The sea as a site of curation

Reflections on aesthetics education

My grandfather never said Africa was our home because he didn’t need it to be. As a polyglot and a sailor, he thought of the world as his home. It was hard to mention a spot on the globe for which he didn’t have a story. To him, I imagine, one place was as good as the next. Maybe it was that he had no desire to put down roots or to reclaim them. He had embraced errantry or taking to the sea as the closest thing to freedom he would experience.

—Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (2007, p. 98)

The “curating” value of the sea comes from how peoples come together in forms of kinship. This is a kinship which, though not necessarily forced, is invented and disputed, just as it is made necessary by the contingency that brings us all together. In its ambiguity, this experience suggests a place in whose reality we seek to attest what we are and what we do. 


Iteratively forced to mean, this place is defined by alternate acts of sharing and contesting; actions claimed in common yet never factored in forms of commonality. Whether we are talking about the North or Caspian seas, the Black, White (Mediterranean), the Red, Caribbean or Arabian seas, or the Guinean or Mexican gulfs, all the communities located on their coasts seem to share common intents. They claim the same waters through which they seek meanings of being and identity and which, not without paradox, are never actually held in common.


With the sea as a “site”, it locates meaning. A “site of curation” is an iteration of representation, presentation, and re-presentation. In this iterative sense, “to curate” is to signify “what is” with “what it means.” The iterative belongs to the body, as it seeks to make sense of the habits that form its dispositions. The phenomenological value within this state of affairs relates to art as a phenomenon by which the sea appears to us as a site and metaphor by which we assert ourselves as subjects in an endless process of showing.


The sea’s curation is never volunteered. Nor is it intended on the basis of “natural” aesthetic values that accumulate historically by some fictitious popular consent. In terms of curation, the sea and its locations facilitate the necessity of a showing of the things of the world that come about contingently, and which we factor in the acts of living our daily life. While focusing on the notion of a site in this desperate yet pragmatic sense, the image of the sea remains present in one’s quotidian awareness. It cannot be simply ignored. 


So why should we even consider the sea as a site of curation? Literally speaking, the sense of the sea as a vast presence brings up the image of a place where several works of art, artefacts, and other objects are found. Yet there is another, rather peculiar, sense by which such a presence conjures up another sense of curation. A site of curation might also signify what could be removed or wilfully lost. Finding what must be curated signals a journey marked by fear and loss. As a site of curation, the sea is mostly a site of loss. Curation may well signal a sense of belonging, but as a site of such belonging, the sea provides a desperate metaphor, infinite in extent, bewildering in its imaginary. 

The metaphor of the sea as a site of curation happens without specific interest. It is disinterested because we must curate on a ground that, at the very least, we all accept as a shared horizon. Here, disinterestedness comes close to a Kantian meaning as it retains the subjective plea by which we objectively reflect on a situation that belongs to the realm of aesthetics. In his third Critique, Kant argues that taste has to be devoid of all interest.“Taste is the ability to judge an object, or a way of presenting it, by means of a liking or disliking devoid of all interest.” More significantly, Kant argues that “The object of such a liking is called beautiful.” (Kant, 1978, p. 53.) Here, the use of the term disinterestedness is specific and intentional, especially in how a thalassic aesthetic—that is, an aesthetics that begins with the sea—follows a practice of curation as a pedagogical practice. In other words, what is formative about the body and the sea remains firmly within the artistic sphere. This is, after all, both a formative and a pedagogical exercise.

Aesthetics education

It is widely known how in his Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius (1919) argues that “the ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building.” He explains how “the old schools of art were unable to produce this unity; how could they, since art cannot be taught? They must be merged once more with the workshop. The mere drawing and painting world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”


Likewise, one cannot help thinking how Maxine Greene’s notion of aesthetics education (Greene, 2000; 2001) could ever be distanced from the sites of living, which in her case, are intimately informed by her New York existence. Just as Schiller’s notion of aesthetics education (Schiller, 1967) was historically prompted by his regard for the polity (hence the dedication of his book to Prince of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg), one wonders if his concept of the aesthetic education of mankind could ever make sense beyond the walls of the polis, as a community that is bound to specific sites of organisation. 


Given the body of work dedicated to aesthetics education that has run up to the 20 and 21st century (with works of Greene, Dewey, Eisner, Gardner, Reed and others, just to mention a few Anglo-American theorists), one cannot imagine how these could be ever separated from their sites of origin—which, on first account, strikes us as being wholly interested in those aims by which the arts find themselves legitimised as objects of nothing short of an educational imperative. Can we move aesthetics education away from museums, theatres, schools and other sites of curation? Could sites of curation be less schooled, less institutional, even less curated … and thereby less interested? Could we think of sites of curation that are not specifically built, adopted, or indeed curated for specific uses? Which also begs that other question: Could we educate the youth outside the polis? 


