Aesthetic richness triggers inner symphonies of tremor and upheaval, often so dense, layered, intricate and nuanced that it challenges articulation. Yet aesthetic response can be and is articulated by those whose sensibilities and vocabularies have been honed to do so. The language of aesthetic feeling is no mystery: aesthetically rich material triggers automatic responses that already exist in latent form, and all we need is a few moments of reflection in which to isolate, explore and name them … with the help of a ragged, old-fashioned thesaurus. Aesthetic richness, therefore, can be an effective catalyst for the development and refinement of emotional intelligence. It should surely be the foundation stone of education, and the raison d'être of illustrated narrative for young people. Sadly, young people are more often presented with conceptual constriction than with aesthetic riches.
The concept of diversity, for example, has narrowed to focus on race and gender, and can be used synonymously with ‘multicultural’ and ‘LGTBIQ’. Diversity in children’s literature, furthermore, while ostensibly aiming to foster a more just and inclusive mindset, and despite being offered in literary and artistic formats (as opposed to thou-shalt-and-shalt-not dictums), is often presented in purely conceptual ways, with little consideration of the fundamentals of formal aesthetic principles. We are, as the result of several generations of disregard for formal aesthetics, largely ignorant of the underlying essentials of text and image that make narratives profound and memorable, independently of their content, and that ensconce new ideas most effectively in the mind.
Progressive ideas that are communicated with direct appeal to the conceptual realm encourage readers to appraise content using the Central Executive Network system of their brains. This system thinks in a conscious, goal-directed, segmented, linear, list-like way. Formal aesthetic properties, on the other hand, are imparted via non-conscious brain systems, by-passing concept and aiming straight for the emotions. They are apprehended holistically and spatially, and are dealt with by the Default Mode Network – a non-goal-directed system that operates during wakeful daydreaming. The DMN is a brain system that aesthetically savvy creators can manipulate in ways that concept-driven creators cannot.
And this brings us to potential controversy: to enrich or not to enrich?
If progressive ideas are most effectively imparted by manipulating aesthetic and emotional responses in profound non-conscious ways, what might then be the danger of socially regressive ideas also being imparted in the same profound and memorable way? Perhaps we censor conceptual material to suit our agendas for young people's thinking, or perhaps we avoid offering any kind of aesthetically powerful material to the young, on the basis that it can be potentially harmful, and instead ensure that content is delivered within safe, approved and non-threatening parameters. BUT how effectively do bland aesthetics impart ideas? And how do they contribute to emotional intelligence?
Real progressiveness would be to enrich young people’s lives with exposure to profound beauty, richness of emotion and diversity of feeling. Let’s dare to offer them aesthetically resonant literature of all kinds, and allow them to draw conclusions based on their own emotional wisdom. True diversity already exists in the heart. All we need do is inspire young people to experience it.
© Margrete Lamond 2017