How To Think And Talk About Art

The Prophet Muhammad In The Cave Of Hira
It feels like an old-school Christian revival at the Asian Art Museum these days (and yes, I have no idea what the Asian cultural equivalent of that might be).  But as a member of the converted I can proclaim:  "I have seen the light... and it is VTS!"  VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies, is a way to think and talk about art.  Developed at MoMA in New York under Philip Yenawine and Abigail Housen, its acolytes now reside around the world.  And one of them, Julie Charles from SFMOMA, came to fan the flames of revelation for us last week.

A Lady Flees A Storm
VTS is deceptively simple.  And I love deceptively simple things, because it means there are layers upon layers upon layers to explore underneath.  When using VTS with a work of art, you ask three (and only three) questions:  "What's going on in this picture?"  "What do you see that makes you say that?"  "What more can we find?"  These questions, posed to museum visitors, encourage them to look more closely at art, create interpretative narratives about what they see, and base their analysis in details from the art in front of them.  The result?  A personal encounter between an individual and a work of art in the context of a conversation where the viewer is valued.  And that's the exact experience we want visitors to walk away with, even more so than a trip to the museum store (not to knock fancy coffee cups, of course, because a few lurk in my cupboard).  But to leave a museum with a framework to use when approaching future works of art?  That's a return ticket to the collection and the beginning of a life-long love affair with museums.

Guru Nanak in Kamarupa
VTS provides a criticism-free learning environment for newbies and experts alike to think out loud about art.  But there's a whole psychological framework underneath the strategy.  Assessing stages of development usually makes me a little queasy, but in this case it's helpful.  Called "the stages of aesthetic development," thousands of stream-of-consciousness interviews have been used to broadly classify how people develop an appreciation for art, beauty, and taste.  The first two of the five stages, accountive and constructive, are where the vast majority of museum visitors fall.  Accountive viewers create a narrative out of concrete observations about a piece of art, their life experiences and emotions inseparable from the narrative they create.  Our second stage, or constructive viewers, create a framework to approach works of art using their own perceptions, thoughts, and values.  If a piece of art isn't "realistic," it won't fit in their schema and they'll tend to reject it, commenting "There is no such thing as a purple face."

Woman Carrying A Tray
The third stage, classifying, is where the majority of docents, museum educators, and curators are expected to fall.  Working from an analytical framework that accepts the value of art history, third stage folks believe that through careful analysis and classification of a work of art real meaning can be discovered. Yet it's only at the fourth, or interpretive stage, that we see an informed but personal encounter with a work of art.  Highly developed critical skills are brought into harmony with feeling and intuition, leaving the viewer to focus on the symbolism behind a piece of art.  And for those lucky handful of people in the world that fit the fifth category?  Those re-creative viewers suspend disbelief, entering into a long and enduring relationship with a piece of art that evolves over time.  A piece of art, simply, becomes a friend, "Even though it's quite an old painting at this point, it still seems very new to me."  

Saraswati Worshipped By The Gods
The key, with VTS, is bridging the gap between your ordinary museum goers, at stages one and two of aesthetic development, with your average docent, hanging out at level three.  Because there's no knowledge imparted by the docent to the viewer with VTS, just a guided discussion to partake in, the playing field is leveled and the experience becomes focused on the viewer.  What do they notice?  What are they interested in?  What do they think about what they see?  There are the usual docent class grumblings that come with uncertainty, of course.  There's no way to script an experience that's directed by the needs and desires by your audience.  And yes, unpredictability is difficult to work with, especially on the days when it goes unpredictably wrong.  But I know from my own classroom experience that strategies like VTS really work.  Everyone learns best through personal connection and investment in what they're learning.  As for the VTS facilitator?  You're probably not going to learn what you want to, but if you're lucky you'll be challenged to interpret, and appreciate, art in entirely new ways.