Monday, January 1, 2007

Another Way

A comment posted on my recent entry Natural Selection reads as follows:

Have you ever heard of Wabi Sabi? If not, I highly recommend picking up a book about it. Wabi Sabi is sort of an asthetic appretiation for change, and the incomplete/imperfect (sometimes conventionally called "ugly"). Most of the things that we see in our everyday life would be considered wabi sabi (i.e. run down houses). This term can be used to describe art, or architecture, or nature, or change, or whatever really.

And about your blog: If you do indeed think that a piece of "art" (something that is questionably artistic, like that students drawing) is truly a piece of art, then does the credit go to you (for interpreting it), or the artist (for creating something with the potential for interpretation, even though they didn't mean for it to be)? Because what if the artist really did just slop a whole bunch of words/images together. If that's true (if the artist just randomly created the piece) do you think you would be considered a fool, or an intellectual for considering it true art?

I started what I thought would be a short answer and found myself, not for the first time, getting in deeper than I had anticipated. So here's the elaborated reply.

Thanks for the wabi-sabi reference. I just read the wikipedia entry on it and can see how it would relate to the ideas I was playing with in the post. I'll look into it.

Your question states effectively, if bluntly, the issues at hand: A) are there inherent standards of craft or performance which an artist must measure up to, or B) is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder?

Someone who believes A might very well accuse someone who believes B of being a fool. More people like rap than like Mozart; more people like Nora Roberts than like George Eliot; more people like paintings of Elvis on velvet than like self-portraits by Rembrandt. Is that any reason to argue that any of the latter represent better art than any of the former? It's pretty clear to me at a commonsense level that not all art is the same, that there are gradations between poor art, good art, and great art.

Likewise, someone who believes B might very well congratulate himself on his intellectual proclivities, and accuse A of indulging in culturally imperialistic oversimplifications and of underestimating the number of factors which enter into artistic value judgements, factors like cultural context, biography, authorial intention, and the unspoken and often not even conscious prejudices and predispositions—sexual, political, and other—that have shaped the work even before its execution. The problem here is that almost any "text" can be subjected to a deconstructive "reading" which starts out at several removes from what the text might actually be and then heads off into a Neverland of self-referential jargon. A lot of what has been passing for literary criticism at the college an grad school level for the last twenty or thirty years seems to me to have been produced in this way; and a great deal of it, to my ears and ears at least, is unreadable.

On the continuum we've been talking about I'd say that I am by nature and by training more of an A guy rather than a B guy. I'm not a college professor, I'm a high school English teacher. And while I would like to think that I'm intelligent, I don't really aspire to be an intellectual. I'm not so much interested in the ivory tower; I'm trying to live in the world.

That's why my first reaction to the student work was dismissive; my post was an attempt to second-guess myself, to walk myself through an alternative assessment. It's an exercise I attempt with some regularity, because I value open-mindedness, flexibility, and breadth, and I don't think those manifest themselves automatically. I ask my students to practice the same move. I often ask them to write two-part essays, with the second part beginning with the words "But there's another way to look at it..."

In the case of the student's artwork, I'm not sure I convinced myself. Ultimately I do believe there are objective and somewhat universal standards by which we can assess quality in any domain. Richard Paul has several books on the subject of critical thinking in which he enumerates a set of standards that I've found helpful for myself and for my students: clarity, specificity, accuracy, logic, significance, relevance, plausibility, breadth, and depth. I have these standards posted in my classroom over the front whiteboard. We reference them, in one way or another, pretty much every day. They are meant to be standards of quality for evaluating thinking, but with minor adaptions they apply to writing and to artwork as well. Some of these standards (specificity, accuracy, logic, breadth) are primarily internal or inherent. Others (relevance, significance, plausibility) seem to have more of an external, subjective component. (Relevant to whom? Significant to whom? Plausible to whom?)

The thing is, these questions arise every single day in one way or another when you teach high school. Whose agenda is it? How do we decide what we're going to study? What kinds of writing and thinking and art do we ask students to produce? How do we evaluate the work that students do once they've done it? What standards do we hold them to? Is this an "A" paper? Why or why not? What if a student writes a poem which is heartfelt and honest and filled with grammatical errors? What if a student writes a poem which is structurally and syntactically perfect but says nothing of interest? What if a student feels his work is better than the teacher thinks it is? What if his teacher from last semester agrees with him? Is there wiggle room? Is there room for discussion, for revision, for the teacher to learn something too?

That's pretty much what Throughlines is about. I'm trying to work through some of these issues, to look at some of the instances in which they are relevant, and to explore some of the threads of connection that link one question to another.

Thanks for your response.

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