Learning experiences with works of art can affirm our sense of self and strengthen our global competence.
As learners, we have many tools to help us to make sense of and respond to the complex, diverse world of today and of the past. These “ways of knowing”—shaped by things like our emotions, senses, memories, imagination, language, reasoning, and more—guide us as we gather bits of data, ask questions about them, connect and compare them to other bits of data, and then draw conclusions. We may often use multiple ways of knowing at the same time or at the different stages in our process of constructing new understandings. And, we each approach this process in our own individual, culturally-informed ways. Incorporating works of art from across time and cultures into formal learning creates a fertile space for practicing, validating, and exploring the potential outcomes of our different ways of knowing—both our own and those of others.
Testing our tools: start with art and make it personal
Making meaning from works of art can be very individualized. When we are able to explore an artwork freely, without externally imposed interpretations, we can find our own authentic spark to dig deeper, ask questions, and make connections that lead us towards new understanding. As we engage with more and more art, we learn more and more about ourselves and what captivates us, triggers us, and inspires us, and how. It is essential for us as learners (and our teachers) to validate these ways of knowing in ourselves, as an affirmation of our identity and unique experience of the world. A primary way to accomplish this is to actively invite different ways of knowing and to share and celebrate the results.
1. Emotional and Sensorial Knowing
Color, lines, texture, scale, and subject matter are among the many aspects of visual art that can readily prompt emotional and physical responses. For instance, we might feel calm or energized or potentially even agitated by the bold, all-over yellow with black dots in Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin. Standing in front of Julie Meretu’s 27 x 32 foot paintings, HOWL, eon (I, II), we might feel a sense of awe from their sheer size or we might feel overwhelmed and confused by the volume of abstraction in front of us. Or, as we read the phrases carved across the surface of Mark Bradford’s 150 Portrait Tone, we might be gripped by fear, anger, or sadness.
We can use these emotional and sensorial responses as hooks to further our inquiry into a work of art. We can also use our emotions and senses to probe particular aspects of the artwork for more insight into the subject, historical context, or the artist’s technique. We can pose like the Bodhisattva of Compassion Seated in Royal Ease and ask ourselves how we feel in such a position. We can bring the scents of flowers, incense, or spices of 18th-century Syria into our classroom as we consider the experience of being a guest in the Damascus Room hundreds of years ago. We could play music composed by Alejandra García Cartula while observing Wifredo Lam’s The Eternal Presence to explore how it enriches our experience of the painting. We can flick and drip paint onto a canvas with a brush or out of a small container to approximate Jackson Pollock’s action painting in Cathedral. We can sketch sections of Rufino Tamayo’s The Somnambulist, reflecting on how the artist used color, brushstroke, line, and form to convey the dynamic motion of the sleepwalking figure.
2. Imagination and Memory
As we observe works of art, often our mind’s eye takes over and we pull up memories of past experiences or begin to envision new experiences–for ourselves or for the subject of the artwork. Our emotions and senses are frequently activated in this approach to meaning making, as well. Looking at Childe Hassam’s Snow Storm, Madison Square, we may conjure up a personal memory of a day out in the snow or just someplace cold, remembering how we felt. Observing Jonathan Green’s Folding Sheets, we may recall the smell of freshly laundered sheets or sea air, based on our individual experiences. When we see the dirt on the toes of Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, we imagine how his feet got soiled. As we trace the lines and colors in HOWL, eon (I, II) in the air with our fingers, we might start to envision partial forms becoming whole, animate, and taking flight across the canvas. When artworks trigger our memories, we solidify personal connections that make the work of art feel relevant to us, and worthy of our time and attention. And, when we invite the memories, emotions, and physical sensations that can emerge in our experience of the artwork, we fuel our imaginations and create space for our own creative acts, an undeniably valuable way of knowing.
3. Inferential Knowing
When we look at works of art, we are often eager to know what’s going on or “what it means” and unconsciously begin to make inferences about what we see. These educated guesses combine what we observe in the artwork with our prior knowledge (which may include personal experiences and memories as well as information we’ve learned in school or other sources). The amount and nature of our prior knowledge is unique to each of us and therefore shapes our inferences. Here are three examples of hypothetical inferences I might make from exploring works of art.
In Harry Fonseca’s Creation Story, I observe line drawings of many things I recognize from lived experience. I see people and animals in a varied landscape of trees, rivers, rocks, mountains, and maybe stars, planets, snow, or rain. I consider the title of the painting and further infer that this scene is meant to convey the moment or process when the world of living things came into existence. I begin to compare what I see in the painting to what I know about the beginning of life on earth and make assumptions about the story unfolding in the painting.
