Aesthetics in the Classroom: PLATO Institute Session

On June 28 and 29, TC hosted the first-ever PLATO Institute where 70+ scholars and practitioners from across the country and around the world (Turkey and Chile were both represented) gathered for a series of sessions focused on the pre-college instruction of Philosophy.

The event was networking nirvana:  trailblazers in the field attended, with the program reading like an all-star lineup:  Mitchell Green (University of Virginia), Thomas Wartenberg (Mount Holyoke College), Maughn Gregory (Montclair State University), and Jana Mohr Lone (the Director of PLATO as well as the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children), to name a few.

Aesthetics in the Classroom, chaired by Sara Goering (University of Washington), was a particularly stand-out session, with three speakers addressing the topic from different angles

Professor Thomas Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College kicked off the session with a multi-media presentation, “The Philosophy of Art in College and Elementary School”.  He began by defining aesthetics versus the philosophy of art.  Aesthetics is “an investigation of the nature of beauty, ugliness, etc.”, while philosophy of art is “an investigation of art and the various art forms such as painting, sculpture, music, etc.”.

Wartenberg stated that philosophy of art in elementary school is a topic that the children really like.  He explained that they regularly make art and display it, thus opening the door to raise philosophical issues.  He called into service a book by Peter Catalanotto, “Emily’s Art”,  as a great resource for opening dialogue with youngsters.  Through the narrative of a school art contest where the protagonist loses the prize because of an unfairly biased judge and then watches a plagiarizing classmate win, children confront a series of philosophical questions:  What is art? Who is an artist? What criteria should be used to judge good art? How is art created? How is art viewed and interpreted?  Wartenberg showed a video of fifth grade students discussing the book and the issues it raised, with a boy most memorably talking about the qualities that it takes to be a good, impartial judge.

Wartenberg next tackled the issue of the nature of artistic evaluation:  subjectivist versus objectivist viewpoints.  He explained that properties like “detailed” or “colorful” don’t automatically equal a good painting, making the notion of objectivism seemed threatened.  Wartenberg looks to contemporary philosophers like Arthur Danto for help, and paraphrases Danto’s notion that it isn’t the visible properties that make it a work of art.  Rather, there are objective properties that contribute to a work’s goodness, like originality.  Originality cannot directly be perceived, but requires knowledge of the history of the relevant art.

Wartenberg left the audience with a lingering question:  When we say that a work of art is good, or a judge says is better than others, what is basis for that claim?  He also summarized with his belief that philosophy of art is a good topic to teach at both levels—grammar and high school.  And reminded the audience that college kids love picture books too.

TC alumna (Ph.D., Philosophy and Education) Ariana Stokas of Bard College followed Wartenberg, and began by stating that with her work at the Learning Through Arts (LTA) program at the Guggenheim, she balances both the philosophy of art and aesthetics.  Stokas explains the program simply:  LTA happens in schools where art has been taken out, and takes professional working artists and puts them into classrooms to look at and make art with children.  She describes the notion of arts education as essential to helping kids access different parts of themselves. Stokas showed the audience Roy Lichtenstein’s “Grrr!”, then began a sample lesson based on that painting.  She queried, “What do you think the artist feels about dogs? How does your idea of a dog differ from the artist’s?  Stokas explains that the LTA’s curriculum can be easily folded into a teacher’s already existing curriculum, in nearly every subject matter.

Stokas summarized by sharing the LTA’s research findings, which demonstrated that exposure to art exercises (making and talking about art) make kids better problem solvers and better critical thinkers.  In the current political school climate, Stokas explained that it is no longer sufficient to say, “let’s keep art for arts sake,” and believes the LTA’s research gave language to the arts and why we should keep it.   She concludes by stating that that making and looking at art has to do with the practice of teaching and how that informs decisions teachers make.

Matthew Hayden, TC Philosophy and Education Ph.D. student was the final presenter.  Hayden stated that study of aesthetics is a way to lead us to a fuller understanding of the world, and offered his ideas on ways in which students can access aesthetics without thinking of it as “art”.

Hayden explained that when teaching anything to anyone, there needs to be a certain accessibility of the subject.  Making something accessible to students allows them to form pathways of their own to connect with pathways they already have, a process that allows students to make knowledge their own.

Hayden employed kinesthetics, or movement, as a pathway for students to access aesthetics.  Since kids already talk about sports and sport figures, it is a good way to get them to understand something they already enjoy.  Students can describe why they like sports, and then move into a real conversation about aesthetics.  Whether it is ballet or basketball, students can find experiences in their own lives where they too did something really well.  Hayden summarized this thought by saying a superior athlete is a superior aesthete, then quoted John Dewey and the notion of “flow”.

For those who don’t care about kinestetics, Hayden offered the option of mathematics as a way to talk about aesthetics.  He explained that the human brain is a pattern-seeking organ, with eyes especially trained to use complex filters to understand patterns.  Hayden suggested Richard Taylor’s investigation into the fractals of art  as a way to access aesthetics.  He explained Taylor’s findings as such: Jackson Pollock’s paintings can be identified as fractals.  Humans show a preference for low fractal densities.  While Pollock’s more controversial paintings had high densities, his most popular paintings had a lower range of fractal density.  Perhaps subconsciously, Pollock was mimicking the pleasing rhythms of nature.

Hayden summarized that employing kinestetcis and fractals/mathematics are good discussions points for students who are resistant to approach art in the usual way.

The session ended with the moderator inviting the audience to write questions generated by the speakers on the whiteboard.   Here is a sampling.  Please feel free to offer your thoughts on the following (as well as on any of the concepts presented by Thomas Wartenberg, Ariana Stokas and Matthew Hayden):

What is the value of art for art’s sake?

Can an excellent forgery be a good work of art?

Can the aesthetic self be expressed in ways other than art?

Is it a good idea to have art contests in elementary school?

How about Wagner, who was an anti-Semite, but a gifted artist?

Is art an emotional expression?  How is it rigorous philosophical thinking?