Brian Shelburne, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Visual Resources Association Foundation Board of Directors
Abstract: Of the vast array of images available to us, art tends to be the most complex and as such gleaning meaning from it—in its many manifestations—is a challenge. Frustrated when data revealed visitors learned little from the many educational interventions offered by his talented staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Philip Yenawine turned to Abigail Housen, a scholar who studied “aesthetic thought”—how people use what they know when looking at art—to try to determine and remedy the problem. Working with others, they created a method called Visual Thinking Strategies and spent over a dozen years studying to see if it nurtured the growth not seen to result from more conventional methods of teaching; it did. VTS is currently used in many museums here and abroad and has also proved beneficial as a tool for productive museum-school partnerships. From early in the research period, teachers reported on what was then found in data: VTS discussions of art can be used to teach language, thinking, and social skills valued in schools, but importantly such discussions are an unparalleled way to develop what many call “visual literacy:” the ability to extract meaning from a range of images with clarity about one’s own response as well as, eventually, awareness of the intentions of the artist-maker and/or his/her culture.
My presentation will branch from philosophical (what is art for?) to theoretical (what does Housen’s data tell us about viewing) to practical (how to create empowered viewers and effective thinkers). A VTS discussion will help illuminate all of these topics. Questions will be welcomed. --- Philip Yenawine