- Putting It on the Line
Among the many ways to teach aesthetic education, a compelling one is to organize pedagogy around specific works of art, music, drama, and dance. This has been the central tenet of the Lincoln Center Institute and its sister institutes around the world. They concentrate on specific works because it allows participants to focus their minds, emotions, and energies on one set of images and experiences. Excited by such an approach, many teachers return year after year, eager to tackle a new and varied repertory.
But they cannot repeat the summer institute forever. They may need to take other workshops to satisfy professional (re)certification requirements. The school district may no longer reimburse them for the cost of the workshop. Their team may develop other interests. Often they find that the school has displaced the arts with other priorities, particularly in the light of so-called proficiency exams mandated by state boards of education.
Whatever the reason, if teachers want to continue to do something meaningful in the arts, they may well have to become their own summer institute, lesson planner, and teaching artist rolled into one. The question then becomes, "How well did you learn the lessons of the institute?" The first lesson requirement is, "Do you know how to choose an appropriate work of art around which to develop aesthetic experiences and reflection for your students?" Behind that question, however, lies another: "What is your definition of art?" This is no idle philosophical exercise because one's answer underlies everything else done in the classroom in the name of aesthetic education. [End Page 62]
Several years ago, Marcia Mulder Eaton of the University of Minnesota developed an exercise that enables teachers to examine their definitions of art in a practical way. She asked teachers to complete the following sentence: "Something is a work of art if and only if _________." She then showed them several objects, with the request that they write on a piece of paper if each object was a work of art, according to the definitions that they had written down.
When I ran the exercise at a summer teachers institute in Pittsburgh, I displayed in order (1) a small flag; (2) an original painting; (3) a cheap cup from Wal-Mart; (4) a piece of fruit; (5) some driftwood; (6) and a basin wrench.1 Teachers voted on each piece as it was shown. Once the voting was completed, I asked them how they voted and how they justified their vote in the light of their definitions. When I have run this exercise elsewhere, the definitions and resultant criteria have broken down into four groups: (1) it was created, therefore, it is art; (2) an expert, such as an art museum or a critic, may have decreed it to be art; (3) "it touched me in some way and I cannot describe that feeling other than to call it art"; and (4) "I'm no connoisseur but I know what I like." There are strengths and weaknesses in each position:
1. Anything that humans make is art because it is an artifact. Weakness: The definition is too general
2. We should respect the opinions of experts. After all, they studied the matter much longer and more deeply than we have. They know what they are talking about. Weakness: What if I think they are off base? What if there is something in the work that appeals to me?
3. "It somehow has touched me and I want to cherish it." "There is something in there that causes me to respond. It, therefore, has some kind of power." Weakness: This position does not lend itself very well to public discussion, unless you have something you can point to or explain in a way that gets through to others.
4. "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." (Well, let's hear it for rugged individualism!) Weakness: It suggests a closed mind and an unwillingness to listen to others' opinions. Again, there is no opportunity for shared insights.
The discussion in Pittsburgh dealt with, more or less, each of the above positions, but...