On surveying the titles of books and articles within the philosophy of education concerned with the topic of aesthetic or artistic education there seems to be, initially, a large body of work dealing with this area. There is a series of books by Best (1978, 1985, 1992), substantial literature on creativity, and important articles by Hepburn (1960, 1972).
However, closer scrutiny of this material shows that very little of it has to do with either aesthetic or artistic education. Rather, it has to do with using the arts as a way of educating something else. Thus, Hepburn argues (1972) that the arts – and especially literature – are of importance in the education of emotions.
Best holds that the value of the arts is in their contribution to our understanding of ‘the human condition and other aspects of life (1985: 186). The literature concerning creativity, although it may touch upon aesthetic or artistic appreciation, only does so in the context of teaching people to produce works of art.
What we have in this literature is either an emphasis on practice or the embodiment of a tradition that goes back at least to Plato which insists that the significance of the arts must be cognitive or moral. And these attitudes are reflected in the curriculum in schools. So, for instance, music education is essentially about learning to play an instrument or to sing.
Literature functions as a part of learning a language and tends to be approached as if it was essentially didactic, and art history has trouble finding any place on a curriculum. (Before the introduction of the National Curriculum in England and Wales in 1988 there was little, if any, art history taught before children were 16.
At present there is some concern to see that children appreciate, say paintings, but it is a concern that looks like vanishing almost before it has been established and it stops far short of offering art history as a distinct subject on the pre-A level curriculum.
But all of this is terribly odd! Whilst it may be perfectly true that lessons for life may be learned from art – if you want to understand human beings, then reading Jane Austen or Henry James is a better bet than perusing the latest behaviorist textbook – it is also true that Austen and James are novelists not psychologists and have to be appreciated as such and that the vast majority of art simply does not have this kind of cognitive or moral loading. It is difficult, for instance, to see what moral messages music is supposed to deliver and the notion that it functions as an articulation of human feelings has been much criticized (Beardsley 1958; Vickie 1997).
A person listening with rapt attention to a Mozart concerto for the hundredth time must be seriously stupid if they have yet to get the message – and trivializes it – because it treats works of art as if they are simply containers for something else. If we think that the value of Monet is that he enables us to look at the countryside in a different way then we are doing a grave disservice to both Monet in particular and painting in general.
Artistic achievement is one of the great forms of human achievement – perhaps the greatest and it is as such that it ought to be studied.