Learning all about beauty
A serious concern is being increasingly articulated that there is a pronounced lack of refinement in our society in general. The crass behaviour - in word and in deed - of our political leaders and citizens, the flashy ugliness of our new buildings, the clutter and dirt in our streets and the neglect or wilful destruction of our beautiful heritage buildings all indicate the truth: what passes in the name of education is not adequate to preserve or nurture civilization. A foundation in aesthetics will go a long way in making the world a gentler, more cultured and more pleasing place. If a sense of beauty is instilled from childhood, there is sure to be a change in attitude. A formal education comprising only 'academic disciplines' has clearly not been successful in producing men and women of good taste or with a love of beauty. An absence of a feel for beauty results in the erosion of civilization itself. We have been seeing this in our own city over the years. The genuine need for continuous advance in science and technology on the one hand and the obsession with social media on the other have somehow turned people away from reflecting on the concept of beauty, although science, technology and the cyberworld also have their aesthetic aspects.
The school curriculum includes the arts. All children have art, craft and music lessons at least till the middle years. Unfortunately, the stress appears to be only on the practice of these arts. Very little is done to develop an appreciation of them. Even while learning and teaching literature, schoolchildren are mainly expected to know and comprehend the content rather than engage with the literary style of the writer or the sheer beauty of words. In the senior classes, students are discouraged from 'wasting time' on subjects and activities that are not relevant to their board exams.
Although I was always convinced about the importance of having an aesthetic sense, I would often wonder whether aesthetics could actually be taught. I vividly remember how disturbed I was many years ago, when my four-year-old daughter was totally captivated by the romantic pair in a film shoot. The hirsute man was dressed in a shiny mauve jacket, bright scarlet pants and exaggeratedly pointed white shoes, while the impossibly voluptuous woman was in a body-hugging, iridescent gown. Their hairstyles and make-up were identical, as were their dance steps. I could not fathom how my daughter had developed a taste for this kind of art, and I was in despair till I read about the stages of aesthetic development. Just as the palate matures from a liking for overly sweet things, taste, too, undergoes change over the years. Thankfully, my daughter soon outgrew her love for garish colours and shiny objects. We are all aware that tastes differ, but recognizing good from bad art is indicative of a cultured or properly-educated person. Many important thinkers such as Dewey, Steiner, Vygotsky and Piaget recommended aesthetic development from early childhood. Abigail Housen mentioned five stages of aesthetic development - accountive (when the interaction with art is on a narrative level), constructive, classifying, interpretive and re-creative. As with most stages of progression, they may not occur in a neat, sequential way.
I have observed small children interpret works of art most sensitively. Very often, students are tempted to copy styles or borrow ideas. But soon they learn, in the hands of a good teacher, that an excellent imitation is not 'good art'. There is nothing wrong in familiarizing children with techniques and styles, but they must be taught to project their own expression. Also, when their drawings are 'just so', they do not have a powerful appeal. As Edgar Allen Poe pithily said, "There is no exquisite beauty... without some strangeness in the proportion." In all this, we should realize that we are too busy attending to the cognitive development of our children and neglecting their emotional growth. Beauty must be felt, not merely studied and analysed.
It is easy to think of aesthetics as class-related. Many of us are familiar with intellectual arrogance and the cultivated taste of genteel folk. In fact, the finishing schools of yesteryear were meant to prepare young, upper-class women for entry into society, and aesthetics formed an important part of their programme. But here we are not talking of highbrow and lowbrow taste, but about every single person having some sense of beauty. Think of how much money is spent on creating ugly things: architectural eyesores, inferior imitations of iconic foreign edifices (these are alright in a children's park), obscenely enormous garlands for VIPs and the embarrassing gilt and velvet throne-like chairs that are put out for them. As for filth and litter, these have nothing to do with wealth or poverty or education. Anyone with a basic sense of beauty will not tolerate a filthy environment.
I must cite Tagore if I write on beauty. He wrote prolifically on this topic, but the words I am choosing are perhaps most relevant. He wrote that Man had more emotional energy than he needed for self-preservation. This found an outlet in the creation of Art, for "Man's civilization is built upon his surplus".