Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Challenges to Productive Discourse

In a previous entry I mused on the grandiose subjects of truth, beauty and goodness, asserting that these three great ideas of western philosophy are the bedrock of critical discourse in teaching and studying art. No big surprise there, but ask a group of students who have just pulled an all-nighter to consciously muse on these virtues and a slight panic ensues. While these are enormous topics, they comprise the metric of value judgements, guiding our opinions, our beliefs and our productive exchange with one another in studio critique. As definitive as that assertion may sound, I'll be the first to admit that digging deep takes patience and a genuine interest in at least trying to better understand our conceptions of these ideas as they relate to the art we make. That's sometimes hard to come by, for both students and their instructors.

I've been teaching for twenty-eight years. In this time, I have always been aware of the fragile veneer of professorial authority that exists in an age of relativism. Postmodern purists assert that there can be no truth (well, apart from math, and even that is questioned); that beauty is entirely a matter of individual taste (and that matters of taste are not worth discussing); and that goodness is likewise elusively relative, without definition. I envy the unflagging confidence of colleagues who render absolute judgments with ease, while to this day I still leave critique with a very heavy question: "why should they heed my opinion?"  This uncertainty has always made critique challenging for me, but I do think some acknowledgment of subjectivity—when and where it exists—is essential. The problem is that students sometimes want absolutes. They do not want "I don't know," and they've told me so.

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