Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part IV

In the two sixth grade classrooms in which I've been teaching this aesthetics unit, the students and I spent a lot of time this week talking about the relationship between having feelings and expressing feelings. We read another portion of chapter 14 in Mat Lipman's Harry Stottlemeir's Discovery, in which two girls have a conversation about art and life.
After the reading, the students raised the following questions:
Do plants have feelings?
Do paintings show more than expressions and ideas?
How did art begin?
We began in both classes by discussing whether plants have feelings and what evidence we might give for demonstrating that they do or don't. One student argued that we know that plants don't have feelings because they don't respond in any way we can perceive. We then talked about the ways in which people often have feelings that they don't express. If people have feelings that are unexpressed, why should the fact that plants don't express feelings lead us to conclude that plants don't have them?
We talked about how mysterious it is to understand someone else's feelings, and whether we can ever really know that another person has feelings. One student suggested that since a person can only be sure that he or she has feelings, we can use that knowledge to believe that other people experience those feelings as well, but we can never really know for sure.
This led us into a discussion about having and expressing feelings, and we talked about the ways in which paintings express feelings. The students came up with three sources for the expression of feelings by paintings: feelings generated by the artist, feelings that are part of the painting itself, and feelings that are in us causing us to respond in a certain way to a particular piece of art.
We then started discussing music, and the ways in which music expresses feeling. Most students seemed to want to claim that all music expresses feeling. One student commented that music to her is a clear example of art arousing feeling that is in us. She noted that a piece of music can make us feel one way at one point in our lives, and that listening to it at a different point in our lives we might experience very different feelings. Another student argued that there are some pieces of music that simply are, in themselves, sad, or happy, or excited. We agreed that music seemed very puzzling. We'll return to the subject in class next week.

Monday, November 10, 2008


My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

-- Robert Frost

November Birthdays

November 7 Albert Camus (French, born 1913)
November 8 Gottlob Frege (German, born 1848)
November 16 Robert Nozick (American, born 1938)
November 17 Mikhail Bakhtin (Russian, born 1895)
November 21 Voltaire (French, born 1694)
November 23 Peter Strawson (British, born 1919)
November 24 Baruch Spinoza (Dutch, born 1632)
November 28 Friedrich Engels (German, born 1820)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part III

This week the sixth graders and I read part of a chapter from Harry Stottlemeir's Discovery (by Matthew Lipman, part of the curriculum developed by the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey), which involves two girls visiting an art museum together and talking as they wander around. The chapter raises many philosophical questions, including questions about art, poetry, nature, and friendship.

The students and I read about three pages together and then I asked the students if the reading brought any questions to their minds. They came up with questions about what it meant to treat someone like a thing, whether we have moral responsibilities to living things that are not human beings, why some people are more sensitive than others, and whether something that is offensive to many people can be considered art.

Although we had some interesting exchanges, especially about the nature of things versus people, this class was not as successful as others I have facilitated. It is sometimes the less successful classes from which I learn the most as a teacher, and I've been analyzing what it was that led this session to work less well than others. I think perhaps I let the conversation become too scattered and didn't sufficiently rein it in -- it is always a balance for me to help the students to take the dialogue where they want to go with it and at the same time to keep it structured, philosophical and coherent. I want to encourage the students to talk with each other (which they do quite well now, rarely just directing their comments just at me), but I also want to make sure that we make some progress in our discussions. I had some difficulty this time in helping the students to build on each other’s ideas, and the conversation really seemed to jump from one point to another in a somewhat jumbled way.

We're going to read another part of the same chapter in Harry next week, which raises (among other things) questions about the relationship between art and life. I think I will plan some more activities and exercises that we can use to help focus our discussion, in whatever direction it ends up taking.