An Essay by Marvin Bartel, author bio
Aesthetics and Ethics in Everyday Life
I once saw a poster that proclaimed that "Every man should build a house before he dies." The poster attributed it to Plato (*see endnote). When I was 35, I did it. I designed our house. A great buiilder helped me build it. Our family has enjoyed the house for many years. Designing a house or even outfitting an apartment or a room of your own in which to live is certainly a time to become philosophical. It is a time to consider ones beliefs about the constructed environment. Whether we rent, purchase, or build a place to live, we reveal our belief system by the choices we make. Two important branches of philosophy, aesthetics and ethics, often come home to visit each other during the choices we make when designing the place in which we live.
What are the paradigms we use to decide on lifestyle issues? How does art help with our basic human needs for food, shelter and clothing?
In our calling as teachers, what are the issues we should raise with children to build their awareness of art and aesthetics? What is useful for the visual choices they will make in everyday life no matter what they elect to do vocationally? Most may not design and build, but everybody selects shelter, food, clothing, transportation, and so on. These are basic to life. As such, they are basic to education. In our culture, designers are driven by what sells. The masses (people from our classrooms) determine the look and meaning of the material culture by their choices.
Every consumer is artistic with innate needs for aesthetic fulfillment. Unfortunately, there is very little discussion and debate in our schools to inform these needs. It is estimated that 80% of the constructed environment is made unselfconsciously. Most design and construction is done habitually with no thinking about the meaning, symbolism, and effects on society produced by what is made (Jencks).
We can help children develop the thinking, questioning, and designing
skills to give them the power to be agents for good in society. As teachers
we can sensitize our students and help them learn skills to be agents for
good. As teachers, as Christians, or simply as members of the human race
it is our birthright, our privilege and obligation to do what we can to
improve the conditions in which people live.
What are the everyday basic human needs related to aesthetic decisions? What needs do all people and all cultures experience?
1. All people need utensils, clothing, tools, space for living, space for religious expression, and space for social interaction.
2. All people, regardless of culture, have a need for
. Some cultures stress
individuality more and others stress group identity more. These identity
values are expressed symbolically in the design of tools, utensils, clothing,
houses, places of worship, and public spaces.
The arguments and the differences of opinions come when we start to make selections and design applications to meet these needs. As soon as we do something or make something to fulfill our basic needs we are saying something about our values and our beliefs. What are the values related to our basic needs that are played out in our everyday decisions? When we discuss values we find a continuum of opinions and arguments.
1. All cultures value both individuality and conformity .
What can teachers do to challenge students to create and/or select identity symbols for group identity in our culture? Do our students realize the ways in which they are showing individual identity and conformity? What are the pros and cons of neighborhoods where all houses are nearly identical? How much control should neighbors place on each other's aesthetic choices?
3. We know that meeting human needs consumes resources, but we also value caring for resources.
What can we teach about the compatibility of aesthetics and conservation? Does recycling automatically mean clutter and messy boxes in the school hallways, or are there beautifully designed solutions to encourage even diehards to recycle? Can we discuss selecting goods that last longer to cut down on consumption? What designs will endure and which will go out of date? How can we tell in advance? How many things do we make or acquire with the idea of it being so valuable that it can serve for more than one generation?
Economic reasons for multiple use space can be weighed against the option of smaller, more intimate spaces used over longer periods of time to accommodate the same number of diners. It saves labor if staff does not have to set up tables for every meal. In cold or rainy weather, a school gymnasium is needed as a lunch hour recreational and physical fitness facility.
In a home, how important is mealtime as social time, as family time, and so on? Is the design of a kitchen with bar arrangement as conducive to family interaction as a table or booth with seating all around?
Think about a dinner party with half dozen or so close friends eating in a fine dining room. Compare it with a typical school or even many family mealtime routines. Good architecture provides spaces where strangers interact to become friends.
Plastic can be given design that does not need to look like another material to be beautiful. Good designers can make beautiful texture, color, shape and form from plastic without faking another material to do so. No matter how humble the material, shouldn't honesty be considered more beautiful than pretense in our material environments? Children need art lessons that critique their environments in terms of truth and lies.
How can children become involved in caring for things and protecting the beauty of things? Can teachers ask them to consider the aesthetic costs and the economic benefits of commercial and industrial development in their communities? Can they be asked to critique their community's signage ordinances? Can they write letters and make posters to learn to express their concerns about public policies and community zoning ideas?
We often hear that we should, "use things and care for people." This is half-true. If we furnish our houses and schools with only indestructible, childproof, throwaway, and discardable objects; it teaches children to be careless in the use of things. On the other hand, if they use beautiful objects and something of value is damaged, a teachable moment occurs. Grief is expressed and real values are learned. Children learn about caring. When children learn to care for things, caring becomes habitual. It is extended to people. Art and craft lessons can teach children to care for things as well as for those around them. For a classroom to have examples of finely crafted items fosters an attitude of caring.
From the Christian Gospels we have a beautiful example of caring for Christ when a woman broke the expensive perfume in Christ's honor. It was an aesthetic experience unappreciated as a waste of resources by the disciples, but clearly endorsed and blessed by Christ. It is clear that all our needs are not met by bread (practical things) alone. Caring is often expressed through aesthetic means.
*ENDNOTE: I mentioned the poster to a colleague who has studied Plato more than I have. It may have been a brochure for book. My colleague questioned the attribution, and I have not been able to actually verified that Plato said that we should each build a house.
Additional reading: Some the ideas discussed in this essay come from:
Discussion questions to ask your teacher colleagues:
Notice - All Rights Reserved: © 1999, updated January 6, 2015, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Emeritus Professor or Art, Goshen College.
ALL RIGHT RESERVED: Those who wish to copy or publish any part of this electronically or otherwise must get permission to do so. Contact the author. Links to this page are welcome. Attributed quotations are permitted in scholarly review..
Please visit Art and Learning to Think and Feel a collection of writing about teaching and learning art (from the same author) .