Eyes Wide Shut: The Use and Uselessness of the Discourse of Aesthetics in Art Education

By Tavin, Kevin | Art Education, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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Eyes Wide Shut: The Use and Uselessness of the Discourse of Aesthetics in Art Education


Tavin, Kevin, Art Education


In this sense, in art education, teachers act as magicians with their students as the audience, viewing aesthetics through a series of illusions, with their eyes wide shut.

The discourse of aesthetics appears repeatedly throughout literature in art education and is employed frequently through K-12 classroom practice.

Discourse, used here, refers to the specific term aesthetics, and all the individual and institutional rules, codes, and conventions for thinking about, discussing, and experiencing aesthetics in art education-in things and in minds (Bourdieu, 1987). Art educators use the discourse in part to refer to art, artistry, artistic choice, beauty, connoisseurship, creativity, experience, feeling, form, heightened awareness, judgment, meaning, meditation, perception, quality, refinement, reflection, senses, style, taste, and vision. Despite, or perhaps because of its innumerable application and bewildering character, many art educators deploy the discourse to generalize the complexity and richness of all human experiences and cultural products into a single referent-aesthetics.

Many art educators deploy the discourse of aesthetics with an essence of singularity because in general they believe it allows them to draw attention to things related to reality that are often overlooked, and in particular it allows students to open their eyes to specific (mostly formal) features of art. This eye-opening process supposedly unlocks and enriches distinct sensibilities and helps cultivate receptiveness to art. For some, this process is "the magic we seek in art" (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 399), an experience ot discovery, wonder, and joy; of unlocking the "magical moments of mind" (Eisner, 1987, p. 16).

Like most magic shows, however, the wonder, stimulation, and emotional involvement come not from the object being gazed at, but through obstructing the vision and misdirecting the gaze ot the viewers through a series of illusions. This magic is possible only through the magician's and the audience's investment in the show. The field of art education, according to Bourdieu (1987):

by its very functioning, creates the aesthetic dispositionjs] without which it could not function ... When the eye is the product of the field to which it relates-then the field, with all the products that it offers, appears to the eye as immediately endowed with meaning and worth, (pp. 202-203)

In art education, teachers often confer the discourse of aesthetics with magical effectiveness on students, as a locus for sensibility, perception, and imagination. This discourse is generally regarded as universally good for students, and ot having supreme value in the field. The categories and practices that make up the discourse of aesthetics in art education, while appearing to the eye as natural and good, are themselves part of historical and political institutions that produce and reproduce their faith in the discourse of aesthetics, and in the institutions themselves. In addition, the belief that aesthetics rests somewhere between the realm ot the senses and that of reason ultimately obscures the fact that aesthetics is a historical invention while obfuscating the political purposes and antagonisms of the discourse of aesthetics. In this sense, in art education, teachers act as magicians with their students as the audience, viewing aesthetics through a series of illusions, with their eyes wide shut.

The Use of Aesthetics in Art Education

According to Hamblen (1988), "For much of art education's history, aesthetics has been used as an all inclusive concept, capable of being all things to all art educators" (p. 81). While difterent uses of the term ncstlictics are employed at different times and in different ways throughout the field, one can find threads of five interrelated themes woven through much ol the discourse of aesthetics in art education.

First, the term aesthetics is used by some art educators to refer to a style, look, preference, or taste that one person or a group of people may draw upon to make decisions about particular objects and the larger world around them.

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