In a museum setting, students and educators have a wonderful opportunity to look at original artwork up close and talk to museum staff who may have additional information about the artwork.

Follow an inquiry-based methodology in which they pose questions to inspire responses and thoughtful study of the artwork. This encourages viewers to spend an extended period of time studying and discussing a selection of photographs. As the guide facilitates the discussion, students make discoveries about art based on what they see instead of what they are told.

Basic Discussion Questions:

- What do you see in this picture?
- What makes you say that?
- What is going on in this picture?
- What information do you see in the picture that makes you say that?9

The idea is to continually redirect the viewer’s attention into the artwork, to look and look again. Information is not presented in a lecture format. Rather, questions are posed and responses are paraphrased to facilitate a dialogue that develops visual literacy skills.

During tours, information is only presented when viewers ask questions and therefore are ready to receive and process that information in a meaningful way. This layer of contextual information is an important ingredient in making the gallery visit educational and in promoting visual literacy skills. An inquiry-based method of discussing visual art is common in museums and is highly recommended for classroom discussions as well. To work with this method, educators must be attuned to the group’s level and advance at its pace.

Research in the museum

The above basic discussion questions have been drawn from the Visual Thinking Strategy, developed by Abigail Housen and Phillip Yenewine. The Visual Thinking Strategy presents a way of discussing visual art that empowers viewers to come to their own interpretations (for further information on the Visual Thinking Strategy, see http://www.vue.org).

For over 20 years, cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen researched the behavior patterns of viewers in museums by observing, interviewing, and analyzing viewers’ stream-of-conscious interpretations of art. From these broadly based, international studies, she developed a Methodology and Stage Model of Aesthetic Development. This informed the development the Visual Thinking Strategy in 1995 in collaboration with Phillip Yenewine, then director of education at the Museum of Modern Art.

In the Methodology and Stage Model of Aesthetic Development, Housen identified five distinct patterns of thinking about art that are useful to consider when trying to gauge individuals’ visual literacy skills and teach the class accordingly.

It is important to note that this is one of many excellent approaches. The bibliography contains references to other valuable resources in visual literacy. Periodically checking favorite Web sites at universities or art education organizations can access current trends in these theories, continually informing new approaches.

Methodology and Stage Model of Aesthetic Development

Stage 1: Accountive Viewers are storytellers. Using their senses, memories, and personal associations, they make concrete observations about the work of art which get woven into a narrative. Here, judgments are based on what is known and what is liked. Emotions color the comments, as viewers seem to enter the work of art and become part of the unfolding narrative.

Stage 2: Constructive Viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social, moral, and conventional worlds. If the work does not look the way it is “supposed to”—if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, and function are not evident, or if the subject seems inappropriate—then this viewer judges the work to be “weird,” lacking, and of no value. The viewer’s sense of what is realistic is a standard often applied to determine value. As emotions begin to go underground, this viewer begins to distance him or herself from the work of art.

Stage 3: Classifying Viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time, and provenance. They decode the work using their library of facts and figures, which they are ready and eager to expand. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art’s meaning and message can be explained and rationalized.

Stage 4: Interpretative Viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the canvas, letting the meaning of the work slowly unfold, they appreciate the subtleties of line and shape and color. Now, critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions as these viewers let underlying meanings of the work—what it symbolizes—emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art’s identity and value are subject to reinterpretations, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change.

Stage 5: Re-creative Viewers, having established a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now “willingly suspend disbelief.” A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on an elevated plane. As in all important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing Stage 5 viewers to know the ecology of a work—its time, its history, its questions, its travels, its intricacies. Drawing on their own history with one work in particular, and with viewing in general, this viewer combines personal contemplation with views that broadly encompass universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal.

- Cynthia Way for the International Center of Photography
© 2006 International Center of Photography

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