Teaching Preservice Art Education Majors "The World of the Work"

Article excerpt

"Appreciation of representational works of art is primarily a matter of participation."

There is general agreement that art teachers should be able to respond with sensitivity and empathy to works of art. They need to be able to model the kinds of responses sophisticated viewers have when looking at works of art. And they need to be able to enter into a dialogue with students about the meaning of works of art, both adult works of art and those which students produce as part of their studio instruction. I find that the studio and art history courses my preservice art education majors encounter often do little to prepare them to respond adequately to works of art. Like other teachers of methods classes (e.g., Mittler, 1973; 1980), I find that most of my students lack an entry point for sustained reflection about works of art When they encounter a work of art, their scrutiny is brief, their comments are few, and their overall experience is limited.

One dimension of a work of art that they respond to in an inadequate way is the depicted or portrayed subject matter. This is somewhat surprising because educators often assume that focusing on what is represented in a work of art constitutes a basic level of aesthetic response (Parsons, 1987; Wilson, 1966,1970). When confronted with a work of art, however, most of my students are content with merely identifying the subject matter and do not deal with what is represented in a thoughtful or reflective way. Perhaps one reason for this is that this dimension of critical response is often denigrated or overlooked in studio art courses. Many of the courses that students take focus almost entirely on the elements and principles of design, inadvertently fostering a formalistic understanding of art.

Recent work in aesthetics has focused renewed attention on the nature and function of representation in the visual arts. With Gombrich's classic study of representation, Art and Illusion (1960), representation has come to be recognized as a major goal of artists and a legitimate focus ot appreciation. Studies by Wolterstorff (1980) and Walton (1990) have made major contributions to our understanding of representation. Wolterstorff addresses the topic of representation principally from the perspective of the artist. He argues that in depicting or portraying some subject in a work of art, an artist projects a state of affairs which he calls the "world of the work." This state of affairs includes not only those things represented directly, but also those things which are only suggested as well as those things which we infer based on our knowledge of the world. A landscape painting, for example, might represent a group of trees directly. The leaves of the trees, however, might only be suggested in the brushstrokes a painter uses. This same painting might contain a sun within its projected world even though this is completely outside of the picture frame itself. It will also contain numerous other things, not directly visible to the eye, such as the sap the trees or the feel of the wind, because their presence can be inferred. For Wolterstorff, elucidation of what is suggested, and extrapto things not directly presented the world of a work constitute basic critical activities.

Walton (1990) approaches the topic of representation principally from the perspective of the audience of a work of art. He argues that representational works of art function as props in games of pretense or make-believe. Critical response to the projected world in a work of art requires an act of imaginative perception. To see a represented subject in marks or patches of paint on a flat surface, or in a sculpted artifact, is an imaginative act but one quite different from free floating fantasy or daydreams. The act is structured and guided by the work of art which also serves to coordinate one viewer's imaginings with those of others. Walton carefully distinguishes between imagining "from the inside," as a participant, and imagining as an observer. …