Sacha Golob is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London. He is also the Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts and the Associate Editor of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.
I spoke to Sacha to learn more about the work of the Centre and his experience of engaging in philosophical dialogue with the public in art spaces.
Sacha Golob. Image by Sacha Golob.
Ciaran: Hi Sacha, so could just tell me a bit first about your philosophical background?
Sacha: I'm interested mainly in modern European philosophy - particularly a set of questions around the nature of the self, the meaning of life very broadly construed, the nature of desire, the relationship between desire and knowledge - that emerge with Kant and with German Enlightenment thought in the late 18th century and then runs through European thought afterwards.
I'm interested in methodological questions as well around the boundaries of philosophy and literature, philosophy and history, philosophy and art. I guess at the moment I am very interested also in questions about ethical change. Can individuals change ethically? What would that mean? What should they be changing towards? Can we use mechanisms for ethical change to reach where we ought to be going? That is, if you look at theories about how people develop, what can that tell us about where they should or shouldn't be going?
Ciaran: That’s quite a range, how did you come to where you are now?
Sacha: I started doing history. I was interested in two historical questions. One was how did proto-trade union movements emerge? It's complicated whether you can call the very first such bodies 'trade unions'. I was also interested in questions around the boundary between direct action and terrorism, and the reasons why some terrorist groups were effective and others weren't.
Originally I was interested in this as a historian and then I got more interested, partly, in related methodological issues. So, what's the difference between doing history and doing philosophy? And partly, in some of the normative questions that arose in these two areas of history. Gradually I just got more interested in the philosophical stuff and less interested in the history stuff.
Ciaran: Moving on to where you are now, you currently run the Center for Philosophy and Visual Art at King's College London. Can you explain what the Centre is about?
Sacha: The contemporary arts are really interlaced with philosophy. For a lot of artists, it is philosophical texts, or historical figures or assumptions that are really central to their practice. And then you've got this kind of discourse about arts within academic philosophy departments. What inspired us to launch the Center was that these two worlds aren't really meeting, or they're not meeting enough. So the kind of things that philosophers are talking about within academic departments, they're often not engaged with contemporary arts theory. If you pick up a book on the philosophy of art, the kind of examples you'll find are... You know, it will have, perhaps, Picasso. There's nothing wrong with Picasso obviously but it's an indication of a notion that this stuff can be discussed without engagement with the actual practice and developments. It results, for example, in very impoverished visions of art. So what the Center aimed to do from the beginning was to try and link these two worlds, to get the art world and the academic philosophy world closer together and to see what could come out of that conversation.
Ciaran: Something that really struck me was the 'Philosopher in the Gallery' series that had been done by the Center with the Tate galleries. Could you tell me a bit about what this was and how it came about?
Sacha: Well, lots and lots of exhibitions deal with deep, philosophical ideas, so it's a natural fit to introduce a philosopher into those spaces. One of the first ones we did was in relation to Tate Britain's ‘All Too Human’ exhibition, which was a retrospective of British paintings. You had a lot of figures, for example, Francis Bacon, with more contemporary figures such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a whole range of really, really interesting British painters, who either actively engaged with philosophical texts, or were raising interesting philosophical ideas through their work. That last bit is important. We're not just treating the paintings as ciphers for philosophical writing, as prompts for it. Rather, there's something distinctive about interacting with philosophy through paint, or through sculpture.
So we set up a series of roundtables followed by a seminar. We'd have, often a painter, an art historian and philosopher, taking something like Bacon and looking at the traditional art historical questions, but also existential questions and philosophy of art questions and we'd ask what's going on in the work, what is significant, what is going on in the paint, what can we understand about the materiality of the work? And through working with Tate we were able to do this so that you could hear the discussion and then immediately go see the works.
That was really cool and we will continue with that. There's a series of ours going on at Tate Modern in relation to the Austrian sculptor, Franz West. His work is continually making these beautiful, very playful, philosophical references. And he left behind - actually made into a sculpture - his library. So it's this whole sculpture of philosophy books, and so the idea is to do a talk about these books. Why is there so much Deleuze? What was he getting out of these people? So it's kind of the philosopher in the gallery but it's the philosopher responding very much to what else is in the gallery, to bring out the ideas that are in it.
Ciaran: That's fascinating. Just staying on this for a moment, I wasn't aware until coming across it through the Center that this sort of format had been done before elsewhere, but in your particular case was there anything that inspired you?
