Weekend tutorial: Laurie Fendrich on teaching students about Rousseau and virtue

Arist and professor of fine arts at Hofstra University, Laurie Fendrich is a feisty spirit with the soul of an agent provocateur. Here’s her latest report from the teaching trenches — in the Chronicle Review online — where she relates her attempt to shake things up by making her students read Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and deal with his concept of virtue (and that’s not chastity we’re talking) and his thought that art is selfish, non-communitarian and…non-virtuous!

Fendrich has a Philly connection. She was one of the artists featured in the Julie Karabenick-curated show, Order(ed) at Gallery Siano in 2006 (see post and see Vince Romaniello’s video clips of the panel discussion featuring Fendrich, Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Edith Newhall, artists Julie Gross and Chip Richardson and, ahem, me). And, it’s thanks to Peter Plagens, Fendrich’s proud hubby and organizer of the recent art bloggers roundtable at Art in America, that we got this link forwarded to us.

Fendrich’s article is saucy and very entertainingly written and brings up huge issues of the obligation of the arts to society. Questioning whether the arts are noble…or selfish pursuits is something young artists (and indeed everyone) needs to think about. The question is, is it enough to be a good person and make art? Is making art a virtuous thing? Or are the arts selfish and non-virtuous and do they keep us from rising up and dealing with more important things (equality of the races and classes, poverty, etc). Read Fendrich and decide for yourself.

Here’s Fendrich on what upsets the students:

Rousseau, the Enlightenment’s party pooper, shocks college students by trashing education and reason, science and art, and the advancement of knowledge in general. Most students have come to college at least partly to “make themselves better.” Rousseau seems to be telling them not to fool themselves. Their real motives, he implies, are vanity and ambition. And nothing fuels those two vices, Rousseau says, like the arts.

Fendrich on how art students react to Rousseau:

Such a counterintuitive attack on the arts jolts my art students in particular. Since their early childhoods, they’ve been taught that by making and showing off their finger paintings, class plays, and rhythm-band performances, they’re somehow doing a very nice thing for themselves and everyone around them. Although my students readily concede Rousseau’s initial premises that theater’s purpose is to entertain (that is, to give pleasure) and that it’s a luxury rather than a necessity, they have a hard time accepting the possibility that it might be truly deleterious.

For more of this entertaining writer/thinker, catch Fendrich’s blog posts on the Chronicle’s blog site.