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Andrea Fairchild goes to Slovenia to talk about 'aversion aesthetics'

Concept of beauty is changing

by Phil Moscovitch

Art Education Professor Andrea Fairchild laughs when she's asked for a quick definition of aesthetics, her chosen field.

"No, you're not serious," she said, noting that thinkers have been arguing the point for more than 100 years. "The field is so broad and so fraught with opinion and argument!"

Fairchild, who is also Associate Dean, Academic Affairs, for the Faculty of Fine Arts, just returned from Ljubljana, Slovenia, where she presented a paper at the 14th International Congress of Aesthetics. The Congress ran from September 1 to 5, and featured academics from as far as Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Britain and the U.S.

Aesthetics used to be all about the search for truth and beauty, but it's a field that's changing with the world around it.

"The whole philosophical background of aesthetics as the sublime -- looking at beauty -- is changing," Fairchild said. "This conference is interesting because they are starting to look at the aesthetics of aversion, since so much contemporary art is not beautiful -- it's shocking. And this is something they didn't even talk about three years ago."

Her own work contributes to that re-assessment of the field. Fairchild's paper, "Cognitive Dissonance and Consonance in the Aesthetic Adult Museum Visitor," looks at the reactions of 90 museum visitors to artwork at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Part of a SSHRC-funded inter-university study on how museums function, the paper explores the causes of cognitive dissonance (a situation where one's previous cognition is challenged and given discomfort) among museum-goers.

Cognitive dissonance in a museum occurs when something happens to make the visitor uncomfortable. The problem might be a work of art the visitor finds ugly, and whose presence in the museum he or she questions. Or it might be a painting appearing to be by one artist and attributed to another.

Unfortunately, Fairchild said, when visitors are confronted with problems like these, "they don't solve many of them. This is one of the sad things we learned. Only about 12 per cent were solved on-site, during a visit. But that's because many of them can't be. Things like, 'This isn't beautiful, and the museum should show me beautiful things, can't be solved on the spot.' "

Interestingly, those who visited museums the most frequently also experienced the highest level of dissonance. That, she explained, is because people with more knowledge about art are more likely to raise questions about what they're seeing.

Slovenia was the most prosperous of the former Yugoslav republics, and it successfully -- and peacefully -- broke away from the federation in 1991.

Fairchild said there were some striking parallels between the tiny nation on the Adriatic coast and Quebec.

"It's a recently formed country and they're very much caught up with issues of national identity, which sounds very familiar. They're giving lots of importance to culture and language. For a tourist, this is difficult, because it meant there was not much English anywhere and not many multilingual signs, like in the rest of Europe."

She added, "I got asked a lot of questions about Quebec, and was quietly prodded about whether or not I supported separation."

Despite the country's communist past, Fairchild said, "the Slovenians are right up to date. The teenagers look like they do here, and there are lots of consumer goods."

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.