Sacha: I think there's a danger with a lot of philosophy of art that it's kind of dictatorial, or it's applied, as in, "I've got this theory that works well for some domain, so I'm just going to wheel it out in the philosophy of art". What I really wanted to do was avoid that. To try and have, I guess, a receptive dialogue with the artist, where the art is leading the way basically. So one interesting thing about the Center is we don't have any of the normal stuff. We don't have an academic seminar, we don't have academics giving papers to other academics. Obviously that's an important thing and there's loads of great places doing that in the philosophy of art, but we don't have that because firstly, it exists, and secondly, it's not what's missing. What's missing is arts-led thinking about art, which is also philosophically-informed and philosophically wide-ranging. That's what we do.
Philosopher Thomas Khurana speaking at an event in March 2019 organised by the Centre of Philosophy and Visual Arts (CPVA) and Tate Modern, London looking at the relationship between Freud and the artist Franz West. Image by CPVA.
Ciaran: That's really interesting, trying to balance different priorities in what you're doing.
Sacha: I think it's, it's about having genuine equality. So, for example, in the residency programme the Center runs, what we have there is artists applying to work alongside particular academics. They know, for example, that you're doing amazing work on redemption, right? So they want to come and talk to you about that. They'll come for four months, six months, whatever and together, you'll work through this issue. The philosopher has their set of methods and the artists have a method. And the key for us is it should be a dialogue. Ideally, both parties are learning something from it and something distinctive emerges out of it. What it mustn't be is, the artist just gets told a bit of philosophy, because that's not really helping anyone.
Ciaran: For those bringing philosophy to different audiences or doing it in unconventional places, they often find they are taking on a facilitation role, especially if it's a large group. That's been their experience particularly if they are used to a more adversarial style of philosophical discussion.
In your work in galleries, particularly, I'm tempted here to make comparisons with a curator, given the nature of the spaces you are bringing philosophy into, but there does seem to be something about bringing philosophy to public art spaces which accentuates this even more so. So it's not just that you are bringing these discussions to people, it's that you're doing it in a space which is designed to facilitate reflection, or some kind of response or reaction. When I speak to others doing public philosophy the space may be somewhat incidental. Does this idea of curating and facilitating discussions play a role for you?
Sacha: The good thing about academic audiences is that they know which questions to ask, and the bad thing about academic audiences is that they know which questions to ask.A fun thing about the public is they have no idea what is or isn't a viable question, and one consequence is that anyone who's done any philosophy will know - and this is part of what's key for the facilitator - is that there's always going to be some guy, and it normally is a guy, who just has some, you know, just some radically misguided hobbyhorse that he wants to ride through every discussion. So some of the facilitation is keeping that guy from dominating everything.
But on the positive side, you're getting questions that aren't the predictable ones. Some of the most interesting or unusual ones are going to come with this kind of context. You've got a whole range of people with radically different lives and radically different commitments. And then when you take that into a gallery context, it's amplified because it's not just you and them, it's you and them and all these objects. And so you've got this kind of triangular relationship. Of course, there are other things as well like the curation of the object, but even in the bare minimum, you got this triangle, right? And that's what's really cool about doing it in the gallery. For example, in the Tate talks, whoever’s speaking will give a five minutes summary of some idea, but they'll do it standing next to this artwork. I'll say, “You know, here's this thought and you could maybe see some parts of it coming across here, but you can also see some tensions with the idea.” And then people are responding to it in a different way. They're not just responding to what this person said they're responding to the object and their own reaction on it.
It's interesting because on some occasions of public philosophy people can be too deferential. They'll think, you know, you’re the expert who has come in to tell us stuff. Whereas, if there's this object, it acts as another pole; they feel more licensed to say something interesting. People can think, “Here's this artwork, I'm entitled to my response to this artwork, and on that basis, I'm going to come up with something.” So yeah, there is a distinctive kind of facilitation of conversation that's different from you know, giving a paper to academics or running a seminar for students, and it can produce interesting stuff.
Ciaran: I continue to come across things listening through to people who do public philosophy that I'd not considered about philosophy, and that is another. Where people bring in philosophy to other places, they still will often rely on this model that's very, very deeply rooted in many people’s conception of philosophy: this idea of talking to not with people. When you talk about what you're trying to do through the Center, trying to let the art itself lead and the practice lead, I think for some that have tried to do philosophy in different places, they're still coming from a tradition which is very informed by thinking it is all about the text. We begin with the text and we might have a dialogue but the dialogue is kind of just the text that hasn't been written down yet. So it's really, really interesting to think about these other stimuli, definitely in relation to that point about deference. It offsets things in a way that perhaps couldn't be done so easily in other public philosophy situations.
