Graham Harman: Art and Philosophy Interrelated, Evolving

The fields of art and philosophy have always been in continuous dialogue — from philosophers like the late Arthur Danto who asked “What is art?” to artists like Pablo Picasso who have challenged typical views of beauty and realism. Graham Harman, distinguished University professor, has posited a theory of object-oriented philosophy that is currently making waves in the contemporary art world.

Harman argues that objects exist not just independently of human perception, but of their causal relations as well. This object-oriented philosophy is one of several unique theories that are part of the Speculative Realism movement, a contemporary philosophy movement that challenges the notion that reality is unknown because it only can be understood through the limited scope of the human mind. Harman, along with his colleagues in the Speculative Realism movement, was recognized as one of the top 100 figures in the contemporary art world, according to a list published by ArtReview, a contemporary art magazine. The Speculative Realism movement began at a 2007 conference that was held at Goldsmiths College, which featured presentations by philosophers Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux. “We were all realists, strongly committed to the autonomy of a real world beyond human access to it, which was quite a risky position to take in the Franco-German philosophical tradition to which we all belong,” Harman explained. “But we called our realism ‘speculative’ because it isn’t the old boring form of realism, where the mind is simply supposed to copy dull external facts. Instead, all of us have strange ideas, which is why speculative realism is also sometimes called ‘weird’ realism.” Harman’s “weird” idea is that objects cannot touch directly, but only through mediators. “Objects withdraw not just from the human mind, but even from each other,” he explained. “Physical contact is a real philosophical problem. There are known forerunners to this idea in 17th-century France, but after coming to Egypt, I realized that it ultimately comes from the Ash‛arite school of Islamic theology.” Harman’s philosophical stance has a particularly close relationship with the arts. “I believe that aesthetics has priority even over conceptual knowledge,” he explained. “Since objects are withdrawn and can never be exhaustively known by any proposition or mathematical formula, we need to turn to the indirect knowledge already found in literature and the visual arts. For example, you cannot translate a metaphor or a painting into a prose sentence without losing a lot. Yet, they are still in contact with reality in an indirect manner.” This connection between the art world and Speculative Realism has grown steadily over time. “For some years now, our philosophy has been gaining influence in numerous disciplines outside of philosophy, but especially in art and architecture,” said Harman, who has been invited to lecture at several art events, including the 2012 Documenta Festival, which is held every five years in Kassel, Germany and is viewed as the “Olympics” of the international art world, according to Newsweek. In the future, Harman hopes to continue studying the intersection between art and his philosophy but also hopes to apply his philosophy to other fields. “Philosophers cannot master every discipline, but more than most people, we are called upon to visit other disciplines, acting as irritants in helping them renovate their basic concepts. They also act as irritants in return,” Harman said. “Ultimately, object-oriented philosophy is, in principle, applicable to just about any field. How far can it be developed during the rest of my career? It’s a race against the clock.” For more information on object-oriented philosophy,click here.