Aesthetic Education

I hope against hope that someday “aesthetic” might be widely understood as something that is NOT always, inevitably, associated with art. I hope it might be understood as something as something closer to sense perception — something physical, immediate, particular to individuals, and having a full spectrum of values — from thrilling to repugnant.

If that were the case, perhaps more people would see that we are all making aesthetic judgments, decisions, “gestures” as Flusser put it, all the time (“gestures” include speech and writing as well as, say, genuflection), and that such expressions “say” a great deal about us, what’s basic about us. For human beings’ most logic-resistant loyalties, ranging from harmless preferences to the fiercest commitments, are fundamentally aesthetic.  “I like it” or “I don’t like it” is probably the most familiar expression of an aesthetic judgement (although it can, sometimes, misleadingly refer to a logical or ethical decision).  An aesthetic judgment aligns the speaker on his or her own grounds, without implying any logical or ethical foundation or imposing any tacit obligation to explain or defend.  There is invariably some aesthetic dimension in any of our judgments, whether other people, ideas, rituals, institutions, substances, sounds or tastes. It is NOT restricted to arts!

If you are in conversation with someone about an activity that involves aesthetic decisions (it it likely to be cooking or gardening or shopping for clothes, but it could be anything, business decisions, political views, anything), the sentences in the exchange will probably include plenty of logical or ethical propositions: does the object or material or plant or fabric serve an intended purposes, fit in a given space, appropriately mark an occasion?  But there will also be statements about aesthetic preferences. When you hear a phrase such as “If it were me, I’d buy that one” or, “That recipe is too complicated for me,” your conversation partner is acknowledging the aesthetic dimension in what you are doing, expressing an awareness that aesthetic responses will differ, and offering reassurance that he or she is prepared to accept this particular difference.   

Suppose that big commitments, such as religious belief or sexual orientation are just as aesthetic at heart as more familiar, less binding ones, such as what you like for breakfast, or which art works resonate with you, or how you feel about trying something new. If the aesthetic dimension really is critical with respect to the big questions, it would be worth building it into even the most basic education.  If people could be more aware of their own aesthetics – their own values – and of how these differ from other people’s, we might be able to heal some of the rifts that currently make us so miserable.  

[The image is the well-known detail from Raphel’s Sistine Madonna, a painting commissioned in 1512, now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden]

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