Aesthetics Making Meaning
Aesthetics matter because through aesthetic practices we make individual and collective meaning. Consider two different senses in which making meaning can be understood as central curricular goals of art education—one, is to engage and understand cultural productions through active interpretation[i]; a second is to act as a maker—creating works from which the artist and others draw meaning, pleasure, and purpose. Knowledge from the discipline of aesthetics supports both the interpreter and the maker in nuanced observation of form, imagery, metaphors, tropes, antecedent practices, related concepts, and political implications as well as in identifying and utilizing various strategies to construct and develop artworks.
In From Work to Text (1971/1984), Roland Barthes proposed that meaning is not made by an artist/author depositing meaning into a work through a series of signifiers, that then produce a fixed meaning or true significance that must be extracted or uncovered by the reader/viewer. Instead, Barthes suggests the possibility of a “hedonistic aesthetics” in which signifiers are put into play by the artist/author (p.174). The viewer/reader/interpreter then plays with the “weave of signifiers,” making and re-making the meaning of the artwork through active engagement (p.171).
An artwork seen in this way is rich in meaning, but the meaning is open and decentered. Terry Eagleton’s influential book, The Ideology of the Aesthetic continued the challenge to ahistorical, apolitical concepts of aesthetic valuing through a careful articulation of the relationship between artistic sensibilities and other cultural and political values, thereby broadening the subject of aesthetics to include its own uses and history (1990).
The modernist hermetic aesthetic experience is rarely evoked by knowledgeable professionals in contemporary times because understanding contemporary art and theories of representation point to more complex mechanisms by which meaning is created (Hall, 1997; Harrison & Wood, 1993; Jameson, 1991; Mitchell, 2005). Today’s fields of Visual Studies or Visual Culture are manifestations of aesthetics within this expanded field of signifying practices—investigating semiotic choices about how still and moving images are structured (what has traditionally been called aesthetic choices) as key generators of cultural meaning (Dikovitskaya, 2005; Elkins, 2003; Freedman, 2003; Smith-Shank, 2004).
Good contemporary art education reflects the best practices of contemporary aesthetics. Ideas such as Barthes’ ludic process of meaning making or visual culture investigations that consider how subject positions are created through how persons are hailed by cultural communications are suggested by principles of interpretation developed by art educator Terry Barrett (2003, 2007). Such principles as “Artworks attract multiple interpretations and it is not the goal of interpretation to arrive at single, grand, unified, composite interpretations,” “Interpretations imply a worldview,” and “Meanings of artworks are not limited to what their artists intended them to mean” provide plain language guides to effective, sophisticated aesthetic analysis of the meanings generated by artworks (2003, p 198). Such a contemporary approach to aesthetic investigation encourages students to understand that just as meaning within artworks and other cultural productions is socially generated, their own subjective experiences—responses to and reading of cultural artifacts—are not a natural given, but rather are generated within personal and societal experiences (Keifer-Boyd & Maitland-Gholson, 2007).
Art (and the aesthetic practices that make art possible) can make life meaningful because through artworks personal and community experience is represented, re-presented, re-shaped, and re-formed. Alice Walker, talking about the importance of art in her life, wrote, “It is, in the end the saving of lives that we writers are about … We do it because we care... We care because we know this: The life we save is our own” (cited in Minh-ha, 1989, p.15).[ii]
Many aesthetic movements have contributed to movements for self-understanding, community pride, and social justice. From the time of the Harlem Renaissance, African American art and literature has developed a rich heteroglossic artistic legacy of reclaiming, revaluing, and reinstating the importance of Africanist and folkloric sensibilities in shaping American and African American life (Baker, 1988; Bearden & Henderson, 1993; Morrison, 1992).
