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Teaching Aesthetics to Artists
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Doug Arrell

Artists tend to be repelled by aesthetics, for a number of reasons. Many are suspicious that too much analyzing of their art will harm their creativity; it will encourage them to develop their rational ego at the expense of their creative unconscious. Or they suspect that aesthetic analysis will have no effect on them, that thinking about art in this way is simply useless. Give a group of artists a copy of the latest issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and their response is likely to be that it simply doesn’t interest them, that the issues discussed are not ones that they face as artists, and that it seems to consist mainly of academic nit-picking and hair-splitting which has little to do with the real worlds of art.

Lurking behind this hostility to aesthetics is, I suspect, in some cases a more primitive concern about career. Young artists have a burning need to succeed, to get noticed, to make it to the first rung on the ladder. To the extent that taking a broad look at art, and especially at value in art, might seem to demand that they make “higher” rather than “lower” aesthetic choices, young artists are afraid that they may gain from it an overdeveloped artistic conscience that will make it more difficult for them to make the hardheaded career choices they sense they will soon have to make.

There is another barrier to winning the wholehearted interest of the artist in aesthetic issues. Most contemporary art forms already have a body of theory which for most artists constitutes the intellectual dimension of their field. This theory is often created by artists themselves, or by critics working closely with them, and it is ultimately visionary rather than analytical in nature. It is to be found in the manifestos, the avant-garde magazines, the interviews with artists, the reverential accounts by their disciples, that define the many artistic movements that have dominated our century. For the most part, this theory is prescriptive; it is concerned with defining art only in order to advocate a particular kind of art, and its discussions of aesthetic value, of the social effects of art, and of such classic issues in aesthetics as the nature of artistic meaning or the purpose of art, are all loaded to show that the work of a particular school or artist embodies the highest or latest development in the art form in question. Of course this kind of writing can be wonderfully creative and inspiring, and it naturally excites many artists. But the fact that “theory” for most student artists means this kind of artistic advocacy makes it harder to convince them of the value of aesthetics as most of us understand itÛan attempt to analyze what is actually happening in the creation and appreciation of art, not to provide a rationalization for the work of a particular group of artists. The plodding work of analysis cannot compete with the glamour of “theory” as the term is used in most contemporary art forms.

In many ways, the problem of teaching aesthetics in the fine arts faculty parallels the problem of teaching ethics in the business school. Business students are likely also to view thinking about ethical issues as likely to harm their abilities to act in a business context--either by making them “soft” on ethical issues, or what is worse, by making them impractical, caught up in academic theorizing to the detriment of dealing with the real problem at hand. And many business students are quite overt in expressing their fear that being conscious of ethical concerns may deprive them of the ruthlessness they think may be necessary to allow them to succeed in the corporate jungle. There is also a large amount of writing about business which describes how to make business decisions, manage people, and rise in the hierarchy; these “how to succeed” works which proliferate in the business sections of the bookstores provide all the reading necessary, it might seem, for the business person who wants to reflect on their chosen profession. Although these works in effect deal with ethical issues, it is usually in the context of a particular strategy for success being advocated, not in the context of philosophical analysis.

In recent years, of course, teachers of ethics have become quite successful in convincing business students--or at least business schools--of the value of their wares. Many a contemporary philosophy department is underpinned by a body of junior staff teaching applied ethics, including business ethics. There may be clues about how to sell aesthetics to artists in the means used to sell ethics to business people.

Looking over several of the dozens of textbooks in business ethics available, I find that there are two basic methods used to convince business students that thinking about ethical issues will be valuable to them. One is confront them with ethical dilemmas, situations in which it is not immediately clear which of two possible decisions is the right one. Should one tell a potential customer about the defects of what one is selling? Should one destroy a community by moving one’s factory to Mexico? Should one fire the employee who has been most loyal to the firm? Should one inform on a co-worker? By loading these dilemmas in various ways, one can create case histories which make business students realize that common sense, and particularly hardheaded version of it prevalent in the business culture, is inadequate to deal with the situation. This forces them to think about the principles underlying ethical decisions, to distinguish the “utilitarian” from the “contractarian” or “deontological” rationale, and ultimately, the textbook-writer hopes, to thinking about ethics pure and simple.

