Imagination and Speculation as Historical Impulse: Engaging Uncertainties within Art Education History and Historiography

By Bolin, Paul E. | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Imagination and Speculation as Historical Impulse: Engaging Uncertainties within Art Education History and Historiography


Bolin, Paul E., Studies in Art Education


The words "imagination" and "speculation" do not come to mind frequently when considerations are made regarding historical investigation. Yet the wriring of history, more often than not, consists of the historian's ability to choreograph a dance of compatibility between the fragments of a known past, and a world constructed through reasoned imagination and grounded speculation of the historian. John Lewis Gaddis has explored this notion in his book, The Landscape of History (2002), in which he offered that both "logic and imagination" are essential to the historian (p. 41). Historian J. H. Plumb (1971) concurred, indicating that the writing of history "requires imagination, creativity and empathy as well as observation as accurate as a scholar can make it" (p. 12). Thus, in the production of engaging history, the writer is called upon to do so through some degree of imagination and speculation, which in turn, evokes the visionary character of the reader.

Taking hold of these ideas, it could be argued that suppositional wonderings, speculations, playful musings, and the employment of questions that begin with, "What if," "How might," or "Why did," are actually a serious and necessary part of meaningful investigation into the past. If so, then inquiry and imagination become significant ingredients in the engagement of fruitful historical exploration. Trevor-Roper (in Lloyd-Jones, Pearl, & Worden, 1981) has emphasized this notion:

If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a coloured pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must not indeed lose ourselves in barren speculations, but we must leave some room for the imagination, (p. 364)

The historian needs to guard against "barren speculations," as argued by Trevor-Roper, yet it is valuable to consider that thoughtful and grounded speculations and wonderings of the imagination are profitable motivators that assist the historian in initiating and carrying out lively and meaningful investigations into the past. History writing is often a tentative and somewhat ambiguous enterprise, and historical "interpretation can be filled with speculation" (Walch & Harding, 2007, p. 8). Thus, the employment of thoughtfully-based questions, inquisitive imaginations, and supported speculations may lead the historian into investigative terrain that provides new and unique perspectives on the past and, perhaps also, on the present.

A fine example in art education of this published historical confluence between engaging questions, grounded speculations, and inquisitive imaginations is found in Diana Korzenik's Drawn to Art (1985), in which the writer explored the mid- 19th century as a time when Americans were "possessed by the passion for learning to draw" (p. 2). Elucidating this belief, Korzenik undertook an exploration of the Cross family, living in 1 9th-century Merrimack, New Hampshire. In her work, Korzenik utilized many of the Cross family's childhood drawings, watercolors, prints, writings, paper documents, family mementos, and art books, from which the writer "pieced together" (p. 6) a story of the Cross family's emersion into learning about art. Employing a strategy of anchoring her historical discussion within the considerable information known about the Crosses and the world of their day, Korzenik recognized that the "remaining gaps are tantalizing" and "the lack of evidence tempts me to invent this scenario" wherein "the following scene is pure invention" (p. 37). Korzenik then skillfully re-created and wove together a rich tapestry of the Cross family and their participation in art, utilizing what is known about these individuals from the information available, yet doing so through the use of grounded speculation.1

Any attempt to understand a time and place beyond our own requires the ability to wonder about and empathize with questions and speculations we can never fully know, yet the recognition of such limitations should not be regarded as reason to forgo engagement in historical study. …

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