In The Great Migration, Jacob Lawrence utilizes the flat planes, geometric forms, and shallow spaces of modernist painting to recount a social history of the Black experience. These paintings utilize the sometimes austere beauty of African-derived visual styles—not as decontextualized references to support the universalist claims of formalist modernism—but as an aesthetic move to dynamically situate the African-American experience within the culture and legacy of the African diaspora. Many African American visual artists and writers have experimented with mixing codes and styles—creating artworks whose hybrid nature evokes a fascinating and uncomfortable awareness of the social construction of racial and gender identity (Dyson, 1993, Gates, 1984/1990; Johnson, 1984/1990; Powell, 2003)[iii]
There are many modern and contemporary discourses in which “others” become central in their own life stories through utilizing strategies of aesthetic investigation to create complex and nuanced subject positions in which they can construct meaning, experience pleasure, and work for peace and justice (Cahan & Kocur, 1996).[iv] Not fitting the “mainstream’s” normative subjectivity—not seeing, thinking, speaking, and writing as upper and middle class White men—these artists painstakingly construct artistic voices without relinquishing identification with earlier selves who were in part defined by the lack of opportunities for self- representation.
I would be remiss to not mention here the many self-styled “anti-aesthetic” movements and collectives such as Dada, Surrealism, Cobra, Situationism, Fluxus, Guerilla Girls, and Punk, in which many White artists have sought to relinquish privileges of class and race in order to interrogate, undermine, reform, and re-invent culture (Breton, 1952/1993; Knabb, 1981; Guerilla Girls, 1998; Huelsenbeck, 1969/1991; Higgins, 2002; Stokvis, 2004; Turcotte & Woods, 2007). These anti-aesthetic (also often termed “anti-beauty”) aesthetic strategies are part of the rich “hot modernist” tradition intertwining politics, theory, and art, utilizing aesthetic means to create emotional, experiential disruptions of conventional social and aesthetic attitudes and habits of mind (Danto, 2004; Efland, Freedman & Stuhr, 1996; Greenberg, 1971/1978; Habermas, 1981/1983).
Making Meaning in the Field of Art Education
I appreciate a good satirical art education essay and performative presentations filled with hijinx and malarkey that challenge worn out theories and threadbare aesthetic experiences. However, I am troubled by the totalizing tenor and significant omissions of some of the recent arguments against the study and use of aesthetics. The accusation that traditional art education privileges aesthetic experience over other avenues of human understanding is being countered with an overvaluing and misunderstanding of the limits of more recent theoretical discourses (Duncum 2007; Tavin, 2007). Perhaps a myth of an ideologically-neutral critical distance is being advanced as a substitute for the myth of aesthetic distance, which positions the maker and viewer beyond ideology.
I am concerned that the direct testimony of the significance of artistic experience in the lives of individuals and communities is not addressed in arguments against the importance of aesthetics within contemporary art education. I feel stunned listening to discussions of aesthetics that don’t consider the meaning and legacy of such artistic/aesthetic practices as Womanhouse’s collaborative reconsiderations of gendered subjectivity (Chicago, 1975), Joseph Beuys’ shamanistic social sculptures (Rosenthal, 2004), AfriCobra’s passionately political aesthetic manifestos and murals (Smethurst, 2005), Situationist interventions on the products of mass media (Ford, 1995), the outpouring of grief in the collective Names Project AIDS quilt (Turney & Margolies, 1996), or the tell-it-like-it-is DIY aesthetics of contemporary zines (Wrekk, 2005).
I understand that my brothers in the field of art education see themselves as working to “Demystify the categories in order to stay tuned to the complexity of the reality” (West, 1993, p.20). I respect their academic and antic endeavors. However, I don’t believe that one can stay tuned to the complexities by excluding the voices of women and men for whom making and experiencing art has been of primary importance in forming communities and resisting cultural or actual annihilation.
