«Aesthetic and Artistic, Two Separate Concepts: The Dangers of 'Aesthetic Education'· David Best Introduction It is very surprising that there is ...»
I do not want to go so far as to insist that there can be no general criterion of artistic merit That is, I do not wish to make the general point about art that there can be no general point about art. I am inclined to think that, to put it roughly, as a general criterion, it should not be possible to state comprehensively what the artist is trying-to express except in terms of the particular work of art. To the extent that this is possible, for instance where there is an explicit political or moral 'message' which is independently specifiable, then it is, in my v~ew, necessarily, an artistic failing. But this is an issue which requires a separate paper. What is important for the present issue is that, in any case, it does not militate against, but rather supports, my main point that the notion of a general artistic attitude is misleading. For what it emphasises is that in order fully to appreciate the conception expressed in a work of art it is necessary to understand that particular art form. One could not, as it were, be provided with some sort of 'ideal' external measuring rod which could be used to appraise the various arts.
This is the point of the so-called 'heresy of paraphrase,' i.e. the notion that it is a 'heresy' to suppose that what is expressed in one work of art could be paraphrased in another. The same point is expressed in the aphorism that all the arts aspire to the condition of music. What is meant by this is, I think, that in music more than in other art forms the inseparability of form and content is more often more immediately obvious, which is why it frequently sounds so odd to try to speak of the meaning of a piece of music (e.g. Bach's Fifth Brandenberg Concerto). Nevertheless, this characteristic is equally, if less immediately obviously, true of other art forms. As I suggested above, to the extent that the meaning can be expressed independently of the particular work of art, the work is a failure.
Although the issue requires a separate paper, this indicates the fallacy which underlies a possible criticism of my emphasis on the relationship of the arts to life-issues. The objection is that such an emphasis reduces the arts to the merely instrumental, and that it ignores the intrinsic value in the arts. The objection is confused. As I have too briefly indicated, the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value collapses, since what is said about life in a work of art is inseparable from that particular work.
A qualification is necessary, as I indicated above. For I do not want to say that there is no relation at all beVNeen different art forms. The arts grow out of and contribute to the life of people in a society. The emotions expressed in art, for instance, could not be understood without an understanding of the emotions of life generally. Hence different art forms from the same sociohistorical context may well reveal certain similarities or affinities, in a relatively broad, undifferentiated sense. And understanding one art form may contribute to some extent to understanding another, since each has grown from a cultural ethos in isolation from which the arts would be incomprehensible. But, ultimately, artistic appreciation is concerned with particular discrimination. The more deeply one becomes immersed in an art form, the more specific becomes one's capacity for appreciation, and thus the less does it make sense to conceive of a general artistic attitude.
Meanings Although more explanation is required than I can include here, it is important to alert readers to various different and, sometimes mystifying, or even pretentiously high-flown but vacuous usages.
• Aesthetics. This refers to a subject of study. To avoid confusion, I much prefer to refer to it as the philosophy of the arts.
• The Aesthetic, or aesthetic. This refers to the metaphysical conception discussed above, which is the source of considerable obscurity.
• aesthetic. This refers to the congeries of notions such as beauty, elegance, etc., and their opposites.
• artistic. This term is used to relate to one of the art forms.
There is also another fairly common use, which is nevertheless obscure, such as, in the notice of a forthcoming drama conference, which, it is stated, will appeal to those with an interest in developing an "aesthetic understanding of drama." I do not know what, if anything, that means. Unless it amounts merely to pretentious vacuity, my guess is that it refers to philosophical issues which arise in drama. If so, it would be much clearer to say so.
An even clearer unclear example appears in the mission statement of the drama department of a local college, which proclaims: "The power of Drama is when the aesthetic is brought into play.'' Although this kind of usage is common, it is hopelessly obscure. It seems to offer a vague mystique of profundity, impressing the gullible with obscurantism. It may appear to say something impressive, while actually saying nothing. One philosopher called the aesthetic the natural home of rapturous and soporific effusion.
One needs to keep a sharp critical eye on the use of' aesthetic.' The Dangers I have tried to indicate some of the ways in which the term 'aesthetic education' may mislead. I hope it is clear that a consideration of the issues involved does not consist merely in arid philosophical hair-splitting, perhaps of some esoteric academic interest, but of no practical relevance to education.
It is relevant in at least two principal ways. First, where the term is taken to designate a general attitude or faculty, one consequence may be, as we have seen, the explicit claim, or implicit assumption, that by encouraging an aesthetic enjoyment or appreciation of, for instance, natural phenomena, or athletic movements, one is, or can be, helping children to develop the ability for artistic enjoyment or appreciation. Such a confusion is quite natural if the distinction between the aesthetic and the artistic is overlooked..Although not explicitly formulated in this way, it seems to imply that each of us has something like a general faculty which includes not only latent ability in arts such as music, poetry and painting, but also the potential for appreciating sunsets, birdsong and graceful movements. That is, the notion seems to be of a faculty which can be developed in any of these ways, rather as a muscle may be developed by various forms of exerdse.
