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Review of Soft Boundaries: Revisioning the Arts and Aesthetics in American Education
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Claire Detels, Soft Boundaries: Revisioning the Arts and Aesthetics in American Education (Berfin and Garvey, 1999)

Reviewed by Arnold Berleant

The title of Claire Detels’s new book, Soft Boundaries, is a telling metaphor for her thesis, which is as straightforward as its implications are profound: The fragmented, single-disciplinary, hard-boundaried structure of our curricula and our educational institutions in the arts must be replaced by a new approach, one that softens the lines between the individual arts and, within them, between their history, theory, and practice. This same pursuit of interrelationships and continuities must carry over into the various humanistic disciplines and into the sciences. While others have pursued the intertwining of the arts in aesthetic theory and metaphysics, Detels focuses on music and particularly on its implications for reforming curriculum. To this she brings an informed commentary grounded on solid experience, claiming that “Soft-boundaried education in the arts and aesthetics means integration of historical and philosophical inquiry with practice and experience of artistic production, within and beyond the traditional boundaries of arts disciplines. Soft boundaries may be used to construct concepts and communicate about them across disciplinary boundaries; but they are also permeable?continually open to redefinition and change as additional experience is received and examined”(28).

Detels argues that the failure to integrate the arts with one another and with the history and wider culture of American society has contributed to the marginalization of the humanities and the narrow, technocratic focus that education has come to assume. The arts lose by this, the humanities lose, and, most of all, the students and society in general lose. This is a problem that lies not with individual teachers but with the very structure of the curriculum in American education, a curriculum that divides art education into separate channels, each discipline in its own domain and with its own sequence of specialized courses.

All this applies equally to aesthetics. Detels makes a broad and compelling case for the relevance of aesthetics to arts education, particularly to music education. But for aesthetics to contribute significantly to education in the arts, it must forego its exclusiveness and its preoccupation with narrow, technical issues peculiarly its own. Aesthetics, moreover, should not see itself as a discipline searching for universal answers but rather recognize its historicity and its continuity with the arts and their practice.

To accomplish this, Detels wants to loosen many boundaries: between aesthetic theory and artistic practice, among the individual arts, between the arts and their historical and cultural context, and between history and philosophy (32). Taking Heidegger’s sense of boundary as “that from which something begins its essential unfolding” (77), she sees this unfolding proceeding both within and across permeable borders. What helps us grasp this process is to think of the arts not as structured orders of objects that require study in specialized courses but as experiences that are integral and that engage us.

The three major divisions of the book develop these ideas. Detels considers them first and more generally in relation to the arts and aesthetics. In separate chapters she develops a powerful critique of hard boundaries and considers the narrowness of historical canons and the failure of philosophers to deal adequately with the history and practice of the arts. Since Detels’s special area is music, she quite naturally pursues her case there in the fullest detail in the second part of the book, documenting how completely the disciplines in music education have been fragmented. She goes further to develop a new paradigm for music that relates it to the body and understands it as an art whose soft boundaries encourage the interrelatedness of composers, performers, audience, critics, and community, no one of which can be understood apart from the others. This leads her to develop a critique of autonomist or formalist aesthetics and especially music theory.

Detels’ richly developed argument leads her finally to its application to the curriculum. In this third part, she offers specific examples of reformed curricula, both in music and in arts education more generally, where history, theory, and practice join in complementary roles. I found this section particularly welcome, for it gives specific and concrete form to her more general proposals. It also offers a fascinating view of the rich possibilities of a soft-boundaried curriculum. For example, she presents a history and theory curriculum that integrates folk and popular music with different periods of classical styles and with the music of other cultures. A theory curriculum includes notation, melodic structure, harmony, forms, and styles of folk, popular, commercial, and non-Western music, together with traditional classical and contemporary techniques, and it combines these with ear training, arranging, and composition in some of these styles. There is a discussion of the specific recommendations in the Goals 2000 national standards for arts education, and last of all the curriculum of an interdisciplinary course in the arts in aesthetics she developed at the University of Arkansas, which includes drama, dance, the visual arts, music, environmental arts, photography, film, and new art forms. The final chapter considers the critical role that education in the arts can play in countering the confusion between reality and representation that interactive computer technology has produced: Virtual reality, she claims, is one form of “epistemological pollution” that aesthetic education must confront. “Only with teachers and students trained to value and pursue relationships among the arts, aesthetics, and our lives will we be prepared to navigate the deep waters of twenty-first-century experience” (142). The chapters in this book can stand independently, many of them having appeared elsewhere earlier. While this results in some repetition, it does allow the reader to read selectively without losing a sense of the larger picture, and it also serves to make her argument stand out clearly and forcefully.

