Contextualizing Aesthetic Value Assessments In Art Education.

The single most frequent question with which  art educators must deal is that of “what is art?” As any art professional will assert, this is a question for which  there is no satisfactorily universal answer. Yet, it is a question for which  the art educator will be required to have some reasonable response. Aside from various philosophical and aesthetic imponderables, one of the keys to developing any kind of understanding of the various ways in which  the “what is art” question can be answered is through a careful  consideration of the ways in which  we as individuals construct and apply our personal aesthetic value systems.

Preconceived aesthetic value assessments are in no short supply. Each of us “knows” what art is – especially  when  we see it – and we are usually at no loss to express  ourselves  when  we see what art isn’t. But we’re generally at a loss to articulate those characteristics that determine artistic worth in our respective individual consciences beyond expressions of “it’s beautiful” or “my kid could  have done that!” For art educators to grasp how such assessments are made, it is important for them to understand that preconceived aesthetic value assessments are individually and collectively constructed from our own personal and cultural/societal biases. Value  assessments of our past collide with those of today and concepts of what is “unacceptable,” “intolerable,” “deplorable,” “improper,” “offensive,” and “objectionable” frequently become the accepted norms  of tomorrow. In order for the art educator to understand how such a metamorphosis can take place, it is necessary  to first place individual and societal values for judgment into context and to distinguish between valid and invalid arguments supporting such adjudications.

This is no small task: In addition to the factors through which  we “filter” our ethical considerations – work ethics, sexual ethics, moral ethics, and religious  ethics – one must also factor in the context under which  aesthetics are being considered. Though by no means  complete, any contextual list of considerations must include cultural, multicultural, age and gender, historical/societal, geographical, educational, and socio-economic concerns. A question of such magnitude would  require volumes for an adequate investigation. For the purposes of this research – and to simplify the discussion into a more  manageable dimension – we shall explore aesthetic value assessment sifted through the filter of the American work ethic.

The American Work  Ethic.

Few phrases  are as overused and poorly defined as “aesthetic value” and “work ethic.” What do we mean  by “aesthetic value?” Philosophically, art is valued for a variety of reasons. Rather than definitively attempting to delineate the term, Puzzles in Art asks us to ponder whether aesthetic value is “something that an artifact possesses – a quality we can find among the other objective properties of the work – or is it something that happens to an artifact when  we esteem it in a certain way” (Battin, 1989, p.152). Of the various values attributed to art, only one may be described as “distinctive.” Puzzles in Art characterizes this unique attribute as “aesthetic value.” Despite the inability of philosophers to universally define “aesthetic value,” Puzzles in Art clarifies two points: “aesthetic value has to do with appreciating something for its own sake, rather than for other considerations, and it has to do fundamentally with the act of perceiving…(that is) ‘worth contemplating for its own sake’” (Battin, 1989, p.160).

In a recent Internet search using the combined criteria of “aesthetic value” and “work ethic,” the most frequently returned results were in reference to ecological  resources and landscape. To contextualize these results through American history, we should first recall that “it was not until the Protestant Reformation that physical  labor became culturally acceptable” (Hill, 1996, pars. 1) and that early settlers alluded to the American wilderness – and the sculpted landscape that resulted from newly built farms and towns – through a deeply-rooted American inclination to value something in proportion to its direct utility. American forebears deemed the “moral life” to be one of demanding labor and purpose in which a new world  was chiseled  from the wilderness, actions which  were viewed  as confirming their individual and societal moral worth. The concept of “working the land” became synonymous with that of “value” and the result was “a land preoccupied with toil” (Hill, pars. 34). Sharon M. Van Sluijs, in her review of SAGA: Best New Writings in Mythology, notes that such utility and  “‘to be of use’ is a thoroughly good thing in this culture. It is an aspect of the work ethic, of Calvinism, of ‘Yankee ingenuity.’ (It is, perhaps, one reason we as a people have had such difficulty with the idea of value in art.)” (Van Sluijs, pars. 6).

