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Beginning to talk about art.

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.

Therefore, when children contribute their personal insights and inferences to the criticism, they fund their perceptual and conceptual growth. Moreover, by sharing these thoughts, they enhance the aesthetic experiences of others.

The following instructional strategies may help develop and enhance aesthetic language in critical encounters in the art classroom:

1. By class vote, choose the twenty most appropriate words to describe the artwork. These words will have been listed on the board during the critical analysis.

2. Develop expressive language by using metaphors to describe aspects of the work of art. Incorporate poetry when possible.

3. If the artwork is figurative, ask each student to pretend he or she is the subject. Have students explain why they are part of the work. If the work is nonobjective, do the same with an element of design found in the work.

4. Ask students to write a new title for the work of art on a slip of paper. Share these with the class.

5. Have the students write at least three sentences describing the artwork. Keep these sentences in a journal, along with sketches or small reproductions and notes about the work of art.

6. For the older students, assign original short stories inspired by the work of art; these stories may be shared at storytelling sessions around the artwork.

7. For the younger children, pretend that the child just purchased the artwork and called to tell you about it.

All seven instructional strategies for synthesizing the art critical experience are oriented toward language. Art criticism is, after all, talk about art. Art criticism is verbalization about perception, interpretation and judgment. But when we do not follow our critical analyses with correlated studio activities, we should summarize new understandings with verbal activities. We can serve as models of talking about art, so that children will talk as readily about shapes, colors, symbols and expressed meanings as they do about their smocks.

In the gallery or museum

Recently, I took several classes of third, fourth and fifth grade students to see a collection of Japanese children's art on exhibit at our University Fine Arts Gallery. The visit allowed us to enlarge our perspectives beyond the practice of art criticism in the classroom. Moreover, it was an opportunity to confirm our growing critical abilities in the presence of the actual artwork, as well as before other students, teachers and parents who accompanied us.

Managing the aesthetic experiences of over forty active learners and encouraging the sharing of individual insights demanded some new critical strategies. Students received listings of the works' titles and artists' names. Breaking into groups of four or so, they moved slowly around the gallery, supervised by attending adults. They examined all the works on exhibit, and then chose a favorite. I asked the students to consider what made their choice special, and to be ready to share their reasons with the rest of us.

When we reconvened to share the "critical reasons," we saw the artworks anew as each student offered a well considered reason for his or her choice. The reasons ranged from analytic to interpretive, front objective to subjective, but almost every reason was valid, empirical, readily apparent upon reinspection. Not only did the students instruct their parents and classroom teachers in art vocabulary and critical inquiry, but they broadened the group's aesthetic perceptions.

In terms of practical strategies, remember that every student needs time to speak. If the group is very large, it helps to regroup the students according to their choices in artworks; the allotted time is used more efficiently, and reasons build and coalesce in evaluation of individual works. Differentiating between "familiar" and "strange" builds a better understanding of cultural similarities or differences. Finally, concentrating on only one exhibit induces students to return later, with their families, to view the rest of the museum. And what better way to extend the aesthetic experience?

Margaret Hess Johnson is Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design, Winthrop College, Rock Hill, South Carolina.
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Author:Johnson, Margaret H.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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