Thinking back, one could argue that the location of arts education as a building (which also signifies an institution—be it the theatre, the museum, the school, the auditorium, the gallery) continues to hold nothing short of a hegemonic centrality. Aesthetics education is integral to the building, which houses the institution, that houses the cultural hegemonies that sustain it. This becomes a modernist concern, forcefully adopted by what, via the Bauhaus, became symbolic of the art school—as a site of Bildung.


Can we ignore the ordinary sense by which we understand education, by which we understand the arts? More so, is it possible to understand the idea of an aesthetics education outside the walls of a building (and that of Bildung) together with the hegemonic implications and constraints that this edificial approach brings? 


When we speak of the sea as a site of curation, and by implication, the sea as a site for an aesthetic education, we are moving out of the walls of the polis as well as those of the building (qua Bildung). We do so by leaving the ordinary sense by which we understand education and the arts, and more so by which we understand the whole idea of an aesthetics education which we often want to organize in certain ways. This also means that we seek other spaces beyond those schooled places by which society is habituated to understand and contextualise the arts from within its closed walls. 


In its aporetic nature, art is one of those few human actions which allow us to articulate and indeed enact such an existence. As I have argued elsewhere, art’s antinomic way of being is at the heart of its aporetic nature. We know from various discussions of the nature of an aporia that it is an impassable passage. This means that to exit an aporetic state of affairs, one enter by looking backwards while taking an uncharted route. Strangely, art’s claim to such a challenging and perplexing route, is one of art’s most direct approaches: its entrance is also a mode of exiting, a way out—which is to say that by doing art we give ourselves a degree of autonomy. (See Baldacchino, 2012).


We thereby need to challenge how we see the curation of the arts as having to be clearly located and walled. One must object to such a characterization of the curation of the arts by posing a counterargument to that of curation as a walled place: the arts cannot be walled in, even when we place them somewhere to show, appreciate, and “learn” from them. Ultimately, the approach we take of art’s curation all depends on what we mean by the relationship between the arts and day-to-day living. This could sound very strange, given that one cannot contextualize the arts beyond a community. However, this only sounds odd if by “community” we mean those expected forms of social organization that happen within the parameters (and walls) of a polis. 


What sounds odd is how we have come to understand the arts, and their relationship with aesthetics education, although we should not simply understand aesthetics as being the domain of the arts only. This also begs one to clarify that this has nothing to do with restricting the idea of curation to the arts and less so to aesthetics education. When we regard something as being odd or strange, this reflects what we set in our own understanding, in the form of those expectations invested in such practices. This invites us to think about such matters from a very different perspective; to reflect on those possibilities which are seldom linked to education, let alone aesthetics, even when we continuously attribute learning and an array of forms of human expression to them. These other locations and places play a central role in our everyday living, and by implication our own aesthetic and other experiences which we may or may not directly link to education (at least when the latter is attributed to formalized practices of learning).

Strangers, homecomers

In these reflections on aesthetics education, I am also characterizing the sea as a case for an odd form of curation. The idea of something being odd—indeed being strange—is central to the origin of what we mean by aesthetics and more so what we mean by aesthetics education. After all, aesthetics education is often regarded as an opportunity to look at the world from different perspectives and it invites us to urge or rather to open ourselves and our students to the unexpected as well as that realm of the imagination. As John Paul Sartre used to say we cannot imagine something that is in front of us and so if we are to measure something new and exciting then we have to move beyond what is familiar. 


This was echoed handsomely by Maxine Greene who argued that as teachers we must take “a stranger’s vantage point on everyday reality”. This is “to look inquiringly and wonderingly on the world in which one lives.”  Greene characterizes this as a homecoming. It is a return to home, after one has been away for a long time. It is also a willed form of estrangement, intended to look at what is familiar with a fresh eye, intent on gaining a new perspective on what we have taken for granted and to which we have gradually become blind.  The willed stranger becomes a homecomer. “The homecomer notices details and patterns in his environment he never saw before.” The aim is to gain meaning, and to make of such meaning a springboard for a more dynamic forms of imagining what is not there—as what was always there has become far too familiar to us. We must, Greene says, “make it meaningful again”. We must “interpret and reorder” what we will now see “in the light of his changed experience.” This is how we start to “consciously engage in inquiry.” (Greene, 1973, pp. 267-268)


In terms of how we curate what has become all too familiar, as homecomers we have to recognize how, to us as willed strangers, our curation of what we have always known to be familiar must become odd. An “odd curation” represents an opportunity for us to embrace several contradictions that reveal, at least, two forms of approach: the first being analogical, while the second is futural. As it locates curation, the sea is an analogical place. This reveals several gaps in how, as a paradox, it refuses to cohere. In this respect, the sea’s curation is akin to a practice that hosts the spaces left behind by art itself. In other words, these spaces leave us with no choice but to use our imagination.

