Aesthetic Education and Democracy

I have just participated in a terrific three day seminar on Aesthetic Education as part of the 2021 ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) conference.  I got caught up in (instigated?) a debate about expertise in which I think I failed to clarify my position or, more importantly, what is at stake for me in taking the position I did.  I think it likely that I misunderstood the paper by Michael Clune that I was over-reacting to.  At the very least, I need to wait until I read Michael’s forthcoming book on judgment and Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension before pursuing that quarrel.  Clune thrillingly described the ways in which subject and object can be co-constituted through their encounter, especially (it was implied) when the object is an aesthetic one.  “The work organizes our experience of the world” and “the subject is shaped by the work” are two phrases from his talk.  One is changed by this encounter; one’s world is enriched. 

Inspired by this account, I wanted to say that such meaningful encounters are open to all.  Everyone has aesthetic experiences from an early age. Aesthetic education can (I hope) heighten or intensify those experiences and (at a high school and college level) make students more reflective about the nature of their aesthetic experiences and the reasons/causes for their tastes. (Mark Wollenberg in his talk introduced me to the wonderful notion of a “taste journey,” the narrative of one’s evolving tastes.) But I want us to understand aesthetic experience as utterly normal and as universal as the ability to speak a language. One acquires aesthetic sensibilities and aesthetic tastes pretty much the same way one acquires a language or one acquires a set of moral commitments: through the give and take with others and the world, shaped by feedback loops that point in one direction as the way to “go on” and tell us that other directions are inappropriate, non-fruitful, or actively harmful. 

The barrier to entry into language, into aesthetic experience, and into morality is incredibly low.  As Kant says, we expect these competencies of everyone past a certain age (probably four years old).  We expect people will become more adept at all three practices as they grow older—and education aims to facilitate that enhancing of competence.  But there is no clear threshold between the expert and the novice, only a continuum because from a very early age people are always already linguistic beings with a sense of right and wrong and with a sensuous engagement with worldly objects that shape their selves and their selves’ understanding of the world. To put it a little differently, one’s way of being in the world (one’s character in an Aristotelian sense) is a product of one’s interaction with others, with the language into which one is born, with the prevailing mores of one’s society, and with the sensuous apprehension of worldly objects, situations, and events.  And lest that list look too sanguine and ethereal, let’s make sure to add the society’s compulsions, the things it demands of its members in terms of norms of productivity and accountability.  Systems of debt are omnipresent as David Graeber taught us, and Kristen Case’s talk at the conference introduced me to the notion of chrono-normativity, the ways in which our time is structured for us by social demands. 

So, in this post, instead of pursuing what quickly became a muddled and unhelpful debate over the term “expert,” let me try to articulate the positive vision that was behind my inclination to instigate that debate.  Of course, the clarity of this positive vision only came to me after the fact—and so is a good result (at least I hope so) of the ruckus.  Thinking it all through afterwards helped to clarify for me why I think aesthetic education and democracy can (and should) be deeply intertwined.

My position is an unholy mixture of Arendt, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kant, and Latour.  The best way to start is with Arendt’s insistence that truth and politics don’t mix.  Here’s a simple way to illustrate her point.  The local river does not have a bridge over it.  That’s a fact and is pre-political for Arendt.  If we can’t agree that there’s no bridge, we’ve got nowhere to go.  A scary thought in this day and age when millions deny the fact that Biden won the 2020 election.  Fact (the truth about the way things are) is compulsive for Arendt.  There is no room for negotiation or compromise; that’s why it is not political.  I can only insist that the election was fair and won by Biden. 

But let’s go back to our bridge-less river.  Should we build a bridge over it or not?  That’s a matter of opinion—and the very stuff of politics for Arendt.  The political community should meet together as equals, with everyone’s opinion heard.  In this agonistic understanding of democracy, some opinions may, in the course of the debate, prove more persuasive than others.  But the community is engaged in a fundamental process of asking for and giving reasons—and of weighing those reasons.  Chances of reaching consensus are pretty slim.  We live in an irreducibly plural world, ranging from the mysteries of individual idiosyncrasies (evident to any parent who has more than one child) to different social positionings, to different life experiences.  Where a decision has to be reached, a vote is a way to cut off discussion.  But in aesthetic matters we don’t take votes.  We simply let the discussion, with the different judgments about an aesthetic experience’s worth, and different descriptions of its distinctive qualities, roll on.  In fact, those endless disagreements are much of the fun, a point to which I will return.

