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Aesthetic Education and Moral Intelligence


Richard Rorty



There has been important work done recently in thinking very concretely and importantly about what it means to value and teach an aesthetic education. I"m thinking right now of Michael Clune's A Defense of Judgment, but also other works in which the need for an aesthetic education is paramount if not totally explicitly developed as a dominant theme, like Helen Vendler's The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. We find the need for thinking clearly and dynamically about aesthetic education in Allen Grossman's work on the humanities, in this lecture, for example, or we find actual examples of thinking robustly about aesthetics in Elaine Scarry's Dreaming by the Book. Harold Bloom's entire oeuvre, we could say, along with the tens of thousands of students he taught over the course of his more than 50 years teaching also suggests the need and awareness of an aesthetic education. The same could be said for Martha Nussbaum's work, or Richard Rorty's.


What is an aesthetic education, and how would one teach it, or inculcate it, or suggest it, or help to develop it, in oneself and, because of the nature of education, in students interested in it? How would one even talk about it, in order to make it something students would be interested in?


Aesthetics comes from the Greek word "aesthesthai," which means "to perceive." It therefore did not seem to have as many connotations of beauty as it did when it was adopted by Alexander Baumgarten in the 18th century to refer more explicitly to beauty. I suppose this makes sense, for if we think about it, when Baumgarten was writing, which was around the time Kant was writing, there were less clear distinctions between beauty and ethics, or beauty and religion. Most visual art, for example, was religious - the idea of a secular painting then would have been seen as sacrilege, something unimaginable. The subject matter, the content, of the artwork was religious, and so there was a less permeable distinction between creating something of beauty and that something having a religious and therefore ethical value.


This might sound good - "oh, all of our paintings are good, because they are beautiful and religious at the same time" - but in practice, if it had continued, it would have been a disaster. Why? There should not be prescriptions about art. We should describe art, and evaluate it, and create it, but we should not say what it should be, since that limits what it can be. This is what Richard Rorty meant, I think, when he said that there is no such thing as an intrinsic human nature. He meant that as soon as we said "this is what a human being, and therefore this is what a human being should be, and so this is what a work of art should be," we put clamps on what the imagination was and could be. One of my favorite sentences, in Rorty's Contingency, irony, and solidary is "What the Romantics expressed as the claim that imagination, rather than reason, is the central human faculty was the realization that a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change." (7). Reasons defines, offers prescriptions, and, in lesser works of reason, knows what it says before it says it. It builds boxes and colors them in, at least in less robust exertions; and analysis in and of itself is neither moral nor vigorous. But imagination is something that builds structures for reason to consider; like Wallace Stevens' "structure of vaults upon a point of light" in "The Man with the Blue Guitar," the imagination builds both the structures and therefore allows for the various angles of that point of light; or, the imagination is that point of light, out of which the structures of reason assemble to make sense, using things like intellect, or logic, or discursive thinking, or analysis. But the imagination is neither a fusion of religion, art, and ethics, nor is it a strict division between these things, as Kant differentiated them in his different critiques. It is a kind of twangling, an absorbing sponge, a synthesizing power, what Coleridge termed "esemplastic," and it unifies and integrates in powerful ways that help us resee the traditions that came before us. This is what Rorty meant when he spoke of "redescription."


I am speaking of these matters in very academic terms, it seems, but I think there is also something very pragmatic about aesthetics, and therefore an aesthetic education. To perceive, to learn how to perceive well, is to refine one's perceptions, and therefore be more able to experience the beauty of the world, of other people, of texts, situations, though not in a rose-colored glasses sort of way. In one of my favorite endings of a short story, Chekhov's "Gusev," he write of sick man laying in a hammock on a ship. He dies, and they sew him into a cloth to drop him into the ocean, using iron to keep the body down in the water. Then they place the body in the cloth on a plank, and title it downwards, and the body makes a somersault in the air and splashes into the water. He falls down amidst shoals of fish, which surround the body. Then we read, (translated by Robert Payne),


"Then still another dark body appeared. This was a shark. It swam below Gusev with dignity and reserve, seeming not to notice him; and when he, descending, fell against the back of the shark, then the shark turned belly upwards, basking in the warm transparent water and lazily opening its jaws with their two rows of teeth. The pilot fish were in ecstasy; they stopped to see what would happen next. After playing around with the body for a while, the shark calmly laid its jaws upon it, tapped it with its teeth, and ripped open the sailcloth along the whole length of the body from head to foot; one of the fire bars fell out, frightened by the pilot fish, struck the shark in the ribs, and sank rapidly to the bottom.


Meanwhile in the heavens clouds came and massed themselves against the sunset, and one cloud resembled a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors....THere came a great beam of green light transpiercing the clouds and stretching to the center of the sky, and a little while later a violet-colored beam lay beside it, and then there was a golden beam, and then a rose-colored beam. The heavens turned lilac, very soft. Gazing up at the enchanted heavens, magnificent in their splendor, the sea fumed darkly at first, but soon assumed the sweet, joyous, passionate colors for which there are scarcely any names in the tongue of man." (170)


To live in a world where the unspeakable beauty of the last paragraph is juxtaposed with the terrifying bloodlust of the fish for the body in the water is to be presented with a paradox. How do we reconcile these things? What does it mean? How do we live this awareness, what W.H. Auden described in "Musee de Beaux Arts" as "some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree"?


