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«Aesthetic and Artistic, Two Separate Concepts: The Dangers of 'Aesthetic Education'· David Best Introduction It is very surprising that there is ...»

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Aesthetic and Artistic, Two Separate Concepts: The Dangers of

'Aesthetic Education'·

David Best


It is very surprising that there is still an almost universal failure to recognise

the significant distinction between the artistic and the aesthetic. It is surprising

because when it is pointed out, the distinction is immediately obvious; the

differences are often so great that it is bizarre to regard the artistic as of the

same kind as the aesthetic. Because of the widespread, traditional and unquestioned assumption by philosophers and other theorists over centuries, I too accepted it at first. But then, one day, it struck me how absurd it is to regard them as synonymous, or, at least, to regard the artistic as a species of the aesthetic. It should have been obvious for years that they are quite different in kind. So I began to explore my new insight in greater depth and detail.

In this paper I shall try to show clearly that there are two distinct concepts.

In drama, for instance, aesthetic considerations are usually either irrelevant or of minor significance in appreciation; one is not usually concerned with such questions as the elegance or beauty of a production, but rather with its meaning, how convincing it is, what insights it provides into aspects of life, etc. However, in some cases the distinction is not so clear - aesthetic considerations may contribute so largely to artistic appreciation as to be intrinsic to it.

In this respect dance is a particularly interesting and complex art form, in that very often, indeed usually, the aesthetic quality of the movements of the dancer may be part of one's artistic appreciation of the dance. This is most obviously true of classical ballet. However, it is important to be clear that there is sq.ll a distinction. Aesthetic quality is an intrinsic aspect of the appreciation and evaluation of the movements involved in sporting activities such as gymnastics, diving, skating, and many others. I distinguish elsewhere between these 'aesthetic' sports, and those which I call 'purposive' (Best 1974, 1978a Chapter 7, 1980). Although aesthetic considerations are intrinsic to aesthetic sports, they are not art. (See "Sport is not Art," Best 1985, 1986). So the character of dance as an art form depends not solely on the aesthetic quality of the constituent movements, important though these may be. Moreover, there are cases where the artistic quality of a dance may depend upon the ugly aesthetic quality of the movements of the dancers. That is, artistic merit may be conferred by aesthetic ugliness. The clearest example in my limited experience was Cell, choreographed many years ago by Robert Cohan, and performed by London Contemporary Dance Theatre. The point of this dance was to reveal the deleterious effects on human personality of living in a competitive society. Its success artistically was achieved by means of sharp, 'Earlier published as" Aesthetic and Artistic, Two Separate Concepts: The Dangers of 'Aesthetic Education"' in Research in Dance Education 5(2), December 2005.

jagged, twisted movements, which were, considered purely aesthetically, disconcertingly unpleasing. I am sure that more knowledgeable readers will be able to think of other such examples.

In the art form of dance, the distinction and relationship between the aesthetic and the artistic is particularly intriguing. and would repay more detailed research, which I hope will be undertaken.

The Aesthetic and the Artistic The source of the confusion is the vague,· unquestioned assumption of a general metaphysical 'aesthetic,' which is supposed to be instantiated in both natural phenomena and works of art. It seems to be metaphysical because it is difficult to discover anyone who offers even remotely credible reasons for accepting this supposed general aesthetic faculty, attitude, kind of experience, etc. Indeed, most theorists offer no reasons at all. It is merely a vague underlying assumption. Even the rare theorists who have recognised that there must be a distinction have not drawn it adequately.

There are, then, two, quite distinct, although sometimes related, concepts. To put it as starkly as possible, a central feature of an object of artistic as opposed to aesthetic interest is, to put it roughly at this stage, that it can have subject matter. This is extremely significant for the possibility of learning from the arts, since, by contrast with aesthetic feelings, one's artistic feelings in response to works of art, and some of the most important reasons by which one can come to understand works of art, are frequently inseparably related to a wide variety of issues from life generally.

There are crucial educational implications, for this potential of the arts for deepening, extending, and sensitising our understanding and feelings about an immense variety of issues in life in general constitutes one of the most crucial contributions of the arts to education. Thus the question of the distinction betvveen the aesthetic and the artistic is of the utmost importance for education. For the assumption that they are concerned primarily with aesthetic pleasure, e.g. with beauty, trivialises the arts.

Aesthetic and the Generic Arts Fallacy This notion of a general aesthetic dimension is sometimes adduced in support of the artistically and educationally damaging idea that the arts form a 'generic' area of the curriculum (I consider this question elsewhere: Best 1990, 1992a, 1992b, 1995). It is assumed that there is a general underlying metaphysical 'aesthetic,' which is instantiated in both artistic and aesthetic experience. This vague assumption is usually taken to imply some sort of unspecified aesthetic unity. To repeat, rarely are any reasons given in favour of it, despite its implausibility. A unified 'aesthetic' is simply, and remarkably generally, assumed.