The Analogical

What is strange requires an analogical narrative that communicates itself against the backdrop of the familiar. The idea of an analogy is very important in the process of the imagination because what we are invited to do when we curate a number of objects or records or images or whatever you want to imagine, is that we re-present what is present twice over what we are usually expecting to be presented. It represents—that is, it stands for—a different order and place. This creates several possibilities, especially in how we define a place of curation through the analogy of the sea.


Let us not forget that museums are a modern invention particularly when we think of the arts. Although the idea of the gallery gained centrality with Modernism, the curation of art making extends to the perspective of a body of work. We know that traditionally speaking the site (and sight) of art was not found in the museum but in places where art functioned in different ways. In churches and temples art was choreographed as ritual and symbol. In terms of art as a domestic affair, humans have made art to make familiar what they initially regarded as impossible and out of reach. Both at home and in public rituals, art’s role was to make possible—to possibilitate


It could be argued that curation is a form of estrangement. To curate is to bring objects together, create and recreate, move and remove, disassemble and reassemble them in different contexts. In the act of curation, the audience is invited to react to new arrangements, a viewing that becomes new once places are changed and exchanged. In and of itself, curation is an artistic activity, a choreographic form of making—chora being that space that oscillates between word and representation.


This choreographic rearrangement is an activity that uses the mechanism of analogies. The objects are re-arranged and thus re-presented in order to make meaning (whatever that may be). This meaning is conveyed through analogies of arrangement, by which I mean that the presentation is a second or third iteration. In Greek ana suggest once more. In English, analogy signals meaning as a re-presentation, as another way of presenting whatever one wants to curate, which implies an infinity of other iterations. By the same analogical mechanism, as a site of curation in terms of its original meanings, the sea is re-presented—that is, presented again—through the image and awareness of its presence. For those who gain meaning from this thalassic presence, the sea continues to shape a world outlook that significantly moves beyond the walls of their political imaginaries. 


This brings to mind Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical and later works, and how they often recall his youth in the Aegean Sea. This is highlighted in Italo Calvino’s essays on De Chirico, where he invites readers to imagine how beyond in De Chirico’s childhood, the squares that characterise his works always lead to the sea and beyond the city itself.

Little do I remember what the city looked like from the sea: white behind cypresses like that from where the Argonauts departed; granite steps that came down to the pebbly beach where the statuary marble was reddened by the blood of little goats sacrificed to the Goddess. (Calvino, 1994, p. 395)


Even when presented this way, the analogy of the sea remains odd because in and of itself, the sea is a space which one does not really inhabit (unless one is a marine plant or creature). Also, the sea does not have the same qualities of a space like a square or a room. To curate something “in” the sea would imply something else, especially when understood literally. As an analogy and a metaphor, the sea draws our attention to a never-ending horizon of diversity that is geographical, cultural, artistic, political … and where a special narrative begins to inspire the infinitely possible, but where it also puts in us the fear of the unknown. De Chirico’s empty squares both inspire and daunt us. Calvino’s reference to the sea, which is seldom depicted in De Chirico’s paintings, represents an indirect suggestion of mystery as well as fear.  


The concepts of possibility and the unknown are crucial to the understanding of the contingent nature of the sea’s daunting presence. In its contingency, the sea is a horizon of aesthetic and other formative events. It is peculiar and therefore unique in how it comes to be known, and in how such forms of knowing help us imagine a reality that is never immediate. The fear of the unknown and the inspiration of the possible are not only found in the epic myths that we have inherited from this thalassic presence. We often attribute these stories to regions defined by seas like the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Black, Caspian and other waters. In such stories we locate the sea as a place for invention and constructed origins of a present that becomes increasingly futural.


