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National Art Education Association

Making Sense of Aesthetics Author(s): E. Louis Lankford Source: Studies in Art Education, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 49-52 Published by: National Art Education Association Stable URL: Accessed: 24/11/2010 07:51
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STUDIES in Art Education A Journal of Issues and Research 1986, 28(1) 49-52

Copyright by The National Art Education Association

Making Sense of Aesthetics
E. Louis Lankford
The Ohio State University art One of the best things likely to come out of all of the discipline-based education hoopla is that art education as a whole will have to start making sense out of aesthetics.For aestheticsto make sense in art education,it must be comprehendable, and its relevanceought to be readilyapparent.This applies whetherone is talkingabout theoreticalpropositionswhichguideteacher preparation,or art lessons for six-year-olds. Aestheticshas long been regardedby most art educatorswith a keep-yourdistance reverence:acknowledgedas a key element of the world of art yet esthetesand inscrutable avoided as a cloudlandwhereinonly self-proclaimed has been Because aesthetics dwell. inadequatelyunderstood, it philosophers has often been misrepresented by those whose task it has been to makethe artworld more real and meaningfulto the generalpublic. Considerfor example in classrooms.As often as not it is represented the applicationof Formalism as about beingessentially composition;elementsand principlesof designbecome the most vital vocabularyof art education.This interpretation is only partially that are irrelevant correct;it reducesart studyto a set of surfacearrangements to much of contemporary art, and robs Bell (1958)and Fry's (1965)theoryof its heart:the fulfillmentof aestheticexperience.I am not championingBell's theory here, only tryingto make a point. Some art educatorshave simplytriedto ignoreaesthetics,and in this regard many have done a sterlingjob. Studio art methodshave been taught without discussion of why or how people express themselves through art. Critical methods have been applied without consideration of the efficacy of the method used. There are probably many more art educators, however, who have used aestheticswithoutrealizingit: when talk turnsto the functionof art in society, for example,or when studentsare asked why they think a work of art is good. Beforewe can use aestheticsreallywell, we needto have some idea of whatit is about. Basically, aestheticsis asking questions and searchingfor answers about the nature of art. An important part of understandingaesthetics is answersto singlequeslearningto acceptits grey areas,living with alternative tions, viewing what it offers with a criticaleye, and making decisionsbased upon fairness,reason,and experience.That is why I thoughtit apt that Lanier aestheticsin the form of a question:"Whatis art and why (1985)encapsulated do we respondto it?" (p. 255). Hereis an instanceof an art educatordecoding complexaestheticconceptsandjargoninto termseveryonecan understand.Of



course one could claim, and rightly so, that this question is rather like a crack in the dike; if we pry into it, we're liable to drown in a flood of convoluted information. The trick is to shore the damn thing with knowledge and experience already acquired in studio, history, and criticism, and to approach the question with the conviction that an answer is worth having. Lanier's question touches upon two major components of aesthetics: the theory of art, or the classification of objects as art; and the theory of the aesthetic, which deals with aesthetic perception and response. Another question will round out the scope of aesthetics: How should we approach art so that it is meaningful? This would seem to be within the purview of art criticism, but a more accurate perspective on the question is that it reflects the integrated character of criticism and aesthetics. Criticism deals with the ways and means of approaching art in a significant way; aesthetics, being a philosophical pursuit, is concerned with, among other things, how art is valued and what is worth valuing, the rightness of critical decisions and soundness of reasons, and the implications of judgments. The fact that aesthetics does address these questions about art places it in perhaps the most broadly overlapping position in the DBAE scheme. Aesthetics addresses the social context in which art is created (e.g. Danto's "Artworld," 1977); it helps critics justify what they do; it speaks to artistic expression from the standpoint of the artist and the audience (e.g. how is it that art communicates ideas and emotions?) Art theory informs history: concepts of the nature and function of art have guided art's evolution and revolutions. DiBlasio (1985) recognized the importance of art theory to a general understanding of art, and proposed that an open-ended version a' la Weitz be adopted for art education. This is not the only alternative to acceptance of toonarrow essentialistic theories. Socially dependent theories such as Dickie's (1971) should also be considered. Dickie asserts that objects become art not by virtue of what they are but because of what people do with them and how they are perceived. This idea carries explanatory power while allowing for artistic open-endedness. There is the hope that further study can take us beyond the "Operational Definition of Visual Art" found in the NAEA's Purposes, Principles, and Standards for School Art Programs, wherein a laundry list of media and methods is aired in lieu of a more substantive discussion of art theory. Art teachers may wonder, "Why bother with art theory; isn't it too esoteric to be useful?" As Lanier (1985) has pointed out, just because aesthetics deals with abstractions of theory does not render it a subject beyond the reach of ordinary people. Indeed, aesthetics can be practiced without ever uttering that difficult-to-pronounce word, "aesthetics". Consider a sample question, one which could well be asked by a puzzled student: What makes Christo's wrapping of the Pont Neuf art? The resulting discussion could range across artistic motivations, historical contexts, critical decisions, and the proposal and scrutiny of definitions. If you're trying to find an answer that makes sense, an answer that can be conveyed to others and quite possibly applied to other art works, then you're not only art educating - you're doing aesthetics. The theory of the aesthetic is not as adaptable to classroom situations as the theory of art. We can develop a program of study aimed at making perception more discriminating, and we can provide a knowledge base and interactive environments which we hope will engender greater sensitivity to the arts, but we



