What Counts As Knowledge In The Arts Tok Essay

So how do we know? TOK website for IB students.


Within the Theory of Knowledge course, you will explore knowledge questions related to one or more 'areas of knowledge'. These 'areas of knowledge' are fields of study in which we try to gain knowledge through the ways of knowing. The areas of knowledge roughly correspond with the groups of study within the IB programme, even though there are some additional realms of knowledge such as ethics, religion and indigenous knowledge which are relevant to TOK. Within your TOK classes, you will also explore boundaries and overlaps between different areas of knowledge. The knowledge frameworks are useful tools to analyse the historical development, language, methodology and scope of each area of knowledge. Given that we need to make links between different areas of knowledge, it is not advisable to discuss areas of knowledge in complete isolation. The articles and links immediately below are indeed examples of real life situations which touch upon TOK questions in a range of areas of knowledge. For practical purposes, however, I have organised the resources per area of knowledge. It is up to you to explore them and make further links between areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. Doing so, will hopefully inspire you to develop interesting knowledge questions, which form the basis of TOK assessment. This page discusses the arts as an area of knowledge.

​​Knowledge frameworks, knowledge questions and topics of study (TOK guide 2015)

Possible essay questions:

  • To what extent are areas of knowledge shaped by their past? Consider with reference to two areas of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
  • “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (Specimen 2015)
  • “There is no reason why we cannot link facts and theories across disciplines and create a common groundwork of explanation.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge. (May 2015)
  • “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgements.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • "Without application in the world, the value of knowledge is greatly diminished." Consider this claim with respect to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
  • “Metaphor makes no contribution to knowledge but is essential for understanding.” Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2016).
  • “Conflicting knowledge claims always involve a difference in perspective.” Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2016)
  • Is the availability of more data always helpful in the production of knowledge? Explore this question with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2016)

The arts

As opposed to some other areas of knowledge, the arts may be a little bit harder to define. If you are intuitively drawn towards the arts, you may feel that you 'get' what art is all about. Others, however, may struggle to answer the question: what is art? Ms Hackett's PowerPoint lecture (see below) raises some interesting questions in this area as it explores the possibilities of contemporary art. The boundaries between art and other areas of knowledge can indeed be rather obscure and sometimes it is difficult to decide whether something can be considered art or not. Even if you do not actively embrace the arts as an area of knowledge, you may be surprised how often you come across art in your daily life. The media and the entertainment industry, for example, draw hugely on the power of the arts to reach their audience.
Literature, music, visual art and performance art have been part of human civilisations for millennia. Historically, many artistic expressions and creations have been part of a religious or spiritual realm. Some art forms have also served to defend political views of the dominant discourse, yet many people have been able to express subversive views through the medium of the arts as well. The arts and ethics are two areas of knowledge which cover a lot of common ground and many artists raise moral questions within their creations. Art and identity go hand in hand, as can be seen through the way in which story telling, dance and performance plays an important role in indigenous communities. Art also allows for self-expression and art forms such as music clearly tap into human emotions. Imagination plays a substantial role in the arts, both from the point of the creator and the (active) observer.
It is clear that the arts have much to offer. But what is the role of the arts in the creation of knowledge? What kind of truths can the arts unveil that other areas of knowledge cannot?
Beauty and art are not necessarily the same thing, but we will often talk about beauty when we discuss art. Throughout history, humans have searched for beauty in a range of areas of knowledge. Mathematicians, human scientists and artists each have their own interpretation of what constitutes beauty. Yet, does beauty lead to something 'more'? Does beauty hold truth, as Keats's poem "Ode to a Grecian Urn" (see below) suggests?  

Introductory activities to The Arts in TOK

Preliminary questions for group discussions.

  1. Think of as many art forms as possible.
  2. What is art? What isn't?
  3. What is the object of study in the arts? 
  4. What is beauty? Is it universal?
  5. What knowledge can you gain from the arts?
  6. Do you need language to understand or interpret art?
  7. What is the relationship between truth and beauty?
  8. How and why do the arts evolve?
  9. What are the boundaries between the arts and other disciplines?
  10. Is art culturally specific?
  11. Which ways of knowing are most/least important in the arts?
  12. What methods to artists use to create art? 
  13. What methods do artists/ art critics (the audience) use to gain knowledge from art?
  14. What are the strengths or limits of the arts regarding the contribution of knowledge as a whole?
  15. What is the relationship between individual and shared knowledge in the arts?
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The historical development of the arts.