Once the community decides to build the bridge, we exit politics again and call in the expert.  Everyone’s opinion is not equally entitled to be heard and respected when it comes to the question of how to build the bridge.  We are back in the realm of positive knowledge, where only certain trained persons know how to build bridges that won’t collapse.  Because any debate on that subject will not be between equals and only among a small group of qualified people, the debate (if there is one) is technical, not political.

My positive point overlaps with Nick Gaskill’s wanting to identify plural modes of apprehension, although I don’t know enough Whitehead to be sure.  Still, I like the idea that science as a mode of knowledge deals in facts ranging from the river has no bridge to assertions about the stress loads a particular bridge can hold.  Aesthetics is more attuned to the “qualities” of things—more properly the qualities of experiences since I want to hold on to the interactive emphasis I saw in Clune’s talk.  As Kant tried hard to explain, aesthetics is about the self’s engagement with the non-self, and the non-self meant not only nature but also one’s society, as represented by the sensus communis.  Everyone is engaged with the world and others—and they are the best witness to their own understandings and judgments of that engagement.  And surely we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.  The only thing worse than a world in which everyone disagreed with me all the time would be a world in which everyone agreed with me.  The parent delights in the child’s first signs of willfulness, of independence, just as the English literature teacher delights when students discover pleasure in a Browning poem.  In the case of the poem, the teacher can lead the student to water, but can’t make him drink.  The class can be the occasion for discovering how the self can be shaped by the work, but the occasion is non-compulsive, and there is no single or right way for that shaping to occur.  Mathematics is compulsive, aesthetic experiences are not.

Thus, when aesthetic education fosters the formation of aesthetic opinions, reflection upon the reasons and felt experiences that underlie those opinions, and debates with others about them, it is a simulacrum of democracy itself. 

This linking of aesthetic education with democracy (as Arendt envisions it) entails that the job of the aesthetic ed teacher is 1) not to claim his students begin in ignorance; 2) not to disparage the views they currently hold; and 3) not to intimate in any way that his views are preferable in any way to those of the students.  But that last point is outrageous!!!!

[Digression #1: it seems to me no surprise that when aesthetic education and aesthetic educators are threatened, it will seem particularly foolhardy to downplay our expertise and our contributions to positive knowledge since those are the coin of the realm. But I agree with Nick Gaskill that we aren’t going to fool anybody, including ourselves, by trying to assimilate what we do to the knowledge producing protocols of the natural or social sciences. Better to grab the nettle and explain how and why we are doing something different.]

Not so outrageous if you consider how seldom we offer to students the experience of equality.  If, as I believe is true, democracy is dependent on all members of society taking equality utterly seriously, then why would we think that depriving people (in the workplace as well as the classroom, not to mention the patriarchal family, and hierarchical stigmas of race, profession, wealth etc.) of any experience of equality would redound to the health of democracy?  I am suggesting that the aesthetics classroom is an ideal place (and currently one of the few places) where equality can be the norm.  Dare I say that’s because so little is at stake, that in the last analysis aesthetic disagreements have very few consequences, that (as I have already suggested), disagreements are what give flavor to aesthetic debates. The aesthetic is a safe space in which to practice the democratic ethos of meeting with one’s peers in equality to debate about things on which you disagree, but where there is never a conclusive, knock-down argument to be had, one that brings the debate to a halt because now everyone agrees or because we have reached a disagreement about fact that is conversation-stopping.

