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Art and the Environment

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Art and the Environment

In this postmodern moment, the significance of debate for art education rests on what particular interpretation that provides the basis for an art program. Art educators have continually recognized the need for an aesthetic component in their teaching. “Aesthetic experience” continually crops up in art education ever since Dewey’s (1934) mention of its necessity for making progressive education “an experience.” Dewey’s pragmatic aesthetics has been recently revived by Richard Shusterman (1992). Discipline Based Art Education (DBAE), for instance, identifies aesthetics as a major area of its curriculum, besides art history, studio arts, and art criticism.

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The significance of aesthetics for art education is furthered by its practice for dispelling the false separation between language and visual art, especially the “silent” and mute arts such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

The criticism of judgment immediately initiates interpretative discourse about this affective silence, and bridges the gap through an act of appropriation. Through such an appropriation the issues which surround aesthetic ethics are not far behind   (Rudolf, 1966).

If the mind was the displacement of the “soul” during Enlightenment progress, then surely the mind has been displaced by the body during this postmodern transition toward . . . what? the technotopian wireless Body of cyberspace where its physical presence is to “disappear” into the World’s “main frame”? or back to the Body of Gaia? to participate in some mysterious Heideggerian Being, or perhaps to coexist somewhere in between these two polarities, as biological machines — the cyborgs that we always were, trying to balance ourselves between the hopes of a future Utopia and at the same time trying to avoid the Apocalypse — the end of the world and the death of our species as we know it. This space of balance seems narrow indeed. But the postmodern body is out of balance. Addiction and death stalk its movements (Jack, 1977).

The imaginative gendering of these two polarized narratives are perhaps too obvious. But it must be said — the cyborgian dream of technology points itself to the stars — to a time when we shall finally lift ourselves off from Mother Earth, escape death and all that which ails us. Run away from the mess that’s been caused. Man’s Dream. The other dream plummets us back to the Earth. It wants to ground itself so deeply that we can taste death as the ancestral humus of our home called Earth; to dwell in the here-and-now for we have no other place to go. Woman’s Dream. The Metal Body and the Sensual Body do Battle in an epic struggle. It is precisely the loss of the body’s balance why the terms like extreme and limit describe so perfectly the body’s response to this dramatic polarization of desire.  Annette (1985) characterizes this response as a “hysterical sublime.” Rather than anxiety, which is a hermeneutic emotion that expresses an underlying nightmare concerning the state of the world, the “hysterical sublime” is about experiencing the “intensities” of highs and lows. The self as body touches its limit, dissolving the individual subject and the human ego. Time is reduced to an instant in an intense punctual experience. Postmodern is obviously a time of decentering that repeats other moments of human history, the most obvious being the Copernican Revolution. The center has been exposed once again for the void that it always was. Now reframings have begun on a global scale, and the excesses which this destablity generates have become exposed (Aronowitz, 1992).

The elevation of the mind above the body was one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. In the postmodern moment, the body has come back with a vengeance to flip the mind/body binary around. Deconstructing the social from the position of its bodily underbelly has exposed the limits of our reflective understanding. At one extreme, the body is seen as entirely constructable and “deconstructable.” Since the unraveling of the DNA molecule, the biological sciences have moved to recombinant DNA and genetic research in their desire to completely dismantle the human being of its mystery so that a living clone or replicant might be possible. Organs could be grown synthetically. Human donors would no longer be necessary. Pushed to extremes, genetic engineering presentsus with Dawkin’s “selfish gene” of sociobiology which claims control over our emotional and sexual behaviors.

A so-called “homosexual” gene has now been “discovered,” as well as a gene that “predisposes” some to become pathological killers. If we only knew the genetic blueprint of the body, then aging could be stopped, violent criminals could be detected for genetic flaws, pathological emotional behaviors could be cured, and diseases eliminated. Such utopian hypereugenic claims have been critically challenged by Jeremy Rifkin and successfully exposed for their reductive assumptions in research design by Ann Fausto-Sterling who has become a “watchdog” on these matters. But this doesn’t stop the dream. The labs are as busy as ever ( Diane, 1987).