I think that is a question that has an individual answer for each person, and it is not my aim to attempt to answer this question here, but just to pose it. That said, since we are talking about aesthetic education, how would we talk about these things, and what do they have to do with education, or for that matter aesthetics, meaning perception?


I think first, to teach about these things requires the emotional intelligence for being both honest and empathetic. Meaning, the last paragraph is more empathetic, I'd think, and the second-to-last is more honest. We need the last paragraph because we would perish from the truth, to paraphrase Nietzsche, without it. So first, I think a good teacher could recognize these qualities of feeling in these paragraphs, and also be able to speak about them in ways that make sense.


Why would a student be interested in such matters? This to me seems like a naive question, for these matters are human matters, and life brings them up every moment. A better question would be, how do we encourage students to tackle these issues with their minds and hearts, while not overdetermining what they think and feel? How do we provide heuristics rather than boxes?


I think it's a matter of character, to be honest, and therefore, to invoke Rorty again, of self-image. The teacher has to have a strong character, and they can't speak of issues in life or art if they have no experience of these issues or, if they have not come to some conclusions in their own lives - critical, social, aesthetic, experiential, spiritual - about the meaning of these issues, these contradictions, these enigmas, these paradoxes. But if they have a strong character - I"m thinking right now of the work of Robert Coles in works like The Moral Intelligence of Chlidren: How to Raise a Moral Child or The Spiritual Life of Children - then students will not mind behind guided, because they will feel protected and, to the best of the teacher's ability, understood.


I don't know if this sounds quaint to invoke morals, but I think the very fact that it could sound quaint suggests that we don't always realize that the best artists, whether they are nihilistic or exuberant, created out of both a moral and aesthetic sense. Nihilism is a form of morality, an acknowledgement of the meaningless underlying meaning, or vice versa. Harold Bloom says it best in Kabbalah and Criticism, when he writes,


"The sad truth is that poems don't have presence, unity, form, or meaning. Presence is a faith, unity is a mistake or even a lie, form is a metaphor, and meaning is an arbitrary and now repetitious metaphysics. What then does a poem possess or create? Alas, a poem has nothing, and creates nothing. Its presence is a promise, part of the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Its unity is in the good will of its reader. It form is another version of the inside/outside metaphor of the dualizing Post-Cartesian West, which means that form in poetry is always merely a change in perspective. Finally, its meaning is just that there is, or rather was, another poem. A poem is a substitution for a lost first chance, which pragmatically means another poem. Substitution, whatever it becomes in life, is in poetry primarily a rhetorical process, which returns us to the primacy of the trope."


I think we could responsibly replace "person" with "poem" here and understand Bloom's argument from a slightly different perspective. I mean "person" in Allen Grossman's sense, as "acknowledgeable and therefore capable of love and mutual interest in one another's safety." (Grossman, The Sighted Singer, 9) Grossman goes on to write, "It is the function of poetry as making persons present, as modeling the conditions under which persons can be present, that seems to me to survive to us and to justify the prestige of the poetic art." (9) Poetry is "the keeping of the image of persons as precious in the world." (6)


The askesis of Bloom's passage can be balanced by the more interpersonal values of Grossman's emphasis on the human image, perhaps because Bloom was more Nietzchean and Grossman more like Johnson; or, since we are describing two Jewish men, Bloom was an Orthodox Jew, and Grossman was a Conservative Jew (Conservative denoting a level of religiosity, and not a political stance). Bloom was "A more severe, / More harassing master," to borrow Stevens' quote from An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, and Grossman was "the reader leaning late and reading there" from Stevens' The House was Quiet and the World was Calm. Both seemed to have been enormously heymish, and enormously brooding; both cared about the other world and other people, and both found their own ways of dealing with the paradoxes of the world.


There is no way to have interpersonal intelligence without intrapersonal intelligence, which is another way of saying that though the other is in the self, along the lines of Buddhist teachings of interconnectedness, or Jewish teachings about the Beloved, or arguments by a philosopher like Emmanuel Levinas, we cannot exactly foreground the other before we work on the self, for the other is seen through the eyes of the self, and if the eyes are cloudy, the other will be cloudy as well. This is not an argument for solipsism, but it is an argument for recognizing that without working on ourselves, and becoming more perceptive, and therefore more moral as well as more open to the beauty of the world, other people, books, natures, ideas, etc., then we will not be capable of helping others, for giving has to come from somewhere and go somewhere, and if we want to give, we have to become people capable of giving.


I am not really interested, as I said, in giving prescriptions here, or teaching suggestions, but I do think an emphasis on character could help students realize that it is who we are, or who we become, that matters in the end, and this is what students remember long after they graduate. Like that great Van Morrison song, "Summertime in England," "it ain't why, why, why, why, why, it just is." There is no epistemology without ontology, just as there is no rationality without the heart. If we ourselves are artists who live our lives for things like beauty and morality, and create and think and feel deeply and to the best of our ability, then I think there is plausible chance that students with similar interests - or students who do not even realize they have these interests at first - will be drawn to consider what it means to study a graphic novel, a play, a short story, a novel, or even a song, a cartoon, lyrics, movies, photography, sculpture, etc. - and therefore begin to think about what role the imagination might play in their own lives, as something that can help a person find self-expression, the right channels for their feelings, and learn that traditions - religious, literary, artistic, or otherwise - are those channels, were made to help us live our lives, and like geological formations formed out of long vistas of time, have been tested experimentally, evidentially, and experientially as ways for teaching a robust morality and an openness to beauty.



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