cannot provide aesthetic experiences in the same measurable way that we can teach an understanding of art theory. An accounting of why and how people attend to, understand, and respond to art in both spontaneous and deliberate ways is a desirable goal for those seeking to incorporate aesthetics into art education. Such an account could go far in helping us shape art programs that are both meaningful and effective. But the integrated processes of perception and response are complex matters, and have been studied by psychologists, experimental aestheticians, phenomenologists, analytic philosophers and others bent on capturing their combined essence. Cognition, mutable behaviors, enculturation, and holistic structures of thought, feeling, and sensation all seem to come into play. Aesthetic experience is something most of us: try to talk about but few of us can satisfactorily put into words. Ralph Smith, who has been instrumental in introducing aesthetic concepts into art education literature, has submitted one of the most succinct explications for educational purposes (1983). But whether one accepts Smith's conclusions or not, we should all know enough by now to realize that asking students how a painting makes them feel is, by itself, a naive approach to aesthetic perception. A deep and lasting encounter with art requires a capacity and a determination to derive significance from works of art. This assumption has guided much of art education's efforts, and should continue to do so. To be sure, there have long been those with a genuine interest in aesthetics working in art education. Kaelin and Ecker, for example, published "The Limits of Aesthetic Inquiry" in 1972; it is a classic in providing guidance to research and subsequent instruction in aesthetics. Grounded in Dewey and existentialism, a model of inquiry is presented which includes individual experience, criticism, metacriticism, theory, and metatheory. These levels of inquiry still make sense, and deserve a second look. Yet with this model, as in all areas of aesthetics, issues will surface which have no ready or absolute resolution. Perhaps there is no such thing as aesthetic experience as a peculiar type of human response. Perhaps analysis destroys the purity of the immediate perceptual moment. Perhaps the pursuit of a definition of art is fruitless, and we would be better engaged with other affairs. Perhaps any aesthetic concept is morally bankrupt unless it's tied to a philosophy of social responsibility. These are all worthy topics for debate. Of this we can be certain: in the coming months we can look forward to a lot of work and not a little nonsense as the field sorts out aesthetics and makes it usable. And to be really usable, it has to make sense.

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258-286). Chicago: NSSE. Fry, R. (1965). Pure and impure art. In M. Rader (Ed.), A modern book of aesthetics (pp. 304-309). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Lanier, V. (1985). Discipline-based art education: Three issues. Studies in Art Education, 26 (4), 251-256. National Art Education Association. (no date). Purposes, principles, and standards for school art programs. Reston: NAEA. Smith, R.A. (1983, Spring). The purpose and place of the arts in education. Viewpoints: Dialogue in Art Education, pp. 1-7.