Sacha: There are also lots of other factors. When you've got the object there, just immediately there's a kind of immediacy of engagement and a kind of vividness and proximity to the idea that's harder to produce theoretically. With the Tate events, one of things we talked about was anxiety. There are lots of ways of thinking about anxiety but one component is existential anxiety. It’s not really medicalizable, or people think it shouldn't be. It's not about being anxious about any particular thing, like a job interview or something. It's something underlying these, something potentially more significant. Now, that's a very kind of vague idea. But if you're considering this concept in, for example, a room of Bacon's work you might think, “Okay, I can see something of that here, and that’s given me a kind of immediate grip on what you might be talking about.” It’s immediate enough of a grip too that people feel they can then object or can say,”Yes, I feel this” or I can say, “No, this is all melodramatic”, or whatever. Whatever the response, there is just a path into the notion that there isn't if you're just standing there talking on stage about it.
Ciaran: Definitely, that illustrates it really well. I’m interested how this relates to our reflective lives day-to-day. Galleries, public art, opportunities for art experiences generally, they present a particularly explicit space for reflection, in comparison to say your commute or walking to the shops, for example. They are also, as you've touched on, spaces that prompt a kind reflection that differs perhaps from the kind generated in academic spaces. It’s not that one is better or worse, just different perhaps. How do you think art spaces fit into our reflective lives?
Sacha: One paradigm that you see a lot in the modern period is art as secularized religious experience; the gallery, which is a kind of replacement of the cathedral, offers a moment of transcendence in lives construed as lacking transcendence. Another model sees art spaces as embedded back into consumerism, so a gallery is part of the regeneration of an area, for example. That’s the kind of Guggenheim model. It's interesting that you talk about it in terms of reflection. it's complicated, the relationship between art and reflection. Some art - if by reflection we mean something like pausing and questioning - I think some art is good at inducing reflection and some art is not. Some of it is not really trying to. Some art is trying to but often induces a dangerous sort of pseudo-reflection. So we get this kind of echo chamber effect where the art confirms back to the audience what they already believe, but with a superiority attached to it. So the relationship between art and reflection is very multifaceted.
Ciaran: So perhaps if we consider just in relation to what you were talking about with the role of the object. With the events you've been doing, do you think that it needs to be the case that the art itself is Socratic in some way? So that it's doing the challenging that you're saying some art does, and inducing that kind of reflection which other art may not provide?
Sacha: No, because I don't think all art is or should be Socratic in that way, though there are people that think about it in those terms. Hegel is sometimes like that, for example. I think in some ways it produces a downgraded idea of art. If it really offers a Socratic challenge, then the logical next step is “Okay, why not just have an actual Socratic dialogue?” Art can't answer back and it can’t produce a panoply of reasons in the way a Socratic challenge can, so if you see it as a process of question and answer and the exchange of reasons, I think you will end up with the kind of rationalism you see in Hegel. His idea is that, you know, that’s what art was doing but as our societies have got very complicated, the kind of challenges needed couldn't be embodied in a physical form anymore. So you've got this Hegelian story where art used to do stuff like that, then everything got too complex and so now it really should be done by theory. So I think the Socratic model can be problematic and I think there are lots of concepts that you need in understanding art that resist from that kind of questioning.
I guess there's a very broad sense of reflection, which is just wanting some, you know, some kind of significant response. Of course, absolutely. But I think there's a lot more that matters also. If you look at the sheen on a painting by someone like Velázquez, it's deeply important to understand why that matters, but I don't think it is helpful to think of it as “challenging”. And then of course questions start to follow about what else is it doing and philosophy's been bad at articulating that. You know, Heidegger talks about withdrawal and refusal, that artworks simultaneously blaze forth and then also withdrawal back. That's just one model but like all these models it brings costs and problems.
Ciaran: I agree and indeed that practical focus arguably would be missing something philosophically speaking too, because something which comes a lot when talking to people doing public philosophy is the way it foregrounds the process of philosophising. The process of philosophical discussion can offer a kind of breathing room but sometimes the emphasis is on showing the validity of your arguments. Now, of course this matters - you don't want a complete lack otherwise you're just having a conversation and that's different. But in much public philosophy the emphasis shifts somewhat.
