Josh Gibbs speaks to the new teacher or second-year teacher who has been given a long list of great books (which may or may not have been read before by the teacher) to teach without much time to prepare. In the lecture he makes a distinction between "representational art" and "presentational art." The former, he says, plays to the intellect or soul while the latter plays to the senses or the body. In discussing presentational art, the interlocutors can only present a second time the aspects they took in with their senses during the initial sight of it. Folks talking about the latest Transformers flick will only be able to speak of the sheer size or sublimity of the film and not much else. In discussing representational art, on the other hand, interlocutors present anew elements of the art that have inspired or elicited intellectual curiosity. Instead of drawing attention to itself, representational art draws attention to the ideas, questions, or elements that open up to conversation that transcends the art itself.
Great books are representational art and thus require the time to read, rest, and reflect upon the book and the thoughts and questions the book inspires--to be filled with time rather than destroyed by time. Because they do not play to the senses, they will not necessarily delight the reader immediately the way that a work of presentational art might. If students aren't aware of the nature of this difference, they'll be tempted to see the love of great books as a game, an exercise in faking it. Josh recommends that the teacher be explicit with the students about the limitations of popular art and tastes for such art to withstand the destructive force of time--what you enjoy today will be boring and forgettable in ten years. The great books, the representational art forms, on the contrary, not only survive time but absorb the force that time possesses and can become even better. Thus, the apology for reading great books.
Josh's lecture raises some questions that he doesn't answer (at least not explicitly), and I'm curious to discuss at least a couple with others here.
1. How does the teacher who is reading a great book for the first time provide to the students the right context for reading, resting, and reflecting on the book when the teacher may not have figured out that for himself? In other words, how does the teacher give what she doesn't yet possess and avoid being disingenuous? What can the teacher bring to a first read of a great book that will help the students get something good from it?
2. What traps does the teacher need to look out for in trying to distinguish representational art from presentational art? While the curriculum of great books is more or less given to the teacher without much input, it is the teacher who is more or less responsible for the examples, analogies, anecdotes, allusions, and experiences she will use to move students into discussion of the book. In his lecture, even Josh makes judgments about contemporary films that fall into either category. How does a new teacher discern the difference?