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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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It is assumed that they are merely for entertainment, enjoyment or catharsis, from which nothing of significance can be learned. Hence the arts are marginalised in the cwricul urn.

Yet, on the other hand, the powerful possibilities of learning from the arts are clearly conceded in the frequent nervousness about the arts exhibited by authoritarian regimes. It is all too common for artists to be censored, banned, imprisoned, tortured and executed. Why, if there is nothing of significance to be learned from the arts? Mathematics and the sciences, the core subjects, do not normally frighten such regimes.

Does this not show unquestionably that the values implicit in the arts are of profound human significance, and thus that the arts should be given a more central place in the curriculum?

The conflation of the aesthetic and the artistic contributes to this trivialising of artistic values, and to the emasculation of their powerful educational potential. It should be emphasised, too, that I use the term 'education' in its broadest sense, since through involvement with the arts one can continue to learn, in a deep, humanly important sense, all one's life.

Certainly aesthetic appreciation can and should be progressively developed.

But there is far less involved, for instance, in learning to appreciate natural beauty than in learning to appreciate art. Moreover, the most crucial aspect of this issue is that artistic appreciation, at least in the case of most art forms, requires not solely a grasp of the traditions and conventions of the art forms, but also, very often, insights into, and understanding and experience of life.

This is the central characteristic of the concept of art, and it largely explains why it is so difficult for school children to appreciate the great works of literature, such as those of Shakespeare. In such cases it is obvious that artistic understanding cannot intelligibly be regarded as distinct from an understanding of life generally. To learn to appreciate the arts very often requires a reference to, for instance, moral dilemmas, personal relationships, social, political and emotional issues, the difficulty of learning to recognise the truth about oneself. Indeed, many would be inclined to say that this aspect is or should be the most important contribution of the arts to education. It emphasises the remarkable absurdity and short-sightedness of the current tendency to undervalue and disregard the arts, as superficial luxuries, expendable if necessary in favour of the supposed 'basics' in education. Such an attitude reflects the dangerously prevalent misconception that the arts are simply for entertainment, pleasure or recreation, from which, unlike for example the sciences, there is nothing of significance to be learned. (With characteristic perception, George Eliot exquisitely captures this conception of art when she refers to the artistic accomplishments of the educated young ladies of the Victorian era as 'small tinklings and smearings'.) Yet,. especially in view of the tensions and frustrations which are so destructively evident in so many countries, it is hard to understand how it can be seriously believed that, for instance, arithmetical or mathematical skills, important though they may be, are obviously more 'basic' than the kinds of understanding, for example of emotional and moral issues, which can be gained from the arts.

These days there is far too dominant an emphasis on vocational skills and materialism. While such aspects are important, they need to be balanced by at least an equal emphasis on the quality of life- the development of creative attitudes, through the arts, personal relationships, moral and emotional education. To continue with the present attitude to the core curriculum could be seriously counter-productive, for unless people have learned how to direct their creative energies, and how to develop their emotional potentialities, there will be explosions of violent frustration in some, and degeneration into vegetating apathy in others. The evidence of these effects is all too clear, in many societies.

For instance, one of the most important contributions of education through the arts is tD develop the possibility of increasingly discriminating emotional expressions and responses. It is undoubtedly enormously difficult to oppose the conformist pressures, such as those of television advertising, and the socalled pop-culture, towards a bland, superficial uniformity of cliche expressions. But a person with only trite forms of expression is a person with only trite possibilities of experience - and this includes emotions and personal relationships. Simone Wei! (1968), castigating the escapism and

romanticism of much literature, makes the point:

But it is not only in literature that fiction generates immorality. It does so in life itself. For the substance of our life is almost exclusively composed of fiction. We fictionalise our future; and unless we are heroically devoted to truth, we fictionalise our past, refashioning it to our taste. We do not study other people; we invent what they are thinking, saying and doing (My italics).

How profoundly, and sadly, true it is that we do not study other people, to learn to recognise what is objectively there,- in them. We approach them, as we approach other aspects of life, with the blinkers of our cliches. And our feelings about them are inevitably as limited to superficial generality as the possibility of our understanding them.

It is one of the main contributions of the arts to open the progressive integrity of vision, which will identify a deeper integrity of feeling.


The aspect of the distinction to which I am trying to draw attention gives a rationale for the claim that some of the most important aspects of education can be achieved through the arts, and thus that the arts have a legitimate claim to be regarded as basic, or part of any 'core' curriculum.

This characteristic marks a distinction betvveen the aesthetic and the artistic which is of particular significance for education in that, to repeat the point, the notions of learning and understanding in the arts cannot be intelligibly regarded as distinct from learning and understanding in life-situations generally. This is not to say that the aesthetic is autonomous, with no relation to the rest of life. On the contrary, an aesthetic appreciation of nature may be internally related to, one's expression of, a conception of, or attitude to life in general. Nevertheless, it could much more easily be supposed that the use of aesthetic terms could be learned in isolation from a general experience of life, than that artistic appreciation could be so learned. The educational implications are both obvious and important, since most of the arts can give expression to conceptions of the whole range of the human condition.

