Aesthetic education seems to be most easily defined by what it is not. It is not the teaching of logical form or matters of fact, and it is not satisfied to remain at the level of surface text. Generally, aesthetics seems to be the defining characteristic of the arts, with which it is usually identified.
Monroe Beardsley saw the central task of aesthetic education as the improvement of taste, claiming that this required the development of two dispositions: (1) the capacity to obtain aesthetic gratification from increasingly subtle and complex objects that are characterized by various forms of unity and (2) an increasing dependence on beautiful objects as sources of aesthetic satisfaction. Beautiful objects for him were inherently beautiful. They were perfect. They adhered to the rules of good composition. They allowed people to feel pleasure when they contemplated the objects disinterestedly. They caused pleasure due to intrinsic properties such as color, line, shape, proportion, harmony, symmetry, etc. They revealed a spiritual force in the universe. They were whatever pleases people of good taste, and they had properties to which people respond with love.
Somewhat circularly, Beardsley claimed (1982, p. 81) that a person was having an aesthetic experience during a particular stretch of time “if and only if the greater part of his mental activity during that time is united and made pleasurable by being tied to the form and qualities of a sensuously presented or imaginatively intended object on which his primary attention is concentrated.”
This classically traditional definition makes explicit its assumptions of intentionality, holistic sensuous qualities, imagination, and form but it does not address the question of how or why we would want to teach it in schools, a topic which has only been considered in the last 30 years. Transferred to the arts, it requires that production of or performance in the arts is intentional rather than divinely inspired or genetically imposed. The question of taste alone is highly contentious and one would wonder whether beauty is the ideal to which students are directed these days. There seems to be an assumption that through intentionally creating artworks which “come together appropriately” (as opposed to craft), students will come to develop a disposition to experience the aesthetic moment. But in many schools this aesthetic moment is ignored. The emphasis is given to the product qua product and to the documentation of the student’s learning process through production portfolios or visual diaries. The rational reflection and self-consciousness of discipline-based art education marginalize the aesthetic experience.
It is often assumed that the aesthetic experience is equally marginalized in schools by prevailing cultural pressures of accountability and pragmatism and the dominant functionalism of education. Arts are justified in the curriculum only because they pass on the cultural heritage of our society; or because they train students in skills that might lead to a worthwhile occupation as a carpenter, musician, or painter in adult life; or even because they might decrease social malaise and alienation by making leisure time more enjoyable.
Such functionalism assumes that progress is only possible if there are measurable or demonstrable outcomes. The arts become more accountable as progress is measured in the number of products or performances. They are therefore presented in a theoretical language of criticism within which they can intentionally produce works of art. Such theoretical structures provide the frame and standards through which students can be graded and against which they can evaluate other works of art or arts performances. However, whether such a theory is testable, worthwhile, or even possible has rarely been considered. On formalist assumptions of aesthetics, it is sufficient for it to be internally coherent.
Where theories are not grounded on evidence, they proliferate, and the arts world slides into a cultural relativism of movements. Curriculum reformers bypass such contextualism by requiring a more solid foundation for evaluation. Rarely is this an educational one. As Danto said, when art becomes confused about aesthetic standards or discards the guiding standards of representation or artistic skill, the guiding value will become commercial, making the arts into a commodity in which the price or audience an artwork commands becomes the criterion of its success. So education in the arts becomes accountable in terms of the employment status of its graduates, the salary they can command, even their visibility in large museums, theatres, and the press.
Most aestheticians react to this as if a fundamental category mistake has been made. One cannot reduce the aesthetic to a number, or even to its pragmatic function. Success in the arts is so contextually dependent that one could never measure it by objective standards. It would be like trying to measure love or happiness, which are felt states rather than measurable products. Artists may earn money making artworks or performing, but that is not why they do it and that is not why we teach it in schools.