The conception only needs to be spelled out as explicitly as this to be revealed as absurd. For, to repeat the point, it could surely never be seriously supposed that increasing a child's awareness of the aesthetic quality of a gymnast will ipso facto increase his/her capacity for the appreciation of poetry or music, or that to develop an understanding of one art form will necessarily give an understanding of others.
Unfortunately, it is not always explicitly spelled out, and this can have serious consequences, especially at this time of economic exigency in education. For instance, I was told of the Principal of one college who, even in the relatively halcyon days before the onset of the current educational siege, was seriously considering the economy of closing down the visual arts teaching in the college on the grounds that the students' aesthetic education was catered for in their dance. In the proposed new arts curriculum of another college, it was stated that ''the days of the separate arts disciplines are numbered." Similar misconceptions are, unfortunately, by no means uncommon.
Of course one recognises that any school is limited in what it can teach.
There is neither the time nor the available expertise to teach all the subjects which may be desirable in order to give students the breadth of experience which one would like ideally to offer to them. But at least let us face frankly the character of the problem. A single, general aesthetic or artistic faculty might be very convenient economically, but it is a myth. This is not to deny the meaningfulness of ascribing to someone a general understanding of the arts. But what it means is that he has received a broad education in, for instance, dance, music, sculpture, drama, poetry, etc. There is no short cut through only one of these avenues, which will somehow compensate for the lack of artistic experience and understanding in other art forms.
Learning and Understanding: Art and Life It is the second consequence of the distinction between the aesthetic and the artistic which seems to me by far the most important aspect of the issue educationally. For a failure to distinguish the two concepts might well incur a failure to recognise that the notions of learning and understanding are far more complex and wide-ranging for artistic appreciation than for aesthetic appreciation.
Let us approach the question by considering again the common misconception that the aesthetic and the artistic are aspects of the same, 'aesthetic' concept.
For instance, as we have seen, Beardsley (1979) writes that:
... 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...
This. seems to me such a remarkably implausible thing to say that one immediately suspects the influence of a deeply embedded, unquestioned preconception. For how, otherwise, could it be seriously supposed that Bach's Goldberg Variations, Ibsen's A Doll's House, a japanese Noh play, Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring, and an Indian raga are 'closely akin' to mountains and trees. Is there a 'kinship' betvveen the oak tree in my garden and the film Schindler's List? Can this supposed kinship be explained at all, let alone easily? The striking thing is that it never is explained, except by obviously unsatisfactory resort to vague metaphysical notions such as Forms of Beauty, a mysterious transcendent Aesthetic, etc. There is just an unsupported assertion: no reasons are offered for a very implausible claim.
Clearly, this is a consequence of bizarre crossing of conceptual wires, i.e. two concepts are being confusedly run together. Aesthetic appreciation of nature cannot intelligibly be regarded as falling within the same concept or category as artistic appreciation of a performance of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, of james joyce's The Dead, of George Eliot's Middlemarch, of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Yet the distinction, although obvious when pointed out, is almost universally ignored, and it is very far from being a mere quibble. Implicit in it, and in the examples I have adduced to reveal it, is by far the most important issue for the value of the arts in education. For, to put it starkly, by contrast with the aesthetic, it is a central feature of the arts that they can have a subject matter (this needs qualification, please see Best 1993). For example, through his work, an artist can give expression to an immensely varied range of conceptions of aspects of life generally. Obviously, it would make no sense to attribute this possibility to aesthetic judgements of nature: flowers, autumn leaves, mountains and birdsong, however beautiful, cannot intentionally raise questions about social issues. Thus a further danger of conflating the two concepts is that it contributes to the notion that the arts are entirely autonomous, cut off from the life of society, isolated from significant human concerns. Of course, not all works of art can intelligibly be said to have a subject matter. But it is a central and important possibility of all the art forms.
It is this characteristic of the arts which explains their powerful significance in almost all societies. Throughout the centuries, for instance, the arts have deeply enriched religious feelings, and have raised seminal, influential, and often profoundly disturbing questions on moral, social and political issues.
That is, a central aspect of the values inhinsic to the arts is their inseparable relationship to and influence on the life of society.
This characteristic of the arts is poignantly illustrated by the reported visit to Picasso of a German officer during the occupation of France during the last war. He noticed Guernica, which Picasso had painted as an expression of his revulsion at the bombing of the little Spanish town of that name by the German fascists. Impressed by the painting, the officer asked, "Did you do that?," to which Picasso replied, "No, you did."
In view of this deeply significant possibility, is it not remarkable that there is such a striking ambivalence about the arts? On one hand, as we know to our cost, the arts are commonly regarded as peripheral, expendable in education.