Strategy: Art Seeking Understanding

What is the value of art?

Various theories have been advanced over the years – pleasure, beauty, expression, or the stimulation of emotion – but, as the philosopher Gordon Graham writes, “none of them can on its own explain the special value of great art.” (Philosophy of the Arts, 52.) So what does Graham propose? That art is valuable as a source of knowledge and understanding. 

According to Christoph Baumberger:

We praise certain artworks for their profundity and subtlety, for the insights they provide or for how they make us see the world anew and we think these features are artistically relevant. We criticize other works for their shallowness, superficiality or sentimentality and think them thus artistically flawed. These are artistic evaluations that seem also to be, or to depend on, cognitive evaluations. Aesthetic cognitivism takes such features of our evaluations of artworks seriously. It is best thought of as a conjunction of an epistemic and an aesthetic claim: (1) Epistemic claim: Artworks have cognitive functions. (2) Aesthetic claim: Cognitive functions of artworks partly determine their artistic value. (“Art and Understanding: In Defence of Aesthetic Cognitivism,” 1.)

Baumberger goes on to identify the cognitive contributions that artworks might make along two lines: 1) Contributions that Do not Constitute Knowledge, and 2) Contributions that Reach Beyond Knowledge.

Contributions that Do not Constitute Knowledge

  • Categories: “Artworks, especially literary works, can provide us with new categories for classifying actual objects.” (10)
  • Perspectives: “Artworks can provide new perspectives on objects that enhance our understanding of them. By emphasizing and attenuating, exaggerating or downplaying, adding and omitting, deforming and alienating, pictures make us aware of hitherto unnoticed features of objects thereby yielding a new way of conceiving of them.” (10)
  • Questions: “Artworks can raise important questions that prompt further inquiry. Literary works, for example, seldom offer moral doctrines or solutions to moral problems. More often, they show that a moral decision is more complex and difficult than we thought so far, thereby posing demanding questions.” (12)
  • Phenomenal Knowledge: “Artworks can provide us with knowledge of how it is (or was or would be) like to have certain experiences or emotions, or to be in a certain situation. They do so by broadening our experience in encompassing things we might never otherwise have undergone or felt.” (13)
  • Thought Experiments: “Art can contrive thought experiments. It has been suggested that while scientific and philosophical thought experiments are fictions in science and philosophy, literary fictions are thought experiments in art.[…] Like scientific and philosophical thought experiments, literary fictions ask what would happen if we assume that certain conditions obtained and invite us to explore the consequences of making these assumptions.” (14–15)

Contributions that Reach Beyond Knowledge

  • Grasping Connections: “Artworks can deepen our understanding by enabling us to grasp connections between what we already believe.” (16)
  • Improving Cognitive Abilities: “Artworks can enhance or refine our general cognitive abilities of reasoning, emotion, perception, imagination, memory, and so on. They do so by providing us with exercises in cognitive activities, or by representing exemplars thereof.” (17)

But is there an empirically demonstrable connection between art and understanding with reference to what Sir John referred to as spiritual reality? Can art provide new spiritual information?

We’re Putting Aesthetic Cognitivism to the Test

Launched in 2019, Art Seeking Understanding is a grant making strategy that begins with Aesthetic Cognitivism, a theory about the value of the arts that approaches them not simply (or not even) as sources of delight, amusement, pleasure, or emotional catharsis, but as sources of understanding. As Nelson Goodman put it in Ways of Worldmaking (1978), “the arts must be taken no less seriously than the sciences as modes of discovery, creation, and enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding.” 

We’re conceiving, designing, and conducting empirical and statistical studies of the cognitive significance of the arts as it relates to spiritual realities and discoveries of new spiritual information.

Questions we’re exploring

  • Is there an empirically demonstrable connection between art and understanding?
  • What distinctive cognitive value does engagement with the arts generate?
  • Under what conditions and in what ways does participation in artistic activities encourage or stimulate spiritual understanding, insight, or growth?
  • If art has to do with understanding, then what of beauty? Is beauty essential to understanding?
  • If beauty is essential, then what advantages, if any, does beautiful art have over non-beautiful art with reference to understanding?

Building a New Community of Practice

We’re building a new community of practice that includes artists and arts researchers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians who share our interest in putting aesthetic cognitivism to the test, and who are making progress through regular interaction and the development of shared resources.

According to Wenger-Trayner, “A Community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.“ 

We’ve funded a broad range of research projects, including conceptual, empirical, and experimental work, as well as engagement activities related to this research. 

Art Seeking Understanding Investment Strategy

Over the course of ten years (from 2020), and in addition to some initial, proactive grant making, we anticipate three rounds of funding, each beginning with a Project Grant (up to $234K) RFP followed by an invite-only Program Grant ($234K to $1M) RFP.  The budget for each Project Grant RFP is $3M and the budget for each Program Grant RFP is $6M with a total investment of approximately $30M over ten years. 


Art Seeking Understanding Investment Strategy Chart


Raising Public Awareness

Closer to Truth

Closer to Truth is the world’s leading TV series, web archive, and new media resource on big questions of Cosmos, Consciousness, and Meaning. Closer to Truth has been following the Art Seeking Understanding program since 2019, starting with planning meetings (Season 20 Trailer), through the first round of grants and beyond, establishing a baseline for measuring progress.


upside-down Mona Lisa

ASU Project Publications

Allen, Garrick V. and Anthony P. Royle. “Paratexts Seeking Understanding: Manuscripts and Aesthetic Cognitivism,” Religions 2020 11(10).

Allen, Garrick V. “The Possibilities of a Gospel Codex: GA 2604 (Dublin, CBL W 139), Digital Editing, and Reading in a Manuscript Culture,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 140, No. 2 (2021), 409–34.

Carnes, Natalie. “Epiphany and Empiricism: A Theological Perspective on Aesthetic Cognitivism,” Psychology Today.

Carroll, Noël. “The Relation of Art and Cognition: A Perspective from the Philosophy of Art,” Psychology Today.

Milliner, Matthew J. “Art and the Apophatic Horizon,” Psychology Today.

Royle, Anthony and Garrick V. Allen. “GA2604 (CBL W 139) f.176v., f.177r, f.177v and f.178r,” Nakala. 

Winner, Ellen. “What Does Aesthetic Cognitivism Really Mean, Anyway? Reflections from a Psychologist,” Psychology Today.

ASU Resources

Garrick V. Allen, Aesthetic Cognitivism in the Arts, Theology, Biblical Studies, and Manuscript Cultures: An Annotated Bibliography

Ryan Doran, Annotated Bibliography of Empirical Aesthetics and the Psychology of Art