It is not surprising then, that American culture draws direct connections between “value” and “labor.” After having carved the better part of a continent into landforms of utility and purpose, such prodigious feats may have led to a belief that hard work results in tangibly useful outcomes. Viewed in this context, it is understandable that “aesthetic value” might therefore be lauded as directly resultant of hard work, skill, and determination. For the students, parents, fellow teachers, and community with whom the art educator is in communication, there is something compelling about the equation “hard work + skill = art.” Yet as we shall see, the logic supporting such an assumption is, if not flawed, at least incomplete in foundation.

Imitation vs. Innovation.

A frequently employed example for considering the role of hard work and skill in aesthetic valuation is that used by Puzzles in Art:

But even if an artist demonstrated little effort or skill in creating a work, would  this warrant critical judgment against it? Clement Greenberg, proponent of the avant-garde, once said of the painter Piet Mondrian that his pictures with their white grounds, straight black lines and opposed rectangles of pure color radiate clarity, harmony, and grandeur. “Mondrian” he insisted “was one of the greatest painters of our time.” Frederic Taubes responded that Greenberg was under the influence of some rhapsodic afflatus and did not realize that “even without the use of masking tape any semiskilled practitioner would easily achieve  similar grandeur without unduly straining his creative faculties” (Battin, 1989, p.154)

Consider for a moment each argument: It’s possible  that both debaters are correct. The problem lies in the logic used to connect the two issues as relevant. In considering the issues as directly related, we are, in the vernacular, arguing “apples and oranges” because each argument considers two valid – but very different – concepts.

Considered one of the great artists of the 20th century, it is indisputable historical fact that Piet Mondrian expressed a vision through a style known as Neo-Plasticism (figure 1) that has had a dramatic and profound influence – whether one personally likes his work or not – on painting, design, and the architectural arts. Taubes’ counter to such accolades  is that Mondrian’s work is so simple  that any “semi-skilled practitioner” with masking tape and house paint could achieve similar effect.

Insofar as his argument goes, Taubes is correct. Someone else could achieve  similar effect, with relatively little effort – not unlike  a carpenter who executes the vision of an architect by using the architect’s blueprint.

But so what? Could a competent carpenter not also construct a box? Certainly. Yet it is hard to believe that the carpenter would  turn a series of boxes into Falling Water without the guiding vision of Frank Lloyd Wright’s blueprint. Under similar circumstances, the “semiskilled practitioner” requires the guidance of Mondrian’s vision: Neo-Plasticism having never before  been seen, Mondrian’s paintings are the “blueprints.”

That the creation of art may require great amounts of work or thought or skill is a valid concept. The flawed logic in the equation “hard work + skill = art” is apparent, though, when  we recognize that if the creation of any one piece of art does not require great volumes of work or thought or skill, then the assertion of the equation is unsound. The only fact that can be established with any degree  of confidence is this: Some works of art may be easily imitated by a “semiskilled  practitioner.” A more  plausible conclusion that might be reached is that it is easier to imitate than to innovate.

Still, American culture celebrates the “work ethic,” and a frequently encountered belief is that many hours of work somehow equates to quality of work. (Doesn’t many hours of work actually only equate to quantity of work?) That western society should consider a worker who puts in twelve hours of intense labor to have somehow provided higher  quality results than a fellow laborer who might have accomplished a similar task in half the amount of time is a strangely odd conviction. For some reason Americans find themselves suspicious of the six-hour laborer. It must be, we say to ourselves, that this fellow has subverted the process  of “quality” production – he has provided us with an “inferior” product because he only spent half the amount of time as the other fellow.

Inferior  results? We seldom  ask ourselves  if twelve hours was necessary to complete the job. Has the six-hour fellow found  a way to circumvent the factors that result in a twelve-hour job? Has he in fact discovered a superior mechanism? The answer – generally  – is that we truly don’t know and we simply don’t give credence to the possibility. The reality is that although there may be a causal relationship between twelve vs. six hours of work – or any other quantity that we may want to assess to a specific task – it does not necessarily have a direct bearing  on that task.

