Artists as Writers: Enriching Perspectives in Art Appreciation

By Stout, Candace Jesse | Studies in Art Education, April 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Artists as Writers: Enriching Perspectives in Art Appreciation


Stout, Candace Jesse, Studies in Art Education


I saw a word in the air Prima vi una palabra en el aire solid and suspended sblida y suspendida showing me mostrandome her seed body su cuerpo de semilla She opened up and fell apart Se abrfa y deschacia and from her parts sprouted y de sus partes brotaban sleeping thoughts.... asociaciones dormidas (from Palabrarmas, Cecilia Vicuna, 1984 )

The impetus for this article came from a study I conducted of the instructional approaches of 26 college art appreciation instructors, teaching a yearly aggregate of 5,300 students, at 19 institutions in seven states. Data for the study were collected through an open-ended questionnaire soliciting teaching philosophy and instructional goals; organizational format; and learning activities, in particular, reading and writing assignments. The instructional emphasis of the majority (87%) of respondents was on breadth of coverage versus depth of learning, on formalist interpretation rather than contextual considerations, and on student readings (94%) drawn from secondary sources. In light of contemporary constructivist learning theory, I was surprised by the discontinuity between theory and classroom practice and moved to propose some methods for change

The purpose of this article is to explore theoretical and practical advantages of a constructivist shift from breadth to depth, and from formal analysis to contextual understanding, through the inclusion of artists' primary source writings in the study of art appreciation. The following discussion describes my own pedagogical explorations into the possibilities that the study of artists' writings offers for the enrichment of learning in art appreciation. Authentic examples are drawn from my teaching experiences over four years in six college classes. All of these classes were lecture courses of approximately 200 students; all were writing intensive. Each class met three hours weekly-two hours of lectures, one of small group discussion. While teaching assistants conducted discussion groups, I made rotating visits to each and participated in their dialogue. The reports here of the kinds of learning that took place in these art appreciation classes are based on small and large group discussions and students' written assignments.

The idea of introducing artists' writings into art appreciation has pedagogical as well as academic roots. It is well-established that throughout K12 schooling, students have far more experience with literary arts than with visual arts. Literature appreciation is an intensive part of language arts education, and toward that end, students regularly analyze, interpret, and evaluate multiple genres of literature. Thus, students come equipped with an acquaintance and comfort with literature that must, on the other hand, be coaxed and developed in their encounters with visual arts. It was this comfort and familiarity with language arts upon which I hoped to capitalize in complementing my instruction with readings in artists' primary source writings.

In addition to building upon student learning experience, the decision to use primary source writings was stimulated by scholars in critical thinking who maintain that reliance on secondary source texts encourages student passivity and models superficial, reductive thinking (Paul, 1993; Mayfield, 1991). In Paul's perspective, "by conceptualizing education primarily as passing data to students, texts present products of reasoning" (1989, p. 155). Textbooks pose questions, present ideas and information, analyze, synthesize, interpret, evaluate, and deliver packaged knowledge from a single perspective. According to Paul (1989), Mayfield (1991), and Emig (1983), incorporating primary sources into the study of any discipline brings students into active participation with ideas, inviting them to draw upon their own experiences, raise their own questions, grapple directly with problems, analyze, synthesize their insights, and reason for themselves within that content area. …

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