It's Catch-Up Time for Aesthetics

By Hicks, John | Art Education, July 1999 | Go to article overview

It's Catch-Up Time for Aesthetics


Hicks, John, Art Education


The aesthetic. Aesthetic education. What are they? Should they fit into an art classroom, and if so how? The answer to "should they fit" has been a resounding "yes" for over 30 years, but the impact in the classroom and with a suspicious public has been negligible. The purpose of this article is help clarify and refocus the role of aesthetic education for art teachers and to help justify and promote art to a public that has never absorbed the idea that art is a basic content area in schools. Leaders in art education have been wrestling with these questions for years but no one has formed an answer that attacks the misinformation and stereotypes about art and art education which are so pervasive in the public domain.

One limitation for overcoming the lack of status in art education is based on the perpetuation of the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s that focused on "art for art's sake."' The art for art's sake philosophy is still a primary mission in many art classrooms, and the public most often considers art as either elitist, i.e., in art museums or for rich collectors, or only fit for the crafts room at the local community center.

A second limitation is how we define aesthetic. The age-old definition used in journals and research studies, and with which most art teachers operate, is more geared to the 19th century than it is to the postmodern, late 20th century. Traditionally, aesthetic is defined as being concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. It is thought of as the philosophy of the beautiful, especially in art (Oxford Dictionary, 1991). However, Feldman (1987) stated that aesthetic needs are not limited to artists or the elite: "Most of us are interested in harmonious forms wherever they can be found-in people, in nature, and in objects of daily use" (p. 36).

Moore (1994) expressed that the art in question, including the aesthetic, is the art of the living no less than art of the gallery Co. 6). Eaton (1994) reinforced Moore's point of view by stating that the context of the aesthetic experience includes the society in which art is located as well as the art world (p. 21). Ross (1984) acknowledged that "aesthetic knowing" provides legitimacy for art in the school and that aesthetic education should not be restricted to or identified only with the arts (p. 31). Smith (1986) stated "that a feeling of active discovery and exploration" can be a feature of aesthetic experience (p. 22). And Dobbs (1998) referred to aesthetic as a kind of experience one can have with any phenomenon (p. 46).

The broad sense of these points includes the multiplicity and complexity of social options and choices we face every day. Those options and choices force decisions; decisions increasingly are based on the aesthetic, along with convenience, economics, and entertainment (Gabler, 1998). Smith (1986) centers attention and importance not only on the uniqueness of art but also on art's "relation to life" (p. 24). The failure to recognize the relations of art to life and to current social change has been a major omission in the evolution of art education, a void we must fill if the public is to accept art as basic to education.

The focus of art education by experts for the past 100 years has been placed on the art object. This emphasis remains important but, ironically, is hindering the field. What we see in the art world and society is a need to consider not only objects, but images, environments, scale, contexts, and the proliferation of categories of objects as well as increasing numbers of objects within these categories. The proliferation of objects, images, categories, and diverse environments can be frustrating for viewers and users of them, but the growing range of diverse items that surround us has increased the importance of the aesthetic and, as a result, art education.

A philosophical or pedagogical definition of aesthetics is as impossible to determine as a single definition of art.

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