Links between the arts and other AOKs

Art and religion

Many (earlier) art forms were created for religious purposes. It was believed that the creation of art could honour Gods, bring us closer to the spiritual or reveal some kind of (ethical) truth. Art is a powerful medium to trigger our imagination of what is difficult to define. Our imagery of heaven, hell, or divinities immediately taps into our spiritual self. Some religions encourage the representation of deities through art because it gives believers a (virtual) place of worship they can more easily connect to. Other religions, such as Islam, forbid such representation. 
Religious architecture usually aspired to literally and metaphorically reach to what is above us. This is often done through the creation of well proportioned and interesting structures such as domes, towers, pyramids etc. The use of patterns and light (for example through glass painted windows) can create a sense of spirituality and make us feel connected with our religion.
Even if you are not religious, you may feel special walking into a cathedral, mosque or pyramid. Likewise, religious music may tap into your emotions. Religion has undoubtedly been a major driving force in the development in the arts. On the other hand, some art forms have been censored because of religion. Because religion is so sacred to some, anti-religious art can incite indignation amongst some people. Art, religion and nudity have a funny relationship. On the one hand, artists have explored the beauty of the human form as given to us through our god(s). However, nudity is often censored by religious conservatives. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo is a funny illustration of this fact. On the Fresco (below right), which can be found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, you can see that Adam is naked, as he was created according to Genesis. The near touching of God and Adam creates a sense of humanity of God, which is enhanced by their physical likeness. Original, both subjects where painted naked. Yet, Pope Pius IV ordered the addition of fig leaves and loincloths after Michelangelo's death.

Art and ethics.

Art has the ability to express and appeal to emotion, intuition and imagination. These ways of knowing are closely linked to morality. Many pieces of art consequently make us question our ethical judgement. Art can evoke strong reactions from its audience, which can drive our moral actions. Religious art may appeal to our sense of fear or desire for gratification in the afterlife. Political art can question atrocities such as wars, oppressive regimes and social injustice. Protest songs, paintings and poems are powerful instigators of social change due to their invitation to participation and interpretation of the audience.  Art's potential to teach us about what is right or wrong is so powerful that some people feel it is an essential criterion to define (good) art.

Art, beauty and Mathematics

The link between mathematics, art and beauty may not be that obvious to some. However, many artists apply rules of mathematics to create beauty within their work. The golden ration, for example, has been used by architects and painters to create harmony and beauty in their work. This golden ratio can be found in nature as well. In fact, this simple mathematical formula seems to offer some clues as to what we consider beautiful and well proportioned. The links between mathematics, proportion, symmetry and beauty can be explored further in TOK. Is there such a thing as universal beauty? What is the link between maths, music and harmony? Is there beauty in mathematics? 

Art and the ways of knowing.

All ways of knowing can be tools to create knowledge in the arts. But are some more important than others?
Sense perception is obviously an essential way of knowing to appreciate the arts. We use our sense to listen to music, taste culinary art, observe a sculpture or painting, appreciate a play or opera and sometimes even to heighten our sense of touch or proprioception.  But art is about more than that. Most of us agree that a piece of art communicates an idea and appeals to other ways of knowing in addition to our senses. Many people include the notion of creativity in their definition of the arts. Imagination consequently plays an invaluable role in this area of of knowledge. Imagination is important both for the creation of art as such and its interpretation by its audience. Art has the power to tap into our emotions. Music is a good example of this. Visual art, literature and performance art can also evoke strong emotional responses from its audience. Aristotle valued art highly because of its cathartic power due to its appeal to emotions. By watching a tragedy, we can 'cleanse' our soul and this makes us behave better, he argued. Is this why we like watching soap series? Why we feel relieved having a good cry after reading a sad story? Why we enjoy listening to sad music like Stromae's "Formidable" song below? Plato, on the other hand, valued reason more than the arts and felt that the arts would lead us to become less good. According to Plato, a rational life was better than an emotional life and he felt that the arts would make us more emotional. Do you agree? Have you ever been incited to do something emotional after the appreciation of a work of art (a book, film, song ...)? Is this necessarily a bad thing? Can music incite violence or inappropriate behaviour? If so, should we censor certain songs or art forms? Are there limits to free expression in the arts?
Finally, do you feel that there is room for reason in the arts, both in its creation and/or appreciation? 

