A Conversation: Teaching Aesthetics
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
I had a conversation with a graduate student teaching intro to ceramics courses. Currently she is teaching a Non-DAAP major course. The first question I asked her was,
A: How do you define an aesthetic experience?
B: First you have to break up the two words, aesthetic is about beauty but it is completely subjective so that makes it to where an aesthetic experience would be a subjective experience. It could be an experience of just noticing something beautiful or it could be an experience of feeling something beautiful. Whenever I think of aesthetics I think specifically of art. When I was traveling abroad to Italy we wend to the Uffizi and I had studied Artemisia Gentileschi a lot, she was my favorite renaissance painter and her storyline was magnificent. At the Uffizi there was the Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi painting right next to a Caravaggio and it was the first time I saw it in person. In front of my entire class I just started bawling and it was one of those surreal experiences where you feel like the asshole who does that. Who bawls in front of a painting? And I’m not that kind of person so it was really overwhelming. I tear up just thinking about it, it was one of the most beautiful, amazing pieces I had ever seen and I just sat there for a while with it while my class moved on. It was just a piece I had to be with. It was a piece I had studied and written essays about, it was something I had know about for a long time, and for personal reasons it is the most beautiful, heroic, daring painting. That would be my one and only moment that I have ever had that I think I could consider an aesthetic experience if you want to think of it spiritually and out of body, even though you’re in your body and crying in front of people. But aesthetic experience is about beauty, but it is subjective beauty, it is what you find beautiful to yourself that can make it a beautiful experience. Everybody has their own aesthetics, which is why there have been so many movements in art.
A: How does the concept of aesthetic experience relate to your work or not?
B: Aesthetic is subjective, so my artwork fits within my aesthetic, otherwise I would not be making it. My work is all about the objects we put in our home and what the objects say depending upon the material they are made out of and considering that things are made out of garbage now and half of it is not even well crafted anymore. I feel like that begins to discuss day-to-day aesthetic experience for each person, and I am just trying to set a stage for this dialog to be able to occur. In this way I think it directly relates to it, it makes you think about aesthetic experiences in a domestic setting. There is a theory that the objects within our home represent our identity and we put them in our home because they speak to us and when another person walks in they speak about us to them. So we put these things in there as a representation of our identity. We are now putting mass-produced crap into our house made out of crap material. What are we really saying about ourselves? And if we are putting stuff into our house that we are willing to throw out until we get the next best thing then this society has deemed the easiness of IKEA and Wal-Mart the place to go. What have we begun doing there? Where do you experience aesthetics most? In your home.
A: What is the role of aesthetic experience in society today?
B: Society is deemed ease, the way to go. Its difficult to have aesthetic experiences at this point, everything is generic, remade, everybody owns it, its made for the entire world, nothing is one of a kind anymore. How have we changed aesthetic? For example suburbia. They are given a list of objects, a list of options, these are the five doorknob choices, these are all you get, choose your favorite out of the five. It’s a problem of probability, you are uniquely picking the object for your home based on five options and there a thousand houses made and each of them only got those five options. Based on probability how many of them have the exact same doorknob? How many of them have the exact same doorknob, the exact same paint; but they had different light switch covers they have different baseboards, so they are different houses. You know this is our identity, or it can represent our identity, what does that mean?
A: When you are teaching, do you think, how am I going to give my students an aesthetic experience?
B: Do I make them think about the idea of aesthetic and the idea of craftsmanship? Definitely. And I grade them on craftsmanship and thoroughly discuss craftsmanship.
A: If aesthetic theory’s and concepts are relevant today then how shall we teach them?
B: I think the most important thing to always think about when you speak about aesthetics is that it goes hand in hand with subjectivity. And how do you teach subjectivity? I don’t allow things like ‘I really like this’. It does not tell the person who made it what is really working and what about it you like. Everybody can like something. But why? Describe why this talks to you to help narrow down who the audience is for the work, that’s what critique is supposed to do. So in teaching that’s where I think critique comes in, and you have to really teach and explain what the difference is between subjectiveness and objectiveness. And that’s where I believe aesthetic comes in versus craft, and maybe not always but for this conversation it seems to make sense in my head right now. That these are two different things, objective would equal craft which just means consideration and intention, intention of building, intention of line, intention of all of these things. Craftsmanship is supposed to be convincing. Subjective would equal aesthetic. Aesthetic and craft are almost opposites to a degree but they require each other. How do you differentiate between the idea of aesthetic and the idea of craftsmanship? What do you think these are? What is your aesthetic experience for this piece?
While interviewing her I found myself very intrigued by her perspective simply because I had not necessarily thought of it the way she does. Our discussion took a turn that I really enjoyed based around the conversation of how aesthetic experience is a subjective moment in which one is encountering beauty through their perspective. She found it very essential to understand the subjectivity of aesthetics. We had an in depth discussion about aesthetics as subjective and craft as objective. This is very relatable to her personal work as a ceramics instructor.
The conversation I enjoyed most with her was revolved around the question of “How have we changed aesthetics?” as individuals, as a group, and as society. Her work takes the mundane location of domestic homes and asks the viewer to rethink the objects they interact with in their everyday lives. I began thinking about the discussion of the hand made versus the mass produced and how being surrounded by either of them affects the mindset of people. Because of mass production aesthetic experience is transformed and it is lacking in some ways, there is an absence of history and of emotion. This concept is very applicable to all people living in our society today, especially students. The dialog that occurred between Rachel and I allowed me to rethink how you give students an idea, concept, or experience of aesthetics in our society today and in mundane domestic life. As well as how to differentiate handmade versus mass-produced. It left me feeling that it is essential that we constantly evaluate and reevaluate what aesthetics are and how we as humans being are constantly transforming the meaning of the word and experience.