The other method of selling ethics to business students is to emphasize the long-term advantages of making correct ethical decisions and of having a sophisticated grasp of ethical issues. Although this rationale seems to be assumed in virtually all business ethics textbooks, I was particularly struck by the extreme statement of it in a work entitled The Hard Problems of Management: Gaining the Ethics Edge by Mark Pastin. This book emphasizes the advantages to business of a careful rethinking of conventional ethical assumptions. Cast in the form not of a textbook but of one of the ubiquitous “how-to-succeed” books, it presents an original and challenging approach to business ethics. Far from being merely another textbook on ethics given a veneer of business relevance, Pastin’s book is a genuine rethinking of the issues from a business perspective, and suggests to me that those teaching what philosophy departments tend to view as “service courses” could end up revolutionizing moral philosophy itself.

Many philosophers and theologians question the legitimacy of business ethics programs (see Stief 1990 and Trundle 1991). Such programs, they argue, are inevitably superficial. By emphasizing case studies, they tend to focus on rationales for immediate action rather than the broader principles dealt with in philosophical treatises. The ethical theory presented tends to be boiled down and oversimplified, and detached from the philosophical context in which it is embedded; one could cite the one-paragraph summaries of Kant’s ethics found in many of these texts. Critics also argue that such courses are sophistical. Because they do not challenge the fundamental premises of business and society, they are really about presenting a facade of ethics, not about discovering ethical truth. By stressing that having a sophisticated ethics is ultimately in one’s self interest, they are teaching one about mastering the language of ethics, not about being moral.

Although these attacks clearly have some validity, they do not succeed in discrediting business ethics entirely, and they contain a telltale element of defensiveness. The traditional sub-discipline of ethics, somewhat of a philosophical backwater in the twentieth century, is not immune to the charge of ivory-tower irrelevance. The best texts in business ethics take what is still valuable from the academic tradition in ethics, and leave behind a great deal that is of merely historical interest; the authors of these texts, knowing they are dealing with a smart, skeptical audience with no stake in the profession of philosophy, are forced to face the fact that not a lot of academic ethics really stands up as a useful guide to moral action in the contemporary business world. Original work along the lines of Paskin’s text may deepen and enrich the field, though not always in directions that conventional ethicists expect.

How much of the rationale and techniques of Business Ethics can be adapted for the teaching of aesthetics to artists? Over several years of teaching “Theatre Aesthetics,” a compulsory course for honours students in theatre, most of whom are specializing in acting, I have gradually moved more and more to this model, with generally successful results, both in terms of student satisfaction and my own sense of providing a valuable educational experience. Over the years I have gradually refined the use of “aesthetic dilemmas” – situations in which theatre students will face artistic decisions which common sense cannot solve – to raise aesthetic issues which they would otherwise Wnd uninteresting and irrelevant. And I have recently tried arguing the value of gaining the “aesthetics edge” to appeal to students hyper-conscious of the diffculty of carving a successful career in a highly competitive field.

