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.