The assessment that we should be demanding of ourselves  is, instead, relevant to the task – or in the case of an aesthetic valuation, relevant to the artwork itself. So the process  of creating a piece of artwork – the thought that did or did not go into an artwork, the labor that did or did not go into an artwork, the ethical judgment that did or did not go into an artwork – all of these factors may or may not have an ultimate and direct bearing  upon  the artwork. But when  we make a valuation entirely based upon  the process – which, in fact, must be influenced by our own personal and cultural biases about work or ethical mores  – when  we make that kind of valuation based only upon  the process and the factors which  go into that process, we are short changing  the entire process of valuation. We’ve lost the ability to place into context, if it’s important to us, the artist’s intention. We’ve lost the ability to place the artwork into social or historical contexts.

We’ve completely lost the ability to look at the actual artifact and judge it on its merits alone, regardless  of our own personal or cultural biases relative to the skill or quantity of time put into an artwork or the ethical or moral standards or the sexual deviancy  of the artist. An invalid argument eliminates all plurality of assessment.

Put simply, an example of an invalid argument is: “I drive the speed limit. Therefore, all drivers drive the speed limit.” Well this, of course, is absurd  and lacks any sort of logic whatsoever. Why should anyone  else drive the speed  limit just because one person  does? Yet American society frequently employs the same sort of “illogical” logic by saying, “My kid could have done it. Therefore, it’s not art.”

One  may reach the not-so-surprising logical conclusion that American society is, at times, illogical.

This realization can prove useful though, when  one realizes that one can place such assessed values into context. For example, in the 1880’s art was defined by the “Art World” and most often indicated classical training – perhaps in the Beau Arts tradition – imitative of nature and the “real” world. In such context, the derisively named “Impressionists” were laughed at and scorned, based on a set of values determined not just by the unwashed masses but also by the art world. The same art world, in fact, whose values and opinions only a few years later went through such modification as to now include the Impressionist painters among  the greats of art history. One can argue that we’ve “come around” and recognized that a societal and cultural error in judgment had been made  and that Western culture is big enough to admit its mistake, learning the lessons that come from being closed-minded.

But did Western culture actually learn anything?

In fact, in a recently completed survey of educators, business  professionals, creative professionals, homemakers, and government employees (figure 2), respondents were asked to react to the following  statement: “You visit the first Impressionist painting exhibition. The colors, the handling of the paint, and  the subject  matter are like nothing you’ve ever seen before  but your personal feeling is that the paintings are crude, the colors are garish, and  the artists have  used very  little skill in the paintings. In your  opinion they are laughably bad and  some  of the ugliest work  you’ve ever seen – but the painters are the Impressionists. Should you  consider these paintings to be art?” Nearly  89% of those surveyed believed that the Impressionists had created “art.” A similar group  of survey respondents were asked to respond to the following  statement: “You visit a painting exhibition. The colors, the handling of the paint, and  the subject  matter are like nothing you’ve ever seen before but your  personal feeling is that the paintings are crude, the colors are garish, and  the artist  has used  very  little skill in the paintings. In your  opinion they are laughably bad and  some  of the ugliest work  you’ve ever seen. Should you  consider these paintings to be art?” Many survey respondents identifying themselves as “creative professionals” recognized the statement as descriptive of the situation surrounding the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. But moving beyond the creative professionals, the survey revealed that 94% no longer feel that the artists described were actually creating artwork. The only difference in statements was in how the artists were characterized – either as “Impressionists” or as “artists.” The implication is that some respondents may have assessed value founded purely  upon  the identification of a group  called the “Impressionists.” Respondents “knew” that the Impressionists made  artwork because history and the art world  had asserted as much. (To a great extent, this reaction was much like that of the original viewers of the 1874  Impressionist exhibit who “knew” art wasn’t supposed to be made  from broken brush  strokes and “impressions” of landscapes.) Taken one step further, when  both survey groups were asked to respond to the statement, “Paintings that require a great deal of skill, detail, and  precision are better works of art than those that look like they were put together quickly and  without a great deal of skill or effort” there was a further erosion  in the individual opinions of value, not only outside the community of creative professional respondents, but also within the community of respondents identifying themselves as creative professionals, nearly half of whom agreed with the statement.

