the common room upstairs, after this presentation.


Two further examples now of architects working in a similar way, first the quick hand, guided by reflexive action, followed by the steady hand, guided by a reflective consideration of composing.

(Hadid sketch)

First, the remarkable British/Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who unfortunately died last March. Here you see her, along with a sketch for a new building which is presently under construction in Barcelona. She was called the Lady Gaga of architecture. It’s been said that Zaha Hadid’s work “sees form and space pulled into breath-taking, fluid spatial progressions”. If you didn’t know that she was an architect, you would have guessed the statement belonged to an artist of nearly any other discipline.

(The Edifici Torre Espiral)

You can see for yourself how the qualities inherent in the quick sketch are kept intact in the architectural design of the building.

As Zaha Hadid herself stated, “Obviously for some people there is a big connection between music and the way you can create space.” This connection is clearly demonstrated in the next example as well.

For the opening of the new concert halls in Rome in April, 2003, Auditorium – Parco della Musica, a booklet was available presenting the architect, Renzo Piano. He was, incidentally, the architect of the Astrup Fernley Art Museum here in Oslo. On the first pages of this booklet there was a transcription of a conversation that the architect had had with, among others, the composer Luciano Berio. (Incidentally again, Berio died only a month after the opening.)

Based on Berio’s vivid imagery of music’s dynamic gestures and sound characteristics, Piano made some quick sketches, one of which he chose as the basis for the architectural design.

Needless to say, the finished concert halls (there are three, arranged around an amphi outdoor stage) are unmistakably born of the sketch.

All examples, the performing musician, the painter, and the architect, illustrate a relationship between intuition and thought in two distinctly different ways. The music improvisation is an example of spontaneous expression, where, as though by instinct, the generated flow of sound events are immediately structured in time and space. The impulsive actions of the painter and the architect are examples where intuitive expressions provide the abstract basis on which the concrete shaping of new material takes place through subsequent deliberation.

Topic example 3

Another topic from the book, if I may, has to do with recognizing the richness of material found in exploration on a minute level. It deals with turning a seemingly ordinary event into a remarkable adventure by zooming in on details, or if it were a motion, slowing it to capture the wonderment of the otherwise imperceptible minor segments of movement.

An interdisciplinary approach is evident also here, not just in the macro domain of social and aesthetical contexts. As John Cage so famously said: “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

I interpret this as there is an intrinsic aesthetic value in everything, regardless, a resource of artistic ideas and thought provoking experiences, if the will is there to acknowledge this value, even if it at first escapes our senses. The Cage quote is an illustration of artistic reflection of the highest order. I think it is so easy to take for granted a given perspective viewpoint, a prejudgment, one which is correct and legitimate by tradition, when reflecting on art’s aesthetic quality or conceptual significance.

Here in Oslo, for example, there is a huge architectural rotunda called Oslo Spectrum. From a distance, looking at the parts that are visible between other buildings, the structure appears rather drab. But up close, you discover sections that are strikingly beautiful, where each brick is hand decorated by a ceramic artist. Aesthetically, the way I see it, the structure is well adapted to the close spaces of an urban environment, where the walls of buildings are close at hand.

The chronophotographic pictures of the British Eadweard Muybridge, French Ètienne-Jules Marey and Albert Londe in the 1880’s, and later, the stroboscopic pictures of American Harold Edgerton, aka Papa Flash, in the 1930’s, are examples of an exploratory approach in line with John Cage’s statement, revealing the fascinating realm of serial movements inherent in the quicker-than-the-eye actions. These photographs exercised a considerable influence on all artists of all disciplines.

Nude Descending a Staircase)

Marcel Duchamp’s famous modernist classic, the painting, “Nude descending a staircase, no. 2”, from 1912, is to a large extent inspired by these 19th century stop-motion photo series, not least “Nude Descending Stairs”, made in 1887 by Muybridge.


Likewise, the light-paintings of photographer Gjon Mili gave us, in the early 1950’s, images of movement in space by attaching a small flashlight to the bow of Jascha Heifetz while he was playing, or letting Pablo Picasso use the light while he quickly drew a sketch in the air in a dark room.

(Gerhard Richter painting)

In music composition, the exploration into the infinite variety of sound material found through spectral analysis of a single tone resembles this approach also. But what you see here is not an image of spectral analysis, but a painting by Gerhard Richter. I would say that the composers of spectral music and abstract painters like Richter have much in common.


I have shown you just three of the many examples in my book, Thinking Art, of how I attempt to bring about an awareness and curiosity for thought processes that are demonstrated within fields other than one’s own, that can inspire and ignite creative impetus. I refer to this awareness as an interdisciplinary insight. It involves looking up over the limits of one’s own field to see and learn from other fields of art, and sciences, and in fact anything else in this world, even your own life experience. Although my book deals with the common ground found in the arts, the approach and attitude is ultimately, I believe, a matter of appreciating, acknowledging, and embodying insights from all of life’s experience into your thinking and doing – and being. Period.


Thank you for your attention.




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