Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum by Philip H. Phenix
Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Published by Harper & Brothers, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Esthetic Excellence
The preceding two chapters have been concerned with the value of intelligence -- first, with respect to the general principles of intellectual excellence and, second, with respect to the standards appropriate to mass communication. It has been argued that ideal democracy in the intellectual life rests upon the premise of universal truth to be discovered and shared, and that the proper aim of democratic education is to foster dedication to this truth.
In this and the next three chapters the major emphasis will be on the value of creativity. Intelligence is at issue in this aspect of life, too, but in a somewhat different fashion than in the aspects previously discussed. Now the center shifts from man the knower to man the maker, from the abstractions of rational discourse to the concrete products of his handiwork. But the thesis is still the same -- namely, that there are standards of worth by which these products can be evaluated and that a proper goal of human life is to engage in creative activity in loyalty to these standards. The criteria of excellence in this domain are not the same as those in the sphere of ordinary discursive knowledge -- though careful examination reveals an essential continuity between the processes of evaluation in the sciences and in the arts. Suitable criteria of worth in a work of art, for example, can be developed, but they are not the same as those that apply to mathematical propositions or to the generalizations of the natural sciences.
The discussion of standards for the mass media has already to some extent foreshadowed the forthcoming analysis, since the channels of mass communication are not restricted merely to the transmission of literal information. Their function is not only to convey knowledge but also to influence feelings and actions. They are, therefore, to be judged not simply by standards of truth in the usual sense, but by much broader criteria of qualitative worth. The public atmosphere -- the cultural tone -- created by books, magazines, television, and the other media, is generally even more important than the factual exactness of the information communicated.
How can goals for democracy and for democratic education in the domain of human creativity be formulated? Let us begin to answer this question by considering the difference between aristocratic and democratic views of esthetic experience. The aristocratic position is that refinement of taste is for an elite class of "gentlefolk"; in fact, it is regarded as a mark of status and belongs only to a select few. The great mass of "common" people are expected to be crude and simple, neither understanding nor caring for the "higher things." Furthermore, the select few are regarded by themselves and usually by others as the authorities in questions of taste and style.
Two assumptions are implicit in this aristocratic view. The first is that esthetic experience is a special, separable kind of human activity, and that esthetic judgments are relevant only to certain kinds of activity. For instance, making or listening to music, executing or viewing a landscape painting, or preparing or eating exotic foods would be considered appropriate occasions for esthetic evaluation, while ordinary pursuits like operating a lathe, feeding a baby, or painting a house would not. These special esthetic pursuits are customarily reserved for the aristocrats, and ordinary people are not expected to have the ability, the resources, or the presumption to engage in them. The second assumption is that esthetic experience belongs to man not as a human being but only as a member of a special social group. It is not integral to being a person, nor a part of everyone’s birthright, but simply an aspect of special privilege.
A democratic position rejects both of these aristocratic assumptions. First, from the democratic standpoint there is no experience that does not have its esthetic aspects or dimensions. Human activities may not be classified exclusively into esthetic and nonesthetic categories. Judgments of qualitative significance apply to the commonplace as well as to the unusual and to utilitarian as well as to leisure-time pursuits. In fact, in a democracy the ordinary events of existence are matters of particular esthetic interest and concern, simply because their quality has such widespread and continuous influence on the general level of individual and collective life. Second, from a democratic viewpoint the esthetic life belongs to every person as an essential part of his being. It is not an optional mode of existence but is integral to the human status.
These differences between aristocratic and democratic esthetic ideals have clear consequences for education. In an aristocracy, special disciplines are developed for the cultivation of taste. The "liberal arts" are regarded as studies for gentlemen, who have the freedom to enjoy things for their intrinsic perfection and without regard to practical utility. Aristocratic gentlemen and gentlewomen are also trained in arts of speech and behavior that serve to mark them as superior to ordinary people. They are taught high discrimination in food, clothing, and architecture, so that their style of life may comport with their status. The common people are educated to know their place and to perform the duties laid upon them by those who rule, without concern for elegance or distinction.