Artists from the Impressionist era are today beloved by many. Yet in his own time, Gaugin was criticized for depravity (Van Gogh wasn’t even given consideration) and many of his contemporaries argued  that Rodin’s monumental portrait of Balzac was a worthless travesty. Debate over the “value” of artists who came into prominence a few years later – individuals who include Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso – continues into the present. Still it comes down  to a matter of context. What is identified as “good” for culture or society today may change or even reverse in days to come. Humankind is nothing if not ever changing.

Ultimately it may be problematic for the art educator to support an argument that says society will monitor the artist in the creation of product to ensure a “positive” moral, ethical, or aesthetic value. While this might be a truly “democratic” form of adjudication, at best it’s done in the context of the emotions, awareness, and knowledge of “the today.” Such a decision, assessment, or opinion cannot ever represent the assessments of “the tomorrow.” At best, even some of Plato’s aesthetic philosophies call for knowledge and an awareness of “the tomorrow” – in which case an informed opinion can never be made. His argument requires context, yet the decision to assess aesthetics purely on the mores of today requires an omniscient view of tomorrow. Since this cannot be, the argument lacks context. For example, we cannot adjudicate all imagery that may have appropriated or contained imagery  or language  of pornography and say categorically that it is pornography without reflecting upon  the intention of the work itself. An informed opinion must be made contextually. As has been previously stated, we cannot simply say that any work of art must require a great volume of work or thought or skill:

The degree of respect – or lack thereof – provided any artwork, predicated entirely upon  a perceived difficulty of execution, the amount of work required for execution, or the degree  of skill required for execution, falls laughably short of relevance to artistic or aesthetic merit. Indeed the argument that exists solely upon  the requirements of execution is an argument only of execution. Such an argument must postulate, therefore, that the sole criteria for the creation of an artwork of merit is entirely skill-based  or “tenacity”-based. This argument does not take into account innovation or creativity or purpose. The argument that “anyone could have done it” fails to consider that, originally, no one previously had done so. By implication it implies  that any subsequent practitioners are working  from a blueprint provided by the innovator. They are, by definition, imitators and copyists.

Regardless  of however skilled a practitioner may be, regardless  of their tenacity, regardless of the amount of work they’ve put into any given piece of work, they will remain an imitator unless they employ the conceptually essential ingredient of “innovation.”

Ironically, imitation as a primary characteristic of aesthetic value has a long history of precedent and is in total accord with the thinking of both Plato and Aristotle, Plato believing  that knowledge was acquired “only by directly encountering the Forms or Ideas that …constitute true reality” (Battin, 1989, p.67).

In contemporary society, the concept and value of “free thought” comes into conflict with Plato’s argument in Book 3 of the Republic – the idea that we should control the output of the artist, limiting it to that which  is beneficial to the common good (Battin, 1989, p.153). In effect, Plato is sponsoring a form of censorship. His is an eloquently supported argument that defines art and the world  around it in terms of “black and white,” good and bad, positive and negative. It is an idealized point of view that has little correlation with our reality: that the world is not a binary system where everything is either a one or a zero and nothing else.

So much depends upon  context. To counter Plato’s argument, let’s imagine that an artist created a work that had absolutely no apparent value whatsoever, nothing that would  benefit the common good, and in fact could be viewed  by many as subversive to the common good. Plato might regard the community suppression of such a work – as well as of the artist – to be a positive action. Now let’s say, however, that this “degenerate” piece of artwork which has so infuriated society has left so powerful a mark upon  the artist that it has been nothing short of formative in terms of what the artist does from that point forward in his or her career. Let us further suppose that this artist creates work of such a profound nature that it in turn leaves its mark upon culture, upon  society, and upon  generations to come. The creation of the original “degenerative” and societally-despised artwork is now directly responsible for an entire body of work for which  our culture and history is now much richer. One might even foresee that the original piece of artwork, viewed  by future generations, may come to have a different meaning. It may help to shape the understanding of those future generations in appreciating the time and people in which  the piece was created. It may, in fact, go from being abhorred to having intrinsic value for many future generations.

For the art educator, nothing is ever black and white. One  might draw a distinction between high and low art, i.e. fine art (interpretation) and craft (translation). Craftsmen, like advertising artists and graphic  designers, are often “translators” of someone else’s – or some other culture’s – vision, message, ideas, and/or concepts. Artists are often “interpreters” of their own vision or provide their own concept of another’s vision. Neither fine art nor craft fall neatly into one category or another, although in American culture “craft” tends to be synonymous with “work” and “skill.”

