Exploring beauty and aesthetics

One of the first steps I took on this path occurred when I read Hegel’s lectures in aesthetics, and related writings, as he strove to understand the role of fine art. It’s worth noting that what I am referring to as Hegel’s views are reconstructed from what he wrote, what he was recorded to have said, and the interpretation of what he meant, and we must accept that this is not guaranteed to be what he actually thought. With that caveat aside, I can make some statements about Hegelian aesthetics, as they relate to beauty, truth and art.
A portrait of Hegel, staring at the reader. He has intense blue eyes and wispy grey hair.

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.” Hegel

Hegel saw a clear relationship between fine art, beauty and truth building upon Kant’s reflection that even the declaration of an object’s beauty is an admission of the effect that the object is having upon us. Hegel took this into the realm of the senses, more precisely in my opinion, and sought to find the ideal beauty that was being represented by real art. Because Hegel saw art itself as an expression of spiritual freedom, his view of art was as in the figurative mode, depicting people and real scenes, and thus classical Greek form was particularly pleasing to him. As I’ve noted before, we can extract resonating phrases from the pragmatic situations of philosophers, and I will do so here.
For Hegel, ideal beauty is one where we see the sensuous expression of spiritual freedom; where our senses are engaged, they are consumed by their perception of an aesthetic ‘rightness’ and we see things are they are. Given the Platonic trinity of beauty, truth and goodness, it is not a surprise that classical Greek forms are so immediately pleasing to him! Hegel is rather dismissive of symbolic art, seeing it as a step on the way to real art and requiring both physical intervention and a movement forward to the figurative form.
At this point, I’d like to leave Hegel’s fixed point in time, given the changing opinion of the role and importance of symbolic forms in art, and because Hegel sets up a tension between the natural and the spiritual that is key to him arriving back at his fixation on the perfection of Greek art. It’s fascinating (and Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics are delightful) but it’s not my focus.
The sensuous expression of spiritual freedom can be interpreted in many ways. Sensuous, as a word, often has sexual overtones but it is not what is meant here. It simply means something that relates to or affects the senses rather than the intellect. This leads us immediately to aesthetics, whether as the appreciation of beauty or as the set of principles that we often use to describe art. Now, through aesthetics, we link the sensuous back to the intellect and we can see, more clearly, the way that beauty can drive us towards certain thoughts, as Plato espoused. Hegel’s idea of what constituted ideal sensuous expression began and ended with Greek gods, sculptures and all of those forms. His aesthetics could probably not have accommodated something such as Cubism, except as a step towards ‘real art’. He could appreciate it having some aesthetically pleasing characteristics but it was not really art. There is a lesson for us here in determining what constitutes “beautiful education”.
Hegel had no doubt that his aesthetics were sound, despite his views obliterating the value of almost any art in the previous millennium. Many of us feel equally strongly about the way that we teach and I have begun to believe that this conflict of principle is what often causes us to put aside even the strongest evidence, where it would lead us to abandon what we see as being beautiful, for something that we suspect or fear will be ‘ugly’. We also see a similar “shock of the new” in education as we did in art. Let us not forget that it was only 1905 when wild brush strokes and brash colour palettes saw a group of artists labelled as “Wild Beasts!” (Fauvism). But, as I noted earlier, the “fear of the old” is as contaminating a world view as the “shock of the new”. We should not confuse our personal comfort with a form of expression with it being the best that can be achieved. We should not assume that personal discomfort is a reliable indication of positive progress.
I gave a talk recently, which I will record and make available shortly, where I argued that many of our problems in education stem from what is, ultimately, an aesthetic distinction over which characteristics make up good teaching. It is entirely possible for two people with different, or even conflicting, views of the characteristics of good teaching to both be rightly convinced of their status of “good teachers”. I reduced good educational practice to three elements, after a model employed by Suits in “The Grasshopper”:
  1. the ability to state the goal of any educational activity as separate from the activity,
  2. the awareness of evidence-based practice and its use in everyday teaching, and
  3. a willingness to accept that it is correct goal setting and using  techniques that work, and can be shown to work, that will lead to better outcomes.
(Suits’ motivation was the refutation of Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the inability to define what a game is. The Grasshopper is a delightful book, whether you are convinced by the argument or not.)
This is a very short summary and I’ll write more on this but I mention it because these guidelines are effectively devoid of aesthetics, yet they are meaningless without having some aesthetically guided practice to act upon. They were chosen specifically because they were hard to argue against, as they are really a summary of how we conduct many actions as humans.
Is there an ideal form for education? Can it be, as Hegel did, put to one side while we discuss the vessels that carry it into the sensual realm? Are we capable of agreeing on that before we start ranking the characteristics that we can come up with?
I think it’s going to be an interesting year while we discuss it!

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