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Somaesthetics key to aesthetic education

JIN YONGBING and CHENG HONG | 2022-03-03 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Visitors check out cosmetics during the Fourth China International Import Expo in Shanghai on Nov. 10, 2021. Photo: CFP

Somaesthetics, a sub-branch of aesthetic studies, takes on the human body as a subject of inquiry. The human body is an important field of study for self-cognition and social identification. From dining, clothing, living, and travelling, to sickness and health, life and death, physical experiences, growth, and human interactions, all contain fundamental significance for exploring the meaning of life. It is not only a dimension of human nature, a basic tool to examine human behaviors, but also a necessity for all sensations, actions, and thoughts. It can be said that it is the foundation of human material and cultural production and reproduction.

From this perspective, each person has first-hand experience and something unique to share in the discussion. As modern medical technology advances, fashion and beauty industries welcome a tremendous boom, attesting the vigor of human body related businesses, and calling for further research into somaesthetics. Given that each person has a bodily form, the study demonstrates an equal audience. 
At the same time, aesthetic education is committed to improving the public’s aesthetic perception, a goal which is inherently compatible with somaesthetics’ universality. In fact, somaesthetics not only extends theoretical inquiries for aesthetic education, but also tilts toward practicality. 
Moreover, people have gradually come to realize that aesthetic education is not merely an art education, but an immersive existence in daily life. The purpose of aesthetic education is to transcend the one-way dimension of sensibility, to achieve a harmonious unity of sensibility and rationality which promotes human understanding and self-perception. In a certain way, somaesthetics and aesthetic education show ideal isomorphism and consistency of purpose.
Cognitive innovation
At present, the development of aesthetics is in a period of paradigm transformation, from traditional metaphysical and speculative philosophical aesthetics to a down-to-earth practical aesthetics, from consciousness aesthetics or subject philosophy to somaesthetics. On the whole, the focus of aesthetics is constantly expanding. Aesthetics tends to transcend the artistic field to cover daily life, perception, media culture, and the contradiction between aesthetic and anti-aesthetic experiences. 
As for somaesthetics, it has evolved into a comprehensive practical discipline with music, art, dance, photography, performance, and even clothing, food, housing, and transportation as its research objects, in addition to theoretical exploration. The expansion of disciplinary inquires and the wide range of aesthetic hotspots are irreversible current trends, so somaesthetics is now an indispensable part of aesthetic education.
Somaesthetics is committed to shaping subjectivity’s self-consciousness. Specifically, individuals master their bodies’ relevant physical abilities through continuous learning and training, so as to adjust the body’s senses and the perception of body consciousness. For example, in the early stage of toddlerhood, babies imitate instinctively, but cannot walk consciously. However, when they have mastered the skills of walking, and the ability to exercise, they can feel the joy of freely controlling their own bodies. This is clearly the result of active learning and training one’s own body. 
Only through the direct and personal nature of the body, can individuals develop subjectivity consciousness from the inside out. This is not just a passive adjustment, according to society or the environment, but a type of aesthetic ability and a vitality possessed by self-consciousness. 
Somaesthetics, as part of aesthetic education, can provide theoretical guidance for human behavior and lifestyle choices. As Richard Shusterman, an American expert on aesthetic questions, put forward in Body Consciousness, somaesthetics can be tentatively defined as a subject with the dual qualities of criticism and improvement, which centers the body as the core of perceptual aesthetic appreciation and creativity. To know the body is to know the self, to realize self-education and self-improvement. Every task and function of somaesthetics serves cognition, self-knowledge, and actions, in order to pursue a happy life and achieve the highest truth within oneself.
In practice
Aesthetic education has always been a goal of aesthetic practice, and somaesthetics practice also actively pursues this goal. On the one hand, in terms of basic concepts and theories, somaesthetics justifies the universality of bodily experience, thus advocating for equality among people’s personal taste. On the other hand, somaesthetics is a self-directed and introverted aesthetic education, dedicated to improving human perceptual experiences and refining the human spirit at the lowest cost. 
The fusion of theoretical analysis and pragmatism is an inherent demand of the discipline of aesthetics. Theoretical analysis abstracts and deduces trivial perceptual experiences through rational thought, while pragmatism is committed to serving people through practical training in perceptual cognition, improvement of thinking, and the aesthetic art. The discipline includes a knowledge of aesthetics, the methods of art appreciation, the ability to perceive beauty, and the selection of appropriate aesthetic attitudes for a wide range of different aesthetic objects. This is exactly the purpose and pursuit of aesthetic education.
