Aesthetics as Critical Inquiry

By Anderson, Tom | Art Education, September 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Aesthetics as Critical Inquiry

Anderson, Tom, Art Education

Substantial work has been done defining aesthetics and positioning it in art education (Eaton, 1988; Hagaman, 1990; Hamblen, 1985; Kaelin, 1989; Lankford, 1992; Madeja & Hurwitz, 1977; McRorie, in press; Parsons & Blocker, 1993; among others). Still, from a teacher's point of view, practical strategies for implementing aesthetics may be the least clearly understood of the four disciplines of discipline-based art education. Therefore, this paper addresses aesthetics, framed as critical inquiry, as a teaching and learning strategy. Aesthetics as critical inquiry, within an educational context, is defined as instruction in which students actively participate in the process of asking questions and developing answers using the strategies of professional aestheticians. This educational strategy results in content acquisition (aesthetic theory) through development of critical skills, strategies, and thinking structures intrinsic to the discipline of philosophical aesthetics.

This description of an instructional sequence centers on asking questions and seeking answers about: a) meaning and value in art, b) how we talk about art, c) aesthetic experience, and d) beauty. The sequence, from an introduction to aesthetics and art criticism for teachers course, is meant to illustrate methods of aesthetic inquiry for secondary and post-secondary art education.


The first activity addresses the meaning and value of art and how we talk about art Students are engaged in art criticism (T. Anderson, 1988; 1993) of what appears to be an Ansel Adams print The usual dominant collective interpretation is that the image is awe inspiring and/or represents the magnificence of nature and human beings' relative insignificance. Then more contextual information is given about Adams' use of the zone system, his method of getting the perfectly timed and situated yet "natural" shot, and his refusal to manipulate the negative or resulting print Two camps usually form, with some students holding a position on Ansel-as-eco-god helping us to see our place in the world and others taking a "been-there-doneit-seen-that" position, influenced by too many postcards and holiday calendars. This debate leads to the importance of context to meaning and evaluation. Then students are told that what Adams did to achieve the original effect is of only secondary importance in understanding the image, because, in fact, this is a picture by Sherrie Levine.

The instructor shares what many students don't know: Sherrie Levine became famous as an appropriation artist (Siegel, 1988), and this is a picture of a picture. While working in this mode, she claimed taking a picture of Adams' picture was like taking a picture of a landscape or still-life. She made a feminist statement by appropriating the work mainly of white males, taking it from the exclusivity of white male dominance into the public domain. Then I tell the students her stated goal in art school was to become famous and this was her means. Finally, I tell them that she was sued for copyright infringement by the family of Edward Weston and lost

Some outraged students will attack Levine severely at this point and some will come to her defense. The argument should be allowed to build for a few minutes with discussion being cut off while there's still a controversy. Then students are given a one-page homework assignment entitled either "Sherry Levine is a True-Blue, Original, BigLeague Artist" or "Sherrie Levine is a Plagaristic, Charlatan Con-Artist" It's important that students know they are to come back with a considered argument That means they must have reasons and/or evidence to support their positions. Research is encouraged.

On the second day the "great debate" takes place. Those who think Sherrie Levine is not an artist sit on one side of the room; those who think she is an artist are on the other. Students present considered reasons and evidence to support their claims. …

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