My friend’s daughter, a 3rd grader in a reputed school in Mumbai, painted purple trees in her art class. The idea of purple trees cut across the grain of the teacher’s ‘traditional beliefs’ about art and judging the color as a “discrepancy,” she harshly scribbled “redo” across Varuna’s newest idea.
Attempting to convince her to espouse her idea, Varuna waded through her teacher’s disapproval, citing examples to validate her art: “Miss Sam,” “do you know that Picasso painted men blue, and Cubists abstracted their work, using mainly browns, grays, or black….?” (her voice tapering as she dejectedly figured out the unconvinced look writ large on Miss Sam’s face). Miss Sam’s refusal to revisit her stand let Varuna’s ingenuity go unrecognized, repudiated. In choosing to make her trees purple, had Varuna pushed the envelope to far?
Now deciduous trees do turn yellow, purple and crimson during Autumn and we all revel in their beauty; and that purple trees ‘do exist’ during Autumn would have made a case for Varuna in getting her artwork accepted. But is it mandatory for purple trees to ‘actually exist’ to validate Varuna’s artwork?
Art: a matter of mind
Should art be restricted to things we can perceive and make assessments on the basis of mere comparison, i.e., how ‘close’ the artwork is to reality, or, should art be the arena where imagination can be unleashed to create something unique that may or may not be ‘beautiful,’ or a ‘duplicate’ of what already exists, but is an engaging representation of a perspective that has a potential to involve mental faculties?
Gardner (1989) posits that Art has evolved from a mere representation to a more involving and intellectually engaging representation of a perspective that has a potential to trigger reflection and inquiry. Cognitive psychologists contend that art is a matter of the mind, as it pushes individuals to exercise mental faculties as they envision, explore/take risk, consider alternatives and make decisions etc.
The question that emerges is, what happens when children play and experiment with color, clay, or other forms of media? And in what way can risk-taking be considered useful while children play with colors?
Forging opportunities to take risks:
When children engage in unstructured exploration, they develop a tendency to wonder and probe. Playful activities like those in the visual arts allow children to explore color, clay etc., cultivating in them open-mindedness and a risk-taking attitude by virtue of which they’re able to pop-up fresh ideas, reflect on options and fearlessly make choices, experiment and learn. Trinis & Savva (2004) argue that in attempting new things, children extend beyond what they’re familiar with- to explore and take risks, and in doing so, they extend their thinking and develop their imagination.
Opportunity for active cognitive participation:
Should feedback and assessment serve as a facilitator to this risk-taking attitude, or should it infringe children’s inclination to apply their ingenuity?
The opportunity stamped out here was to probe what possibly goes on in a child’s mind that might push her to pick the unusual (purple vs green) and to discern the potential in the expression to pose questions in order to make visible or document her thinking, e.g., why she chose the color purple, or generate thinking, e.g., did she like her purple trees and why. Such questions, (self or teacher-generated) serve to scaffold the thinking process, engaging a child through an inquiry to enable active cognitive participation. When inquiry or reflective thinking lead to new understandings, those understandings serve as an award, thereby encouraging children develop an inclination to engage in endeavors that involve reflection and inquiry.
Aesthetic responses and “Discrepancies” in art:
How do ‘discrepancies’ (like painting trees purple) effect aesthetic responses? What are the consequences that might flow from such decisions?
Sheridan (2008) writes in her blog Arts, Mind and Media that encountering discrepancies heightens our aesthetic responses as our senses become more attuned, our minds make up stories and associations to help us make sense, and that artists induce this state in their audiences. In making stories, children invent (characters and situations), imagine scenarios, exercise mental faculties in making decisions and choosing the more plausible and cogent arguments.
Identifying the gap:
Alas, our assumptions of a “reliable practice of education” allow skimpy space for the aforementioned broad thinking skills that are conducive to life-long learning. Children are freighted with an ‘either-or’ style of assessment that infringes the development of such knowledge-seeking thinking patterns which remain outside the circumference of the curriculum.
Gardner, H. (1989). The Key in the Slot: Creativity in a Chinese Key. Aesthetic Education, 23, (1), 141-158
Sheridan, K. (2008, June 26). Art, Mind and Missoula. (web log comment) Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/…art-media-and-the mind
Trinis, E., & Savva, A. (2004). The in-depth studio approach: Incorporating an art museum program into a pre-primary classroom.Art Education, 57, (6), 20-24, 33-34.