Joshua Mosley, ‘dread’, 2007, (detail), DVD, projector, bronze, 6 mins

The Edinburgh International Festival officially ended with the fireworks concert in Princes Street Gardens, which this year featured the music of Handel. The juxtaposition of 18th century music and 21st century pyrotechnics aptly reflected the capital’s own complex layers of history, but also perhaps the way in which the spectacular can overshadow the subtle when so many attractions are clamouring for attention. Finding a vital space for visual art in the festival is no easy task, but when the last firework has fallen back to earth, the exhibitions remain, and offer a welcome second chance for contemplatation. It took time and thought for the delicate interconnections between the various parts of curator Juliana Engberg’s The Enlightenments to emerge, and for the merits of her curatorial approach to become clear, but given that, the exhibition coalesced into an intriguing investigation of its theme.

The Enlightenments generated more light than heat, being modestly low key and wisely eschewing ‘blockbuster’ status in favour of a more dispersed, quiet and reflective mode. Artists have often mined the hypocrisies, oddities and anomalies of the 18th century, unearthing the superstitions, anxieties and prejudices that accompanied the forward march of science and philosophy. Edinburgh’s own dualities make it a prime location for such responses—Old Town and New Town embodying a Jekyll and Hyde schism. Engberg’s selections generally approached the theme more obliquely, with emphasis more often falling on the plurality of various enlightenments than on the monstrous obverse of the dream of reason.

The works included are frequently funny, disarmingly engaging or seductively beautiful, and most address our relation to enlightenment questions rather than picking over the outdatedness of enlightenment answers.

At the Dean, Gabrielle de Vietri’s contributions are undeniably whimsical and imaginative. The children wrestling with the big aesthetic and ethical questions of the 18th century in her 3-channel video piece ‘The I Don’t Know Show’, 2009, plays the role of innocent philosophers on the subjects of beauty, society and spirituality, saying the funniest things, but leaving the viewer wondering how much better their own answers might be. ‘Hark’, featuring a brilliant quartet of harmony singers hourly, proclaims edited highlights from the daily news, and was similarly charming. Like de Vietri, Juan Cruz’s ‘Mensch’, a festival commission, plays on the dissemination of information, his text portraits of enlightenment notables bluetoothed from the Collective Gallery to passers-by’s phones. Lee Mingwei’s ‘Letter Writing Project’ asks visitors to put pen to paper and write their uncommunicated wishes, confessions or reproaches. These can be addressed for posting, or left for others to read if the writers are comfortable interposing themselves in a putatively private correspondence.

Tacita Dean’s luminously beautiful film ‘Presentation Sisters’, 2005, frames the devotional lives of a group of Irish nuns through the daily rituals of vocational life, especially the material tasks of preparing meals and tidying up after them. Joshua Mosley’s sculptures and ‘clay-mation’ film ‘dread’, 2007, also addresses religious conviction, via an imagined exchange between Rousseau and Pascal, set in an eerily animated forest and ending with the former being killed by an oversized dog. Another festival commission, ‘Beloved’ by Nathan Coley, consists of seven defoliated and thickly painted tree trunks, and reflects on sculptural and architectural conventions; its sceptical view of the natural played nicely against Mosley’s worrying at the limits of rationality.

Also dealing with the darker side of enlightened belief, Greg Creek’s commission ‘Chattershapes’ juxtaposes Edinburgh’s past and present in 30 feet of watercolour and drawing—history as ‘bloody flux’, as one of Creek’s several annotations had it. Susan Norrie’s two films at the Collective chimed with the tone of these sceptical readings of the dialectic of enlightenment, tackling notions of progress, knowledge and communication. ‘Enola’, 2004, is especially effective, presenting an unsettling posthuman world as tourist spectacle, with the Twin Towers amongst the familiar buildings in a theme park of Western architectural history.

Emblematic of The Enlightenments as a whole, and demanding far closer analysis than is possible here, Joseph Kosuth’s neon installation at Talbot Rice Gallery is a surprisingly elegant work, quite at home in the Georgian library which accommodated it. Bringing together Nietzschean text and Darwin’s doodles, it asks big questions—including what kind of knowledge art might be, what the truth costs us, the relationship of Nietzsche’s genealogy to Darwin’s and so on. Kosuth’s practice may still be anchored in the investigative logic and self-reflexivity of his 1960s work, but seems at this point qualitatively distinct in its far more expansive and poetic presentation and content.

In 1784 Kant answered a public call for answers to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in a short text published in a Berlin periodical. Two hundred years later, Michel Foucault (a source for some of Kosuth’s recent work, and like him an avid reader of Nietzsche), gave an interpretation of Kant’s essay which sheds useful light on what is at stake in Engberg’s project. For Foucault, what defined Kant’s enlightenment was its attitude to its own present, the effort to understand what was happening, politically, philosophically, to subjectivity itself. In setting out this position Foucault draws on Baudelaire’s analysis of the painting of modern life, giving this a privileged role as an analogy for ‘a philosophical ethos which could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era’. Keeping the contemporary, the everyday, and the possibilities of shared communication in view, The Enlightenments does an admirable job of raising questions about the possible forms which that aesthetic and critical activity might take.

Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow