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Beyond Words: The Nature of Art and Artistic Development

Robert J. Sullivan ARE6933: 04HE, Fall 2012 Professor Delacruz September 4, 2012


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Abstract While mere speculation, it seems the mystery that is life is quite possibly what has always created the impetus or actual need to develop art. Art, as a tool of life’s natural proclivities to create and learn as well as the attempt at the manifestation of thoughts and ideas that cannot so easily be articulated, is the centerpiece of this review. Identifying art as a natural inclination for human communication that goes beyond words, even if words are being used to make art, is perhaps what all art movements have been about. Arguably, this notion has been more evident in the modern and the post-modern era we find ourselves in today. However, the certitude that modernism and other art movements have had, has given way to the doubt and uncertainty the postmodern era seems to embrace. These ideas, as having always been art’s nature which results in artistic development, is examined in this review.


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Introduction There has been a concerted effort over the last 100 years or so to codify and define how artistic behaviors, motivations, and development are manifested in individuals and in culture. This hasn’t been the easiest of tasks. The “ill-defined” nature of the category “art” (Kindler, 2004) makes it that much more difficult. The nascent fields of art education, psychology and sociology have all attempted to try to give us clearer definitions about creativity and human intelligence, as well as how these things are meted out and developed in an individual’s life. Their foray into the delicate and hard to define areas of the human psyche has had, in many cases, an immense effect on people’s self-image and life choices. This burgeoning group of scholars has also had some impact in terms of policy making on how we as a society perceive others and particularly how teachers perceive and try to teach and/or engage students. It seems as though there should be a tangible connection, or at least a linchpin, we can intellectually grasp that will give us unblemished and defining notions about artistic motivation, but in the end it seems too aloof a feat to try to accomplish in part, much less in its entirety. We are given glimpses, and what can at best be described as fleeting theories. Nevertheless, it seems we are no closer today in this so-called new Age of Doubt (McEvilley, 1999) or Post-Modern period than we ever have been to a cohesive philosophical consensus about artistic behaviors, motivations, and development. Ironically, this “great unknown” is perhaps what defines art better than anything else, as well as what makes art so alluring. There is something that words cannot articulate and the need to go beyond words is what triggers in many the call to be involved with visual art in some fashion, whether it’s the development of it, or simply appreciating it on some varying level. The Fulcrums


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Two key concepts, the nature of art and artistic development, kept surfacing throughout the articles I read and are quite possibly the fulcrums on which all the articles rely upon for their inspiration. As previously stated, defining art is not an easy task, nor is defining its nature or its development. Therefore, is it an “I know it when I see it” proposition, or is the nature of art such that we can never particularly know for sure what it is? At the root of our inquisition about art’s place in society and its benefits, or not, to the learner, is certainly its dubious nature. According to Weitz, the great theories of art are formalism, voluntarism, emotionalism, intellectualism, intuitionism and organicism, of which he finds all to be lacking in some measure. In regard to defining art Weitz contends, “we are no more nearer our goal than we were in Plato’s time” (Weitz, 1956, p. 27). Weitz explains: Even if art has one set of necessary and sufficient properties….no aesthetic theory yet proposed, has enumerated that set to the satisfaction of all concerned….that aesthetic theory is a logically vain attempt to define what cannot be defined, to state the necessary and sufficient properties of that which has no necessary and sufficient properties, to conceive the concept of art as closed when its very use reveals and demands its openness. (Weitz, 1956, p. 30) Weitz’s inability to define art is possibly a testament to the fact he was at the precipice of a new era (the 1950’s). His acquiescence to the idea that art cannot be defined occurred just prior to the post-modern period. This is an era and art movement that has accepted, and is predicated on, the idea that there are no absolutes, especially when it comes to art. Because it’s a movement generally acknowledged by all of today’s academia as defining this age after modernism (who’s “certainty” could not be questioned (McEvilley, 1999)), it does not make the idea that we are living in an age of “unknowns” any less an uncomfortable place for us to inhabit. Many of us still want answers and we want closure, but we are living in a time “where the definition and


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potential for ‘art’ remain open-ended” (Kindler, 2004, p. 238). This begs the question, if the nature of art cannot be contained and is indeed a mystery, then doesn’t that mean it is a meta-physical problem we’re being asked to consider? Why else would it be so difficult to define? In his essay, “What Are Humans For”, Aike succeeds in spooking us with his cyborg predictions when he has us ponder the possibility that we are about to arrive at a point in our history where even our technology might be able to contain our souls. Aike points out that even meta-physics is evolving with technology to where we will one day be able to download or upload our “souls” to an “operating system” rendering this sacred aspect of our humanity a future “engineering problem” (Aike, 2001. p. 448). That probably doesn’t get us any closer to art’s nature but it does lend itself to the notion that ideas are, without a doubt, in flux and cannot be encapsulated in nice and neat compartments of philosophy or theory. With definitions of the nature of art having so many variations one can only conclude that the same dilemma would surround the concept of artistic development. Anna Kindler writes: The concept of “artistic development" becomes highly problematic in the absence of systematic and consistent criteria, requirements, or values against which it could be assessed. The ability to achieve mastery in pictorial realism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for artistic success….interest in cultural pluralism has incorporated into the domain of “art” (at least the Western understanding of the term) objects and actions that require understandings, abilities, and skills increasingly diverse and hard to trace along a developmental continuum. (Kindler, 2004, pp. 233,234) Kindler embodies her discussion with a litany of explanation as to the difficulty in trying to gage artistic development. She uses the term artistic thinking to exemplify today’s art making process. She posits this to be considered:


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One does not need to resort to examples of conceptual art to argue that the quality of thinking and ability to identify, pose, and solve problems within the realm of artistic creativity are fundamental to art. If the meaning and message in art can be regarded as equally or, at times, even more important than the form, then a question regarding developmental pathways guiding growth in “artistic thinking” becomes central to the concept of “development in art”. (Kindler, 2004, pp. 244) Eisner, in his article Artistic Thinking, Human Intelligence and the Mission of the School (2000), reminds us that even Plato regarded the arts as an inferior form of knowledge. Eisner paraphrases some of Plato’s ideals when he writes: To base one’s knowledge on material objects or art forms was to base it upon what is ephemeral and in a state of decay. No, what was needed was freedom from the material world so that the mind could clearly comprehend what is eternal and non-material: pure form. (Eisner, 2000, p. 326) Eisner then proceeds to deliver Plato’s contention that it is mathematics and logic, not “emotionality nor the material” that has a “place in the journey upward” (Eisner, 2000, p. 326). This was quite prophetic of Plato because despite our culture’s appreciation of art over the millennia, we have arrived at a time in our history where society still quite possibly has deference for the mathematical mind over the artistic as evidenced by the salaries technical and mathematic based jobs earn in our economy. Enter Aike’s macabre predictions into the equation and we have the defining algorithm of which Plato had predicted thousands of years ago, as what could be more nonmaterial and eternal than a soul being transformed into “software” for perpetuity?

Learning Beyond Numbers, Beyond Words, Beyond Belief One might wonder what all this really has to do with art education, and I would have to say everything. Life, if nothing else, is a mystery. No scientist, philosopher,


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mathematician, or theorist could really disagree with that statement, because no one really knows in a holistic and absolute way what life is, or if some type of energy continues after life as we know it. It’s an age old dilemma that has boggled the minds of any reasonable thinking and doubting person. But one thing for certain is that what we do in life, whether we want to or not, is “learn”. Bruner explained Edward Tolman’s research about learning when he wrote: Tolman claimed that trial and error is not so much acting out habits to discover which are effective, but rather a looking back and forth to get the lay of the land in order to construct a solution. (Bruner, 2004, p. 18). Art learning or education is probably most like life in that it accepts trial and error as well as “mystery” and the “unknown” as its main components and even as accruements for trying to “construct solutions”. In that respect art learning/involvement/engagement is perhaps more life-like than any other learning discipline; disciplines for the most part that are mostly based on absolutes and closed systems. The nature of art and artistic development revel in this hinterland of the unknown and openness, which has been its saving grace as far as its place in culture, albeit, its near death knell in today’s high schools. What we really need to begin to do is respect learning beyond numbers, beyond words, and beyond belief. As Arike suggests when he quotes cyborg researcher Warwick as saying, “we won’t need to code thoughts into language, we will uniformly send symbols and ideas and concepts without speaking” (Arike, 2001, p.450). This may happen whether we want it to or not, it may be the natural human trajectory of which the visual artist has had an instinct for since time and memoriam. The famous 20th century philosopher and writer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is quoted as saying “the limits of my language are the limits of my mind” (no citation available). This may have been true at one time, but not today. Art educators are at the forefront of being able to deliver and encourage ideas that are beyond words and beyond belief, as


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there really are no limits to what the mind is capable of doing. It’s the nature of the artist, I think, that has sensed this all along. References Arike, A. (2001). What are humans for?: Art in the age of post-human development. Leonardo, 34(5), 447-451. Bruner, J. (2004). A short history of psychological theories of learning. Daedalus, 133(1), 13-20. Eisner, E. (1978). What do children learn when they paint? Art Education, 31(3), 6-10. Kindler, A. M. (2004). Researching impossible? Models of artistic development reconsidered. In E. W. Eisner & M. D. Day (Eds.), Handbook of research and policy in art education (pp 233-252). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association. McEvilley, T. (1999). Sculpture in the age of doubt (aesthetics today).New York, NY: Allensworth Press Weitz, M. (1956). The role of theory in aesthetics. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15(1), 27-35.

Beyond Words: The Nature of Art and Artistic Development  

While mere speculation, it seems the mystery that is life is quite possibly what has always created the impetus or actual need to develop ar...