In democratic education, on the other hand, there is a pervasive concern for the quality of experience. All studies, whether "general" or "special," "liberal" or "vocational," "theoretical" or "practical," are subjects of esthetic concern. A major goal of teaching is theca elevation of life through the improvement of taste and the sharpening of discrimination in whatever one does. Furthermore, the opportunities to grow in this grace of life are a part of everyone’s education, and each person is held responsible for the quality of his thoughts and acts.
Esthetic experience in a democracy is not only a matter of universal concern; it is also a sustainer of the twin democratic ideals of individuality and freedom. Individuality in the full sense pertains to persons. It is more than particularity, which grains of sand and blades of grass also have. It is a depth of meaning, a qualitative richness, which marks the highest levels in the order of creation. Since esthetic experience is concerned with individuation, which is consummated in personality, it follows that esthetic excellence is an important goal for democracy. In an age of machine mass production of identical items, individuality is in danger. In pre-industrial society everything that was made bore the mark of the person who fashioned it and who thus confirmed and communicated himself in the thing. Today persons tend to be obscured and submerged by the impersonality of the identical things their machines have made. While there is no need to forgo the advantages of mass production, it is important that in other ways the realization of individuality through esthetic activity be fostered. In aristocratic societies it is only the elite who are allowed to be true individuals, and this privilege they make good by their esthetic pursuits, while the common people remain in collective anonymity. In a democracy it is the right and the privilege of every person to realize his full individuality, through the development of qualitative discrimination and construction.
Esthetic experience further reinforces democratic ideals in its emphasis on creative freedom. Art is making, producing, fashioning. When esthetic concern is felt, life as a whole is a work of art. Conduct is directed by considered design. Experience is fashioned in accord with standards of excellence of form or pattern. To live in this way is to live as a free man, for freedom is simply the exercise of deliberate choice. There is no "art of living" without freedom, and freedom is fulfilled through significant creative activity. In esthetic experience a person is liberated from the bondage of mere organic existence and becomes aware of himself as a spiritual being who is heir to and trustee for a whole world of meanings.
We come now to the question of esthetic standards. According to one view, characteristic of the democracy of desire, esthetic evaluations are nothing but indications of subjective feeling-states. There are no objective or universal criteria for esthetic excellence, and there is no way (or need) to resolve differences in opinion about esthetic values. The creative nature of esthetic activity, it is held, itself indicates that these values are made rather than discovered, and the fact that the creation is individual and free means that everyone in such matters is wholly autonomous.
Such a view destroys any basis for effective esthetic judgment. It amounts to an abandonment of the concept of qualitative excellence. Theca result is a thoroughgoing relativism which makes value judgments dependent on the accidents of circumstance and temperament. Evaluations can, of course, be made by statistical enumeration of preferences. It is characteristic of democracies of desire to make popularity the criterion of worth. Modern advertising depends heavily upon this fact.
In the mass society, where value is determined by popular appeal, the situation is in sharp contrast to the aristocratic societies, in which standards were set by a few connoisseurs, and in which the larger the number who approved of something, the lower was the value likely to be accorded it. The notion of determining values by popularity is unsatisfactory. At this point the aristocratic society was right. Judgments of excellence cannot be made by statistics, because quality is not a function of quantity.
In a democracy of worth, standards of esthetic excellence are presupposed. These standards are not regarded as fully known, nor must they be explicitly stated, but they are assumed to exist. All striving toward qualitative worth is founded on this assumption. All people and all forms of activity are regarded as subject to judgment by the standards of worth. The people are not the source and measure of values, as they are when popularity rules, but the people are themselves measured by these values.
The principle of worth further presupposes that esthetic experience is an act of discovery. From this standpoint, esthetic "creation" is seen as discovery through experimentation and through insight into hitherto unrealized possibilities. Creativity is not claimed in the radical sense of complete origination. New things are made and new things are done, but values are not arbitrarily given to them; rather, formerly unseen excellences are manifest in and through them. Thus, creativity does not necessarily imply autonomy. It does require active personal engagement in the exploration of possibilities for concrete embodiment of meanings. Human creation is not the invention of values, but the revelation of values by means of imaginatively constructed objects.