Comments from many survey respondents indicate an apparent desire to assume  a moral and ethical high ground and one may conclude that these respondents want to believe they’d make the “right” choices. There is a lot of discomfort in answering questions that are very intentionally phrased in “black and white”, i.e. questions which  require a “yes” or “no” response but which  are intentionally quite gray: Respondents frequently felt their answers  needed to be qualified. The survey questions were phrased in such a way as to force respondents to confront personal feelings about specific issues surrounding value assessments instead of making  snap judgments. This is particularly poignant considering that under “normal” circumstances such issues may typically be assessed immediately as snap judgments. To clarify: Someone views a work of art and a visceral response is experienced. One  might immediately exclaim, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” The “why’s” surrounding likes and dislikes are typically not considered. By extension, one might overhear the uninitiated, upon  viewing a Pollock for the first time, expressing the idea that, “Well this is junk – my kid could do it!”

Feldman’s Art Criticism Processes define a hierarchical process  of art criticism and valuation by asking the viewer to delay interpretation and valuation of art until one has had a chance to “describe” (take a visual inventory of the art “parts” or elements) and analyze it first (Feldman, 1970, p. 348-383). Interestingly – especially  for the art educator – the aforementioned survey may indicate that for many, valuation and evaluation occur prior to understanding.

To generalize, it seems that many people make aesthetic value assessments immediately and without a great deal of thought about why they made  their choices  and judgments. Frequently, such judgments are made  based upon  a pre-existing set of general personal and cultural value factors that are then applied to specific aesthetic value assessments. It is important to consider that in order for one to evaluate aesthetic judgments, one has to first to examine the context under which  they are assessed. One  might argue that when  someone says, “This painting is something that my kid could have done. I don’t like it, it’s not art” the viewer is not talking about an aesthetic assessment – rather they are actually describing an assessment of skills of craftsmanship or an assessment of worth based on an apparent quantity of labor. Possibly there is an underlying mimetic valuation – the idea that if the work isn’t representational in nature then it’s not imitating nature. Under these circumstances no formal evaluation (of principles such as color, line, shape, balance, etc.) has been considered. In fact, the appraised value may not even be that of the artwork because the measurement is quantitative rather than qualitative.

Many might describe it as an issue of “quality,” but if one considers the argument, “my kid could have done it,” one is forced to concede that it is actually an assessment of “quantity.” “My kid could have done it” implies that the work has not been rendered skillfully or has been done in such haste as to suggest that an insufficient quantity of time has been used to create a “skillful” product. So the artist is not using a sufficient quantity of skill or allotting a sufficient quantity of time in order to render a product that faithfully represents nature and meets a particular viewer’s expectation of an artwork to look like “something” or look “real.” For the art educator to guide students through the stage of Artistic Crisis and to think about interpretations of art that go beyond mimetic valuation, the consideration of multiple contextual viewpoints may prove useful and personally relevant.

Cyclical Definitions Of Acceptability.

Especially since the picture plane began to flatten in paintings such as Jacques-Louis David’s 1784, “The Oath of the Horatii,” we can observe  the effect that the artist has had upon culture by rejecting or rebelling against prevailing cultural aesthetic value systems. Society as a whole  is flexible, but it can be likened  to a giant battle ship that cannot be turned on a dime, but can change course  only slowly and by degrees. Only  over time and distance can it make a significant alteration of course. Like the battle ship example, societal aesthetic values can change dramatically, but typically such change  occurs slowly – possibly even generationally. We tend to accept that which  has come before  – that which  has precedent – as having value. Thus, societal attitudes regarding aesthetic values filtered through the acceptance of sexual content, for example, can be reflective of our times and the trends in the growth (or lack thereof) of acceptance of what is and what is not culturally acceptable. We look back at the work done by previous generations of artists and as a culture set our “meter of acceptability” at what is and what is not culturally acceptable, based upon  what the previous generation has done. The prevailing avant-garde might push those defined boundaries, even to the extent that we as a society exclaim, “No! Stop! This is unacceptable!” In the process, the avant-garde themselves are establishing precedent – and thus boundaries – for subsequent generations who look back and adjust their own meter of acceptability based upon  the newly formed precedents.

