Multicultural Reasoning and the Appreciation of Art

By Stout, Candace Jesse | Studies in Art Education, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Multicultural Reasoning and the Appreciation of Art


Stout, Candace Jesse, Studies in Art Education


In this article, I explicate the philosophical and pedagogical theory underlying one college art appreciation instructor's approach to teaching and nurturing critical thinking as a seedbed for diversity appreciation and multicultural understanding in art. Discussion focuses on critical thinking, its foundations in constructivist theory, and its role in fostering multilogical reasoning in art. Inextricably intertwined with critical thinking, a tripartite conception of context as it relates to multicultural reasoning is defined, i. e., the interpretive context of students and teacher, the context of artist and artwork, and the cognitive and affective contexts that define thinking in a critical mode. The goal is to explain how these contexts operate synergistically in the art appreciation classroom, ultimately contributing to the complex nature of multicultural reasoning in art.

Anything short of critical thinking as a vehicle for promoting diversity appreciation and multicultural awareness is mere reform, and can act to actually reinforce stereotypical irrational thinking and behavior. (Dan Weil, 1994, p. 19)

A short time ago, I visited a college art appreciation class, one that pulled me right to its center and held me there with curiosity and hopeful expectation. The focus was on understanding and appreciating art from a multicultural point of view. It was the beginning of the semester and students were talking about (of all things!) Victorian Era nonsense verse. Among their readings were Alice in Wonderland and The Jumblies, part of a genre of humorous prose and poetry that often combines the ridiculous with the truth. In The Jumblies, poet and painter Edward Lear led these students down a zany path through the humor and rhythm of his words, only to leave them at the end, on the brink of a satirical truth. For woven within the amusement of his lines is an insightfully candid look at a painfully perennial human failing: the inability, worse yet, the unwillingness to think things through. In this nonsense poem, we follow a fatuous party of wayfarers in search of the lands of the greenheaded Jumblies, far in the Western sea. In spite of all their friends' advice, in a matter-of-fact way, on a storm-filled day, "They went to sea in a sieve, they did..." and when everyone shouted, "You'll be drowned," they laughed and lurched away (Lear, 1871, p. 1060).

All of this the students found mildly funny and totally absurd. Talk centered around the nonsense of the nonsense verse and the silliness of sailors in a sieve: "How could they...?" "Why didn't they...?" "Didn't they think...?" The class had taken the hook and discussion pressed on to the heart of the lesson: Is there any sense in Lear's nonsense verse? They probed and found a theme, identifying Lear's voyagers as "thoughtless" and "shallow-minded." They had gotten at least one of Lear's points: Often people just don't think, assess problems, or analyze situations. They neglect to weigh alternatives and to consider all sides of a matter before they form opinions, make decisions, and act. In essence, people can be rash or wrong yet never think themselves so. One student found a visual parallel, describing an MTV video that, on first glance, seemed ridiculous, but on deeper consideration made a point. From this, students inferred that art of many kinds-videos, poems, paintings-has the capacity to tell a truth, but we have to work to find it. Often a first reading, observation, or listening reveals only the surface; deeper meaning comes from closer scrutiny. This was precisely what the teacher was after. Finally, a screen was raised and there, red-chalked on the board, were the words of Bertrand Russell: "Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do" (1993, p. 329). It was the climax of the lesson and a clue for just about everyone that thinking would be an integral theme in this freshman art class.

I later learned that such interdisciplinary lures are typical of this instructor's approach to breathing life into a subject.

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