Serious esthetic education makes sense only when dedication to qualitative worth is acknowledged. If esthetic judgments are simply expressions of subjective feeling, there is no point in trying to change or develop tastes. Then the notion of improvement in taste has no meaning, for a liking simply is. It can be criticized only by a standard that transcends subjective preferences. Under the subjective view, esthetic education can, of course, serve two purposes. First, it can show ways of increasing the intensity and widening the range of personal enjoyments; and, second, it can assist in the socialization of tastes -- that is, in developing shared preferences and in helping individuals to adjust to prevailing social expectations.
In contrast, under a philosophy of worth the major purposes of esthetic education are: first, to enable individuals to respond to higher orders of qualitative significance and insight; and, second, to stimulate criticism of popular mediocrity and to discourage uncritical conformity to mass convention.
Up to now no indication has been given of precisely what constitutes esthetic excellence. In the nature of the case no general rule can be given, because each thing is judged in its concrete individuality. Nevertheless, some suggestions can be offered concerning the criteria that are appropriate for the evaluation of esthetic worth. Such criteria are the object of esthetic education, and they are guides for the discipline of individual creativity.
One standard is unity. A good book has some central theme which relates the various parts to one another. It is not simply a collection of unconnected episodes or isolated arguments. An excellent musical composition is more than an aggregate of separate sounds; there is a musical argument, so to speak, which runs as a thread upon which the individual notes are arranged. The rooms of a lovely building are organized according to some idea of the whole. Its architect had a single concept of the structure, which he then analyzed into component parts each of which would contribute to that concept. If he was a true artist, he did not merely adjoin space to space in a heterogeneous assemblage. Unity is an essential esthetic feature of any well-fashioned thing, whether it be a painting, a poem, a tree, a conversation, a meal, or a machine.
Affirming the ideal of unity is another way of asserting the concreteness of the esthetic mode of experience. Esthetic understanding is synoptic. It is synthetic, rather than analytic. Clearly, no synopsis or synthesis can be attained without an idea of the whole. There must be coherence among the parts, which is to say that the parts must be seen as differentiations from the whole and as contributory to the unified entity. In fact, the notion of a "thing" presupposes unity. A recognizable object has a definite form, or character. A formless mass, a heap of odds and ends, is literally nothing -- that is, no thing. So to be really something, to be worthy of notice and admiration, an entity must have unity of form, some organizing idea, plan, or purpose. This is the most fundamental measure of esthetic worth.
Significant esthetic unity is of a special kind. It is not the unity of sameness, but the unity of variety. There is obvious unity in the repetition of a single note, but that does not make it a beautiful musical composition. A canvas covered with one shade of paint has unity of a kind, but it could never be called a significant work of art. Esthetic unity is the organization of different parts into a single whole. It is the weaving together of a variety of contrasting strands into a consistent pattern. Mere sameness or repetitiveness lacks interest. A true esthetic object represents an imaginative achievement, resulting from the ability of the perceiving mind to discern relationships between separate and distinct things, so that together these many things constitute some greater single thing.
An esthetic object is a complex, a unity of contrasting elements. The whole is thus qualitatively different from the parts. It is the parts compounded into a new totality to which both the likenesses and the unlikenesses of the parts are essential. Without the likenesses there could be no ground of relatedness; without the unlikenesses there could be no new and higher levels of complexity, which are the source of esthetic interest and creative progress.
The need for both unity and variety could be illustrated by any number of examples from contemporary culture. Much modern painting fails to present any clear unity of idea; it appears to be an arbitrary, and sometimes even accidental, medley of colors and shapes. In contrast, popular music is often esthetically deficient in variety; a single simple theme or rhythmic pattern is repeated many times over with none of the elaboration and variation which lend interest to good music. On the other hand, modern "serious" music, like painting, frequently seems to have no thematic structure to give coherence to the whole. The main esthetic threat of machine civilization is the suppression of variety through the multiplication of identical mass-produced items. However, this tendency is counteracted by the virtually endless outpouring of new products by an inventive and affluent society.