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Three minutes packed with emotional drama: cathartic or inciting 'bad' behaviour? You decide...

Rhythm, Music, Intuition and Visualisation.


On the one hand, art draw its strength from human imagination. Our ability to conceive ideas creatively through the arts can lead us to a deeper understanding of the human condition, ethics and the world around us. On the other hand, we can argue that the arts are limited exactly because of its roots in human imagination. If art is just 'made up', what knowledge can it give us? Natural sciences are often contrasted with the arts because they aim to discover and explore what is really out there. Its methods are much more rigid and there is less room for imagination (beyond the scope of its methodology). But then again, there are situations in which the arts can give us much more powerful knowledge. They can tap into our emotions and make us think of the unthinkable. This is precisely why the arts have been such a powerful driving force towards social change. But also in daily life, we draw upon the arts to make us understand or feel what is hard to comprehend. Stromae's "Quand c'est?" song, for example, can make us feel the notion of cancer in a way that scientific vocabulary can't. The arts can offer us knowledge that the sciences cannot give us. Finally, Denis Dutton's exploration of a Darwinian theory of beauty suggests that there is a  connection between natural sciences and the arts. Perhaps imagination and reason can be reconciled through the arts after all?

Group projects on the topic of the arts.

Choose one of the topics to research in a group. Find real life examples to explain and drive your presentations (for example a particular work of art). Keep the knowledge frameworks and theory of knowledge concepts in mind throughout your research because at the end of the day your research should be focussed on theory of knowledge rather than just the topic as such. You should start from the real life examples of the topic and then focus your research increasingly on the creation of knowledge. Within your research your should look at different perspectives (for example the perspective of other areas of knowledge, opposing expert opinions...), methodology, historical development and the role of the ways of knowing. Offer claims and counterclaims where possible to make your presentation more credible. You have to present your findings to the class. You can include visuals, short video extracts, interactive activities and you can choose the format of your presentation. For practical purposes you may want to use google docs.

Ms Gulinck's lecture on the arts and TOK

Ms Hackett's presentation on ART

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Censorship and visual art.

Music and emotion.

Creation stories

Story telling and dance in indigenous cultures

Performing arts and social change


Pt. 8 – The Areas of Knowledge:
The Arts, Ethics, Religious Knowledge, Indigenous Knowledge

This is the final blog post in this ToK series. If you’ve followed the series so far then well done! We’ve been through so much in the last few posts. If you haven’t been following along, go check out the previous posts. We discuss everything that comes up in the IB ToK guide. So if you’re familiar with everything in these posts, you will have a really good idea of how ToK works in the IB. This is vital to you achieving great success and getting as many core points as possible!

What are the Areas of Knowledge

The Areas of Knowledge are about what we know as opposed to how we know it. There are 8 Areas of Knowledge, these are: Mathematics, the Natural Sciences, History, The Arts, Ethics, Religious Knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge.

Each Area of Knowledge is a system. Within each AoK system there are agreed ways to investigate things. There are also agreed standards of proof and argument that are different in each Area of Knowledge. So we can think of an Area of Knowledge as a body of knowledge that seems to fit together in one system.

The Areas of Knowledge are the ways we categorise the knowledge that we have. In the last post we went through four Areas of knowledge: Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Human Sciences and History. We talked about the features of each of these Areas of Knowledge. In this post we’re going to run through the remaining four Areas of Knowledge and talk about the features of each of these systems.

The Arts

What is art? What are ‘the arts’? If you saw an oil painting you would probably know that it is art, but how do we decide on such things, and how do we create a category called ‘the arts’? Well these questions might seem abstract or unanswerable, but, as always, the IB Organisation has the answer! When we think of the arts in ToK we are talking about the creative productions of humans. This is very broad but things are narrowed down significantly we note that ‘the arts’ encompasses the visual arts, the performing arts and the literary arts. So actually, it is not too difficult to get an idea of what the arts usually involve. There may be some argument about specific cases, but this definition ‘the creative production of humans, encompassing the visual arts, performance and literature’ is a good starting point.

If the Natural Sciences explore physical reality, then what do the arts look at? Well, while the natural sciences look outward, the arts look inward. They try to explore the experience and reality of being human – the arts are a way to explore what it is like for people to live life. Of course this may involve looking outward as well. A landscape photography, for example, necessarily uses nature to convey its meaning. But its meaning is about human experience because the photographer is making a statement that this matters, in his or her opinion. That opinion is a human one and thus taking landscape photo is a statement about what matters to humans (or at least to one of them).

