International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 5 Review 2

May 7, 2004

Abbs, Peter. (2003). Against the flow: Education, the arts, and postmodern culture. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

173 pages
$35.95 (Paper)     ISBN: 0-415-29792-3
$100.00 (Cloth)

Reviewed by Sally Armstrong Gradle
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The challenge to cultivate meaning through the arts in education and simultaneously retrieve and strengthen cultural awareness is a formidable task in postmodern times. Despite postmodernism’s sometimes refreshing characteristics such as the rejection of simple dichotomies in favor of the more embodied complexities of living, or the healthy sense of ironic disengagement with social norms, there is also less recognition of values, both individual and cultural. This subterfuge, one which has led to a loss of archetypal knowledge, traditional forms, and our own spiritual human nature, is the problem that Peter Abbs’ latest collection of essays addresses. Against the Flow amplifies several themes he has explored over the last two decades: those that give the invisible worlds of experience a tangible symbolic form in the arts, reclaiming cultural and individual interiority through an engaged poetics of the imaginative, and the exploring of the existential, participatory nature of education.

Abbs’ introduction begins by addressing some of the uncomfortable truths about contemporary consumer culture’s precarious relationship with the spiritual: materialistic society has severed its link to a collective archetypal energy. The suppression of the transcendent, spiritual qualities of art, drama, dance, and literature leave us with a loss of both ethical and aesthetic value. As Abbs explains, education has depleted its own philosophical resources by securing a pragmatic, postmodern distance from the spiritual authenticity of an inherently deeper human nature. In these opening comments he also explores how a shift in meaning in the word ‘metaphysics’ will be adopted throughout his text; one that will include both “questioning and questing” (p. 4) rather than one espousing a grand narrative based on rationalism, idealism, or various theologies. One senses through Abbs’ initial premise that a search for understanding is a creative enterprise which demands the ebb and flow of participation as a call and response pattern, or a dance in which each movement discovers the next by seeking to remain open, fluid, and engaged in dialogue.

The second definition that sets the tone for future parlance is Abbs’ exploration of the term "postmodern." While he seems to agree with the postmodern concept of deconstruction and the apparent fractured nature of global consumer culture, Abbs parts company with other aspects commonly encompassed in the term. He claims that the typical postmodern sensibility which assumes a stance of irony toward all experiences and purports a lack of belief in any universal truths fails to engage critically and creatively with life in uncertain times.

Abbs’ discussions are organized into two sections in this book: “The poetics of education” and “The poetics of culture.” He invites the reader to enter either section, calling attention to the overlapping themes that are developed as “a loose fabric, a collage of related explorations rather than a consecutive and cumulative narrative” (p. 5). Prefacing each chapter is a brief autobiographical sketch meant to illustrate the arguments that follow and counter any postmodern assertions that would deny the essential, reflexive self can still exist in an advancing tide of rhetoric.

Part I addresses the need for authentic learning, spirituality in art, culture, and education. Abbs states “the arts are vehicles for understanding” (p. 61) yet also asserts that the standards-driven assessment has resulted in a notable decline in the arts’ true quest: to pursue meaning in non-discursive forms as only the arts can. He expresses existential concerns for the poverty in a culture more concerned with assessment than with the learner. Of particular interest is Abbs’ assertion in Chapter One that the nature of learning requires a participatory experience within the open engagement of a community which extends collaboration. He suggests that all education is within a cultural tradition, and that the process of learning necessitates “endless acts of cultural reincarnation” (p. 17), an open engagement between people. The instructor’s role in such a collaboration is the arachnidan task which becomes one of weaving culture, symbolic life, and the grammars of spiritual expression into a dialectic web. Believing it is still possible to engage in such authentic learning despite the status quo of measured and meted parcels of pseudo-knowledge masking as noble educational pursuits today, Abbs forges his next, and most intriguing link to spiritual, transcendent learning.