The proper coordination of unity and variety constitutes harmony; that is, unity and variety are not separate qualities of an esthetic object, though each may separately be made the focus of analysis. Harmonization is the blending of different but mutually compatible elements into a whole. In a harmonious object the parts enhance rather than negate one another. Harmony must not, however, be interpreted as simple concordance. In music, dissonance is often a useful effect, which can be appreciated by those who have become accustomed to it, just as seasoning adds zest to food for those who have acquired the taste for it. Similarly, drama would lose its reason for being if conflict were eliminated. In fact, the main function of tragedy is to exhibit the inescapable and usually unresolvable conflicts which are the substance of the human predicament. So if harmony is a desirable esthetic quality, it cannot mean a serene, untroubled unity of the parts. It does mean that the elements are so organized that each contributes to, and does not detract from, the effect of the others.
Closely related to harmony is the ideal of balance, or proportion. Each component should be given its appropriate weight or importance in the whole. This is admittedly a vague conception, yet it is not without meaning. For example, a vase is commonly given symmetrical proportions around the central axis, while another kind of balance prevails vertically, such as an alternation of wide and narrow segments. Balance always presupposes some recognizable formal measure. In the case of symmetry, the measure is simple equality, but balance is obviously not necessarily symmetrical. It is determined by the character of the whole to which the constituent elements contribute. A building has balance in its design when the number and sizes of the rooms are in accordance with the purposes for which the structure is intended. A novel is well proportioned when the various episodes are related in such a way that the author’s story is told with greatest clarity and economy. Imbalance in anything is due to an excess or a deficiency of parts in relation to the plan of the whole.
Functionality is the next criterion to be considered. Judgment about balance or proportion rests upon the relation of design to objective. A well-designed object is one that functions effectively as it was intended to do. An excellent chair is one that is good for sitting in. A fine musical composition effectively conveys the intended musical idea. Functionality refers here not to practical utility -- though a functional object may well be useful -- but to the achievement in concrete reality of the purposed form. A properly functioning thing is one that carries out the idea implicit in making it. The form or idea may be "practical" or "impractical" from the standpoint of personal or social needs; this distinction is not relevant esthetically. What matters is how effectively the ideal is achieved by the artifact -- not in the sense of good craftsmanship, but in that of good design. Designing involves the imaginative exploration of possible ways of approaching a given objective; it is a task of experimentation and discovery.
While functionality refers to the performance of a design, another standard, finesse, refers to the execution of a design. Both of these aspects of esthetic excellence are closely akin in that in the absence of finesse even a well-designed thing cannot function in the manner appropriate to it. Finesse is refinement, finished-ness. It is produced by skilled craftsmanship, by the ability to control materials expertly. It depends upon long and intimate familiarity with the materials to be used and upon sustained practice in working with them. Finesse declines in a society where the demand for ease, pleasure, and quick results predominates. Skill in craftsmanship is attained only by arduous and protracted effort sustained by a concern for ideal values and dedication to the task of realizing them in material things -- that is, by a zeal for incarnating excellence.
Esthetic effect is a matter of perception of meaning. Quality is not mere surge of feeling. It is feeling united with form. A quality is a significant form -- that is, a form that signifies something. Esthetic meanings are not necessarily expressible in ordinary factual propositions. An object is esthetically meaningful when it has some deliberate plan or structure. It is meaningless when it has no discernible intelligible order. In a sense, of course, everything has some kind of order; even the most chaotic hodgepodge has a structure, albeit a very complicated and unusual one. Hence, meaningfulness must refer to the presence of certain reasonably simple patterns of organization. This consideration carries us back to the fundamental criteria of unity and diversity. The meaning of an object is the unity that relates the diverse parts within a complete whole. A meaningless array of things is a collection that has no perceptible system of coordination into one concrete entity.
