top of page
  • Writer's pictureMarc Probst

Poeisis as a Starting Point for Art Education

Theoretical considerations

Starting from an existentialist world view, people are thrown into a world without meaning. It is the freedom, but also the responsibility of each individual to create his/her life plan, to shape his/her existence, but also to give oneself permission to be formed and shaped.

This is where the ancient Greek concept of poiesis comes in. It means "to make" or “to create”. Poiesis refers in particular to artistic creation – a process through which something is created that did not exist before; but it is also an activity that forms the "artist", the “creator”. Through artistic creation, the artist is confronted with what arises during the process inside and outside of oneself. This, what emerges, has an influence on the artist. It potentially has a transformative impact. Stephan Levine (1999) says "poiesis is shaping and being shaped". In this sense, poiesis is formative per se; poiesis becomes, therefore, the fundament of education assuming that education is first and foremost a process of self-education (see e.g. Löwisch, 2000).

An understanding of art based on poiesis becomes a way of life; it is connected to the belief that artistic creation concerns the basic nature of human existence. Poiesis relates to what people deal with on a daily basis: acting and reacting to internal and external conditions.

Poiesis, in order to make it more widely usable, must be integrated into a broader educational concept. People experience the world first through sensory perceptions before it can be understood intellectually. The senses not only give us physical impressions, they help us find meaning and show where there is need for action. Aesthetics means the perception through the senses (Greek: Aisthetikos; Knill, Levine & Levine, 2005). The theory of aesthetic education therefore offers itself as a conceptual framework.

Sensing is an aesthetic activity in itself. The own engagement with the sensual perceptions is a way in which people shape the world. The goal of this is to find joy, meaning and satisfaction or simply beauty. Beauty becomes a criterion of poiesis. Our ability to shape the world and discover beauty creates meaning. Levine (1999) refers to this as our aesthetic responsibility.

Practical consequences

Art is made, art shows itself and art can have an effect on us. In other words, we show an aesthetic response, a reaction to artistic work. In the field of art education, it is the teacher's responsibility to create conditions for students to find their aesthetic response to a piece of work.

I am convinced that this works particularly well if the aesthetic response is not only a reaction of watching, listening or observing, but the result of the students’ own actions. This action is always also a dialogue with oneself, between the piece of work and oneself, between oneself and others. Such a dialogue and the knowledge resulting from it is according to Sturm (2012) “speech or body knowledge” (2012). As a result, not only the artwork has an effect on the students, but also their own experiences emerging from their artistic doing, from poiesis. In Sturm's (2012) words, art becomes meaningful through the development of “speech and body knowledge” and through reflection. Since, as it is argued here, poiesis addresses human nature, this process is "soul food", which can lead to by-products such as satisfaction, feelings of happiness or self-knowledge. If students can be taught art in this way, then the experiences gained through art making can be transferred to their everyday life as they have become meaningful.

It is not argued here that it is only this experimental process that forms art education, but that it is essential for successful art education, especially for students of the lower grades. The requirements for the teachers are high. They must identify suitable low skills artistic activities through which art education can happen; they must have much confidence in the process; and the insight and courage to offer activities that focus on experience, rather than results.

I would even like to go a step further and argue that poiesis as a basic fundament of aesthetical education is not only suitable for art education; it is a concept – especially applied in a low skills high sensibility manner (Knill, Levine & Levine, 2005) that opens space to teach and learn essential life skills and competencies that are part of most school curriculums; that can be used to learn subject knowledge in an experiential manner; that is applicable through rites as a classroom management tool.

The boundaries between art and play are fluid. What is important is that the frame for activities is clearly structured and that the students are led through an experiential learning cycle along the axis of experiencing, reflecting, connecting and applying.