The Richness of Art Education

May 28, 2009

There is a view reaching back to Plato that art produces second-rate knowledge. Howard Cannatella seeks to demonstrate that the mimetic approach found in art education embodies a more valuable form of knowledge. He enlists the support of what at first sight might appear a disparate team of philosophers and educationists, including Aristotle, John Dewey, Herbert Read, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Louis Reid and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who are the protagonists of the six chapters of this short book.

Building on their work, Cannatella argues that mimesis is a natural way of learning not just about art, but also society, morality and the world as it is experienced. Mimesis promotes intimate engagement with the subject matter of art through manoeuvring oneself "inside the skin" of what is observed.

The practice of observing and communicating artistically enables students to bridge what Merleau-Ponty identifies as the gap between experiencing and understanding. This is a thought-provoking thesis, built carefully from close reading and citation.

Although it lacks illustrations, the book is rich in practical examples and makes accessible, important but often neglected debating points with which all teachers should engage. The book's concision assists that engagement. Its scholarly approach will appeal to believers in the high value of art practice, and it has a commendatory preface from Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art. However, agnostics will find shortcomings in its thesis, which is a pity, since they are the ones inclined to relegate art education to an extracurricular activity, valuable principally to those who lack aptitude for more "rigorous" studies.

The key term "mimesis" is defined elliptically in the opening chapter, and there is no mention of its partner, diegesis (the manner of presenting a story). Hence, the book does not fully engage with Plato's and Aristotle's views of art, and neglects a defining feature of post-Renaissance art education: its curriculum of learning the manners of past masters, still evident in GCSE art examinations.

The outline of Plato's view of art is mostly drawn from The Republic, but Ion presents arguments that are harder to knock down. For example: art can mimic the behaviour of people such as physicians, but mimicry does not reveal what they actually know. Skilful mimicry may then "inspire" the feeling of knowing about such things, and yet reveal nothing true about them.

Consequently, Plato ranks propositional knowledge at a higher level because art does not appear to demonstrate anything necessarily true about the world. In this respect, Wittgenstein may not be the best recruit to Cannatella's team, since his interests in rule-following are ultimately directed towards a better understanding of propositional knowledge.

A better recruit might be Friedrich Nietzsche, who drew analogies between creative and procreative drives that influenced many modernists' rejection of the "imitation" of nature and past manners of imitating. Following these analogies, the artist's creative impulse gives birth to an autonomous communicative agent that continues over time to engage audiences to different effect.

This view redirects attention from Plato's issue with what artworks "show" about God's creation to the matter of what Man's creations are like. The latter include characters and objects belonging to times and places we will never experience, often governed by alternative forms of logic, physics and morality that may or may not prove instructive (think of animation). Hence, artistic creation can be motivated by the desire either to reveal the natural condition or to transcend it.

It might then benefit Cannatella's thesis to clarify that assessing the knowledge value of art is problematic, since art may be construed either as a false reflection of nature (Plato), or a true reflection of human aspiration (Nietzsche).

The Richness of Art Education

By Howard Cannatella. Sense Publishers. 136pp, £50.00 and £25.00. ISBN 9789087906085 and 06078. Published 1 December 2008

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