A brief history of aesthetic education

The following article is excerpted from a dissertation by Judith Hill Bose,
Aesthetic Education: Philosophy and Teaching Artist Practice at Lincoln Center Institute 
submitted to the Graduate Faculty in Urban Education in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The City University of New York, 2008.


This section excerpted here focuses on certain philosophical underpinnings of aesthetic educationas developed at Lincoln Center Institute, drawing distinct connections between the work of Maxine Greene and others. The complete dissertation is available for download, via link at the bottom of this page.

            In Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey sometimes called aesthetic experience, or the transactional moment, a “continuous interaction” between the total organism [human perceiver] and the art object [or performance]. He maintained that art may be looked at or even recognized with correct names attached, but that this does not constitute a full aesthetic engagement, or a fully perceived work of art. Greene often says she has in mind a kind of “entering” into a work, entering with both body and imaginative mind—a particular mode of participation. Our memories and moods and lived lives enter the aesthetic experience with us and the energy created with the work of art involves a back and forth movement.

            Perceiving a dance, a painting, a quartet means taking it in and going out to it. The action required is at the furthest remove from the passive gaze that is the hallmark of our time . . . . Perceiving is an active probing of wholes as they become visible. It involves, as it goes on, a sense of something still to be seen, of thus far undisclosed possibility (Greene, 2001b, p. 13).

            For Greene, aesthetic engagement requires contact with an actual live or authentic work, as opposed to either a reproduction or a theoretical concept. She shares this belief with Arnold Berleant, whose central guiding theme is that actual aesthetic experience, rather than abstract theory, should lie at the center of how we think about art. Throughout Art and Engagement, he examines the relationship between experience and theory in aesthetics, develops the ideas of artistic engagement in the contexts of particular arts (landscape painting, architecture, literary experience, music and dance), and claims that aesthetic theory must be fashioned in its own terms, centered directly in actual aesthetic experience (Berleant, 1991). Whenever Greene speaks or writes about aesthetic education, the discourse is steeped in the visceral, emotional, and intellectual experiences of an array of works of art, the paintings of Cezanne, for example, the words of Toni Morrison, the movements of Martha Graham, and a vast array of other works. She, unlike Dewey, writes out of her own considered and eclectic experiences with specific works of art and with teaching artists; the ideas do not come abstractly about art, unattached to particular aesthetic experiences and works of art. Her personal life is filled with attending the theatre, museums, and dance performances. Rather than diversions or entertainments, these experiences actively influence her philosophical views. Just as Berleant suggests that the field of philosophical aesthetics should pay more attention to actual works of art, Greene’s thinking about aesthetic education rises not from abstract conceptualization, but rather from her own personal engagements with artists and their works.

           Similarly, at the heart of aesthetic education that teaching artists enact, there are artistic experiences designed for students. These experiences carry students into a particular performance of a play, a dance, a concert, a painting or a sculpture. There is always the live work, and the bringing of the students' experience into relationship with that work. Greene quotes Louis Reid in Variations on a Blue Guitar (2001b) when she says, “we have to somehow initiate [students] into what it feels like to live in music, move over and about in a painting, travel round and between the masses of a sculpture, dwell in a poem”(Greene, 2001b, p. 8/Reid, 1969, p. 302).
Greene and Dewey are alike and somewhat unique, with their twin interests in both aesthetics and philosophy of education. Though they are writing at different times out of very different life circumstances, there are clear and striking affinities among many of their ideas. Ultimately, they are both concerned with the larger issues of democracy, freedom, and social justice. It is worthwhile to begin a discussion of Dewey's ideas by uncovering a term he ultimately used to describe the kind of aesthetic and educational experiences in which he was most interested: “transaction.” It is useful not only terminologically, but also in revealing part of a longer intellectual history that Maxine Greene continues to take up in her work. It also lies at the heart of aesthetic education practice at LCI; for teaching artists there is the ever-present question of how to make a genuine transaction possible between a person, or communities of diverse people, and a work of art. Indeed, it is the central question.

           In the ideas of both John Dewey and Maxine Greene, “transaction” is firmly at the center of two crucial acts, the two acts in which teaching artists at LCI are most deeply involved: (1) in perceiving a work of art, and (2) in meaningful teaching and learning. The term “transaction” was articulated and explicated by John Dewey and Arthur Bentley in Knowing and the Known (1949), however the concept behind the term is embedded in many of Dewey's earlier writings in both aesthetics and education (Dewey, 1902/1977, 1916, 1934).

           In Knowing and the Known (1949), Dewey, along with philosopher Arthur Bentley, embarked upon clarifying some of the actual vocabulary used in the “field of knowledge,” as they called it. Their work is a terminological inquiry in which “transaction” is one of several words they explore at length. They juxtapose the term “transaction” to the word “interaction” for clarification (1949, p. 103-118). Interestingly, Dewey himself often used “interaction” in his prior aesthetic writings (1934) when he was clearly interested in the concept he later called transaction. It seems that Knowing and the Known is, in no small measure, an attempt to specify particular terms that more precisely indicate earlier, well-developed ideas.

