Teaching Aesthetics

by Randi Minetor

At San Diego State University, scenic design students learn the nature of art

Students of scenic design have all kinds of questions as they begin their training. Most of these have to do with the process of design: the mechanics of designing a show, how the theatre space influences the design, whether the designer should depend on the director to dictate the concept or offer one of his or her own, and how the relationships between the scenic, lighting, and costume designers are likely to work. Not many of these students mention Plato or Socrates. 

That, however, is where the discussion begins for Charles Murdock Lucas, a working scenic designer and professor at San Diego State University in southern California. Lucas teaches a graduate-level course in aesthetics, the principles behind the nature and appreciation of beauty in art. 

Lucas knows more than a little about the application of aesthetics in the practical world of scenic design. Something of a wunderkind in the field, he received the USITT Scenic Design Award in 2012 and now maintains a full schedule of design assignments for theatres across the country, in addition to his teaching schedule. His recent successes include a production of An Enemy of the People at Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, FL; The Light at the Piazza at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, FL, The Ding Dong at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Meyers, FL, and a stunning production of The Turn of the Screw at Eastman Opera Theatre in Rochester, NY. He has served as resident scenic designer for Ohio Light Opera, Texas Shakespeare Festival, Luna Stage and Duke City Repertory Theatre, and he has served on faculty at Southern Oregon University and taught courses at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  

Lucas’s aesthetics class delves deep into the questions of beauty and artistic taste, with the goal of expanding the thinking of scenic design students. “This course is in aesthetics as a philosophy of art—visual, moral, and social criteria that we use to evaluate art,” he says. “It’s a study of what makes art, art, and what we can use to make it better.”

Through animated classroom discussions—“No one dozes off in this class,” Lucas notes—students explore the elements of their personal aesthetic, the way they perceive their world and the ideas that matter to them. “It’s about the decision-making process they go through in making their part work that evokes, communicates, and responds to those ideas,” says Lucas. “I feel very passionately about engaging the students in this class. I view this as a step forward on their journey toward how they view themselves as artists.”

More than 2,500 years of perspective

Today’s students have to find context for their place in a world where the value of art often comes under fire, Lucas explains. “There are a lot of interesting issues in viewing an artist’s role in the world. This class is devoted to artistic controversy and art’s role in society.” The controversy may seem like a new phenomenon to young artists, but it actually dates back all the way to centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Plato, arguably the most influential philosopher of his time and one of the most prolific writers in classical Greece, took on the question of art’s intrinsic value as far back as the fourth century BC. 

Plato’s relationship with art was conflicted at best, Lucas notes. In two of his dialogues, Republic and Ion, Plato holds true beauty as an unachievable ideal, calling the physical world a rather poor copy of it—so every gorgeous landscape, color-saturated sunset, and newly opened rose blossom is nothing but a sham compared to “real beauty.” When people create art that reflects their perception of the world around them, then—specifically poetry in Plato’s writings—they are only creating a copy of a copy. This process he called “mimesis,” an imitation of the real world. Plato treated poetry as a sort of opponent to philosophy, finding it not only misleading in its interpretation of the world around him, but actually harmful to that world. Scholars that followed him extrapolated his suspicion of poetry to cover the entire field of art.

“In Republic and Ion, Plato has Socrates as a character speaking for him,” says Lucas. “Socrates asks a reciter of the poetry of Homer, ‘Why are you so good at what you do?’ The performer gives answers that Socrates does not find satisfactory. Socrates argues him into a logical corner, saying, ‘Either you are not very good at reciting Homer, or you are possessed by the gods.’”

As far-fetched as it may seem here in the twenty-first century, Plato’s conflict with art set the tone for the devaluation of art thousands of years later, Lucas says. “Because this one artist did not have good answers for why this skill mattered, a very intelligent person said, ‘You are either lying about the quality of your work, or you are crazy.’”

The lesson for students is much more straightforward, Lucas adds: “Not being able to speak well about the work you do matters. Plato gets the actor to say he doesn’t know why his work matters, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.”

Aesthetics applied

So how does all this apply to a scenic designer’s real life? Lucas recently designed a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, SC, that illustrates the use of his sense of aesthetics. The play normally takes place in eighteenth-century France, where two bored French aristocrats devise a sexually charged power game through which they tear apart one another’s lives. Audiences expect to see the extravagant settings and costumes of the period with its bouffant wigs, rustling full skirts, gilt-edged furnishings and lavish accouterments.

Lucas and director Matthew Earnest chose a different direction: They took visual inspiration from the modern-day fashion industry, where today’s idle rich satisfy their whims for manufactured conflict. “We had a white, shiny runway floor, gorgeous red curtains at one end, and a textured mirror arch at the other,” Lucas says. “We made these choices because the fashion runway is where aristocrats go to be seen—not to enrich themselves or learn anything, but just to be seen. That self-absorption with their own appearance translates nicely to this setting.” 

Taking an original approach, even when it may shake up the audience’s expectations, is at the heart of the understanding of aesthetics, he continues. “The end of the show becomes revelatory—Valmont purposely loses a duel, and the Marquise de Merteuil is publicly embarrassed by what she has done. It creates a modern visual context and vocabulary for these ideas.” The updated concept brings modern-day relevance to a story composed in the 1700s. “Art is not decoration,” Lucas says. “This is a wonderful way for an audience to engage with these issues without having to live through them.”