Art and aesthetic practices may be deemed useless, but it precisely in their seeming uselessness, in their existence beyond the bounds of mere propaganda or mere entertainment, that the arts constitute a space for free inquiry out of which new possibilities for self and society can emerge (Collingwood, 1938/1979; Efland, 2004). In Without Title, jan jagodzinski, argues for art’s “non-utilitarian worth” because of its ability to “lay bear contingency, uncertainty, ambiguity, paradox, and aporia (2006, p.7).” It is arts’ construction of a coherent, yet uncertain self that cannot be achieved in theoretical discourses, unless those discourses themselves become art by embodying the aesthetic paradox of playful purposiveness without fixed purpose.[v]
The core objective of quality art education is that: Students increase their capacities to make meaning.
This meaning-making capacity is the ability to engage and entertain ideas and images; it is the ability to make use of images and ideas to re-imagine one’s own life experiences.[vi] It is the ability to investigate and represent one’s own experiences. Contemporary art education must become a sophisticated hybrid practice that uses style (in its visual and verbal manifestations) to interest (and even to enchant) students in order to enhance students’ abilities to engage, to analyze, to apprehend, and to enjoy.
It is our role as art educators to introduce our students to the techniques of empowered experiencing and empowered making that make deeply engaged experience possible (Gude, 2007). We can teach how the culture is shaped and how to shape the culture by providing our students with the tools of contemporary aesthetic investigation because through such signifying practices we make meaning of our lives and we make meaningful lives—with style, with purpose, and with pleasure.
[i] Some proposed approaches to visual culture argue that art should no longer be given a privileged status as the most significant object of study in the field of Art Education. In my work developing curriculum for the Spiral Workshop, we introduce students to many of the concepts of visual culture and to analyzing commonly encountered cultural products such as TV shows, video games, and Hollywood movies, while maintaining the centrality of introducing students to a wide array of quality cultural productions outside of mainstream culture—from, for example, contemporary “high art” to DIY zines.
[ii] I locate my own emerging sense of self, agency, and possibility within the artworld and aesthetic and theoretical discourses of the women’s movement. Reading contemporary works by writers such as Susan Griffin (1978), Mary Daly (1987, 1990), and Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989), as well as reclaimed works by writers such as Zora Neale Hurston (1937/1998) and Virginia Woolf (1929/1989), I was introduced to a fusion of keen intellectual argumentation combined with personal narrative, poetic sensibility, and deliberate ruptures in the experiencing of seamless stories. Through the work of these writers I was introduced to manipulating the written form with such strategies as punning, fragmenting words with parentheses, non-standard punctuation, unconventional capitalization, and visual interventions such as strike throughs, so as to create discontinuities in the reading of texts, thus encouraging readers to see meaning as socially constructed and hence open to being reconstructed. In the field of Art Education, my colleagues jan jagodinski and Kevin Tavin are stylish practitioners of these aesthetic interventions and visual interruptions of conventional writing strategies.
[iii] See for example, the artwork of Emma Amos, Michael Ray Charles, Kerry James Marshall, Yinka Shonibare, and Kara Walker, as well as the films of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien.
[iv] In a recent series of presentations on culturally diverse modern and postmodern artists in my Visual and Verbal Literacy course at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was struck by the overlap of issues and strategies in works by artists from many places around the world. Presentations ranged from Jacob Lawrence and his use of modernist Africanist styles (Bearden & Henderson, 1993) to Alfredo Arrequín, a Mexican American artist whose work recycles traditional Mayan and Catholic Mexican imagery (Flores, 2002) to Arpita Singh, whose work compares traditionally accepted behavior for an Indian woman to the images and stories of the great goddess Durga (Sen, 2002).
[v] I am here echoing Immanuel Kant’s dictum that art has “Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck,” traditionally translated as purposiveness without purpose.
[vi] In Principles of Possibility I refer to this capacity as the principle of Not Knowing—the ability to recognize that previous schemata of knowledge may not be adequate to account for the complexities of reality as such. Commitment to Not Knowing is the willingness to see and understand the world (and oneself) through various frames of reference and to rethink one’s actions in light of these new ways of representing the situation.
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