           Yet the authors undertook this endeavor as a process of both clarification and inquiry (inquiry into “knowings” and “knowns”), and here they placed themselves firmly in the American pragmatic tradition, with writers such as George H. Mead and Charles Sanders Pierce who were their contemporaries. They are clear from the outset that they regard language (names and namings) “as living behaviors in an evolving world of men and things” (Dewey and Bentley, 1949, xii). Bentley, Mead, Pierce, and especially Dewey's work should be viewed from the context of the larger pragmatist movement, one that viewed the world as consisting of relationships and activities. Pragmatism is a theory of action (behavior) and relations, rather than of metaphysics or individuals. Thus “knowings” and “knowns” and even “namings” are always viewed as processes, as events or behaviors in the making that do not separate subjects from objects.
           While Greene sees beyond a purely pragmatist perspective through, among other views, a phenomenological lens of behavior and “knowings” that arise more specifically out of the ground of individuals' lived lives, we can certainly recognize the strong relational impulse and the active mode in her view of the aesthetic experience. Greene writes eloquently about the need for a human consciousness if there is to be a work of art at all. Here, she travels along with Dewey and the countless others who argue against separations and false distinctions: There must be a readiness; there must be some realization that an aesthetic object —Romeo and Juliet, “Billy Budd,” Cezanne's The Cardplayers—is something that has to be achieved, brought into being by the one who perceives, who reads, who attends. Many people simply do not understand that mere printed words, musical notes, brushstrokes on canvas cannot be regarded as works of art. They do not realize that works of art only come into existence when a certain kind of heeding, noticing or attending takes place; they do not realize that living persons, through and by means of an encounter with a work, constitute it (if they are wide-awake and attentive enough) as a work of art (Greene, 1978, p. 190-1).

           Understanding transaction entails rejecting any separation between subject and object; this belief was a mainstream tenet of the pragmatist approach and is a view embraced and furthered by Greene. The world must be seen in its inter-related wholeness, rather than as dissected. In fact, in Mead's thinking, the self (or individual) emerges only through the process of social interaction with others and the environment. The development of no part of the system can be studied or understood independently of the whole (Mead, 1934). This is a topic Dewey had written passionately about for most of his life, and the subject-object debate certainly has one of the longest intellectual histories in philosophy. As a general philosophical stance, Dewey opposed dualities and fragmentation thoroughly; one need only attend to the titles of his many works (Experience and Education, Art as Experience, The Child and the Curriculum, Democracy and Education, to name but a few) to note his deep impulse towards bringing ideas into relationships and seeing them as wholes, rather than as disparate or distinct parts.

            The reader will recall that in our general procedure of inquiry no radical separation is made between that which is observed and the observer in the way which is common in the epistemologies and in standard psychologies and psychological constructions. Instead, observer and observed are held in close organization. Nor is there any radical separation between that which is named and the naming. Comparably knowings and knowns, as inclusive of namings and observings, and of much else as well, are themselves taken in a common system of inquiry, and not as if they were the precarious products of a struggle between severed realms of “being” (Dewey and Bentley, 1949, p. 104).
            These ideas were present in Dewey's earlier notions of the aesthetic experience as well. Throughout Art as Experience (1934), he speaks in depth about the need to erase many of the traditional dualities associated with art—form and content, high and low art, creation and perception, emotion and reason, mind and body, to name but a few. He is, in fact, adamant about how the acts of making and perceiving are absolutely entwined in the artist's process:
In an emphatic artistic-esthetic [sic] experience, the relation is so close that it controls simultaneously both the doing and the perception. . . Hand and eye, when the experience is esthetic [sic], are but instruments through which the entire live creature, moved and active throughout, operates. Hence, the expression is emotional and guided by purpose. . . What is done and what is undergone are thus reciprocally, cumulatively, and continuously instrumental to each other (Dewey, 1934, p. 50).
           More radical, however, is his insistence that the perceiver of a work of art is also involved in the active processes (perceiving and making) of the artist: It is not so easy in the case of the perceiver and appreciator to understand the intimate union of doing and undergoing as it is in the case of the maker. We are given to supposing that the former merely takes in what is there in finished form, instead of realizing that this taking in involves activities that are comparable to those of the creator. But receptivity is not passivity. It, too, is a process consisting of a series of responsive acts that accumulate toward objective fulfillment. Otherwise, there is not perception but recognition. The difference between the two is immense. Recognition is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely. In recognition there is a beginning of an act of perception. But this beginning is not allowed to serve the development of a full perception of the thing recognized. It is arrested at the point where it will serve some other purpose, as we recognize a man on the street in order to greet or to avoid him, not so as to see him for the sake of seeing what is there. . . . In recognition we fall back, as upon a stereotype, upon some previously formed scheme . . . (1934, p. 52).
            Greene often refers to Dewey's claim that without imagination mere facts are “helpless” and “repellent” things (Dewey, 1931, p. 11). What she indicates here is the need to move beyond any obvious fact for an aesthetic experience to occur between perceiver and work. She sometimes calls this “achieving” the work, or reaching out towards it in particular ways that surpass bare recognition, or pinning down a definition. For Greene, this reaching is a necessary part of the transactional experience:
I have been emphasizing the fact that the work or the performance can only emerge as an aesthetic object or event in encounters with some human consciousness. Works of art do not reveal themselves automatically, you see. I have suggested that they have to be achieved (Greene, 2001b, p. 15).

Berleant, A. (1991). Art and engagement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of
            education. New York: Free Press.
Dewey, J. (1931). Philosophy and civilization. New York: Minton, Balch.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Perigee
Dewey, J. & Bentley, A. (1949). Knowing and the known. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dewey, J. (1977). The child and the curriculum. In S. Cahn (Ed.), Classic and
            Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education (pp. 276-288). New
            York: McGraw-Hill. (Original work published 1902)

Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Greene, M. (2001b). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute
             lectures on aesthetic education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago
Reid, L. A. (1969). Meaning in the arts. New York: Humanities Press.

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Aesthetic Education: Philosophy and Teaching Artist Practice at Lincoln Center Institute

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