FOREWORD: If you are new to homeschoolingmiddleeast, welcome! I highly recommend that you start reading from ‘Day 1’. The fastest way to access this is to look for ‘Archives’ on the right hand side of the home page, click on ‘February 2012’ and scroll down to the bottom of the page that opens. If you want a quick first visit, you could type a term e.g. ‘socialization’ or ‘university’, into the ‘Search’ box or of course you could just read my latest posts without doing anything! Why I recommend starting at Day 1 is because this is an adventure into homeschooling that is not yet 3 months old and the journey has been a rollercoaster – philosophically and emotionally, catalogued daily for the first couple of months. For you to get the full intellectual and dramatic impact, it’s best to start at the beginning. You might be contemplating home educating and wonder what those early nail-biting days feel like or you might enjoy reading somebody else’s take on an experience you share with me, or you might be more generally interested in my thoughts and feelings on education and parenting. Whatever the reason you’re reading, I’m really humbled that you’re taking your valuable time to do so and I really hope I can be some kind of hope or inspiration for you. Thank you! Now for today’s post…
As great little artists, I thought I would start teaching the children Philosophical thinking by tackling the question, ‘But is it art?’ I base the discussion in this lesson on the only resource I currently have, ‘The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking’ by Stephen Law. I might change my approach once I’ve received the books I ordered specifically covering the introduction of Philosophy to children. But otherwise, this is what I would do… I would introduce the lesson with a sanitized version of a quote by Tracey Emin which is how Law also opens his chapter on this subject, “’I mean, they’d gone and (swear word) installed the work without me even being here. That’s just not on. This is my bed. If someone else installs it, it’s just dirty linen. If I do it, it’s art.” Tracey Emin (artist), quoted in Evening Standard, 12 September 2000’ (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Emin-My-Bed.jpg)
Modern art is, and always has been through the decades, much harder to classify as art, than what generations have together agreed is art. Many works that nobody would deny now are great works of art (including much of Impressionism) were summarily dismissed in their day. Why is this? Is it so hard to decide what art is? Yes. It is. When I go to a modern art gallery with my father, who’s 40 years older than I, in London, where I grew up, he’d be hard pressed to say what he thought was art, let alone ‘good art’. I would find it much easier. I was brought up with piles of bricks, urinals and pickled sharks being considered art, to name some of the most absurd and most famous pieces. I’ve seen them all so I have really considered this question, in situ.
Well, kids, what’s a work of art? Do you think a pile of bricks or an unmade bed is art? I think they’ll look at me with astonishment and think me quite crazy, even when I show them photographs of such pieces in a gallery. I think we’ll leave the pickled shark out of this year’s lesson though. That’s a delight to discuss in the future because the great thing is, these philosophical topics are timeless and can be repeated again and again over the years as the kids feel they have more to add with years of critical thinking development and worldly wisdom under their belts. Hopefully in coming years they will also be able to see some challenging modern art for themselves, in situ, which will help them have a more informed opinion. When we visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in the summer, for example, it will be interesting to show them how underrated this artist was in his lifetime and ask the kids why they think this might be.
With regards to the unmade bed, a harder piece to consider art than anything Van Gogh painted, I think the kids are unlikely to think of an unmade bed as a work of art, although if they’re crafty, they might give it as good reason not to make their own 😉 This opinion will be chime with many thousands of others, perhaps even those who have viewed the piece themselves. As Law says, “Certainly, many believe there is something of the emperor’s new clothes about the suggestion that an unmade bed might be a work of art.” But then again, this thought could have been applied to any previous work of art that was doubted in its day and is now considered incontrovertibly to be art. So it’s not a very solid position to have about art.
So why is an unmade bed considered art, and presumably good art, if good art is evaluated by its price tag? We wouldn’t be discussing Tracey Emin is she was selling her installations at an art market for $50. We all agree that the fact that the unmade bed is in the Saatchi Gallery, has won prizes, is worth a lot of money, is highly regarded by the art world are all things necessary for a ‘difficult’ piece of modern art to be considered ‘art’, let alone ‘good art’. But still, why is this? Or rather than asking ‘why’, how are pieces like this considered art? They aren’t beautiful. It might engage us, but we can think of lots of things that engage us that nobody would consider art. What is it about the unmade bed that’s shared with the Mona Lisa or whatever piece of art you are sure is art? What is the essence of any piece of art? “What in any possible situation is true of all and only works of art?” (Law) It’s as if most of us can agree what isn’t art but aren’t so sure what is art which seems are if there must be some definition that we somehow all agree on.
Asking ‘What is Art?’ is along the same lines as the questions Socrates asked in Plato’s dialogues including ‘What is beauty?’ Justice? Courage? Knowledge? Socrates was examining, through Plato, whether there was a philosophical definition for all of these. Trying to find out, induces a kind of “mental crap” as Law describes. But they are all fun questions to examine with children, over time and it’s great to be able to introduce a famous Philosopher into the discussion.
Law postulates that the nearest answer to all these questions is Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblance’ (as outlined in his ‘Philosophical Investigations’). Here I’m able to introduce another famous Philosopher to the children. Wittgenstein would say that works of art have an overlapping series of similarities that links them together, and together defines them as art, many of them previously mentioned, but that there isn’t one single essence that defines art. According to Wittgenstein, how we explain what ‘art’ is; the examples we give, the similarities and differences between different pieces of art, is the definition of the term ‘art’. It’s as simple as that. No deep searching for an essence of what makes ‘art’ required.
Whilst playing this fun philosophical game with the children, I imagine that they will at some point ask whether their art really is ‘art’. This is a hard one to answer without discouraging them! I think I would say there are two different things going on here, ‘doing art’ and producing a ‘work of art’. They are certainly doing art/doing something artistic. They are certainly producing works of art as far as we, the family, are concerned. But for the wider world, their art (or mine for that matter) would need to share more characteristics with other ‘works of art’ than they presently do. But, I would say, this shouldn’t put them off because great artists started somewhere and even when they were producing great works of art, they weren’t always recognized as they should be. But these artists produced nevertheless, whether through the medium of paint or sculpture or ceramics or installation like unmade beds or piles of bricks! They practiced their art, they believed in it, felt it was important and kept doing it. This is what’s important. By the way, these installations shouldn’t all be derided. I went to see what felt like a field of rice with neon lights buried in it and it made quite an impact on me. It had the feel of the Terracotta Army for some reason. I felt an almost irresistible urge to swim in it! To lie on my back and make snow/rice angels! It was very hard not to touch it. I saw it years ago but I still vividly remember the strong reaction it induced in me.
Vong Phaophanit, Neon Rice Field, 1993 (image from http://imageobjecttext.com/2012/03/13/the-stuff-of-art-and-life/)
(image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terracotta_army)
That is good art I think. I’m not postulating this as a definition, but one of the ‘family resemblances’ is certainly that some pieces of art provoke strong feelings and that sometimes these are a desire to touch or otherwise physically connect with the art. I think the kids would understand that! After all, who wouldn’t want to run their hands all over the Mona Lisa’s face looking for the secret of her smile with our fingertips as well as our eyes? The definition of art or a lack of one is a great fun topic of philosophical discussion with young children (and older ones too). I look forward to having a go at it, preferably once we’re in Paris or Amsterdam. I wonder if their attempts at a definition will evolve over the weeks of having the wonderful opportunity to look at all sorts of different kinds of art? It’s going to be fascinating and fun.
Do you think there’s an essence that every word of art shares? Do you think this lesson would be a valuable and interesting one for your kids? How do you think I could improve this lesson? You feedback would be gratefully received!
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