- Purchase/rental options available:
The Journal of Aesthetic Education 39.1 (2005) 77-92
[Access article in PDF]
Art and the Teaching of Love
Art is rightly thought to be the domain of expression and illusion. It is expression because every work of art, however stone-faced or impersonal in aspect, is the product of human intention. And it is illusion because, however concrete, vivid, or raw, it holds up only images. These two points — that art is expression and fiction — are deeply entrenched in the modern understanding of art. They are the twin pillars of our aesthetics.
In the following I wish to argue that this focus on the expressive and the representative eclipse the most important dynamic of art — what I propose to call the communicative and the iconoclastic. By the former, I mean that art is primarily, not a subjectivity giving shape to a private vision, but a form of sanctifying the human conversation, that is, the encounter between subjectivities; by the latter, I mean to suggest that art is an image that paradoxically strives to go beyond the realm of images. On this account we will see that an image is artistic to the extent that it breaks through representation.
Briefly put, art has a destination beyond itself. One should not imagine, as postmodernism ruled ex officio, that the essence of art is formal or social self-reflectivity. Certainly, self-mirroring occurs in art, but no more or less than in any act of intelligence. Moreover, it is not enough to affix tokens of self-consciousness onto an object to turn it into art. The aim of art is not art. Its destination is elsewhere; its aim is reality encountered and lived with.And the vehicle by which art travels into reality is not just skill, insight, knowledge, or intelligence. It is love. To defend these two propositions will be the gist of the following essay.
The aim of education is rightly thought to be knowledge of the world. Knowledge, however, is of two kinds: one is concerned with storage of facts, the other with modes of relating to the world. The first is a technical pursuit; the second, moral practice. The sort of education fostered by art clearly belongs with the second sort. Art is less concerned with delivering [End Page 77] information about the world than teaching us about how to stand in relation to it, how to find our place in it, and live with it: through art we do not seek to master the world so much as become its denizens. It is a teaching of love.
Art, Mind, and Reality
Now, the idea that art is religious embrace of reality runs against a powerful philosophic doctrine: the idea, known as subjectivism — that the human mind is kept from reality by its own knowledge of reality. We perceive reality only through mental representations. I see a tree, I hear laughter, I taste tea. When my mind alights on these objects, they have already been retouched and recomposed by my senses. By the time I am aware of them, I have reordered the perceptual datum into the concepts of "tree," "laugher," "tea." So we really deal with conceptual images of things, even when those things fall on our head like rain, or trip us like an untied shoelace.
Subjectivism takes art to be proof of its doctrine. No two artists have transposed the same landscape or object in exactly the same hues and forms. Monet may have wanted to put in his paintings only what the retina mirrored; still, in the end he painted like no other before him and an indisputable infusion of the Monet personality stamps his paintings. Likewise there is a Titian "take" on reality that is not Rubens's, a Constable way of painting gray watery skies that is not Corot's, or again a Twombly way of rendering the four seasons that is nothing like Vivaldi's. This, then, should be where art's commitment to reality expires — on the evidence that no two artworks have ever been able to...