General Semantics in Teaching an Introductory Course in Aesthetics

By Van Tuyl, Marian | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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General Semantics in Teaching an Introductory Course in Aesthetics


Van Tuyl, Marian, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


AT MILLS COLLEGE for the past two years we have been offering a survey of contemporary fine arts for freshman students. This course is an experiment in staff teaching with a co-ordinator carrying the large part of the teaching load. Faculty members from the various departments in the School of Fine Arts contribute one or more lectures on their subjects of specialization. The purpose of the course is to consider the various manifestations of the contemporary arts, their materials and media, similarities and differences, verbal and non-verbal character, etc. The methods employed include lectures, discussion, student reports, notebooks, and field trips, utilizing the facilities of San Francisco to augment the course-content with concerts, plays, art exhibits, etc.

The sequence of the survey proceeds from non-verbal to verbal communication. Following an introductory section, the dance is studied in relation to its characteristics arising out of movement as a means of communication of the experiences of one individual to other individuals. Then, in succession, periods are devoted to a similar consideration of music, graphic and plastic arts, crafts, drama, and literature.

In such a kaleidoscopic and brief survey of so many fields of human expression presented from the differing points of view held by specialists variously trained, the problem of helping the freshman student orient herself, and develop increasingly adaptable points of view is no small one.

So much intensional literature is published about 'art' in language so 'high-flown' and unintelligible that the freshman student is hopelessly confused if she endeavors to do any reading on the subject. There is much loose talk about 'beauty,' 'pure art,' 'emotion,' and 'intellect,' 'form,' 'content,' etc. Take the case of a youngster who arrives at the college from Klamath Falls, where patchwork quilts, The Lone Wolf, piano lessons, and a town music series consisting of one recital by Richard Crooks and a concert by the glee club from the state teachers college, together make up the 'art experience' of the community. She is likely to be considerably confused by passages such as this in her textbooks: "It is intensified expression in the subjective sense and in truth to medium, and it borders on abstraction ..." (1)

Since, with very few exceptions, readings in aesthetics abound in intensional language and since every artist and every teacher presents a different viewpoint and uses the same terms with obviously different extensional content, I have concluded that the only way to avoid semantic chaos is to incorporate an introduction to general semantics in the introduction to this course. (2)

We begin with a brief study of the human nervous system as the basis for experience and communication, thalamic and cortical areas, short and long nervous circuits, organism-as-a-whole reactions, delayed reactions, cortical differentiations, levels of abstraction, etc. A large portion of this section of the course is concerned with helping to establish an understanding of the multiordinality of the terms abstraction and symbolization. We are anxious that the student become conscious of abstracting as an essential characteristic of all experience, so that, later in the course when more than one lecturer will use the terms abstract art or symbolic art, representation, etc., students will be able to evaluate properly the instructor's use of the word through a recognition of the specialized context in which it is used. In connection with study of these terms, we use Kretchmer's Medical Psychology on sphaira, stylization, etc.

'Emotional art' and 'intellectual art,' 'beauty' and 'ugliness,' 'form' and 'content' are dichotomies which keep aestheticians busy and which totally confuse freshmen. Through the use of extensional methods we try to help the student discard two-valued orientations, and false-to-fact compartmentalizations. Stress is laid on the relativity of 'beauty' and the inseparability of 'emotion' and 'intellect.

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