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 individual identity and for group identity . 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 .

    These are conflicting values. The question is, how much individualism is good and how much conformity is good? How do our design decisions reflect both these needs? Mass produced items tend to show conformity in our culture in spite of the fact that individual freedom of choice is highly valued in our tradition. In many tribal cultures hand crafted items could show individuality, but are often conformist because group identity is most important (Chapman pp. 112 - 113).

    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?

2. We value permanence and tradition, but we also value creativity, change, improvement, and relevance to the time in which we live. How do our design choices reflect both these concerns? What are the cultural reasons for our choices? How can we teach about this?

3. We know that meeting human needs consumes resources, but we also value caring for resources.

    We have value conflicts between the economic and status seeking motivations for consumption and the ethics of conservation. What can we do to help children learn to care and preserve things? How they learn the importance of caring about resources? Can they learn that natural resources in many cultures are not something to use up, but something we borrow from future users?

    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?

4 . S ingle use vs. multiple use spaces.
    What are the design and architectural decisions here? Maybe schools that serve lunch in multi-use gymnasium/cafeterias (cafetorium) are engendering an animalistic feeding frenzy attitude toward eating. It often has noisy hard surface acoustics. It is an inappropriate and  inhumane unattractive place to eat. When good design is applied to eating we change mealtime from the animal level of biological feeding to the esthetic experience of dining. Mealtime changes from stuffing the face to a holistic fulfilling experience including the social, sensory, and aesthetic experiences unique to the best our cultures have to offer (Chapman p. 111).

    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.

5. Today there is a serious integrity problem with much of our constructed and manufactured design. We live in plasticland of contradictory and untruthful visual relationships.
    We can easily purchase Early American or Colonial furniture finished with plastic laminates that are so realistic that some can't be recognized as fake (Chapman pp. 97 and 103). How can we expect children to value honesty when their schools, homes, and churches are being furnished and built out of visual lies? Children growing up in an environment of pretense are being conditioned to excuse and rationalize fakery as quality on the basis of a quality surface appearance while its heart is actually plastic or sawdust.

    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.

6. The sixth ethical and aesthetic principle deals with beauty. Does a constructed object such as a home, a school, a campus, a shopping center, a strip mall, an industrial park, etc., leave a place more aesthetically pleasing than it was before the "development" was constructed? Is the place more beautiful or uglier?
    If it is more beautiful, how sustainable is it? We know that nature sustains itself beautifully. What then can we design that is as beautiful and sustainable as nature? How much are we willing to commit to maintenance and preservation of constructed beauty?

    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?

Conclusion and some thoughts about learning to care.
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:
  • Laura Chapman. Approaches to Art in Education , 1978. © Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, NY. Chapter 5. "Understanding the Role of Art in Contemporary Society. pp 92-116"
  • Charles Jencks. Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods 1971 © Praeger, NY.

Discussion questions to ask your teacher colleagues:
  • What are the open questions that could be posted in the art class to help students become more thoughtful and aware of ethics and aesthetics?
  • What are some art assignments and activities for children of various ages that will build sensitivity and values related to aesthetics and ethics?
  • Who could be brought into a classroom to help children understand neighborhood aesthetics?
  • What team projects or activities could be assigned to children that would make them more discerning in regard to their own communities?
  • What topics and issues could be included in poster making assignments?

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
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