Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

The Arts: Seeing & Thinking Differently

CJ Westerberg, March 18, 2013 7:52 PM


"Once it is recognized that productive thinking
in any area of cognition is perceptual thinking,
the central function of art in general education
will become evident."
-Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (p.296)

Perception & Reality
by C.J. Westerberg

Through the years, I've noticed a marked difference in the engagement levels of students when the culture of art is apparent at school. We're not talking about the occasional art class but where the "presence of art" is palpable.  You sense it when you visit a school, shadow classes or when speaking with students and teachers - even when out of school because they imbue a certain je ne sais quoi or maybe it's a certain sensibility. (I know . . . many "sense" words here for a reason.)   

Why is this and why should we care?  For one, as Sir Ken points out in his classic uber-viral video below (the RSA one, not his TED), awakening the senses through the arts is the antithesis of school boredom which can lead to all kinds of interesting things like divergent thinking.  In other words, much of modern schooling is artless and "senseless".

" . . .much of modern schooling is artless and 'senseless'."

This concept is MORE than the arts as entertainment, a diversion from the "real" academic work of schooling (argh) and aesthetic pleasure and expression, which are often the most promoted reasons when referring to the importance of the arts.  Wanting to explore more about the role of the arts beyond the litany of skill-building or general enjoyment benefits discussed in the media, I remembered one of my dog-eared books which is an oldie but goldie -  Visual Thinking by Rudolf Arnheim - which provided some more insight to this conversation (bold and paragraph breaks added by editor):

Today, the prejudicial discrimination between perception and thinking is still with us.  We shall find it in examples from philosophy and psychology.  Our entire educational system continues to be based on the study of words and numbers.  In kindergarten, to be sure, our youngsters learn by seeing and handling handsome shapes, and invent their own shapes on paper or in clay by thinking through perceiving.  But with the first grade of elementary school the senses begin to lose educational status.  More and more the arts are considered as a training in agreeable skills, as entertainment and mental release. 

As the ruling disciplines stress more rigorously the study of words and numbers, their kinship with the arts is increasingly obscured, and the arts are reduced to a desirable supplement; fewer and fewer hours of the week can be spared from the study of the subjects that, in everybody's opinion, truly matter.  By the time the competition for college placement becomes acute, it is a rare high school that insists on reserving for the arts the time needed to make their practice at all fruitful.  Rarer still is the institution at which a concern with the arts is consciously justified by the realization that they contribute indispensably to the development of a reasoning and imaginative human being.

Colleges are not immune: 

This educational blackout persists in college, where the art student is considered as pursuing separate and intellectually inferior skills, although any major" in one of the more reputable academic areas is encouraged to find "healthy recreation" in the studio during some of his spare hours.  The arts for which the bachelor and the master are certified do not yet include the creative exercise of the eyes and hands as an acknowledged component of higher education.

What follows from here are the clinchers:

The arts are neglected because they are based on perception, and perception is disdained because it is not assumed to involve thought.  In fact, educators and administrators cannot justify giving the arts an important position in the curriculum unless they understand that the arts are the most powerful means of strengthening the perceptual component without which productive thinking is impossible in any field of endeavor.

While educators are aware of involving the senses during learning, if you note many of the recommendations in this piece about teaching spatial relationships, for example, have to do with teachers telling and explaining visualizations rather than students exploring, discovering and creating them.  Encouraging students to sketch their lesson is one suggestion that falls into the latter category of active perception and reasoning. Ironically but not surprisingly, The Maker Movement may be more of a transformative influence than what most schools are able to do.  More from Arnheim: 

The neglect of the arts is only the most tangible symptom of the widespread unemployment of the senses in every field of academic study.  What is most needed
is not more aesthetics or more esoteric manuals of art education but a convincing case made for visual thinking quite in general.  Once we understand in theory, we might try to heal in practice the unwholesome split which cripples the training of reasoning power.

Arnheim concludes with this powerful statement about the artist as expert pattern-finder (channeling Paul Lockhart . . .).

Once it is recognized that productive thinking in any area of cognition is perceptual thinking, the central function of art in general education will become evident.  The most effective training of perceptual thinking can be offered in the art studio.  The scientist
or philosopher can urge his disciples to beware of mere words and can insist on appropriate and clearly organized models.  But he should not have to do this without the help of the artist, who is the expert on how one does organize a visual pattern.  The artist knows the variety of forms and techniques available, and he has
the means of developing the imagination.  He is accustomed to visualizing complexity and to conceiving of phenomena and problems in visual terms.

And this:

Paper-sculpture.Coriolis-Effect.jpgMy earlier work had taught me that artistic activity is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined.  A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses.  This union of perception and thought turned out to be not merely a specialty of the arts.

(image: paper sculpture by Jen Stark) 

A review of what is known about perception, and especially about sight, made me realize that the remarkable mechanisms by which the senses understand the environment are all but identical with the operations described   by the psychology of thinking.

Inversely, there was much evidence that truly productive thinking in whatever area of cognition takes place in the realm of imagery.  This similarity of what the mind does in the arts and what it does elsewhere suggested taking a new look at the long-standing complaint about the isolation and neglect of the arts in society and education.  Perhaps the real problem was more fundamental: a split between sense and thought, which caused various deficiency diseases in modern man.

Seems Arnheim and Sir Ken share the same sentiment.  And you?

Video Below!

The Top Ten Skills Children Learn From The Arts

Seeing Relationships : Using Spatial Relationships to Teach Science Math & Social Studies -AFT magazine

The Next "Golden Age" of Arts in America - keynote by PBS prez, Paula Karcher via The Daily

The Day the Music Died by Craig Cortello  for The Daily Riff


Soundings: Patterns, Music & Architecture

Learning to Think Spatially - The National Academies Press 

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