The generic notion has had damaging practical consequences for educational policy decisions. For example, in August 1991 the Secretary of State for England and Wales, proposed that art and music should be offered by all schools up to the age of 14, and then,"... it is our view that all schools should offer some sort of aesthetic experience in the curriculum for all 14-16 year olds." It is difficult to know what to make of such a vague injunction. Would looking at the trees and flowers be regarded as adequate? One assumes that 'artistic' is meant. In that case, it would seem probable that something like the confused notion of a general faculty or attitude lies behind it, and thus that any art form.. or mixture of art forms, will contribute to its development. It may not imply that, although it seems highly likely. In any case, largely because of the confusion of the aesthetic and the artistic, it is impossible to be clear what it does mean.

The Dangers of'Aesthetic Education' In order to bring out more clearly the confusions inherent in the common use of 'aesthetic,' and to focus particularly on the educational implications, let us ask the question: What is aesthetic education? Which ability or potential in students is it the concern of aesthetic education to try to develop? The use of the term 'aesthetic education' may be misleading in ways which incur not only philosophical confusions, but errors of educational substance. At best it is not always clear which interests or activities are designated by the term, and at worst it may be construed in ways which can be potentially harmful, in a practical sense, to educational policy.

The Aesthetic Attitude A deeper and more detailed philosophical account of the distinction between the aesthetic and the artistic is available elsewhere. 1 It is too complex an issue to elaborate here, since I wish mainly to spell out its consequences for education. It is sufficient now to show that there are two distinct concepts which are often, and surprisingly, conflated. As we have seen, this conflation can be seen in the prevalent notion that there is, to put it roughly, a general aesthetic attitude which applies to and can be developed by experience of either natural phenomena, such as sunsets, birdsong, mountains and flowers, or the arts. For instance, Beardsley (1979: 728) writes: "... the concept of aesthetic value as a distinct kind of value enables us to draw a distinction that is indispensable to the enterprise of art criticism," and later (1979: 746): "...

many natural objects, such as mountains and trees... seem to have a value that is closely akin to that of artworks. This kinship can easily be explained in terms of aesthetic value.... " Carritt (1953) and Hepburn (1966) express the view that experience of natural beauty may be indistinguishable from that of art, while Urmson (1957) takes natural beauty to be the paradigm case from which the aesthetic attitude to the arts is derived. Wollheim (1970) takes the opposite view and criticises those accounts of the aesthetic attitude, such as those of Kant and Bullough, which take as central "... cases which are really peripheral or secondary; that is, cases where what we regard as a work of art is, in point of fact, a piece of uncontrived nahlre."

It should be noticed that all these views accept without question that there is only one concept or attitude involved. Disagreement arises over the question of whether the arts, or natural beauty, respectively, are the paradigm expressions of it. Yet, as Beardsmore (1973) argues, in an interesting paper on

this issue:

... there are aspects of art appreciation which cannot be understood if one thinks of our reactions to a play as a complicated version of our reactions to a rose. And there are aspects of the love of nature which make no sense if one has before one's mind the way in which people respond to paintings and sculptures.

He also points out that it is possible to imagine a society in which there is no appreciation of the arts, yet still a love of natttral beauty, and indeed that this is to some extent true, for example of children, in our society.

But perhaps the clearest way to show that there are two distinct concepts involved here, and thus that the notion of a general aesthetic attitude, in this sense, is misleading, is to draw attention to the fact that almost anything can be considered from an aesthetic point of view, including works of art. Thus it is perfectly possible to consider at least many works of art from both an aesthetic and an artistic point of view. An example will illustrate what I mean. In my childhood, I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical Bharatanatyam dancer. I was thrilled by the superb quality of his performance, yet I was quite unable to understand it since I knew nothing of the significance of, for instance, the range of subtle and intricate hand gestures, each with precise meaning, characteristic of this mode of dance.

Clearly my appreciation must have been aesthetic not artistic. To take another example, an art lecturer of my acquaintance who had hung a painting he esteemed highly in a prominent position in his College was asked by the Principal to remove it since it did not blend with the decor. The Principal's concern was obviously with the aesthetic, whereas the lecturer's was with the artistic quality of the work.

This is not, of course, in the least to deny that, (a) there are borderline cases, or cases where the two concepts are indistinguishable, and (b) there is often a complex, interdependent relationship between them. As we have seen, even where one does understand a dance performance, the aesthetic quality of the movements of a dancer is, perhaps usually, intrinsic to one's artistic appreciation of the dance. Similarly, considerations of the context in which it should hang are by no means irrelevant to artistic appreciation of a painting.

And certainly an aesthetic appraisal of, for instance, the use of colours may be inseparable from artistic appreciation of a painting. Again, poetry may be aesthetically pleasing when it is read aloud even in a language one does not understand, yet clearly such aesthetic qualities as the sound of poetry are by no means irrelevant to an artistic appraisal of it. The works of Dylan Thomas and Verlaine are good examples, while this aspect of this work was so important to Gerard Manley Hopkins that he marked the syllables which he wanted to be stressed.

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