As with the values placed  upon “work” and “skill” – i.e., craftsmanship and labor – values of sexual mores filtered through our own personal and cultural biases and prejudices, change  slowly and are always defined by what is and what is not currently acceptable, providing a platform for those who wish to challenge society and setting the stage for the inevitable growth that comes through change in our values systems. There is a danger, therefore, that any one “governing body” of aesthetics – whether it be the government, culture, society in general, or even the art world – without challenge, or the potential for change  in it’s systems of valuation, would  stagnate. For an individual or a culture to “grow” aesthetically, it is important for aesthetic inquiry to take place, based upon  a broad variety of factors and input. There may be many universal attributes of aesthetic valuation but there can be no single universal aesthetic, applicable in all considerations of aesthetic value.

To paraphrase Jung, in art, only those things that change  will remain true.

A Contextual Experiment

By placing aesthetic valuation into context one addresses  a much larger issue than identifying which  components or attributes make up the personal valuation of an artwork. In fact, cultural and personal biases seem to be a primary factor in establishing how an individual will answer  the question, “What is art?”

Consider the following  experiment:

Five classmates – the “Art Team” – collaborated in a classroom demonstration of the “creation” of an artwork. Privately each collaborator was provided with specific instructions dictating their actions during  the demonstration. One  member of the Art Team  was instructed to focus his efforts entirely upon  composing the image, demonstrating concern for the idea and to voice esoteric interpretations of the concept being generated – but to not show any visible concern for issues of “craftsmanship.” A second collaborator was instructed to act as the “balance,” focusing on both idea and craftsmanship. A third collaborator was asked to verbally agree with any and all suggestions made  by the Art Team. The fourth teammate was instructed not to articulate or communicate any opinions or volunteer any suggestions unless directly spoken  to by another member of the Art Team. The final collaborator filled the role of  “craftsman,” only demonstrating concern for the “quality” of the image. As the “technician” of the group, this member set up the equipment, maintained the lens focus, loaded  the film, etc. The  internal or “hidden” role of the craftsman was as the director because he orchestrated the entire production. During the demonstration this role was never articulated to the observing  members of the class, all of whom were asked to individually record  and note anything of consequence observed during the demonstration.

Several observers noted that the “idea-only” member was dissatisfied with the arrangement of the composition, frequently requiring adjustment of the camera view and subject elements. When later prompted, these particular class observers identified this collaborator as the “artist” of the Art Team.

Several other observers noted that the “craftsman” made  frequent skill adjustments – focus and other technical modifications – and that the technician was the person  who actually “pulled the trigger” on the camera. When later prompted, these observers indicated that the craftsman was the “artist” of the Art Team.

The universal opinion of the class observers was that the team “yes man” (who  was instructed to agree that every compositional suggestion was a good idea) in no way contributed to the creation of the piece of art. The “yes man” was specifically  identified by nearly every observer as “not an artist.” Ironically, the silent member of the Art Team  – who was instructed to contribute nothing to the creation unless prompted – was not singled out by observers as “not one of the artists.”

A small  percentage of observers identified the “idea” person, the “balance” person, and the “craftsman”  as equal art partners.

When the observers were asked to consider whether or not the demonstration they had watched might itself be considered a work of art (i.e., was the process of creating a work of art, as observed, a performance art piece?), opinion shifted and nearly all participating observers identified all five collaborators on the Art Team  as equally  contributing artists. With the craftsman identified as having planned the presentation, nearly all observers said he had only “performed” the role of craftsman and was actually the orchestrator or “director.” Thus, in this context more observers believed the craftsman could be identified as the lead artist than they could in the context of the craftsman’s role as “technician.”

Although far from empirical, conclusions may be drawn  about this specific group  of observers, all of whom were, at this writing, advanced art students. A significant percentage of observers identified the “artist” with the “skill set” – the functions and familiarity of the tools: camera, lens, film, focus. In nearly equal numbers were the observers who identified the “artist” with the act of “idea making,” ostensibly due to his contributions of compositional ideas and activity. His formative qualities – attention to composition, form, and arrangement were, aside from the technician’s manipulation of tools, the most obviously  observable activity and behavior.

