The Magical Quality of Aesthetics: Art Education's Objet a (and the New Math)
Tavin, Kevin, Studies in Art Education
Why is aesthetics, as Duncum (2007a) argued, one of the most cherished ideas in art education? Why have so many art educators employed the discourse of aesthetics with faith in its supreme value (Carter, 2008; Eisner, 2006)? Why have some art teachers conferred upon their students the discourse of aesthetics with a type of "magical effectiveness" (Tavin, 2007)? Why is there so much anxiety around the possible loss or the "striking through of aesthetics" in art education (Kamhi, 2007; Lankford, 2007)?1 And, why have some scholars (Duncum, 2008), with long lists in hand, gone to great lengths to argue that there is no concept of more import to the field of art education than aesthetics? Of course, the precise answers to these questions are in the end impossible to know. It is this impossible, unknowable dimension, however, that may provide a partial understanding of the "elevated status" of aesthetics in art education and the attendant anxieties caused by the mere mention of its loss. Lacanian psychoanalytic theory may help us understand how there is "something in aesthetics" in art education, which is more than itself, and how this magical surplus supports a fantasy that in turn supports desire, and in turn, anxiety. In addition, psychoanalytic theory may help to point out the fundamental limits of "the recourse to multiplication" - that is, the argument that there are multiple aesthetics "each of them irreducible to others" (Zizek, 2006, p. 34). Duncum (2008), for example, deployed this argument, claiming that there is no fixed essence to the discourse of aesthetics "outside" of art education, and therefore, no reason why art educators can't use term in any way they wish.2 Lacan's notion of the objet a may help work out how the argument for multiplication (the "new math") functions as the disavowal of the fantasy frame that surrounds the discourse of aesthetics in art education.
Lacan used the term objet a to refer to the object in desire, or more precisely its spectral or magical effects. The objet a has been applied "equally to an individual, nation, or culture's fantasies" (jagodzinski, 2004, p. 33), or fantasies legitimated through a field such as art education. For Lacan, the objet a was not an actual object or particular word, per se, but the status, fantasy, and surplus around the object or discourse that makes it phantasmatic. jagodzinski (2004) shed light on this notion by discussing the breast as the object in desire, but not as the object itself:
It is not the breast per se that is the fantasmatic object but the fantasy that surrounds the objet a that comes when the infant sucks at the nipple (or its substitute). It is the comfort and warmth of the mother's body and the love she extends to the infant while holding it that constitutes the fantasy. The brother or sister who stares at the infant at the mother's breast is not jealous of the breast per se, but of this affective state that the breast solicits - what is "more" in the breast than the breast itself. (p. 39)
In this example, the objet a was the surplus, magical quality of the breast but not the real or imagined object itself. In other words, while the breast was an object per se, it was only a visible lure while the objet a was not visible at all. Objet a as unconscious fantasy escaped the possibility of signification, alluded language, and was impossible to represent.
An objet a can embody the surplus around a tangible object such as a breast, or an intangible subject position, such as "American," "Teacher," or "Child." Objet a equally applies to concepts that link people, objects, and subjectivities together, such as the discourse of "aesthetics." While it does not pre-exist in the objects (art, for example) or in the person (art educator, for example), it does enable a fantasy that gives cause for desire between the object and person. However, "as an object in desire and not a material object, the objet a is an open-ended and dynamic concept . …