In Chapter Two, Abbs endeavors to release spirituality from the constraints of the formal Western Christian traditional use by suggesting that humankind’s nature is essentially spiritual and perceived in a myriad of contexts that may or may not be theologically grounded. While this expresses a prevalent postmodern assertion that spirituality is creative, individual, and above all a search of wholeness, one wishes that Abbs had strengthened his definition through a reference to another meaning of spirituality—the Greek term pneumatikos, understood to mean “life in the Spirit” (Sheldrake, 2003, p. 20). For the Greeks, such a definition necessitated participation with others as a way to understand the divine because Spirit constantly participated with all of creation. It seems a definition whose explanation might support the dialogical nature of spirituality in education and culture that Abbs so passionately explains. Indeed, Chapter Two is still one of his richest and resonates strongly with the “imaginative necessity” (p. 35) that Abbs believes expresses God in all the artful moments in which the “life of the spirit can be embodied, shared and developed non-discursively through the arts” (p. 37).

In Chapter Three, the educational “how to” question begs asking and Abbs does not disappoint: if we accept such a participatory role in a more spiritual educational engagement, how will it come about? Abbs reasons that while we are all implicated and all responsible for the decisions we make in practice, it is also true that we are all able to develop spiritual depth in education. Offering suggestions such as allowing for contemplation, or “being there” for another, he once again alludes to his existential predilection. Ghosts of Heidegger, Buber, and Marcel seem to champion Abbs’ ‘questing’—a search which confirms for him that spirituality can indeed be found in relationship, in community, in the daily actions of ordinary lives that offer up their meanings by making the invisible visible through artful creation and reflection. He closes a riveting chapter with five principles for understanding spirituality that the reader may value most as the undercurrent that sweeps the postmodern spirit into easier dialogue with the deep, intangible meanings.

One of the significant contributions occurs as Abbs elaborates on the “new arts paradigm” (p. 56) that boldly delineates a shift in thinking about the arts, one which differs dramatically from the paradigms of earlier progressive and modern perspectives. For example, Abbs asserts that art is about the pursuit of meaning more than it is about self-expression. He values a rooted sense of artistic grammar, a symbolic cultural language that links to a common cultural past, and proposes we put the learner’s creative works within this context. One is reminded of his wonderfully descriptive term conservationist aesthetics, an idea he advanced in an earlier work (The Polemics of Imagination, 1996, pp. 57-67) about the importance of retrieving and elaborating on tradition. He suggests, too, that all the arts are concerned with the development of meaning; hence, the generic community of the arts—one that would value culture and the mastery of a grammar that could be used to express it—“comprise the disciplines of the embodied imagination” (p. 57).

As Abbs continues slowly resuscitating the transcendent spirit of culture in Part II, he offers literary exemplars (Joyce, Blake, Dickenson) in Chapter Four that illustrate provocative anagogical texts as a means to understanding the essential faces of wisdom that are embodied in artistic expression. He shares his observations in Chapter Five that the narrative of reflective autobiography is much more than fragmented rhetoric—it unifies the self. Abbs explores the musicality of poetry in the next two chapters through exquisite metaphors which expand meaning and affirm growth. We are allowed to see through his own use of metaphor ways in which the metaphysical poem functions “as a vessel in which the heterogeneous materials of daily experience are placed for their exquisite, if exacting, transformation” (p. 108). Through imagination, “a metamorphosis of meaning” (p. 108) offers entry into, through, and well beyond the text.

Finally, he illumines the work of four artists in Chapter Eight whose visionary ideas suggest the death of idiomatic conceptual language, and the birth of a world imagined, grounded in connection, and comfortable with the necessity of struggle and practice in any attempt to make meaning. The same river runs through his own poetic and philosophic reflections, gathering its tributaries of social reflection, a life of teaching in the arts, and the grist of utilitarian demands of educational institutions. Abbs’ truth telling is an imperative read for anyone who has seen the horizon where the postmodern river races to an infinite and far deeper sea. It may well be the place he imagines: “where a deeper historical, spiritual, and ecological reconnection” (p. 151) are foundational for world building beyond postmodern times.


Sheldrake, P. (2003). Christian spirituality as a way of living publicly: A dialectic of the mystical and prophetic. Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, 3(1), 1-18.

About the Reviewer

Sally Armstrong Gradle is a doctoral student in Art Education at the University of Illinois and has taught art and enrichment in the public schools for many years. Her research has focused on the spiritual traditions of art making in other cultures, an area of study that she plans to pursue upon graduation this May.

   home   |   articles   |   abstracts   |   editors   |   submit   |   subscribe   |  

You are visitor number since May 7, 2004.