My approach to aesthetics is undoubtedly subject to the criticism philosophers have leveled at business ethics, that it encourages an oversimplified and decontextualized approach to hallowed aesthetic issues. But I feel that, as in the case of attacks on business ethics, this criticism, though undoubtedly partially justified, reflects as much on the cloistered and incestuous nature of much traditional aesthetic discussion as it does on the deficiencies of the applied-aesthetics approach. Some classic aesthetic issues – the role of authorial intention, the nature of expression, the nature of realism, the art-as-moral-teacher versus art-for-art’s-sake debate – are relevant to solving the aesthetic dilemmas of artists; others--the definition of art, the ontology of art, the nature of beauty, theories of genres such as tragedy and comedy – seem much less so. In part this reflects the fact that the latter are now mainly of historical interest because of the changed nature of art; but some of these issues were never of much concern to artists. At the same time, I find that many issues are of great concern to artists which aestheticians do not seem to discuss at all, and this parallels the experience of many teachers of business ethics. For example, the issue of colour-blind casting--the casting of roles without regard to the race of the actor--which is a hot topic in the theatre at the moment, clearly raises the issue of the nature of convention in art: audiences accept colour-blind casting, if they do accept it, as a convention, just as they accept soliloquies or asides as conventions. But I have yet to find really interesting discussions of the nature and significance of artistic conventions that I could ask students interested in the topic to read. Often I am forced to use very superficial writings on the issues because more philosophically rigorous ones are not available. It is clear to me that there is a great deal of very exciting work to be done, at least in the field of practical theatre aesthetics (and I recognize that the problem may not exist to the same degree in forms more thoroughly discussed by aestheticians, such as music, the visual arts and literature). If my treatment of many issues lacks depth, I hope that I am pioneering an area which future teachers will have much richer resources to deal with.

I should, by the way, emphasize that I recognize that I am far from the first to take this approach to aesthetics; undoubtedly many teachers of aesthetics to artists have evolved similar approaches. There is a quite well-known aesthetics textbook, Puzzles about Art: An Aesthetics Casebook, by Margaret Battin, John Fisher, Ronald Moore and Anita Silvers, which to some extent uses the aesthetic dilemma approach, confronting the student with case-histories embodying problems which common sense cannot deal with. In their preface the authors specifically compare their approach to that of applied ethics. However, this text is very much directed at students of philosophical aesthetics, and many of the dilemmas are intellectual puzzles rather than real problems that artists could face; questions such as whether destroying all copies of Catcher in the Rye would actually destroy Catcher in the Rye, or whether certain mask-like objects found on Mars called “Marsks” could be considered works of art, just do not cut it with those whose lives and livelihoods depend on art (Battin 1989, 26, 47). One also feels that the dilemmas are merely hooks to get students interested in a conventional exposition of academic aesthetics. Since the book is not aimed at artists, this approach is entirely reasonable, but we still need a text which starts with the real dilemmas of the artist and builds an aesthetics from that point.

The lack of a suitable text is one of the main problems I face in conducting the course. Currently what I do is to begin with discussions of a series of aesthetic dilemmas designed to help students learn to identify aesthetic issues and to see the complexities involved in solving them. Then we read a series of texts that are relevant to these issues and contain excellent examples of aesthetic reasoning comprehensible to non-philosophically-trained students. Ideally, also, they will refer to theatre and show an understanding of its practice. Unfortunately, such texts are rare and not easy to make available to students. What I need is an anthology of texts specifically designed for my needs, comparable to the many collections available to teachers of business ethics.

I conclude by illustrating my approach to teaching aesthetics with brief discussions of a few of the aesthetic dilemmas used in the course. The first task I urge my students to undertake when confronted with such a dilemma is to determine the aesthetic issues it raises. Consider the following, which is based on an actual event in my own experience as a director:

Aesthetic Dilemma #1. You are directing a new play by a young male author. At the first rehearsal, an actress objects strongly to the way her character is portrayed. The character is a poorly-educated, drug-addicted woman who accepts the fact that her boyfriend beats her, and even regards the beatings as signs of love. The actress argues that the portrayal condones violence towards women. The playwright insists vehemently that women like this exist, and that he must portray life truthfully. Should you ask the playwright to modify the his play, or not?

