Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Speaking the Mind and Minding the Speech: Novices Interpreting Art

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Speaking the Mind and Minding the Speech: Novices Interpreting Art

Article excerpt

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky likens thought to "a cloud shedding a shower of words" (1986, p. 251). One could take this statement to mean that thought precedes and produces speech. But the metaphor, when considered carefully, defies such simplification. Clouds form out of and shed moisture, just as thoughts form out of and shed words. In this paper, we consider this interdependent relationship between thoughts and words within aesthetic encounters. In the experimental environment of a halfhour interview, we asked eight adult study participants with little formal training in the arts to describe and interpret an original color lithograph. Analysis of the 13,884 word corpus yielded by their combined sessions revealed consistent patterns of language use.2 These patterns provide clues as to the modes of speech and thought engendered through sustained periods of engagement with a single work of art.

A key assumption that drives the study is that perception and interpretation involve the production of meaning through language. Speakers use language to construe what they see. Their words do more than "reflect" what goes on in the mind, or "mirror" an existing state of affairs. Language actually helps constitute emergent contexts, situations, practices, and realities (Duranti and Goodwin, 1992). Our aim here is to identify contexts for thought and realities of speech that arise through aesthetic encounters. The linguistic strategies we describe indicate what educators might listen for, expand, and challenge in classrooms and other learning environments designed to promote deep and thoughtful engagement with works of art.

We begin by reviewing literature on the role of talk in art classrooms, identifying what researchers know and claim about the role of language in art education. After providing an overview of our methods and population, we devote the bulk of the paper to analysis of the four strategies that surfaced in the language of study participants: contrast, negation, speculation, and narration. Particular attention goes to the strategy of narration, whereby participants see and speak by way of story. This strategy commands special focus because of current interest among educators and researchers in narrative, and because the approach proved particularly robust when used. We conclude by elaborating on how attention to language, and to the specific properties that emerged in our data, inform scholarship and practice in art education.

Talk in Art Classrooms

Our study focuses on the language people use to work their way into and through aesthetic understandings. Language is particularly worthy of study given a notable shift that took place in art education in the 1960s. Following the influential work of Jerome Bruner (1960), educators across fields began to model classroom practice on the structures of related professional disciplines. Art education curricula began to include languageoriented disciplines, (i.e., art criticism, art history, and aesthetics), along with studio production disciplines, (i.e., painting, sculpture, etc,) (see Barkan, 1962). One manifestation of this move crystallized in the now prominent, and often debated, curricular approach called DisciplineBased Art Education (DBAE). Today, the Getty Education Institute for the Arts (Eisner, 1988), the Visual and Performing Arts Frameworks for California Public Schools (1996) and the National Standards for Arts Education (1994) endorse discipline-based approaches to arts education.

Inclusion of language-oriented disciplines in the art classroom came, at least in part, in response to the suggestion that working in the arts involves varied modes of thought. Advocates of this position argued that, to be taken seriously as a school subject, art education should support not only involvement in production, but also a capacity to see, interpret, contextualize, and contest existing works.

In a recent issue of Studies in Art Education (Summer 1998), articles by George Geahigan, Mary Erickson, and Boyd White offer clear reminders that the proper place of language-oriented disciplines in the art classroom remains an open question, and one that warrants further research. …

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