I’ve been to student art exhibits that were truly cringe-worthy. I’ve been to student composition recitals that could curl your hair. More than a few have noticed this over the years. How come so much terrible art, especially in our institutions of higher learning? Is it because the bar is so low for undergrads?
No, it is because the bar has been philosophized out of pedagogical existence. It still remains in a few class. An artist in “Drawing II” may be given an assignment to properly darken the angular shadows in a particular scene. He may complete it skillfully or in a shoddy fashion. A young musician in a style course may be allowed to come up with a melody on her own, but must write it “in the style of a piano solo by Debussy”. That’s a very good (and somewhat challenging) assignment. At the end of the day, it can be given an A, B, C, etc.
Aw, but the final show – the capstone, the student’s personal collection to show the last semester before graduation – who dare criticize it? Of course, it COULD be criticized, but will it be? We have taught our children that nothing is sacred because God is dead. We’ve taught them they deserve to be astronauts. We have taught our children that nothing is objectively beautiful – it all depends on how you look at it. We’ve thrown not just St. Thomas Aquinas in the garbage can, but even Aristotle right along with him. The old Greeks at least could say something like “That guy’s face isn’t symmetrical. It looks silly.”
Seriously though, what can a major professor say to a student who wants to present a ridiculous and slipshod sculpture? It’s not good enough? It’s ugly? No, he is not allowed to say anything like that. The secular relativism of the institution (even if this is not his own deeply person view, it rarely is) will not allow him to make any sort of value judgement upon his pupils work. The only aesthetic measuring rod he has left to enforce with is originality. An accusation of plagiarism is probably the only thing he can do to get a piece of art removed from an exhibition. The only other useful argument is possibly against laziness. A composition teacher may legitimately still say that a student has not “spent enough time” developing her symphony or whatnot. The final result can sound awful, but as long as there is a LOT of it, he has surprisingly little sway to direct the novice through the school of hard knocks. They may choose to journey there themselves, and more than a few do, but little can be done but to point them towards its door.
You can find a music critic, published of course, who will say whatever you want to hear. Do they simply all cancel each other out into meaninglessness? No. Some are wise, inspired, and correct. Others are foolish, twisted, and wrong. Secularism says it is impossible for aesthetics to be “twisted” or “wrong” – for it’s philosophy has nothing to twist and nothing to opposed except for unbridled personal liberty. Our teachers, especially in the humanities, are not empowered to teach what is beautiful. Fortunately, they can still model it themselves. Michelangelo and Bach are both bound to rub off.