So perhaps the principal danger of the use of the term 'aesthetic education' is that such implications may be obscured, and artistic criteria may be assumed to be the same as aesthetic criteria. For where the aesthetic is concerned there is no place for taking such subject-matter- indeed, the very notion of any subject-matter makes no sense with respect to the aesthetic.

This crucially significant difference betvveen the tvvo concepts is what gives humorous point to Oscar Wilde's description of a sunset as only a second-rate Turner.

The danger to which I am drawing attention is that criteria may be employed which either are inappropriate, or, more likely, although to some extent appropriate, fail to take account of this crucial characteristic of the arts.

For instance, in many of the arts, in contrast to the aesthetic, an important criterion of artistic merit may often be, to put it roughly, the extent to which a work gives an original and perceptive vision of nature, of contemporary society, or of some other aspect of the human condition. That is, such a fresh, imaginative, incisive vision of an aspect of life may be one of the central criteria of artistic merit. And that is to say that, through the arts, it is very often possible to encourage a fresh, imaginative and incisive vision of and attitude to life itself.

There could hardly be a more important aim in education.


My initial work on this distinction was published in "The Aesthetic and the Artistic," Philosophy, the journal of The Royal Institute of Philosophy, July 1982, and slightly revised later as Chapter 12 of my book The Rationality of Feeling, London: Falmer Press, 1993. Readers, who would like to see a more extensive and deeper philosophical examination of the central questions, should consult these publications.

This paper mainly examines the educational implications of my original work on the distinction, and is a slightly revised version of a paper originally published in Oxford Review of Education 10(2), 1984, and subsequently in The Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics (India) XVIIJ(l-2), !997.

References Cited:

Anthony, W.J.

1968. Sport and Physical Education as a Means of Aesthetic Education. Britisilfounwl of Physical Education 60(179).

Beardsley, Monroe C.

1979. In Defense of Aesthetic Value. Presidential Address at the American Philosophical Association 52(6): 723-749.

Beardsmore, R.W.

1973. Two Trends in Contemporary Aesthetics. British Journal of Aesthetics 13(4): 346-366.

Best, D.

1974. The Aesthetic in Sport. British Journal of Aesthetics 14(3): 197-213.

1978a. Philosophy and Human Movement. London: Allen & Unwin.

1978b. Physical Education and the Aesthetic. Bulletin of Physical Education 14(3): 12-15.

Co-published in the Australian Journal for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, No. 82, December.

1980. Art and Sport Journal of Aesthetic Educatio11 14(2): 69-80.

1985. Sport is Not Art. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 12(1).

1986. Sport is Not Art: Professor Wertz's Aunt Sally. Journal of Aesthetic Education 20(2):


1990. The Arts in Schools: A Critica"l Time. Monograph published jointly by National Society of Education in Art and Design, and Birmingham Institute of Art and Design.

1992a. Feast as a Dog's Dinner. Times Educational Supplement. 31st January.

1992b. Generic Arts: An Expedient Myth. Journal of Art and Design Education 11(1): 27-44.

1993. The Rationality of Feeling. London: Palmer Press, Chapter 12.

1995. The Dangers of Generic Arts: Philosophical Confusions and Political Expediency.

Journal of Aesthetic Education 29(2): 79-91.

Carlisle, R.

1969. The Concept of Physical Education. Proceedings of the Philosophy of Education SociehJ of Great Britain 3(1): 5~22.

Carritt, E.F.

1953. Croce and his Aesthetic. Mind LXII(248): 456.

Hepburn, R.W.

1966. Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty. In British Analytic Philosophy. (Eds. B.W. Williams and A. Montefiore). London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul.

James, W. (Ed.)

1966. Virginia Woolf: Selections from her Essays. London: Chatto & Wind us.

Lowe, B.

1976. Toward Scientific Analysis of the Beauty of Sport. British {ourna/ of P!Jysical Education 7(4): 167.

Reid, L.A.

1970. Sport, the Aesthetic and Art. British journal of Educational Studies 18(3): 245-258.

Saw, R.


1961. What is a "Work of Art"? Philosophy 36(136): Reprinted in Aesthetics: An Introduction. London: Macmillan, 1972.

Taylor, R.

1993. The Arts in the Primary School. London: Falmer Press.

Urmson, J.O.

1957. What makes a Situation Aesthetic? Proceedings of Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 31: 75~92.

Weil, S.

1968. Morality and Literature. In On Science, Necessity and the Love of God. Oxford University Press, pp. 160-165.

Wollheim, R.

1970. Art and its Objects. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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