Esthetic quality is said to have depth when the meaning of the perceived object is not immediately apparent to the unpracticed observer, and when the object is capable of yielding a succession of mutually enriching meanings. A painting has depth when it commands prolonged attention and rewards sustained, reflective scrutiny. A novel or a poem is deep when it bears frequent rereading, each time yielding insights not previously evident. The enduring treasures of civilization have this quality of depth. They remain from one generation to the next because they contain an abundance of meanings which give them freshness and vitality. By contrast, superficial objects are ones whose meaning is obvious and trivial, so that continued observation of them causes boredom. They demand no effort and evoke scant admiration or affection.
Though esthetic experience is not simply inchoate feeling, but structured perception, it still is founded in emotional response. Intensity is an essential quality of such a response. Clearly, esthetic worth is not simply proportionate to the degree of intensity; loud sounds are not necessarily better than soft ones, nor are bright colors preferable to pastels. Qualitative worth requires measured intensity -- that is, feeling appropriate to the occasion. Sometimes the indicated effect is a breathless calm -- a virtual suspension of animation; at other times a violent excitement is called for. The measure to be applied is the meaning of the perceived object. The observer’s feeling-state should accord with the meaning of the thing. Esthetic discipline is required to insure such accord. Seasoned qualitative perception comes from long practice in channeling emotions to correspond to the significance of the occasion.
The realization of measured intensity of feeling depends not only upon the sensitivity and emotional discipline of the percipient, but also upon the expressiveness of the esthetic object. Expressiveness is the power of conveying meaning. A poorly constructed object interposes barriers or distractions in the way of the intended and implied significance; the words and images employed, the details of design, are not all marshaled to produce a clear and unequivocal impression. Expressiveness is actually implicit in the ideas of balance and finesse. The separate term is used here because of its connection with feeling tone. An object that has been well designed and expertly constructed will express its meanings unambiguously and will evoke the appropriate feeling-response in the disciplined perceiver.
Art effects a transformation of nature. It has an ideal quality. The creative, constructive energies of the human spirit are employed in discovering and incarnating ideas not ordinarily found in things that have resulted from the nonhuman processes of nature. Even when natural things are observed, human imagination transforms them so as to emphasize certain ideal aspects. For esthetic imagination, the starry night sky is not simply a pattern of light spots on a dark background. It is a tapestry whose infinite varieties of meaning have been recited by poets, lovers, and scientists as long as men have turned their eyes upward and wondered. Thus, ideality appears in the esthetic interpretation of natural forms. But it is even more apparent in the humanly created forms -- in the artifacts of culture. Here qualitative worth is measured not by precision in imitating nature, but in the construction of things that will express the ideal more effectively than natural objects can.
It is this property of ideality that justifies the nonutilitarian view of esthetic worth. Esthetically valuable things may be practically useful, but they need not be. In fact, esthetic worth tends to have an inverse relation to practicality, since forms are ideal in the degree to which they transcend the necessary limitations, confusions, and compromises of ordinary life. The greatness of a work of art consists to a large extent in its power of revealing possibilities that could scarcely be fully realized in actuality. This is not primarily a question of the ideal in the sense of nobility or beauty -- though these are measures of worth, too. Ideally here refers to selection and simplification for expressive effect. Actual affairs are always muddied with irrelevancies and frustrating complications. A work of art aims at removing all of these, so that a clear, strong, consistent -- in this sense, ideal -- message is conveyed.
Another measure of esthetic value is honesty, integrity, or sincerity. A piece of work is sincere when there is agreement between what it appears to be and what it actually is; that is, when the meanings revealed through continued acquaintance with it are consistent with one another. A dishonest work is one that has a deceptive appearance, that leads one to a certain expectation and then yields something different. A building with a "false front" is insincere, because the appearance does not jibe with the inner form. A musical composition is dishonest when its meaning as a whole is incompatible with the meaning of certain parts. Honesty is integrity, or wholeness. Each, part must contribute to the purpose of the whole. It will not do to say that a work of art may be intended to represent chaos and disorder. That would be similar to saying that a sentence may represent nonsense: it may do so, but it is of no worth in discourse. So, any artifact has worth only as it embodies a unified idea -- as was pointed out in connection with the criteria of unity, variety, harmony, and balance. Sincerity is singleness of purpose, particularly as regards the concordance of external form with inner substance.