The Arts have an interesting position within human knowledge because they are a part of culture, which is shared. However, art has subjective elements and a unique meaning for every observer. Three people may listen to the same piece of ‘sad’ music. They may all agree it is sad because of certain objective features that we notice in music that cause the same feelings in many different people. Perhaps the piece is particularly slow, and contains many minor chords, and so on. However, one of the listeners may say that the artist who wrote this was certainly experiencing despair. Another listener may say that the music was melancholic. The third listener may feel that the piece captures the idea of rejection. Each listener has their own interpretation. Just as the artist chose notes which seemed right, so each listener chooses which parts of the music to focus on. Each listener’s life and experiences will tell him what those sounds mean and these interpretations will always differ. Clearly, there is something shared within the Arts. However, there is also something unique to each listener. This means that the Arts can be thought of as a bridge between personal and shared knowledge. If you choose to discuss this unique aspect of the arts in your work, you might mention that often the arts involve many people working together. Making a film may involve hundreds of people. On the other hand, writing a poem may be a very solitary experience.

If you do want to talk about the fact that the Arts are a bridge between the shared and personal knowledge, you might want to discuss the Ways of Knowing involved. One way to think of this is that the arts use emotions as a way to connect on the personal level, but that they are bound by reason because many people must be able to understand their content. This is one way of explaining how the arts work. What are the weaknesses of this argument? How would you describe the Ways of Knowing used in the Arts?


What does it mean to be ethical? You might say being ethical means making moral decisions. That is a good connection to recognise, but does it really answer the question? What does it mean to make moral decisions? It might sometimes seem that in ToK one question just leads to another – what’s the point?! But in fact that is the point. For without asking these questions, then we cannot meaningfully say that an action is ethical. Until we really uncover what these things mean, they won’t mean anything when we claim them. So what is ethical knowledge?

Ethical knowledge is often seen as separating humans from animals. This gives us a clue as to what being ethical means. In nature we don’t normally think of the ideas of ‘right’, ‘wrong’ and ‘justice’ as being important. What does a lion or an eagle know of justice. So it might be these ideas of right and wrong that are the defining factors of ethics. But there is another extremely unusual thing about ethical knowledge. It is the only kind of knowledge which, once obtained, commands us what to do. For example, if I think it is wrong to steal a Koala bear from the zoo, then I necessarily shouldn’t steal that cuddly critter. The fact that it is ‘wrong’ makes it clear how I should behave. No other form of knowledge contains these commands about what we should do, or what Kant calls our ‘duty’. This also raises questions about whether morality is objective or subjective.

If you’re asking about whether ethical rules are created, rather than discovered, then anther question arises. Some people would ask if moral rules really exist at all. Perhaps they are not really a type of knowledge at all. Maybe ethical thinking is created by society to control individuals and make sure they behave. Perhaps they should be ignore when this is beneficial. You could strengthen this argument by pointing out that ethics don’t exist ‘out there’ in the universe, in the same way we think scientific facts do. But perhaps a counter argument might be that by our shared understanding and belief in ethical systems, they are just as real as our belief, in stars or trees or the moon.

This debate raises a very interesting question. Even if we accept that ethical knowledge is ‘real’ in some sense, we also should recognises that ethical ideas are not fixed. It is likely that in many years our understanding of the relationship between the radius and areas of a circle will be more or less the same, as it has been for thousands of years now. But will our ethical knowledge be the same on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and crime and justice? It seems very unlikely. In that sense ethics are flexible. And that poses a question to each individual which also affects society: when, if ever, should you violate ethical rules? Questions such as this can be an excellent driving force behind a ToK investigation.

Religious Knowledge

Religion is an interesting topic to study within ToK. You may find in class, and even in your essays and presentations, that it can be difficult to approach the subject. ToK is by its nature a critical subject. However, religion is something many people feel very strongly about. However, while showing sensitivity, you should not avoid discussing or being critical of religious knowledge systems. In fact, it is very important that we examine relgiious belief critically. After all religion provides a fundamental background of knowledge for some people. Everything else they believe is seen in this religious light. As such it is imporatant that we open up these deeply held beliefs to critical examination.

What is the purpose of religion? What can religious knowledge systems tell us about the world? Primarlily they are intended to answer the really important questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. What are we here for? How were we created? How should we try to live? These are all questions that the most popular religions in the world try to answer.

