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Lesson Plans

what is art

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Sun, 2 Jun 1996 12:29:06 -0500 (CDT)

Warning: long post (sorry folks - school's out)
For years, aestheticians have grappled with the problem of defining art.
Several, such as Dr. Marcia Eaton, have come up with interesting solutions,
but I'm not sure I have ever read anything that definitively works for me.
And maybe that situation, as annoying as it sometimes is, is better than a
pat resolution. A friend of mine who teaches high school English, World
Lit, etc. and I were discussing standards and canon for art. She wanted to
be able to give her students a practical list of attributes of good
literature, a set of guidelines which they could use for purposes of
judgement. I explained that I don't necessarily look for ANSWERS when my
students discuss questions of aesthetics - I just want them to be asking
valid questions.
When I was in college, we were taught to critique artworks based upon
Feldman's four stages of art criticism. As many of you know, the final
stage is judgement: did the artist achieve what he or she was trying to
achieve? We were taught that it was not our place to decide whether the
artists' goals were valid in the first place, but rather to what extent they
had done what they set out to do. By this method, you would not judge
Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" on how realistically the figures were
drawn - and rightly so, as this had nothing to do with the artist's intent.
However, in order to use Feldman successfully, you must have some idea,
usually obtained from a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic clues, of what
the artist WAS trying to achieve. This is one of the strongest arguments
for DBAE that exists. If I have no familiarity with modern approaches, I am
unable to judge with any validity what might have possessed the artist to
fling paint at his canvas in that manner or print those words all over her
photomontage. I might unfairly judge a Japanese print artist deficient in
his craft because he uses isometric rather than linear perspective or fail
to understand that a certain African tribesman had no thoughts of "beauty"
or aesthetics when he created his mask. This approach makes a lot of sense
to me, and I have seen it work in my own classroom. Several years ago, as I
was beginning a slide lecture on Cubism, one of my favorite students stated
that she hated this kind of stuff - it was so "dumb". Later, during the
project portion of the unit, she told me this was the best project we had
done all year. I replied that I thought she hated Cubism and she answered,
"Oh, that was before I understood what it was all about." (Needless to say,
this little interchange remains enshrined in my heart - it keeps me going
when I deal with less brilliant students!) It has always been my belief that
my job is not to tell art students definitively what art is, but rather to
give them the tools which will allow them to make their own VALID
judgements. (Perhaps an even better approach would be to change the nature
of the question from what art IS to what art DOES - but that's another
post.) Even in the area of realistic art, which would seem to require less
study on the part of the viewer, how many of us have heard someone "ooh" and
"ahh" over a piece which is poorly composed or poorly drawn or which shows
no understanding of color theory? (This usually happens right after the
viewer has complimented me on MY work, so that I am then forced to regard
the comment as worthless, since the viewer is obviously a POOR JUDGE).
Recently, I have found myself facing a further dilemma which, I think, goes
to the heart of the discussions I have been reading lately. I have started
questioning whether the artists' INTENTIONS are valid. In spite of Feldman's
admonitions, I cannot help but question the motivations of some of the
people who are "cleaning up" on the art scene, and I can see how this might
cause the more cynical among us to reject the entire enterprise. However, it
seems to me that that makes what art teachers do even more vital. Where
would many of the screaming, no-talent rock bands be today if every chid
were raised from the cradle to be an educated musician? Conversely, would
some of us "hear" things in modern rock that WE would like if WE were
musically educated? What about trashy books? Just as I don't view
paintings of Elvis on black velvet in my leisure hours, maybe an educated
populace would cease providing a market for garbage in ALL the arts. When my
students have trouble understanding why someone paid some astronomical
amount for an artwork, I sometimes agree with them and tell them so; but I
insist that they make such judgements based upon knowledge and not upon
ignorance. After studying the artform, its history, its theory, etc., they
are perfectly justified in reaching any one of several conclusions: the work
is successful and valid, the work is valid but less successful, the work is
valid but fails, the work is invalid or fails but I like it anyway, and,
finally, it's not art on any level. But, other than the "I just like it"
judgement, they must be able to support their views. In fact, as I write
this, a great idea (I think) just occurred to me: in next year's aesthetics
and criticism unit, I will assign a debate. I will use some extremely
conceptual piece - something like the big slab of gnawed chocolate - and
have one team debate its merits while the other side denies its "artness".
It might be even better to tell the kids about the debate, but not tell them
which side they are going to argue. Or switch the teams' sides halfway
through. Whatever, I'm sure we'll all learn something, and that,
ultimately, is what it's all about.

Eileen Prince
Sycamore School