To formalists like Beardsley (1982) and Dickie (1983), if arts education was to be aesthetic, it had to be “disinterested.” “Art for Art’s sake” has become something of a cliché, especially at a period where political hegemonies seem to drive all. If the arts were to be a “discipline” in a Hirstian forms of knowledge sense, they would derive their identity from their formal structures, their ability to represent transcendental values of Beauty. Many drama and visual arts teachers tacitly assume the notion that besides aesthetics, arts are defined by their representational value at least in imitating Ideal form through mimesis. Music teachers particularly refer to the aesthetic formalism of Clive Bell (2015), based almost on Pythagorean notions of divine harmony.
An attempt to bring formalist transcendentalism closer to a physical reality was made by psychologists like Arnheim (1969) and Gombrich (1963), by naturalizing form in the brain through genetic structures. In his theory of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner (1983) has raised the status of aesthetics in music by identifying it as a biologically inherited trait. These presumptions operate still within a modernist frame, making aesthetic experiences essentialist rather than politically and culturally contingent.
The formalist position runs the risk of retreating into a sublime essentialism that has nothing to do with the sordid or ugly, the political or mundane. The discovery that aesthetic standards presented as timeless and universal are in practice neither timeless nor universal – that they largely reflect beliefs and values typical of European patriarchy – has led to a more critical, historically grounded analysis of artistic concepts, institutions, and practices in general. Dickie (1983) and Danto (1981) particularly remind us of the institutional presence in the arts, that their values are defined within a changing social context and that in the twentieth century at least, formalism is either trite or empty. The grounding of aesthetics must take a different form in a postmodern era.
The disappearance of the grand narrative has resulted in a broader and deeper understanding of the many social and cultural variables that contribute to prevailing notions of taste, aesthetic value, and artistic genius. As such arts teachers are now involved in helping children to enter aesthetic awarenesses not only of their own cultures but those of others from the past and present. To what extent this crossing of and comparison between cultural paradigms is possible has not been much debated in teacher training institutions.
Other barriers have been rendered invisible in educational programs, especially in the seamless construction of a learning area called the arts differentiated from languages, science, social science, and maths. What is thus differentiated can vary quite dramatically, with uncritical selections made variously from the performing arts, design, music, literature, visual arts, film, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, poetry, architecture, and jewelry-making. Different theoretical assumptions drive the selection according to the weight placed on self-expression (especially by psychologists), technical skills, beauty, aesthetic performance, cultural conformity, or originality. Could the integrating quality be a notion of aesthetic response?
Beardsley (1982), Osborne (1970), Weitz (1956), and others would say yes, and a brief history of the development of the arts area indicates the aesthetic assumption that works of art are still believed to have the capacity to induce higher levels of worthwhile experience which justifies their inclusion in the curriculum. Learning in the arts is “fundamentally experiential, creative, and developmental and must involve students in perceiving, transforming, expressing and appreciating,” as if these aspects somehow contained and defined the aesthetic. No use for drama teachers to complain that creativity on stage was a different thing entirely from creativity with a violin or clay. Such decontextualization of imagination and creativity, and even self-expression in this manner, is a mark of Beardsley’s transcendentalism. Theoretical work in contemporary aesthetics by such influential academics as Goodman (1976), Cavell (1988), Danto (1981), Davidson (2001) and Gadamer (1986) has not much filtered down into schools, but it raises the questions about the possibility of an aesthetic quality separate from its expressions in the arts world.
Most of these writers recognize the aesthetic as a human convention, even where it is tied to a nominalist realism. The arts become identified as a humanity, designed to make us aware of and sensitive to the varieties of human differences as expressed through the arts. Could “aesthetics” as a categorical term be replaced by the humanities? Aesthetics has recently benefited from “an ethical turn,” a revival of long-standing debates about the moral function of narrative and the social impact of the arts, drawing aestheticians into the cultural value of arts education, but it is not clear how mutually inclusive this categorization could or should be.
Environmental issues could be said to be founded in an aesthetic notion of the essential beauty and sublimity of nature. The sciences too are recognized as human artifacts based on realism. What is it that makes an aesthetic experience in the arts differ from the one in logic or science? Some educators look to the arts because they offer opportunities to move beyond consolidated texts and change human values through revitalizing symbols and artistic rituals. Art is the lie that becomes the truth. Aesthetic education helps us to understand others as humans. What it is about this form of aesthetic experience that is unique to the arts remains to be examined continuously.
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