I spoke to Graeme Tiffany, who does a lot of philosophy in communities, and he talked about how in many areas of their lives people have gotten used to an emphasis on outcomes, the outcomes of things, the goals or how we can evaluate things and so on in their work or otherwise, so having opportunities to reflect and discuss things with others, where just that process is often the point, matters a great deal. He’s not encouraging people at the end of the discussions he facilitates to go, “Right, what's our next step?” It’s interesting to hear that being the case with your in a gallery context, the attention to the process as much, if not more, than the outcomes.
Sacha: Totally. We haven't got a very good record at getting to the truth in philosophy after all! But we do have a decent record when it comes to aesthetic, social, intellectual significance and in encouraging looking at things from various angles, trying to make a case for one of those angles, trying to understand why you see something one way or another. So in that sense we're doing okay on the procedural front and that's a benefit. Philosophy has not done terribly well with offering the answers but that's a good thing.
Ciaran: Indeed. And you gave the example of the reflection, the sheen on an artwork. If someone treated that experience in terms of, "What am i being questioned about? What’s my response?" it would miss the point to some extent.
Sacha: Totally. And there’s all kinds of Interesting issues downstream of that. What's the difference between this pleasurable, non-purposive experience and, say, the pleasurable non-purposive experience you might get from eating something tasty or, sexual pleasure? Or the difference between a feeling of contentment and ecstasy? You can start to think about what's going on with all these different forms of pleasure and is there anything distinctive about them, indeed, what marks out an ‘artistic response’, if anything? You have traditions of people like Kant who want to say engaging with an artwork is a special kind of non-purposive enjoyment. At the same time, you get lots of reasons to contest that. Suppose you're in the business of producing political art. You want people to be very much taking a point from it. You want people thinking, “I hadn't realized there's all these horrific crimes being perpetrated in our name, I’m going to do something about it”, for example. So, you know, how much you should see art almost as a kind of respite from purposivity, how much you should see as a new kind of purposivity, whether you should see it as a moment of disruption, a moment of peace, a moment of pleasure, or relaxation, or joy, it's going to have a lot of implications for how you think about art.
Ciaran: With the Tate series so far have you gleaned any trends in people’s responses?
Sacha: It's interesting, sometimes when you're talking to people who haven't formally done philosophy they have a kind of common sense position that halts things. So you have to work quite hard to try to get them to see that there's a different angle. With something like freedom. Most people, I think, have a kind of common sense position: it contains some notion of personal responsibility, but they also want to recognize some degree of social conditioning, and they’re somewhere in the middle. To get them into a space where they can see why philosophers have found freedom or determinism problematic requires work.
One of the interesting things about art is people's views might be contradictory very much at the surface, so you don't have to do anything to find that out. For example, you'll regularly get people insisting that some works of art are obviously of much greater value than others, whilst simultaneously arguing that everyone's opinion is equal on this question. Similarly, you'll get the same person insisting intensely that the author controls the meaning of the work, and on the other hand that it should be totally open to interpretation. Another classic question, namely whether something counts as art. In this case it’s not normally the same person holding these contradictory views, because the debate has a kind of quasi-political feel to it. So there'll always be someone who is insistent that you mustn't try and restrict the boundary of the concept at all. And then there's always someone who takes what they understand is a socially conservative point of view, that you need boundaries to these concepts.
As soon as you talk to any group these kinds of tensions always come up. So going back to your question, there aren’t stable default positions people have because the tensions inherent in their views are so visible so quickly. Whereas, with something like the concept of freedom there are more stable, default positions - everyone says basically the same thing. If you want them not to say that then you’ve got to spend half an hour going through arguments for determinism to try and get them to see why maybe they shouldn't be so sure in their views about freedom. With art in contrast, it’s all a mess right on the surface!
Artist Ted Hunt who worked with King’s College London Professor in Philosophy of Mind Matthew Soteriou at the CPVA. Image by CPVA.
Ciaran: Are there particular projects that you have on the horizon, or which you simply would like to see realized if not upcoming?
Sacha: What I most want, and what we have tried to do - although I’m not sure we've got it right - is to have all the elements on the table at once. So we'll have artists-in- residence for a long time working alongside researchers, and then these artists produce something that you can display out of that research. And then we have an exhibition. The exhibition is also a conference, so we've got the researchers and we've got the artist, and they'll discuss both the process of working together and the thing that came out of it, and the issue that prompted the collaboration, so they might care about migration, or freedom, or happiness, for example.
I guess what I really want to do is to integrate into that the written text. So you experiment with artist's books, where the artist designs the book and there'd be something written about the artist and the researcher. So both the making methodology and the writing methodology were represented. And what I want is for the audience to react to the exhibition and the plethora of voices present. So you'd have all the elements at play: the research, the artwork, the exhibition, the curation of it, the artists reaction, the researchers reaction, the audience's reaction to that, and you kind of bring all this together. It's hard practically but it's definitely doable. It's just about getting the balance right. For example, think about writing, the writing style of researchers and artists are very different. We obviously don’t want to force the artist into a pseudo -academic text. So, what kind of writing emerges from that then? Is it co-authored? What language is it - is it a philosophy language, a new version of a philosophy language, an artistic language? And then, of course, there's just some practical stuff, right? If you organize an exhibition, the audience are coming to a one-off event. Whereas for the artist or the researcher, this exhibition is the last stage of a 10-month collaboration. So it's challenging to convey that to the audience and to convey, for example, the methodological complexities. We're trying to do something more than, you know, ‘artist makes pleasing images about the thing the researcher was studying’. I mean, you can imagine for example, a researcher who works on lung cancer having their work accompanied by art about lung cancer patients. It's not that that's a bad thing to do, but it's banal. It's just a kind of art as advertising. It's doing graphic design that makes antecedent research about lung cancer look more interactive.
So it's difficult to pull it all off. To create a show that addresses all of these methodological issues, where the artworks are as you want them to be, where the researcher's voice is still present, where the audience can see all that and can react to all that. And I think we've done a couple of shows that achieved this, but there’s more tweaking to do.
Ciaran: What you mentioned about the audience only seeing part of the process, the end result as it were, made me think about a group also working at the intersection of art and public philosophy, ‘Philosophy Unbound’. In their events the idea is people come and engage with a theme philosophically in whichever medium they prefer. So they might present an artwork, or give a talk, or play music, or show a short film, for example. When I spoke to someone involved, Kilian Jorg, he told me what they get people coming regularly to them. So whilst it wasn't the case that they saw the whole process, because the events had different themes, they have some kind of familiarity beyond a single event.
Sacha: That's great. One option to include people more is to present a work-in-progress and we partly do that now often through social media, where the artist is talking about the status of the work. But again, it's more complicated when you have this research component. If you’re the artist and you're interested in freedom, you start working alongside someone who thinks about freedom all the time and who's really attuned to the reasons why some philosophers think there isn't any, well, that's another background to your art. There's this thing that really matters to you - and now you find this whole model for arguing that no one has it anywhere. It doesn't really exist anywhere. And then part of what's interesting is your artistic response to that, right? But as a curator I need to get all of that interaction between the artist and the philosopher into the gallery space, and just showing your earlier works are unlikely to do it. What's missing is the body of theory that was maybe a threat, maybe a challenge, maybe a relief, who knows. How do you get all that into the exhibition?
Ciaran: Funnily enough, touching on social media as you did, apparently Peter Singer now has an Instagram account and he’s used images of animals to pose ethical questions. We do live in a society where our lives are enmeshed in this visually-rich online world, so when you're thinking about the potential for bringing people together to do philosophy through and about art, has that dimension been considered beyond disseminating works-in-progress?
Sacha: Yes, there’s much to consider there. Issues about the sort of visuality of modern culture, the pedagogical consideration of using this medium to convey a worldview as Singer is doing there. And, of course, how we can use these avenues to reach an audience? The great thing with doing these talks is that you've got 150 people, and they're all kind of reacting to that environment and, you know, sometimes you get discussions going between audience members. But, in a way, the frustrating thing about these talks is that you've only got 150 people! So something we've tried to ensure is that everything's digitized.
Ciaran: We’ve focused a lot on the work of the Center, but I’d be interested to know if and how this work has changed you personally?
Sacha: I guess one thing which matters for me is how, in this philosophy/art relationship, how it can and should work. The other thing that's important is there's a real sense in which interacting with the public keeps philosophy honest. It's insanely easy for philosophy to degenerate into very, very, very complex games, basically. So for people who aren't lucky enough to be doing this all the time, can you explain to them why they should care about your thoughts and, moreover, does it then ring true for them?
Academics can easily lose sight of how insanely lucky it is to be basically getting paid by society to think about weird stuff. And of course, you could be rhe righteous voice crying alone. But talking to people who have got lots and lots and lots of other very urgent things to be doing, means you are faced with considering why your research merits the use of their time. It’s a good way of making sure philosophers stay honest.
Ciaran: Well said! Thank’s Sacha, it’s been a pleasure.