In Katsushika Hokusai’s Five Beautiful Women, I observe that the women are all dressed in kimonos—I know this word from a unit in my class about Japan. I see that each kimono has a distinct decorative pattern, and that each woman is in a different pose and engaged in a different activity. But, because I perceive their dress—and intricate hairstyles—to be very elegant and ornate by my personal standards, I infer that, despite the differences among them, all five women are of very high rank and status.
In Marc Chagall’s Half-Past Three (The Poet), I observe a figure with a blue suit, seated and leaning on a red table. He holds a cup in his left hand and a pen in his right. Peculiarly, his head is upside down and green, and the space around him appears flattened and fragmented. Drawn to the color and orientation of the figure’s head, I think of the phrase “I’m feeling a bit green around the gills” and remember a time when I was very nauseated. I then infer that this figure must be feeling sick to his stomach and dizzy, making everything around him seem unstable.
In each of these examples, I pursued details that were of personal relevance and employed logical reasoning to try to understand what they mean in the work of art. Sometimes, however, my conclusions do not reflect the intentions of the artist, or the values, practices, or beliefs of the culture in which this artwork was made. This can happen to all of us. And, it can also happen with our emotional, sensorial, or imaginative explorations of a work of art, especially if we don’t have strong prior knowledge of its context. This doesn’t mean our explorations were for naught. In fact, as noted above, each of these ways of knowing is an essential step in learning about ourselves and igniting a process of authentic inquiry, expanding our understanding of the larger world and our ability to navigate it in culturally responsible ways (consciously striving to recognize and uphold diverse identities, perspectives, and practices).
When we get to this point in exploring artworks, especially those from cultures or time periods different from our own, our initial responses and conclusions will likely need to be tested with further investigation and data collection. We can do that in a few different ways, each of which builds on the ways of knowing we’ve already practiced.
Applying what we’ve learned: what am I not seeing yet?
One simple way to begin to test our understanding and see how others employ these ways of knowing to different ends is to engage in shared inquiry. As a whole class or in small groups, we can share our observations, responses, personal connections, ideas, and inferences about a work of art with each other. We will immediately see that we all perceive and connect to the artwork—and its context—in different ways. We will readily gain new insights and expand our understanding about the artwork and our community. Shared inquiry will also reinforce that we have our own unique approach to knowing the world that we hope others will affirm and learn from as well.
Another way to build on and possibly revise our initial assessments of an artwork is to turn our personal responses and inferences into questions. This simple strategy will effectively sustain our mindset as being open rather than closed, nimble rather than fixed. Such an approach is critical for increasing our global competence. Using the inference examples above, here is what it might look like:
- Are the swirls and dots or dashes of paint meant to portray snowflakes, rain drops, stars, planets, or something else?
- What is the creation story of the Maidu?
- What are the traditions and methods of storytelling among the Maidu?
- How are those traditions reflected in this painting?
- What other Maidu artworks or source materials are available to explore?
- When this painting was made, who wore kimonos?
- What was considered elegant and “fancy” at that time in Japanese culture?
- Is there significance to the differences in pattern on the kimonos, to the women’s different activities, and to their different positions?
- Did Chagall use the color green in other artworks in a symbolic way, or write about it?
- Did Mazin, the poet portrayed in the painting, write about the color green?
- Was the phrase “green about the gills” even known in Russian or French language at the time?
- Is there another culturally-specific idiom or expression that might help us understand the position or color of the poet’s head?
In these or any instances when we are testing our initial responses and inferences about a work of art, this set of core questions can help frame our unfolding inquiry in culturally responsive ways:
- What is unfamiliar or unclear to me?
- What does someone else see that I don’t?
- What other sources can convey the ideas, practices, and ways of knowing for the artist or the culture that created this artwork?
- How do I access those sources?
- How do these sources (once I’ve accessed them) illuminate my biases and reveal important insights about the artwork?
There are indeed many ways of knowing the world. We cannot assume that everyone builds, values, and communicates knowledge in the same way we do. However, when we pursue the process of knowing openly using all the authentic tools in our toolbelt, when we do it with fellow learners, and when we incorporate works of art from across time and cultures, we and others benefit in exponential ways. This process validates different perspectives, promotes empathy, and helps us all navigate a complex and diverse world in more equitable ways.
Essay by Sarah Alvarez