aesthetics and academia – part 1

R – The title of this post: oil and water? Democrat and Republican? Ke$ha and Beethoven? Yankees and Red Sox? Okay maybe not that far apart… Well, here’s the scoop: aesthetics is not the deemphasis of academic instruction, it’s an abject emphasis on academic instruction coupled with inspired teaching. There’s a profound difference.

I’ve heard it said by many colleagues in the visual and performing arts that we are the only subject areas that really involve aesthetics. I’ll buy that. Yes, there is an aesthetic to a number of other subject areas, but I would argue that none of them them offer this to the same degree as the visual and performing arts. So would you. I’m okay with this premise so far. But many visual and performing arts teachers also believe that this is ultimately their primary purpose. I couldn’t disagree more.

I got these definitions for aesthetics online:

1. pertaining to a sense of the beautiful or to the philosophy of aesthetics.
2. of or pertaining to the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty; of or relating to the science of aesthetics.
3. having a sense of the beautiful; characterized by a love of beauty.
4. pertaining to, involving, or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality.

The first three definitions align with everything I see from colleagues around the state. But want to talk more about definition #4. I have two Robert Shaw quotes to share: “I am amazed again and again how the mastery of successive minute technical details releases floods of spiritual understanding.” The director of the finest choir in this country’s history made it clear that spiritual understanding flowed from the mastery of the details (pure intellectuality), not the omission of them. Obsession over the details is obviously, in and of itself, not aesthetic (“anti-aesthetic”???). Yet that was Shaw’s foremost responsibility and concern as a teacher. He was criticized for this at first, with an article in Time magazine from January, 1952 about his Robert Shaw Chorale entitled, Too Much Perfection?. The premise being that the choir was so technically perfect that the spirit (aesthetic) was too limited as a result. But Shaw also said this: “At every instance wherein we achieve this exact balance, or that unequivocal intonation, or yea rhythmic meshing, or an absolute precision of enunciation, or an unassailable propriety of vocal color the miracle happens—the Flesh is made Word, and dwells among us. We put in muscle and blood and brains and breath—and out comes a holy spirit.”

I dare you to find a better application of aesthetics in the classroom.

Here’s my problem with many arts teachers who claim to teach aesthetics: they think it’s an either/or proposition. They would argue that teaching aesthetics is at the core of their jobs as educators, but they do so at the omission of actually teaching the building blocks… they do so at the omission of student accountability… they do so at the omission of every student having equal capacity (“but, gosh, some are just more talented!”)… they do so at the expense of academic rigor… they do so at the expense of Shaw’s “minute details”. And, frankly, to me, this all just bastardizes arts education.

So am I opposed to aesthetics? Am I opposed to the concept that at our core aesthetics is in part what makes us “essential for every child”? No. I’m opposed to the belief that educational accountability cancels out the aesthetic component of our classrooms. I’m opposed to the belief that holding students accountable for learning concrete curriculum detracts from an aesthetic experience. I’m opposed to arts educators watering down curriculum so that the concerts (the product) becomes the focus… just like I used to. I’m opposed to the belief that aesthetics cannot coexist in a profoundly academic environment.

Here’s the difference. Some believe that we are here to educate the arts by providing the aesthetic experiences, first, foremost and finally. Others believe that the arts – as an academic subject – must be held to the same standard as the other subject areas with regard to academic rigor and accountability. But doing so as a practitioner of refined, rigorous, reflective and student centered education – which creates an aesthetic opportunity for students – makes the alternative seem superficial by comparison. My effectiveness at accomplishing all this day in and day out can always be debated, and I’m not claiming to be held up as an example. At all. But I’d rather go after the good stuff this way than attempt anything less. I LOVE the quote below by Aristotle. But can you really “represent” the connection to the inner stuff without a prerequisite of fully grasping all its components first? And if YOU’RE not teaching all (all!) those components, who is?

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One Response to aesthetics and academia – part 1

  1. Pingback: aesthetics and academia – part 2 | Goober Music Teachers

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