Soft Boundaries represents an important effort to re-think the relation of philosophical aesthetics to the theory and practice of the individual arts. Without oversimplifying, Detels skillfully represents many of the different positions in current aesthetics, as in her discussion of Danto, Levinson, and Carroll (49 ff). She is clear about where these debates stand in relation to the issues she takes as most important (largely outside them). But while she is critical of analytic aesthetics, she does not give much consideration to alternative theoretical approaches and their substantive contributions, such as phenomenology, deconstruction, hermeneutics, postmodernism, and pragmatism, nor do her sympathies with feminism lead to an extended discussion. Finally, her critique of hard boundaried aesthetics and art education might have been still more effective if one did not have to wait until the last part of the book for her positive alternatives.

What Detels has done here is admirable, yet it is at the same time problematic. While her goal of integrated interdisciplinary curricula in the arts is eminently desirable, the difficulties of achieving it are, I think, monumental in an academic climate that is on the one hand almost entirely vocation-oriented and, in what is left, highly technical and narrow. It’s important to emphasize, however, that her argument is not theoretical rhetoric, for she has begun to implement these proposals. Still, I suspect that she may be underestimating the difficulty in getting specialist scholars not only to teach in an interdisciplinary, integrative way but, more important still, to think and experience this themselves. She does indeed face that problem, suggesting that we start with faculty seminars and workshops (128 ff.), but the institutional, political, professional, and personal obstacles are formidable. I suspect aestheticians will be among the last to change, for their professional investment in their intellectualist canon may too great to be vulnerable to criticism on historical, cultural, pragmatic, experiential, and pedagogical grounds.

On the other hand, it’s important to appreciate that at least some issues in aesthetics are indeed technical and require specialized knowledge and skills in dealing with them. Similarly, while catholicity in music is desirable, we must still acknowledge the wide range of appreciative experiences which different kinds and styles evoke and that these are not interchangeable or in any way equivalent. The entertainment quality of an advertising jingle is different from rock; the musical experience of the folk ballad “Lord Randall” is quite unlike that of Britten’s War Requiem. Detels well knows how music of high complexity can achieve transcendent beauty through its developed and sophisticated art. This doesn’t mean it will necessarily be inaccessible but rather that it is capable of different kinds and degrees of appreciation and understanding. The coda to the fourth movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony is exciting to most lovers of classical music, but its ingenious fugal complexities are recognizable mostly to the trained musician. Similar things can be said of Berg’s Wozzeck. However, the powerful aesthetic possibilities of complex forms are not confined to such works. Sometimes the most profound musical sensibility can be touched by relatively simple musical means, as in Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas. I’m certain that none of this is new to Detels, but it bears mention in a full and fair account.

Detels’s very first words express her deep commitment to the cause of the arts and aesthetics as a uniquely valuable part of the educational process. She carries this banner through an impressive array of issues. How Claire Detels manages to find her way through the maze of hard boundaries to an interdisciplinary and interactive engagement of history, philosophy, art theory and practice is itself something of a confirmation of the value of her claim that historical and cultural forces refuse to be contained within rigid lines. Taking an activist’s stance to this cultural process, Detels is working to promote the integration of the theory and practice of the arts into the wider cultural process. One only hopes that this movement toward inclusiveness and interdisciplinary communication will mark a turning point in the direction of a new and lasting pattern. Joining with recent developments in the sciences and humanities, from quantum mechanics to deconstruction and feminist theory, she sees an educational paradigm emerging that integrates the arts, history, and philosophy into a coherent cultural context. We need this not only in the interests of educational practice but for an aesthetics of the arts that is both richer in theoretical resonance and truer to the way the arts function in most cultures.


2000 © Arnold Berleant

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