The futural

This takes me to the second odd proposal: focusing on aesthetics education as a site of gaps and therefore as a practice that hosts the spaces left behind by art itself, in other words the spaces that prompt us to use our imagination.  One can only make sense of this second suggestion if we keep in mind the analogy of the sea—indeed the sea as a strange, an odd, site for curation. This analogy suggests that we could look again at aesthetics education as a site of gaps, that is, a site of impossibilities and situations that are not there yet and which might never happen. 


The idea of futuring is not cue for a hopeless sense of evangelical optimism that fails to understand the criticality of what art and education mean. Futuring implies what could become possible, which is what Gramsci dwells on when considering an historical framework that could make sense of Kant’s notion of noumena, things-in-themselves. 

The noumenon must be read through a recognition of] “the concrete sense of a ‘relative ignorance’ of reality [“relativa ignoranza” della realtà] as something still ‘unknown’ [which] one day could be known with the perfection of human ‘physical’ and intellectual instruments. (Gramsci, 1975, p. 48)

There is a solid sense of futurity in Gramsci’s thinking, especially in how he explains to us (and himself) why there is value in idealistic philosophy like Croce’s and Kant’s. Gramsci explains the noumenon from the position of concepts that are yet to be understood when the historical context for such an insight becomes possible and present. It is an optimistic approach, without ever losing sight of the dire realities by which we are equally pushed to think of solutions to whatever we care to problematize. To think of futurity is to consider those possibilities which are not yet there, but which we could (and want) to capture once the skills and contexts make that understanding possible is within reach. This is what I mean by gaps that are revealed once we embrace historical contingency. When the focus is drawn to fields like aesthetics education, we cannot simply assume that learning is a given. Rather, these should be cues for processes of unlearning the habits and dispositions that we come with. 


The dispositions and expectations by which, as artists and educators, we want to use our sites for learning, prompt the suggestion that rather than looking at a building, a museum, a school, a gallery or a place from a point of view that brims with answers and certainties, we approach them as sites full of gaps, which in turn signify several points of interrogation. This is what is meant by problematizing a situation, just as we would problematize education through problem-based forms of inquiry. To better frame this, Hélène Cixous comes to mind:

For the moment, I am, following, the error, without fear but with respect. (…) Necessary error, school mistress, faltering essential companion, we love her, because she is the only way we have on this earth to feel the truth, which is always a little farther, exists, a little farther away. (Cixous, 2005, p. 28)

Art is a horizon of interrogation. The inherent nature of art’s practice is an indirect pedagogy that is not interested in rectifying or reinforcing certainties under the guise of truth, but where, as in the analogy of the sea, “stuff happens” without a specific design or presumptions. Open to the unexpected, in art’s methods one seeks errors; in its of doing and making one embraces the accident. In other words, art signals the value of contingency, by which the stories of humans and the sea taught us never to anticipate what might happen. Rather, art’s necessary error is an occasion to identify what appears impossible to grasp; a skill that retains the potential realization of historical contingency.


The idea of curation as a site of gaps suggests how contingency defies those fixed, functionalist, and authoritarian expectations which tend to instrumentalize the arts. To better discuss how this comes across in aesthetics education we need to revisit the relationship between the artistic, the discursive and the pedagogical. While the artistic is what one deems to be made and thereby shown, the discursive emerges from the conversational happenstance which art’s showing is meant to cause, only to realize that anything which is meant to be pedagogical must begin from how we unlearn what art is all about in the first place. This takes us back to the sea which, as a site of curation, reveals another analogy, that of the necessarily contingent


As was mentioned earlier in these reflections, in our existential engagement with the sea we try to understand our being. I speak from my own existential experience of the Mediterranean—as a Mediterranean person—which is a sense of being that is shared by other seas, how they gave us their epics as these supplemented our own stories, and by which we came to inhabit our desired spectacles. This is where the sense of belonging takes a deeper sense of being, and where place and home are internalized, as Hartman recalls when reflecting on her grandfather.

My grandfather had discovered years back that the only home he would ever know was the imagined country, the promised land of the heart, the territory of dreams. He accepted the peril and promise of being without a country. It explained why, as much as he spoke of Africa, he never imagined it as his natal land. The route he charted back and forth across the Atlantic, as a young seaman aboard a merchant ship, was an adventure, a detour, not a return. (Hartman, 2007, p. 99)


It all ties into the manner by which we curate our stories and bring them together in order to make sense of the world. In such a context, we come to celebrate the idea that history is necessarily contingent, by which is meant that we do not simply shy away from what we do not know. Rather, we some to embrace the uncertainties that open us to the same unexpected and fearful possibilities that may or may not happen. 