By the purity of an esthetic object one could mean its ideality, in the sense that no alien elements intrude into it, or one could mean its sincerity, in the sense that it reveals but one purpose. Neither of these entirely legitimate meanings is intended here. Purity is here synonymous with nobility or spiritual elevation. A pure or noble work evokes love and devotion in the beholder. An impure or ignoble thing stimulates greed and lust. There is doubtless some truth in the saying that to the pure all things are pure. Expectations do to some extent influence perceptions. Nevertheless, purity is not simply a subjective factor. There are things that feed the appetites and stimulate acquisitive activity, and these differ profoundly in kind from the things that evoke a self-giving response.
From the point of view here set forth, purity is the most important of all esthetic qualities, for it is the foundation of all value, including esthetic value. A drama or a painting that fosters unworthy desire undermines the very basis of whatever worth may be ascribed to it on other grounds (for example, unity, depth, or measured intensity), while a work of art that helps to release men from the bondage of self-interest serves to establish and confirm its value foundation. The most serious error in modern esthetics has been the general rejection of the ideal of purity or nobility on the ground of esthetic irrelevance. It has been held that the only esthetically relevant criteria are those of formal excellence, and not of spiritual quality. This position results from the failure to recognize the foundation of all value in the distinctive spiritual decision in favor of worth-serving instead of self-serving.
Sincerity is one kind of truthfulness -- namely, that in which the object is true to itself, or in which its full actuality is consistent with its initial and external appearance. Another kind of truthfulness refers not to the internal consistency of the object, but to its external relationships. A true work of art is coherent with other instances and modes of apprehending what is and what ought to be; that is to say, it illuminates the meaning of life. A false work is contrary to other evidences of fact and worth, and therefore it causes doubt and confusion in the beholder. A tragic drama is true insofar as it throws light on man’s basic predicament which springs from his freedom of choice. The more impressive and insightful the portrayal, the truer is the drama. It is more difficult to say what truthfulness in music means. Yet in this case, too, there may be an illumination of life. Music also has a message -- carries a meaning -- and this meaning either does or does not agree with corresponding meanings derived from other experiences.
The criterion of truthfulness may appear to deny the worth of fiction. It may also seem to contradict the notion of ideality, which makes a virtue out of departure from actuality. These negations would hold only if esthetic truth were limited to literal fact -- as it is not. Factual propositions are themselves only partial abstractions from the whole truth; they never tell the whole story about the things to which they refer. Esthetic truth is another kind of revelation of what is so, through symbolic forms other than those of literal fact. Fictional works may be profoundly true, provided their literal untruths are employed as vehicles for a symbolic revelation of truth. Similarly, though the idealizations of art do not represent things as they actually and naturally are, they vividly portray the true forms of actual things, by the use of emphasis and simplification, or they may afford a true vision of excellence such as actual things do not exhibit. Thus, fiction and idealization in excellent art are means for achieving greater truthfulness than would be possible through fidelity to literal fact.
The final standard is righteousness. Since values are interdependent, esthetic worth is connected with ethical rightness. Esthetic value is not in an independent realm, where its own criteria bear no relation to other measures of worth. Art is not for art’s sake, but for goodness’ sake. Hence, when loyalty to values is affirmed, the stereotypes of the artist as free of moral restraints (and as a better artist because of the absence of such inhibitions) and of morality as contrary to esthetic enjoyment are repudiated, and the congruence of esthetic excellence with moral goodness is asserted. A morality that restricts or cripples creativity is in that respect defective, and an esthetic that denies or subverts ethical standards is therein faulty.
The foregoing criteria suggest some of the general standards defining esthetic excellence. They do not exhaust the possibilities of qualitative measures. To a certain extent these criteria overlap, and there are others that could be substituted for some of them. These may nonetheless serve to define the nature of qualitative worth.
Qualities such as these are universal in the sense that anyone may apprehend them, given the requisite personal discipline and conditions of observation. In this respect esthetic excellence, like truth, is public. The sense of beauty and depth of perceptual meaning are not private, untestable, and unsharable emotions. They are qualities of experience which result from the given forms of things in relation to the structures of properly habituated personality.