The extreme designer body finds its way into the everyday world of body sculpture, the fashion industry, the aerobic fitness “craze,” the stylistics of hip-hop, 60 and the latest in extremes — rave dancing. It is also the addicted body of designer drugs for such extreme experiences: amphetamines, anabolic steroids, synthetically prepared crack cocaine, heroin, and the new synthetic drug on the block — ecstasy. These synthetic drugs make smoking tobacco, marijuana, and even opium derived from the poppy seem tame by comparison. Extreme sports, however, are not necessarily an extension of the “artificiality” that surrounds body sculpture where a strict diet, hormonal pills, and weight machines are necessary to achieve results. Extreme sports take the body in the opposite direction — to the Earth where bodily “limits” are tested. These are masculine-gendered experiences of the sublime where an individual challenges Nature, and tries to survive. Whether it’s bungee jumping, rock and mountain climbing, marathoning, Iron Man competition, white-water rafting, hang gliding, etc. — it is the test of the body with and against Nature that is at play. There is a “death drive” attached to these extremes. Death informs these sports and drives them. The self-abuse of the disciplined body is the antithesis of the tailored and designed one of sleek beauty. These are sublime experiences that are perhaps the antithesis of “beauty” which informs the cosmetic industry. The participants wear their scars, limp and mend their broken bones, bury their friends on the peaks of mountains and lose them in deep crevasses (Margaret, 1991).

Not all of Nature could be contained by the frame, and this left the sublime as beauty’s Other. All that which was humanly impossible to understand — incomprehensible, immeasurable, impossible to totalize — or that which could not be looked at with any kind of regard since it was ugly, hideous, excessive, therefore unrepresentable, fell into this supersensible realm of the binarism. 13 If one were to imagine the Beauty of Nature as a shiny glimmering stone, turning it over would reveal all the scurrying insects beneath — the lower life of the irrational, the instinctual, the primitive, and the outof-control. Their lives are led in the sublime, in the dark, away from the roving eyes, in the unconscious. Kant’s aesthetic is a Judeo-Christian replay of Heaven and Hell, but with the difference that hell is not the opposite of heaven, but its very limit. It constitutes a difference within it. Terror, horror, and pain are the rule here, operating on the mind and through the body to anything that, is dangerous and threatening to its identity. The sublime reminds us and vivifies our very finitude, the very being of our mortality. Yet, such an experience is paradoxical for it is characterized as both painful and pleasurable, as the pleasure of the displeasurable, as the presentation of the unrepresentable. How can that be?

Until the advent of postmodernism, the sublime remained a relatively unexplored area of theorization, since within this “undiscovered territory” lay all that which was hu-MAN-ly impossible to control through a humanist discourse, including the myriad of influences which could not be guarded against by an artwork’s borders.

Our postmodern age has been defined by the sublime. For Lyotard modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime. The sublime is perhaps the only mode to characterize the modern”. Jameson calls it “the hysterical sublime,” singularly an apt term for an age which seems ungraspable, unmanageable, and seemingly impossible to contain by any one theory. Such a characterization mocks at a modernist beauty that would still support the wish for transcendence and totality. Perhaps even more so than Jameson had intended, his turn of phrase points to potentially powerful, horrifying, disruptions to masculine transcendence. As feminists have reminded us, the Greek word “hysteron” means womb ( Kroker, & Kroker, 1995).