When the class is initially asked to discuss the situation in general terms, many issues are usually raised in a manner which leads to confusion; forcing the students to separate the aesthetic issues from others involved (such as the practical one of pacifying the egos of the participants and of getting the show on somehow), and of recognizing the multiplicity of aesthetic issues raised, provides a basis for showing how so often our discussions are muddled and at cross-purposes and demonstrates the value of careful analysis. There are in fact three key aesthetic issues raised by the dilemma: (1) are the collaborators on a production merely the interpreters of the script, which must therefore take precedence over their own ethical or social views? (2) does theatre have the responsibility of morally educating the audience? and (3) does showing immoral behaviour on the stage encourage people to behave immorally? The first issue is one which is extensively discussed by critics and theatre practitioners in the twentieth century; the second raises a key question discussed since the Renaissance about the didactic function of art; and the third, though it goes back to Plato, is one much discussed in the twentieth century by psychologists and sociologists looking at the effects of the mass media on human behaviour. My aim in presenting this initial dilemma is to get students to recognize that careful analysis of the dilemma, and an understanding of the complexity and long history of the issues it raises, will actually help the director deal with the problem by enabling her or him to rise above the confusion generated by the angry arguments on both sides. Even though practical rather than aesthetic considerations may eventually determine one’s actions, clearly recognizing what the aesthetic issues are can only benefit one’s handling of the situation.

When students are asked to provide the class with an aesthetic dilemma that really concerns them, several can be counted on to produce the following:

Aesthetic Dilemma #2. You’ve just landed your first professional job as an actor. At the first rehearsal, you discover that the director requires you to appear nude in one scene. Should you resign?

My initial reaction used to be to dismiss this dilemma as having little to do with aesthetics, but merely a matter of the personal morality of the actor. Most students, however, say they would appear nude in a production if they felt it was artistically justified. Since they would never consider taking their clothes off on the street but might be willing to do so before thousands in a theatre, the dilemma really centres on the issue of how theatre differs from life, and in particular on what features of art make nudity legitimate. In effect, the key issue raised is the much debated one of “aesthetic distance” or the “aesthetic attitude,” or the related one of the place of the erotic in art and the distinction between art and pornography.

The following dilemma raises a different kind of issue:

Aesthetic Dilemma #3. You are a woman whose first play is to be produced by a local company. The director, an older man of great professional experience, urges you to make some changes in the script to make the action more logical, the suspense stronger, and the climax more satisfying. The dramaturge of the company, a strongly feminist university teacher, urges you not to make the changes. She suggests that the kind of dramatic structure the director wants reflects male thinking and male values; the traditional dramatic structure is overly-rational, aggressive and “ejaculatory,” while women’s experience is intuitive, discontinuous and multi-orgasmic. Your play correctly expresses a woman’s affinity with a non- linear, multi-leveled, non-goal-orientated structure. Should you make the changes or not?

This illustrates a kind of dilemma many contemporary artists face. It is fine to theorize about “écriture féminine” and the existence of a “female morphology” in art (see Case, 1988, 127-32), but what happens when one has to make a career decision based on that theory? The issue raised is that of the nature of dramatic form. Does traditional dramatic form depend on universal truths about audience psychology, or is it merely the reflection of a patriarchal mind-set? In effect, this dilemma invites the student to critique a body of theory which has influenced their art form, a critique made urgent by the recognition that a wrong decision could seriously harm their art and their career.

As must be obvious by now, this course has not only forced my students to re-examine aesthetic issues, but has also impelled me to do the same. It has given me a certain sense of impatience with traditional academic aesthetics. To some extent I have come to see it as impractical, less because it discusses issues irrelevant to artists than because it fails to discuss issues which clearly are of great urgency to them. I also think I have evolved towards a new approach to aesthetics--to a kind of pragmatism whose full implications I have not yet thought out. I recommend this approach to those who find themselves engaged in teaching aesthetics to artists, but I warn them that they may find themselves changed by the experience more than they expect or want to be.

Battin, Margaret P., John Fisher, Ronald Moore, and Anita Silvers. 1989. Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook. New York: St. Martin’s.

Case, Sue-Ellen. 1988. Feminism and Theatre. London: Macmillan.

Pastin, Mark. 1986. The Hard Problems of Management: Gaining the Ethics Edge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stief, Ron. 1990. “Is Business Ethics 101 Enough?” Christianity and Crisis. 50: 291-3.

Trundle, Robert C. Jr. 1991. “Business, Ethics and Business Ethics: Second Thoughts on the Business-Ethics Revolution.” Thought, 66: 297-309.

1997 © Doug Arrell

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