Response to Tavin's "The Magical Quality of Aesthetics"

By Carter, Mary C. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Response to Tavin's "The Magical Quality of Aesthetics"


Carter, Mary C., Studies in Art Education


In this commentary, I argue that Kevin Tavin's (2008) use of Lacan's objet a in his Studies in Art Education commentary "The Magical Quality of Aesthetics" is not a helpful analogy or solution for art education's search for the role of aesthetics. I offer that a pragmatist and dialogic viewpoint may be more useful and, because it describes the phenomenological experience of meaning and value, I also suggest it as a way of viewing aesthetics itself. This argument is supported with two examples: the covering of the Guernica tapestry at the United Nations during Colin Powell's presentation in 2003, and Darryl McDaniels' (co-founder of Run-D.M.C.) experience with Sara McLachlan's song "In the Arms of an Angel."

Kevin Tavin's reply to the question, "Why is aesthetics one of the most cherished ideas in art education?" begins with an application of Lacan's psychoanalytical theory of objet a. While objet a does not exist in the actual object (art, for example) or in the petson (art educator, for example), it does enable a fantasy about the magical quality around or about that object, that elicits a kind of desire between it and the person (Tavin, 2008). The fantasy about the object supports this desire, which reproduces itself as unfulfilled desire (because it isn't about the object itself - although the person may or may not realize that; it's about the fantasies and yearning about the object) in a kind of inescapable circular process.

Tavin posits that, in art education, Lacan's objet a surrounds the concept of aesthetics, which is "a fantasy that attempts at once to create a frame around what art education lacks and fill [that] void within the frame" with our own desires of what we wish it to mean (2008, p. 269). The "phantasmatic" object in our desire creates a need for the discourse - the language - of aesthetics to describe the ideas and the concepts that are important to art education that, in fact, can only be described by aesthetics (Tavin, 2007). He states that this process always "necessarily falls short, requiring another try, another twist, another turn of the signifier 'aesthetics' - -in short, the desire to desire more" (Tavin, 2008, p. 269). In other words, because the fantasy is not based on anything other than a fantasy, and the desire for that fantasy, the discourse of aesthetics in art education references an impossible, unknowable "(w)hole" (2008). Any attempt to appropriate the term aesthetics from elsewhere, and use it in art education, as ordinary language as suggested by Duncum (2008) is, in Tavin's opinion, a failed effort.

Paradoxically, rather than abandon the effort entirely, Tavin makes two recommendations. First, that we refer to aesthetics as aesthetics, as a way of reminding ourselves that this word and its concepts is an irresolvable fantasy (enigma?) for art education. Second, that we should "cut across the fantasy of aesthetics, . . . traverse its surface" and, by recognizing its (the fantasy's) hold on the field of art education, be led to a new beginning (2008).

I argue, from a pragmatic perspective, that the use of Lacan's objet a is not a helpful solution for art education for two reasons: (a) its purpose and use describe a theoretical and abstract mental state, and as such, is not a good application for the discernment of aesthetics in art education; and (b) there are theories from pragmatic (William James and John Dewey) and dialogic (Mikhail Bakhtin) philosophy that can account for the phenomenological (lived) experience of visual culture and aesthetics, and therefore, provide a practical approach to aesthetics in art education.

Lacan's theory is based on psychoanalysis: understanding and analyzing the mental motivations and mental states of individuals. Objet a concerns itself only with the abstract mental world of fantasy and desire. Because it deals with psychology and mentality, it looks at processes that are not necessarily visible. The use of the term objet a depreciates this desire even further by representing it with the algebraic symbol a.

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