It is difficult to assess conclusions beyond the scope of this observer group  in this particular orchestrated situation. It is perhaps surprising how many art students placed  an apparent hierarchical value on skills and craftsmanship over those values of the “idea” and formative qualities. (It is important to note that the idea collaborator and the craftsman collaborator may have been identified as “artists” because of (a) their individual tendencies to take the lead role, or (b) because of the age differences [older] from that of both the observers and their fellow Art Team  collaborators. Either possibility – either singly or in combination – are suggestive of a value being placed  on “knowledge” or “experience,” both of which  are qualifiable attributes – and neither of which  quantify the creation of a piece of artwork. It is suggestive that even within the art world  environment there exists a sense of value placed  upon  knowledge, skills, craft, and superiority over that of the idea or form itself.)

Conclusions For The Art Educator.

One  might surmise  that members of the art world – at least at an introductory level – might truly want to believe they are above being influenced by personal or cultural biases. But indeed, their actions tend to indicate otherwise. Careful consideration of these issues might reveal that many people in American culture have a personal aesthetic value system that is defined by factors which  are either unrelated to accepted aesthetic assessment or use an incomplete set of aesthetic valuation factors. If context can be established for the value systems put into place by a culture or an individual, art educators might be better prepared to explain how and why one artifact becomes identified as artwork while another comes to be scorned.

Art touches everyday  lives in ways that we little appreciate or consider. Our sense of value is a defining  function of self, of our society, and of our vast differences, individually and culturally. In the final analysis, the importance of contextual understanding may perhaps be in the way it provides the art educator with a means  of reaching common ground for meaningful dialogue with this enormous variety of people.


Bates, J. K. (2000). Becoming an Art Teacher, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Battin,  M. P., Fisher, J., Moore, R., & Silvers, A. (1989). Puzzles about Art, New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Feldman, E. B. (1970). Becoming Human Through Art: Aesthetic Experience in the School, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hill, R. B. (1996). Historical context of the  work  ethic. University  of Georgia website, Retrieved November 26, 2003, from

Lipset, S. M. (1990). The  work  ethic  – then  and now.  Public Interest, Winter 1990, 61-69. Rodgers,  D. T. (1978). The work ethic in industrial  America,  1850-1920. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Van Sluijs, H. SAGA:  Best new  writings  on mythology. Folkstory website, Retrieved November 26, 2003, from

650 questionaires were sent out — 325 of which included Statements  1 and 3; the remaining 325 included only

Statements  2 and 3 — with a total of 374 responses overall.

1. You visit a painting exhibition. The colors, the handling of the paint, and the subject matter are like nothing you’ve ever seen before but your personal feeling is that the paintings are crude, the colors are garish, and the artist has used very little skill in the paintings. In your opinion they are laughably bad and some of the ugliest work you’ve ever seen. Should you consider these paintings to be art?

All respondents



Creative Professionals



Business Professionals









Government Employees



Healthcare Professionals



2. You visit the first Impressionist painting exhibition. The colors, the handling of the paint, and the subject matter are like nothing you’ve ever seen before but your personal feeling is that the paintings are crude, the colors are garish, and the artists have used very little skill in the paintings. In your opinion they are laughably bad and some of the ugliest work youve ever seen – but the painters are the Impressionists. Should you consider these paintings to be art?

All respondents 165


Creative Professionals



Business Professionals 102








Government Employees



Healthcare Professionals



3. Paintings that require a great deal of skill, detail, and precision are better works of art than those that look like they were put together quickly and without a great deal of skill or effort.

All respondents 296


Creative Professionals



Business Professionals 172








Government Employees



Healthcare Professionals



Not all respondents answered every question. Survey conducted via email, submitted to a sample list of Kansas City, Missouri area Chamber of Commerce members and arts groups members from around the United States. Respondents were randomly selected from within these groups and were not queried about socio-economic status, gender, or race. Survey conducted by Mark Alan Anderson in November 2003.


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