There was a great deal of media attention surrounding the book, The da Vinci Code (Brown, 2004), when the movie adaptation was released. The mystery, to a large extent, hinged on the messages or codes contained in sculptures, architecture, and paintings from the Renaissance period, most notably, da Vinci's Last Supper (1498) and the Mona Lisa (1503-1507). As a result, these two paintings took on new layers of significance and were opened to new scrutiny. Plastered all over the covers of books related to, or about, the movie, they seemed to exemplify the facile flux of imagery in todays culture. The two paintings that have represented the epitome of the traditional, Western art world were (and are still) being used for the same purpose as millions of popular culture images: to sell. This includes a movie, a book, related books, calendars, and by connection, some controversial theological and historical ideas. Thus, in spite of history and tradition, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa are part of the ever-continuing, ever-changing conversation of culture: What do these images mean to us now?
This article seeks to contribute to that discussion and to the field of art education by creating and justifying an aesthetic theory that reaffirms the centrality of aesthetics and aesthetic experience in human creativity, education, and further, in morality and ethics. It does this by reconnecting aesthetic experience with understanding. The theory that I propose focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on the role of human agency and its expressions within society, as part of a dialogic relationship with others. Such a theory includes the goals of social reconstructionist art education, but does not give them primary emphasis. In this view, as visual culture is experienced and consumed, people are seen as creators and contributors to their own culture and that of others.
Over the last three decades, much of the scholarly focus in art history and criticism has shown the influences of postmodernist theory: examining and analyzing the ways in which images have functioned, been valued, and used, thus revealing the overt and hidden meanings or messages they conveyed to human society (Bryson, 1988; Holly, 1998; Rees & Borzello, 1986). While not intending to be a comprehensive list, many different methodologies have contributed to this movement: Saussure's constructivist signs (1966), Derrida's deconstructionist texts (1978), feminism, and psychoanalysis, to name some of the more significant. Social art history reads images mainly in relation to their political and economic role in society to understand the full, human dimensions of art. The more political aspects of this scholarship seek to show how art and the aesthetic are deeply political. Integral to this "new art history" is the assertion that images from the art world are seen as a part of the broader category of visual culture (Berger, 1977). These scholars argue that visual texts cannot be divorced from the other dimensions of culture. Meaning is drawn from the full complexity of an image s social function, and further, continues to change long after its original context has passed (Gadamer, 1982; Moxey, 1994).
Wolff (1995), a social art historian, has made an important point, however, about the "sociological imperative" of postmodern art history that is relevant for art education. Concerned that critical theory too often reduces the aesthetic to the political and the ideological (a view that can be found among the critics of visual culture art education as well), she argues that generally art has come to be seen as autonomous from the social and historical factors that enabled its existence and that view remains despite critical theory. Thus, (1) art and the aesthetic sphere have been historically constructed in specific social conditions and in relation to particular social processes and interests, and (2) the social history of the arts also reveals the emergence of a relatively (emphasis, mine) autonomous aesthetic sphere in modern bourgeois society. …