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The Epistemological Force of Art


Admission requirements

Not applicable.


How can we understand art as an epistemological force: that is as a force that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge rather than simply representing it? Art as an ‘epistemological’ force is to consider art beyond just representation of the world or the cliché of art as knowledge. Art can generate new and unique visual perspectives on the world or open up spaces of transformation.

Philosopher Chantal Mouffe raises the question: “Can artistic practices still play a critical role in a society where the difference between art and advertising has become blurred and where artists and cultural workers have become a necessary part of capitalist production?” Her question concerns the urgency and relevance of art, the critical role and function of art in our society as well as art’s inevitable entanglement with politics, ecology and philosophy where action and theory become inseparable from each other. There is a growing number of artists engaging critically with the global challenges we are facing. In the aftermath of 9/11 artists responded to the World Trade Center attack or the incidents in the Abu Ghraib prison (e/g. Steve Reich, Alfredo Botero). Disasters such as the hurricane Katharina, the nuclear calamity at Fukushima in Japan (at the same time both natural and technological disasters) as well as political situations also met with various artistic responses, for instance the work and performances of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. In addition, artists are engaging with emerging technologies such as nanotechnology , biotechnology and warfare technology such as drones that impact our daily life significantly.

In this course we will be investigating whether art addressing global issues does, can or even must have an impact on important societal and cultural issues, and take as out point of departure what it means to approach art beyond being an object and beyond representation, but to understand it as a force. From this perspective we ask: can art affect our reality, can art shape our understanding of the world? And if so, how can art do this? Can art contribute to the public debate without being engulfed by dominant political structures and neoliberal mechanisms? What is art’s contribution to the public debate?
In this course we will address these questions from the perspective of the epistemological force of art, by discussing philosophers/theorists such as Chantal Mouffe and Krzysztof Ziarek and entrees from the book The Truth is Concrete, as well as by analyzing works of art engaging global challenges.

Course objectives

  • acquiring knowledge of and insight in art conceptualized as an epistemological force and the theories provided for the interpretation and analysis of the art works and cultural practices;

  • learning how to make these theories productive in analyzing, evaluating and reflecting on art;

  • understanding the differences and commonalties between an artistic and a theoretical approach of the world;

  • insight into the cultural and societal role and function of art vis-à-vis global challenges;

  • analyzing works of art and presenting the results of these analyses in oral presentations and academic papers.


The timetable is available on the Master Arts and Culture website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar, 3 hours a week, in which students give presentations, participate in discussions, reflect on the issues discussed, collaborate in assignments, write papers;

  • We will jointly make a glossary of key concepts (BlackBoard) to collectively reach a certain level of knowledge and produce a frame of reference;

  • The seminar will be concluded with a one-day symposium in which, in small groups, the students will present a theme/topic of their mutual interest.

Course Load

  • Seminars: 3 hours per week x 12 weeks: 36 hours;

  • Working on glossary 7 × 2: 14 hours (first 7 weeks of the course the glossary will
    be composed);

  • Studying compulsory readings for seminars: 80 hours;

  • Preparing oral presentation: 40 hours (of which the symposium takes 10 hrs);

  • Midterm assignment on the basis of the glossary: 30 hours;

  • Writing of final course paper: 80 (rereading texts, collecting research material, searching and reading additional literature, composing and writing of paper).

Assessment method

  • Midterm assignment based on the glossary, each student writes 5 lemma’s (40%);

  • Symposium and final paper MA students 4.000 and ResMA students 5.000 words (60%).


To complete the final mark, please take notice of the following: the final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average. Both the midterm assignment and the final paper need to be a pass.


In case of an unsatisfactory grade, the paper(s) needs to be reworked.


Blackboard will be used for: For information and building up the glossary. The glossary will be build up from key-terms and concepts from the three assigned texts and need to be around 300 words, excl. references to sources.

Reading list

  • Krzysztof Ziarek, The Force of Art, Stanford University Press 2004.

  • steirischer herbst and Florian Malzacher (eds), Truth is Concrete – a Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics. Sternberg Press 2015 [2014]

  • Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces’, available at

Further reading

  • Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, Verso Books 2013.

  • Timothy Morton “Poisoned Ground,” Symplokē 21, no. 1–2 (2013): 37–50. Available at

  • Robert Zwijnenberg, ‘Presence and Absence: on Leonardo de Vinci’s John the Baptist’, in: Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg (eds.), Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History (1st edition), University of Minnesota Press 2003, pp. 112-131.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


For questions about the content of the course, you can contact the teacher Dr. Kitty Zijlmans

Administrations Office Huizinga


All other information.