While this bequeaths us with an iterative approach to our understanding, the sea as a place is more than an analogy of an individual’s existential experience. It is tempting to say that as an analogy of our experience, the sea presents the opportunity to some sort of consensus (as often reflected in the colonial idea of the Mediterranean as a Mare Nostrum). But rather than use the sea as a claim to a forced commonality, as a site, the sea should remind us, and represent, the very opposite. 


The sea’s contingent nature, (and the way we look at it from the position of not knowing what the future holds for us) keeps us conscious of the fact that as its inhabitants of the sea—as those living on its shores—we only share its presence through a constellation of diverse (and often antagonistic) horizon of habits and dispositions. The tragic truth is that a commonly held sense of belonging is also a source of violence and death, as we can attest to right now with hundreds and thousands of migrants drowning while trying to reach a better world as they flee from war and misery. 


When we speak of the sea as a necessarily contingent site of curation, we must qualify it as a stranger’s act of homecoming. This is also an odd kind of homecoming. More than a return it is a detour, although to borrow Hartman’s words, listening to the sea’s rumbling, it is hard to believe that her grandfather never thought back on how the original journey, forced by slavery, could be forgotten. (Hartman, 2007, p. 99). In this incredulity of a detoured return, notions of understanding and stories come together—not as forms of clean and logical identities, but as continuous cycles of interrogation. By interrogating our own desire for an origin we come to embrace uncertainty, just as we unlearn those dispositions by which we often expect that place, space and situation must always suit those interests vested in desirable learning environments. 


Our approach to the sea emerges from the need to retain and understand—as well as embrace—a notion of autonomy that is understood as a space that must be occupied (see Baldacchino, 2021). This implies a politics of autonomy that cannot just emerge from the traditional left’s renunciation of the cause of oppression, such as capital, labour, schooling, or artistic-affective consumption. Rather, autonomy comes from a process that questions the dispositions by which we sustain matters that would notably include government, labour, the school and the arts. 


By way of concluding, I want to clarify that far from a simple set of provocations, these thoughts are prompted by what we learn from a sea like the Mediterranean. In the work that some of us have done about the Mediterranean over many years (see Baldacchino, 2010), one could not avoid aligning the very notion and presence of the sea with an aesthetic. This also means that one’s concept of the aesthetic is opened up to a much wider sense of understanding and possibilities. When bringing together concepts like that of the sea with aesthetics, with pedagogy, and with the whole idea of aesthetics education as a formative horizon, everything could happen. (See Baldacchino, 2023) Because this approach entertains no certainty, one invariably entertains a series of possibilities which would allow us to think of aesthetics education in a myriad way.


The meaning of aesthetics education cannot afford to be complacently accepted through concepts that are too familiar. Instead, what we curate and what we learn from the state of affairs that emerge from such an activity, is constantly challenged and one’s desire would be that it remains open-ended. In other words, it remains an iterative approach to our world of representations. When we speak of what is represented, we also speak of what is shown and what is experienced. This phenomenological approach urge us to look back on what an experiential dynamic means to us. We know from philosophers like Dewey and Husserl, that experience represents itself many things, but even in their different takes on experience, we know that the phenomenological is not simply reasoned out but lived. As Merleau Ponty reminds us, it is the lived body—the corps vécu—that allows us to inhabit the same spectacles, those very same forms of understanding, by which we inhabit the world.


This is not to suggest that we change for the sake of change, just as we never do art for art’s sake. Rather, from experiencing those phenomenological modes of corporeal and spatial understanding, the only points of departure (and possible arrival) remain plural, diverse, and in continuous detours. What this slippage means is that having an interest in the sea cannot be reduced to an exotic approach to a region. The sea is neither exotic nor benign. Its presence comes in the form of an awareness that, phenomenologically speaking, radically defies what is given. There are no certainties. Only gaps and absent meanings. 


If we are to be active in how we understand arts education through sites of curation like the sea, then the idea of constant interrogation will keep us engaged with what we do. This also constitutes the heart of what I understand to be the raison d’être of aesthetics education. The latter must be put into question from the idea of the sea as an odd place which guarantees nothing, and which questions whatever we are, do, and claim to want to be. Inasmuch as this is essential to engage the arts with the sea as a referent of the necessarily contingent, we also need to be careful in how, by such assumptions, we seek to avoid creating a set of expectations that only fit the way we happen to curate a state of affairs without paying attention to that which it omits. If anything, the sea as a place of gaps and thereby one of “odd” curation, is a good referent by which we could effectively interrogate our own artistic and educational expectations. 



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