[Digression #2:Joseph North and Kate Stanley in our seminar would point out how individualistic this account of aesthetic experience and aesthetic debate is. What about the ways that aesthetic experiences can foster, even generate, collective identities? Arendt seems to think that the ability to participate in the conversation as an equal, to be heard, is enough to underwrite a commitment to the necessarily collective action that establishes and sustains the conversation. In other words, our collectivity is enacted–performatively created–through our talking to one another even as the substance of that talk is often our disagreements. It is also the case if no one’s opinion was ever changed, if we never achieved some partial agreements, the conversation would seem utterly futile and would most likely come to an end. That attachment to the collectivity achieved through the conversation may explain why almost everyone in the seminar tried to say that Clune and I really didn’t have a deep, fundamental disagreement.]

I challenge your opinions and you challenge mine.  In that pragmatic give-and-take, that attempt to offer reasons and grounds for one’s opinion, opinions and even experiences are changed.  I come to see that I had failed to see some aspect (Wittgenstein) of a work that now leads me to reconsider my opinion of it.  But maybe not.  Maybe I still think it trite and meretricious.  In Arendt’s lovely phrase (which she claims she takes from Kant, but which I can’t find in Kant), my challenger can only “woo” my consent with her view, lacking any way to compel it. 

So what does the teacher of aesthetic education bring into the classroom?  Three things, I would hope. 1) An ability to facilitate productive conversations about aesthetic experiences. These conversations enhance our ability to reflect upon those experiences and (absolutely crucially as will become clearer in a moment) foster an ability to hear about other’s different experiences/values/tastes and accept the way their views challenge me to revise my own.  The teacher helps the student learn how to assemble (Latour) his reasons, his evidence, his articulation of his experiences in order to make an eloquent rendering of his opinion to himself and to his auditors.

2) The teacher can bring a trained eye or ear.  That is, the teacher has spent a lot more time around aesthetic objects and thinking about them, and thus may be in a position to enhance the students’ aesthetic experiences by pointing out features of the aesthetic object they may miss.  If this is what we mean by expertise, I’m down with it.  But with the important reservations that the teacher’s judgments, at the end of the day, are no more authoritative than the students’ judgments.  If someone still finds Shakespeare a bore after all I have done to make him more accessible and interesting, that student (once again) is fully entitled to that opinion.  We cannot expect to persuade everyone all the time—and it would in fact be a nightmare if we did persuade everyone to hold the same views.  Which is another way of saying that communicability (Kant), not assent, is what is crucial here.

3) Communicability means that success in articulating my position—and yours as I comprehend it—is the good the teacher should be aiming for.  Students are to be engaged in the language game of asking for and giving reasons.  The teacher has been around the block and so is familiar with many of the moves in reason giving, with various types of reasons, of evidence, of persuasive appeals, and can guide the students toward a recognition of those means, and work to enhance their abilities of expression and comprehension.  One way to say this (I would reference Nick Gaskill’s paper here) is that intelligibility, not knowledge, is what is at issue.  I don’t know definitively that Moby Dick is the greatest American novel ever written after talking to you; but I understand (you have made intelligible to me) your reasons why you think it is and the reasons you think I should agree with you.  You have done your wooing—and our teachers (and other exemplars in this art of reason giving) have helped me learn how to hone my reason giving. Communicability rests on the same feedback loops I keep invoking. I know I have to try again when my auditor says I don’t see what you are driving at. What we have here is a failure to communicate. That failure, not a failure to agree, is what is fatal to sociality–and any hope of democracy. Need I add that the person who believes the 2020 election was stolen is not intelligible to me–and apparently not at all interested in talking to me in an effort to make his views intelligible, or listening to my account of how his conviction threatens our polity. Which is why I fear for democracy.

There are other things aesthetic education can aim to achieve.  I don’t mean to slight the value of aesthetic experience in and of itself—its essential place in anything I would deem a flourishing life.  But I do think, if stringently tied to equality, that the aesthetic classroom can be a laboratory of democracy in a world where we talk democracy all the time but very rarely experience it, which is another way of saying that our social spaces and social interactions persistently infantilize people, belittling their own understandings of their experience, their confidence in their tastes, and their ability to articulate their opinions in the face of a healthy, but respectful, skepticism.

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