Somaesthetics provides a variety of practical training methods for the development of aesthetic education. In contemporary times, diverse physical practices, related to the body, and various movements may have somaesthetic significance. Whether it’s fitness, yoga, dance, and other sports, or meditation, pranayama, and other training aimed for inner and physical balance, or some contemporary performance art that emphasizes bodily participation, these all fall under the purview of “how to utilize oneself.” 
Those metaphysical, abstract, and advanced concepts in aesthetic theory can only be truly realized through practice and training. Through these diverse physical training methods, the individual’s mind is enhanced through the medium of the body. This improvement is not only epistemological, rational, and perceptual, but also pleasurable and aesthetic, a path to “self-fulfillment.”
Aesthetic education has always been regarded as quality or elite education because it often focuses on teaching theoretical knowledge of art and the technical training of specific art disciplines, such as music, painting, and dance. These art categories have certain thresholds and requirements for learners. In other words, it requires high-level skills taught by professional teachers, which makes aesthetic education somewhat unreachable for ordinary people. 
Compared with these high arts, somaesthetics is very different, because it appeals to the physical body, to the living sensory experience. The significance of aesthetics lies in experience, and through this process, one can enhance the individual’s cognition of the self, activate their aesthetic appreciation ability, and help individuals acquire aesthetic experience. As long as they have the willingness and ability to actively participate, everyone can become their own “teacher” and be a part of “arts.” Therefore, the criterion for evaluating aesthetic education should not be objective works of art, not the critic who evaluates, but every ordinary person who understands their “self.”
Bridging sensibility, rationality
Aesthetic education as a concept was first proposed by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), a leading German dramatist, poet, and literary theorist. He believed that in the fragmented social environment of Germany, aesthetic forms also showed a separation between rationality and sensibility, which had a very negative impact on the development of aesthetics and the shaping of national character. Therefore, he argued that people needed to build a bridge between rationality and sensibility. This bridge is a state of freedom that moves between the two. Aesthetic education, through an education in literature, art, and aesthetics, helps people find an enlightened state, and then creates a strong and powerful national character and cultural atmosphere.
Somaesthetics is dedicated to building a bridge between sensibility and rationality. On the one hand, the original intention is to counteract the rational centralism of subject philosophy with the help of fresh perceptual experiences. On the other hand, it preserves the value of rational speculation while justifying perceptual experiences. 
The goal of aesthetic education is to cultivate good taste. Taste refers to a special perception and judgment ability that is needed to appreciate art. It comes from sensitivity and spiritual pleasure. It is precisely because each subject’s experiences vary widely, that personal tastes are diverse and private. Good taste often consists of the following elements: refined sensibility or imagination, the practice of appreciating good works of art, broad comparisons, the elimination of all prejudices, and sound reason.
Upon enlightening the soul with good taste, we are searching for complete humanity and personality. Renowned Chinese educator Cai Yuanpei once said, pure aesthetic education cultivates one’s sensibility, so that we have noble and lofty habits while putting aside self-centeredness and self-interested thoughts. With these words, Cai highlighted the importance of aesthetic education in personal and lifelong education. 
The coordinated development of human senses, thinking, emotions, and willpower all depends on the body. In today’s dazzling aesthetic market, we need an integrated power to relieve our numb and tired nerves, overstimulated by a range of commercial “beauty.” In summary, only the harmony and unity of a healthy body and a healthy mind, as well as the peace and joy of our personal state, can bring comfort and counteract aesthetic fatigue.
There are elegant and common aesthetics, but the difference does not lie in superiority and inferiority. Aesthetics, and taste in somaesthetics, are based on the aesthetic experiences of each individual. Though such experience is personal, diverse, and ever-changing, there are no differences between high and low tastes. The core of aesthetic education is thus not to divide the subject based on the quality of taste, and then to derive a theory of aesthetic evolution from low to high. Instead, each subject must be considered aesthetically equal. The purpose of aesthetic education is to affirm this equality, so that more ordinary people can explore their own aesthetic potential and maintain initiative. In short, we need to break the traditional elitist aesthetics and open a new path for the popularization of aesthetics.
Between imagination and reality, theory and practice, abstract consciousness and concrete artistic exploration, aesthetic education should not only pay attention to somaesthetics, but also become the focus of somaesthetics development.
Jin Yongbing is from the School of Literature at Tibet University and Cheng Hong is from People’s Daily.
Edited by YANG XUE