From a feminist reading this masculine sublime is damaging of Nature. Man does not live with Nature but over Nature. It justifies the type of technoscience that is governed by a rationality of efficiency; embedded within this sublime is a masochism that derives pleasure from the persecution of animals for “experimentation,” and the destroying of the Earth’s ecology for capitalist profit. For its apologists, none of this destructive potential of such theory need be considered. The masculine sublime is the very verification of human rationality and reason. This thesis is especially evident in the recent defense given by Paul Crowther (1993) in his Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism (the third in a four-volume exploration of aesthetics). Crowther perceives himself as somewhat of an expert on Kantian aesthetics, having written two previous books on the subject. Throughout this book, his claim is to be reconstructing the Kantian sublime, making a new contribution to the field of Kantian studies, correcting misunderstandings of previous readings such as that of Weiskel, Lyotard, and other critics of his own position, by both improving and clarifying the difficulties of Kantian text in proper, orderly philosophical fashion  (Kroker, & Kroker, 1995). Crowther’s central Kantian reconstruction, which he repeats over and over again to correct these other misunderstandings, is to assert the power of rational capacity, of the workings of reason over the imagination, which is best exemplified by the painful and pleasurable experiences of the sublime; exemplifying, the very ideal of masculine sublimity.

The technology of this interaction with the sublime is under-theorized. Further, there is no assurance that this act toward Nature will be one of respect, or held in check by Kant’s “moral imperative.” One is left with an impossible claim — the virtue of “being rational” can be justified with the Good. The claims to universality are glossed over and founded on rational articulation or a striving for objectivity. For Crowther, in the area of human artifice, the assurance is exemplified through the “great works of art” which have “universal relevance” in their “capacity to illuminate innumerable episodes in different lives, and in different times and places” (Megan, 1984)). Where greatness is to be found, genius is sure to follow, for it is the genius who is the most sublime of all. There is no need in going into what is “flawed” (to use his constantly recurring word) in this solution.” Feminists of all persuasions have tried to topple that canon.

Lyotard’s response to the sublime has the added feature of bringing in aspects of technology, but it too comes up with difficulties once subjected to a feminist critique (Morris, 1984). According to Crowther’s review of Lyotard Les Immatériaux exhibition held at the Centre Georges-Pompidou, its strength lies precisely in the display of the rationality that the exhibit manages to display in dealing with the hypercomplexity of communication in a postmodern society. “Immaterials” refers to the very intersections of various levels of meaning in the communication process which can no longer be grasped, perceived as concrete, substantive, material surfaces. In brief, the technologization of the body, i.e., the new awareness of sexual difference and preferences, genetic engineering, dietetics, bio-medical research, organ transplants, cryogenic resuscitation, slowing down of aging process, cyborgian possibilities with the machine, have become so complex, with so much of the decision making handed over to the computer, that its articulation or “definition” has become a sublime process. Technoscientific advances have transformed reality by breaking all things down into microscopic and macroscopic processes; the interconnecting relations of these processes are the “immaterials” that sustain lived-reality, which, until now, have been ignored or undiscovered (Shusterman, 1992). Making them visible has forwarded them to our consciousness, making them infinitely analyzable and transformable. Crowther celebrates Lyotard’s sublime sense of achievement in his attempt to represent this ungraspable phenomenon.


Aronowitz S. (1992) “On Intellectuals”. In The politics of identity: Class, culture, social movements. New York and London: Routledge.

Crane Diane (1987) The transformation of the avant-garde: The New York world 1940-1985. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goody Jack (1977) The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Iversen Margaret (1991) “The Deflationary Impulse: Postmodernism, Feminism and the Anti-Aesthetic”. In Thinking art: Beyond traditional aesthetics. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (eds.). pp. 3-16. London: Institute of Contemporary Art

Kroker, Arthur, and Marilouise Kroker (1995) Hacking the future: Stories.for theflesh-eating ’90s. Montreal: New World Perspectives.

Kuhn Annette (1985) The power of the image: Essays on representation and sexuality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Morris Megan (1984) “Postmodernity and Lyotards Sublime,” Art and Text, No. 16. (Summer): 44-67.

Shusterman, Richard (1992) Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art

Cite this Art and the Environment

Art and the Environment. (2017, Jan 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/art-and-the-environment/

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