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The Rationality of Feeling: Understanding the Arts in Education.

The Rationality of Feeling is a revised and extended version of David Best's Feeling and Reason in the Arts (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985). Except for a new first chapter, the book retains its original structural organization. However, the new title's emphatic directness parallels a conspicuous shift in the tone of the book. Addressed more specifically to the arts educator than its predecessor, The Rationality of Feeling is at times blunt, urgent, even insolent. Arts educators and philosophers have increasingly become their own worst enemies, Best implies. They espouse facile, vacuous accounts of the nature and value of the arts, accounts that trivialize the very educational endeavors they are intended to substantiate. The book is a major attack on the self-destructive, dualistic assumptions that pervade contemporary philosophy of art, and the flawed instructional practices they spawn.

The primary villains in Best's book are philosophies of mind and language that split human sentience into rational/cognitive and affective/creative components. This bifurcation begets two myths that are inimical to arts education: scientism and subjectivism. Scientism grossly underestimates the role of emotion in purportedly rational endeavor (as well as exaggerating the transcendent objectivity of reason), while subjectivism unwittingly implies that emotion and affect are purely personal, irrational states. On this view, science represents the paradigm of cognitive/rational attainment, while the arts make their home in a kind of residual affective/creative realm notable for its "rapturous and soporific effusion" (p. xiii). These myths grossly distort both science and the arts, cheapening conceptions of emotional and rational experience alike. More to the point, arts educators who embrace the subjectivist myth seriously compromise their claim to a role in education; for without the development of cognition and understanding there can be no such thing as education.

Best does not argue a close relation between emotion and reason. Rather, he urges, artistic emotions are objective, rational, and answerable to reason. Artistic emotion is cognitive. These truths are generally obscured by three fallacious assumptions: that human lives are underlaid by private, individual mental states; that there is an objective physical world "out there," knowable apart from our perceptions and conceptions; and that language functions primarily as a medium to link the in-here and the out-there. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein, Best argues that there are no worlds other than the ones given us by language and other public practices (the arts conspicuous among them). The arts spring neither from emotion nor from reason but from their union in human action. They are products not of individually isolated (private, subjective) mental events, but of the shared human life of culture. An adequate conception of the arts must recognize their inextricable embeddedness in human social contexts and practices. Developing artistic understanding is like developing linguistic fluency: both processes are highly rational and contextually sensitive.

Best's elaboration of these views raises a host of provocative issues, among them: an energetic renunciation of the (essentialist) notion that "the arts" constitute a generic curricular area; a highly successful dismissal of "symbolic" accounts of artistic meaning; a revealing analysis of the necessity of discipline to innovation, the inseparability of creative process and product, and their deep roots in social practices; a constructive revisitation of the so-called intentional and affective "fallacies" in art; a persuasive rejection of the foundational status of "intuition" in art education; and a much needed critique of crucial distinctions between the "aesthetic" and the "artistic."

In his relentless pursuit of subjectivist misconceptions about art (found in the writings of Louis Arnaud Reid, R. G. Collingwood, Elliot W. Eisner, Monroe Beardsley, Roger Scruton, and many others) Best occasionally allows his negative thesis to upstage his positive one: that the arts are highly rational, highly relevant, and of vital significance to the process of education. Yet, as he effectively documents, the pervasiveness of subjectivism renders it nearly invisible unless it is repeatedly and vividly exposed.

Part of the debt one owes a seminal and ambitious book like this derives from the issues it raises inadvertently. It would be instructive if Best were to speak more directly to his perception of the distinction between the artistic and the nonartistic (the pre- or subartistic?). I take Best's points that "art" has necessarily vague, indefinite boundaries; that it is neither absolute nor unchanging; and that, indeed, indeterminacy and ambiguity are among its frequently distinguishing characteristics. But having so skillfully demarcated the artistic from the aesthetic, and having so persuasively argued for the particularity of artistic meaning in various media, Best might well be expected to shed some light on what "the artistic" might entail in a minimal sense. No teacher can avoid the fundamental moral responsibility of deciding what to teach, Best observes. This responsibility is all the more significant, he believes, because "some kinds of art ... have a potentially harmful influence" (p. 181). And again, "one of the criteria for the depth and sincerity of a person is the kind of art which engages him (sic)" (p. 201). Given his moralistic stance that some kinds of art are better than others, one wonders what examples or criteria Best might offer the art educator in need of guidance. Perhaps one clue is to be found in Best's conviction that one intrinsic characteristic of an art form is its capacity for the "expression of a conception of life issues" (p. 173). Although he admits this criterion seems "intolerably forced and absurd" (p. 179) when applied to many pieces of music that are undeniably artistic, this difficulty is insufficient to dissuade him from the position he has maintained with the same reservations since at least 1985. A few examples of what Best considers good or bad kinds of music would prove both illuminating and instructive.

Another source of unresolved tension attends Best's assertion that "art qua art is not purposive; artistic values are intrinsic" (p. 65). This is, of course, a largely orthodox idea. But is seems curiously out of place in a book arguing the social, moral, and cultural rootedness of artistic understanding from a Wittgensteinian perspective. If artistic understanding rests on shared responses to appropriate features, and if the appropriateness of features is culturally or socially relative, how can it be maintained that artistic values are (by definition) intrinsic? Given Best's deference to Wittgenstein, he might more consistently conclude that the notion of intrinsicality is essentialist baggage, and more trouble than it is worth.

Finally, although Best outlines a philosophy of artistic understanding with seemingly clear challenges for the practice of multicultural education in and through the arts, he does not elaborate upon them. If, as he maintains, "both art and language are not independent, but are inextricably woven into the whole way of life of a society," such that "it may be rare for someone of another culture to be able to develop the complete grasp of artistic meaning and value which is possible for a native," (p. 65) and if "understanding the arts, like the ability to use language, is rooted in unhesitating responses to the relevant situation," (p. 66) it would seem the notion of multicultural art education might be significantly more intractable than is commonly assumed by its advocates.

The Rationality of Feeling is a welcome and important contribution to the literature in arts philosophy and arts education. It is noteworthy both for the freshness of its insights and the persuasiveness with which they are articulated. Its distinctive points of view will challenge individuals conversant in philosophy of the arts, while its accessibility and willingness to confront controversy make it a useful introductory text for the uninitiated as well.
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Author:Bowman, Wayne D.
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
Words:1257
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