Not only are these qualities potentially universal in being thus public and sharable. They are also universal in their spheres of application, as was pointed out earlier in showing the meaning of esthetic democracy. The products of the so-called "fine arts" are exclusively devoted to esthetic purposes, but they are not the sole objects of esthetic concern. Still, they do have a special and distinctive importance, which to some extent justifies the custom of setting them apart as esthetic objects par excellence. Music, drama, painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture, and the dance fulfill a representative function in culture. They serve as standard-bearers for esthetic values, with a minimum of complication by concern for nonesthetic purposes. Creations in the fine arts especially excel in the quality of ideality, which must often be subordinated in ordinary affairs. The ideal character of the fine arts should not result in isolation from other spheres of life, but should enable them to be of greater service in lifting the esthetic level of all experience. Thus, their unique qualities may sustain, rather than negate, the pervasiveness of democratic concern for quality.
The many so-called "useful arts," such as carpentry, machining, and cooking, differ from the fine arts only in the predominance of the practical purposes for which the products are designed. These purposes define the idea or form of the esthetic object or act in a somewhat more restricted fashion than is the case where the artist is free to follow his own imagination without limit. The line between the fine arts and the useful arts is actually not clear; and there is good reason for it not to be drawn sharply, given the democratic principle of comprehensive esthetic relevance. Some fields, such as landscape gardening, interior decorating, and fashion designing, could quite appropriately be classed as either "fine" or "useful" arts. The artist, the artisan, the craftsman -- all are concerned with embodying meanings in objects of sense.
Esthetic qualities are important even in scientific and technical fields, which are commonly regarded as the farthest removed from the arts. Good scientific theories are works of art. They harmonize a variety of facts within the compass of a unified conceptual structure. They, too, have meaning, depth, ideality, purity, and other attributes of qualitative worth. The common term "a beautiful theory" is thus quite apt. Applied science is an art, as the etymology of the word "technical" (from the Greek, techne, "an art") attests. The task of the engineer, for example, is to apply scientific knowledge to the creation of objects of use. In designing a material structure to perform most efficiently, the quality of functionality is especially important. In modern machine design, finesse -- which in this field would more suitably be called precision -- is also of crucial significance.
Among the scientific fields, mathematics has a particularly intimate connection with esthetic excellence. Mathematics is the science of form. It provides an exact and comprehensive treatment of such ideas as symmetry, rhythm, and function, which enter so largely into esthetic judgments. Moreover, mathematical systems, like scientific theories, are themselves esthetic creations of a high order.
Judgments of quality are pertinent also in the management of personal and corporate life. To be a civilized person is to conduct one’s life in accord with such principles of excellence as consistency, balance, variety, and functional efficacy. A "wise" person is one whose deeds measure up to these and other esthetic standards. Emotional maturity is judged by such criteria as sense of proportion, correspondence of feelings with reality, unity of purpose, and flexibility -- all of which are of an esthetic nature.
This range of esthetic concerns is emphasized because of what it means for education. Esthetic learning does not occur merely in the study of "art." It belongs prominently also in all of the so-called "academic" subjects, including science and mathematics, and in everything that is done in schools and homes for the development of manual, emotional, social, and civic grace, wisdom, and competence. The study of the traditional arts ought to epitomize and vivify the general esthetic goals that apply to all the affairs of life. These specifically esthetic disciplines may thus be saved from the exclusiveness and fastidiousness that have so commonly reduced their power of elevating the whole level of culture.
Of particular significance for education is the application of esthetic criteria to human personality itself. Teachers and parents are to some extent fashioners of children’s lives. Everything depends upon the models of worth that are used in the conduct of this work. The standards appropriate for education are precisely (though not exclusively) those that define esthetic excellence. Thus, the principles of esthetic value here discussed may serve not only as guides in creating and appreciating what are called "art objects" and as criteria of qualitative excellence in curricular matters outside of the arts, but as attributes of the good life and as a source of general educational aims.
Viewed 94957 times.