Reflections on students' aesthetic understanding in the post-modern context

Mun Har Eliza GOUDIE

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Recent research interests in aesthetic understanding and criticism (Koroscik, Short, Stavropoulos and Fortin, 1992, Elfland, 1995, Short. 1995, Stout, 1995, Anderson, 1993) parallel a post-modernist reaction to the formalist and expressivist conception of art education. Underlying the opposing concepts of arts, there is a basic difference in the belief of what amounts to can aesthetic commerce between the viewer and the work of art. Contention is also rife on what is involved in visual perception of art. The autonomous stance of aesthetic emotion precludes any association with practical life issues, that are considered to be obstructing contemplative aesthetic feelings (Fry 1990). On the other hand, the postmodernist stance emphasizes the cognitive nature of aesthetic engagement with art: perception of the expressive qualities of the formal surface demands understanding of the depth meaning of the work that is necessarily connected with practical life experiences (Kaelin 1989, Best, 1992). Methodology. This paper describes and interprets the aesthetic experiences of a small group of student-teachers in response to works of art during an exploratory study conducted by the author acting as teacher-researcher. The study aimed to understand how cognition and emotion functioned when students perceived artworks, and how they interpreted what they saw. A phenomenological approach (Kaelin, 1992) was adopted in the students’ criticism of artworks and in the teacher-researcher’s study of what was actually said and experienced by students. As particularity of individual works elicited unique experiences of the group in response to each of them, generalizsability of findings of the study is deemed irrelevant to the open textured nature of art. Participants of the study consisted of a group of fourteen student-teachers of an average age of twenty-one, taking art as an elective subject with the researcher for a ninety-minute session once a week during the thirteen weeks of the Christmas Term. Data for study was collected from tape recording of group criticism, individual written criticism and the researcher’s observation notes. Reflections. When representational form was observed in a work, students initially attended to images as referents of practical life phenomenon. Taking Ben Shahn’s “Handball, 1989” as an example, the ‘empty wall’ aroused little aesthetic interest or curiosity until observation of the details of the images offered a contrast to the ‘immobility’ and ‘concreteness of the rectangle. Subsequently, students began to perceive the ‘wall’ as a visual metaphor of the life of a poor city neighborhood, devoid of natural environment or recreational facilities for the youngsters. The ability of understand and appreciate the work hanged on cognitively making connexion between form and subject content. Students’ oral criticism revealed that feeling was imminent in their description, analysis and interpretation of works of art. Depending on the frame of reference adopted to approach the work. Students might feel sensuously about formal qualities or intellectually about information external to the art object. The use of concomitant gestures in oral criticism came to the rescue when students faced difficulty expressing certain feelings of formal structures. Conversely, emotion gather intensity as the viewers discovered more connecting visual clues that supported a hypothesis on what the work was about. The conflation of aesthetic feeling and reasoning opened horizons of understanding of the world. Conclusion. Aesthetic experience deepened when emotion functioned cognitively (Goodman, 1972). Aesthetic understanding depended a great deal on what came with the student and his knowledge of the concepts of art, his perception, life experiences and imagination. The meaning of a work of art might be constructed from perceived the qualities of form and connecting them with the contextual information: interpretation involved the ability to synthesize surface and depth properties into a cohesive and expressive whole (Kaelin, 1989), Danto (1981) contends that works of art derive their meanings from the cultural framework of the time and that we must be sufficiently knowledgeable about the philosophical, cultural and historical contexts in order to respond appropriately to the structure of the work and to identify ourselves with the attributes of the life depicted. Suggestions. Accepting the challenge of accountability, art educators may rethink about the curricular contents and approaches in the education of student-teachers. The affinity of reflective paradigms of research with artistic activities sheds light on art education as rich soil for educational and professional research. In the spirit of postmodernism, any aspect of life may be the concern and therefore research interest of art education.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1995


Goudie, M. H. E. (1995, November). Reflections on students' aesthetic understanding in the post-modern context. Paper presented at the Hong Kong Educational Research Association 12th Annual Conference: Rethinking Education: Reflective Practice, Professionalism and Postmodernization, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, China.


Dive into the research topics of 'Reflections on students' aesthetic understanding in the post-modern context'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.