Beginning to Talk about Art

By Johnson, Margaret H. | School Arts, November 1990 | Go to article overview

Beginning to Talk about Art

Johnson, Margaret H., School Arts

Not too long ago I asked several young children to tell me how to make "a really good painting." Their responses were revealing: "I need to put on a smock; I need to put my name on the paper; I need to keep my brushes clean."

Not one child told me anything about painting, about mixing colors, about making designs, about ideas or images. Yet most of the children could create beautiful paintings; clearly, they knew a lot more about painting than they thought to talk about. And that's the point: we need to teach children how to talk about art, as well as how to make art.

Studies have shown even very young children are capable of, and interested in, talking about art. In 1967, researchers Julia Schwartz and Nancy Douglas published a seminal study on the subject which asserted that guided discussions with young children about ceramic objects led to greater interest and success in the children's experiences with ceramics.

By "guided discussions," Schwartz and Douglas meant conversations about art that focus on the aesthetic qualities of the art object and on the possibilities of expression of the artist's ideas. The researchers honed in on the process of aesthetic perceptual training in connection with the exposure of the young child to works of art. They brought ceramic sculptures into the preschool classroom, and then talked with the children, helping them to focus on the aesthetic qualities of the ceramic pieces, such as texture and shape.

Of course, these ideas are not new to art teachers. We discuss works of art with our students. We know the use of examples improves the students' own art objects. But many artists and art educators are more comfortable with the visual language of the arts than with the verbal language. So the struggle is to derive words for felt aesthetic qualities, presented symbols, and expressed aesthetic meanings.

Art criticism in the classroom combines both critical inquiry and critical dialogue. When we work with children to find words for criticism about aesthetic qualities, meanings and behavior, we give the children another means of perception and expression. That is, through critical dialogue, we teach the child the visual and verbal language of art.

Art criticism as insight expressed

Many art teachers now incorporate criticism into studio activities with students. Often, we use prints, slides, filmstrips and video recordings to illustrate artistic concepts. Thus, we direct much of our attention toward the analytical side of the critical process.

Sometimes, however, we engage in art criticism to illuminate the art critical process. We strengthen students' perceptual skills and fine tune their ability to discriminate visually; equally importantly, we teach the students to build sound arguments for their preferences and evaluations. But when we do not follow our criticism with a studio activity, how do we give a sense of closure to our learning exercise?

According to John Dewey in Art as Experience, judgment is the unifying phase of criticism, the synthesis after the analysis. Dewey argues that the means and ends of an aesthetic experience require expression, in this case verbal. He refers to this synthesis as "insight"--a creative act. Our close discrimination of what we perceive requires some summary reconstruction of the artwork that has just been taken apart.

In addition, this synthesis as insight expressed allows the work of art to become personally relevant and significant to the students. In Art as Experience, Dewey writes that a new poem was created by each individual who reads poetically. Each individual brings the sum of his or her life experiences to each new perception; these experiences guide and inform judgment through selective attending. Critical aesthetic experience re-creates productive aesthetic experience; and not only the artist's but also the audience's perceptions create the aesthetic experience. …

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