Art Criticism in the Age of Social Media

While there is no account for taste, perhaps it is possible to explain and understand taste. In her project “Aesthetic Practice and the Critical Faculty,” philosopher Iris Laner explores what aesthetic education means in school and for our everyday lives. This much is indisputable: training how to handle images can facilitate a deeper understanding of art and, ultimately, of the world and its emotions.

In school, there are mainly two ways to deal with art: either actively produce works of art, or study art history. But art education can be much more, says Iris Laner, professor of fine arts and art education at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and this view is borne out by history. In antiquity, aesthetic education was still considered the foundation for understanding the world: the specific exploration of the imaginary world of myths and art necessarily had to come before seeking truth in the real world. Many also considered the strong emotional power of the arts dangerous – which is why Plato was an advocate of strict censorship.

– Better use of social media

Rather than restrict access to media, Laner would prefer to explore the potential of a responsible and critical approach to the power of images. She is convinced that visual education can achieve more than simply conveying a high love for art: “Comprehensive aesthetic education can help us better find our way in the world.”

Learning to perceive, classify and understand your sensory impressions enables you to better explain to yourself and others why something affects you and what determines your approach to images. This is not an insignificant skill given the flood of images in today’s world, especially since we are talking about subjective perception. Unlike topical debates, there is no fact-based right or wrong answer to whether an image is beautiful, moving, or impressive. Everyone can come to their own conclusions, but they can also learn to understand different opinions.

– We won’t have anything “like a museum” in our house

In the FWF-funded project Aesthetic Practice and Critical Faculty: Examining the Educational Conditions of Aesthetic Experience, principal investigator Laner is exploring how 14-year-olds from diverse educational backgrounds analyze and discuss images, engage with aesthetic artifacts, and form opinions about them. For example, students were asked to discuss their impressions of three different portraits in focus group interviews. It turned out that they liked to use familiar phrases, but also words they created themselves to express complex concepts.

“Museumisch,” a self-coined term meaning “like in a museum,” was often used to explain why they wouldn’t really want to hang a certain picture in their home: “Young people used this term in a rather derogatory way—they often meant they didn’t want to explore something further, thinking “it belongs in a museum, not in my world, and therefore I’m not interested,” notes Laner in explaining the results preliminary basic research project will last until the end of the year.

– Language forms the prevailing opinion

The language used by young people was subject to several trends. Once a term emerged, it was usually picked up and used by the group. The discussion often focused for a long time on a topic that was introduced at the beginning – whether the person portrayed was female or male, for example – and the conversation then continued along these lines. Verbal expressions directed the attention and evaluations of the group, but it is not always easy to translate an impression or feeling into words. Therefore, language was not the only way for students to express their thoughts.

Laner observed that body language was often a better indicator of whether someone disagreed with the prevailing opinion. She and her team have recorded such moments in the observation protocols. For example, the example where a girl left the group and then muttered to herself that not everyone thought the “gangster” in the portrait was so cool.

– Using the results in the classroom

“It is easier for students to express different opinions non-verbally. This happens on a different level and thus disrupts the usual patterns of response,” notes Laner. Therefore, teachers can begin to promote different forms of expression in the classroom: allowing technical language, everyday language, but also images and gestures, and place all these as equal in order to react to impressions what images do to students.

In a follow-up project, Laner aims to investigate how this might work in practice. It is not only about improving critical skills, but also about the willingness to be inspired to think and feel: “If art has anything to contribute, it is the ability to open spaces for thinking and feeling, and these spaces must be available to him. all children and adults,” says Laner. At the moment, many young people still feel that there is a great distance between art and everyday culture.

– The person

Iris Laner studied philosophy and art education at the University of Vienna and completed her PhD in “Image and Time” at the University of Basel. She completed research visits at the University of St. Gallen, KU Leuven, University of Tübingen and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Since 2019, she is a professor of artistic education at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. The project “Aesthetic Practice and Critical Faculty” (2017–2022) is receiving about 229,000 euros in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

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