Holding Aesthetics and Ideology in Tension

By Duncum, Paul | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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Holding Aesthetics and Ideology in Tension


Duncum, Paul, Studies in Art Education


Studying imagery, irrespective of the kind, must focus equally upon its aesthetic attractiveness, its sensory lures, and its oftentimes dubious social ideology. The terms aesthetic and ideology are addressed as problematic and are defined in current, ordinary language terms: aesthetics as visual appearances and their effects and ideology as a style of thinking. Aesthetics, viewed as inherently ideological because it is a primary means by which ideology is inculcated, has become increasingly important to address in art education as the aestheticization of economics, politics, and everyday life has become increasingly pronounced. The Build-a-Bear Workshop® is offered as an example of aesthetic and ideology working together. Finally, a comparison is drawn between Schiller's view of aesthetics as a means of social control and the current use of aesthetics to inculcate the late capitalist ideology of continual consumption and thus ensure socio-economic stability.

Art educators who embrace popular visual culture, as many now do (Duncum, 2006a; Freedman, 2003; Tavin, 2003), confront an issue that has often bedeviled consideration of fine art, namely the contradictions that often exist between aesthetics and ideology. Disney animated movies are wonderfully seductive yet are notorious for their sexist and racist stereotypes (Tavin & Anderson, 2003). Extreme makeover programs like The Swan draw in adolescent girls by their interest in physical appearance yet work to undermine their self-confidence (Herrmann, 2006). Bratz(TM) dolls are regarded as "so cute" by the preteens to whom they are marketed, but they can appear to offer a vision of empowerment solely through consumerism (Carey, 2006). Numerous paintings of Christian martyrs impaled on spikes or struck by arrows render moments of pain and death as ecstatic (Mulvihill, 1999). Medieval images of a horrendously violent hell simultaneously horrify and delight (Hughes, 1968). And many contemporary artists use the visceral to shock and horrify yet find their work described as beautiful (Brand, 2000). Of art that represents human suffering, Marcuse (1978) writes, "Art cannot represent this suffering without subjecting it to aesthetic form, and thereby ... to enjoyment. Art is inexorably infested with this guilt" (p. 55).

I contend that in considering visual images, no matter of what kind, art educators need to deal with both the sensory reasons audiences are drawn to them, to understand their sensate appeal, their lure, and, at the same time, to confront the sometimes dubious ideas they impart. Both fine and popular art frequently share a moral compromise with pleasure. In any consideration of visual imagery, both aesthetics and ideology need to be in play. The significance of this point is that historically aesthetics and ideology have been often separated (Gablick, 2004) and tendencies within some contemporary analyses continue to separate them (Regan, 1991).

I employ aesthetics in what I take to be an ordinary language use of the term as "visual appearances and effect" (Williams, 1976, p. 28), "a short hand term for distinguishing one set of stylistic and structural principles from another" (Regan, 1991, p. 1), a term for dealing with "sensuous perception in nature and everyday life" (Mitchell, 2005, p. 1) or even just a synonym for "appearances" (Barnard, 1998, p. 15). This is a site-specific definition of aesthetics, which I will show is used widely outside the specialized areas of art, art education, and literature. I employ ideology in the sense of a characteristic way of thinking, a style of thought, an interpretive scheme employed by people to make the world intelligible to themselves (Decker, 2004).

In these senses not only are both aesthetics and ideology always present with visual imagery, they also often appear in strong opposition to one another. Visual images are often highly attractive yet offer repugnant ideology, and this can set up strong internal conflict within a viewer.

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