It is important to recognise the vast diversity in this Area of Knowledge. A silly mistake would be talk as if religious belief systems were all the same. It is true that most of the world’s religious believers follow a belief system which is monotheistic and has its roots in Judaism. However, each of these systems is different and, importantly, there are many religious systems outside of this tradition. So how do we classify and think about these different systems of belief?

Well we can break up people into groups called theists, people who believe that at least one deity exists, atheists who reject the idea that deities exist and agnostics – those who neither believe, nor disbelieve in the existence of deities. The thiests can then be broken up into smaller groups. Deists are a a category of theists. They believe that God/s set up the universe and now do not interact with it, but simply watch it unfold. Pantheists believe that the universe is divine, that the universe itself is divine and thus is, in some sense, God. Monotheism, strongly constrasts these previous views by describing the eixstance of a single, all powerful God. Such a God is fount in Islam, Judiasm and Christianity. Richard Dawkins describes some of these inclinations in this video – remember to always be aware of the perspective of someone delivering information of topic.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Indigenous knowledge systems look at knowledge that is unique to a particular culture. It is important to recognise that indigenous knowledge systems are changing all the time. They change because huamans are not perfect at preserving and transmitting entire systems of knowledge used by a culture. Indigenous knowledge systems as cultures inteact with each other. As information is passed back and forth and new ideas take hold and influence the beliefs of the day. We might consider how the 20th century significantly changed the cultures of the Maori people of New Zealand. Similar changes happened worldwide for indigenous cultures in Canada, Australia, Africa and so on. Indeed, only this year one of the world’s last ‘uncontacted’ tribes emerged from the Brazillian rainforest, probably due to pressure from drug traffikers and illegal loggers. Such contact means that indigenous knowledge systems tend to be a mix of taditional and knowege structures, and well as knowledge inherited from cultures more influenced by global communications.

Two interesting ways of thinking about this AoK could be used for you to start a discussion in your essays or presentations. One way of discussing this AoK would be to talk about the diversity of indigenous knowledge systems in the world. It may not be immediately japparant why we should spend tiem tryign to understand the variety of knowledge systems in the world. After all, we already have a great deal to think about with the AoKs aleardy covered. How and why should we add to these all the unique systems that people all over the world use? However, the fact that there are so many ways of understanding reality cannot be overlooked. Fully embracing this AoK reminds us that our own perspective is just one amongst a truly huge number. Your subject studies in the IB will tell you that the world is full of incredible things to look at. ToK will tell you that the world is full of incredibe ways to look at them.

A second way of examining this AoK is to really try to understand a particular indigenous knowledge system. This will be a challenge, but it could make for some truly amazing ToK work. Thinking about how native people of Alaska see the world would really show that you understand the value of ToK. How would you evaluate such a thing? It would be no easy task but we can start thinking about how other people see the world by asking a few primary questions. Hoow do these people communicate? How dothey make decisions? What are their thinking processes? How do they view knowledge? Identifying the similarities and diffferences between your own thinking and those of other people will show a high level of awareness when it comes to ToK issues.

What do you know?

There you have it. We have finished looking at the last four Areas of Knowledge. If you managed to read through that whole post, I’m impressed. If you understood most of the content, then that’s even better. Best of all is if you read every section of the ToK guide. If you managed to do that then you are really in a good position to master your ToK work. We have discussed the secrets to tackling ToK, we talked about shared and personal knowledge. A little later we covered knowledge questions and knowledge claims, so you would know what ToK is based on. In the next post we talked about language, sense perception, emotion and reason as Ways of Knowing. The next post talked about imagination, faith, intuition and memory. The post that followed this was a bit more critical. It explained the best ways to interrogate the different areas of knowledge. It showed us how to ask questions about areas of knowledgewhich are critical and interesting. Last week’s post was about mathematics, natural science, human science and history – the first four Areas of Knowledge. And this week’s post rounded things off by discussing the final Areas of Knowledge: the arts, ethics, religious knowledge and indigenous knowledge. And that’s it! If you really understood all of that then you should have no problem with your ToK work. The things we’ve discussed are an excellent starting point and now your job is to go away with two things: curiostiy and knowledge. Use your curiostiy to find a topic that interests you. Use your knowledge to guide your research, and be critical. If you do all these things you will ace your ToK work and become a ToK master in no time at all!

Good luck!

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