Where should one begin with teaching art? At the most basic element, line? With the history of art? With the Old Masters? What about with looking?
That’s right, I said looking. I invite you to consider my argument for giving more weight to looking in the art classroom. Perception is the essential quality in art, yet we spend so little time encouraging students to look at art, either their own or of others.
The VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) Standards for 9-12 Proficient in Visual Art mandate the following for Standard 1.0 - Artistic Perception:
Yet none of these covers the basic and essential component of perception, looking. One must first look before any processing, analyzing, or responding can be done. Looking it seems, has been overlooked. Along with creating art, looking at art is a learned skill. Students do not inherently know how to look at art, even though they are born being able to see. The opportunity for in-depth learning from art and creating lifelong art appreciators is being missed.
Seeing and looking are different things. Seeing is passive, looking is active. Seeing involves letting sensory input come through the eyes to the brain indiscriminately. Looking however, involves attention and higher-order cognitive processing. Looking is about engagement. It takes time. Looking means seeking out, we are “looking for the answer” not “seeing for the answer”. Looking implies that there is something to be found.
There is a theory that attention spans have shrunk in our modern times where information is not only instantly accessible from infinite options but packaged for quick consumption. Some scientific research has discovered that the average attention span of people today is eight seconds, which is shorter than that of a goldfish. It is true that students have a harder time focusing on static imagery for more than a few seconds. Think of how quickly you might scroll through an Instagram feed. It would be interesting to time your engagement with each image. It is less than 5 seconds on average. To successfully look at a piece of art, there really is no time limit, however at least ten minutes of mindful engagement is a good minimum to start with. Ten minutes?! you might be thinking. How will we get students to engage with a piece of art for even one minute, let alone ten?! Never fear! I have a few ideas on how to accomplish this.
Emphasize the importance of looking.
First of all, emphasize the importance of perception and its’ integral function in art. Artists have perceived something and manifested it into a piece of art. You as the audience are participating in what I like to call the “reciprocity of perception”. The audience looking at the art is just as important to the piece as its’ creation. In fact, I like to theorize that in looking at art and mindfully engaging with it, the audience is recreating the art anew, over and over again. From the first day in your art classroom, you should emphasize the skill of looking and how the audience’s role is equal to that of the artist’s.
Ten minutes is the goal, but could you imagine starting there on the first day of class with ten minutes of silent looking? Students would be bored out of their skulls! Begin with perhaps one minute of looking. Ask students to pay attention to how this feels. Did they feel fidgety? Was it hard to stay engaged with the piece? Were they uncomfortable? It’s great to discuss these things. Then try two minutes and see how this feels. Ask students to be aware of how they feel and what they are thinking and to share these thoughts in a group discussion. Again, looking is a learned skill so it must be practiced. Emphasize the practice element and the experimental element with your students. Show them that even something as simple as looking is actually quite difficult.
Sitting at a desk looking at a piece of art on the projection screen feels like “school”. It also feels like something you have to do which is not conducive to looking and art appreciation. Are you confined to a desk at a museum? Get students out of their seats to look at a piece. Encourage them to get close, far away, look at only the left side, then the right. Sit down, stand up, stand on a chair. Allowing for physical movement lets the brain become more engaged. The body is free and therefore, attention can be relegated to the piece of art. This will help students stay engaged over longer periods of looking.
Guide them through.
Again, students to not know how to look at art inherently. They will also not know what they are supposed to be looking for in pieces of art. Although you may hammer away at the vocabulary of the elements and principles of art, seeing these abstract qualities in different works can be challenging for the beginning art student. Ask some leading questions to get them started. What color is dominant here? What is the subject? How many trees do you count? Start easy. Then call their attention to areas of interest. “What do you see happening with the brushstrokes here?” “Are there more warm colors or cool colors?”. Show how looking takes thought and effort and support them as they learn this new skill.
Looking is not about judgement.
It might be hard for your students to not jump directly into judging the work of art, since affirmative judgement is almost inherent in our society (think social media “likes”). Ask them to consider only what they see in front of them without judgment. Starting out, ask students to talk about only what they can see in the actual work of art. As they get more practice, they might want to analyze the piece for symbols, themes, and meaning. Judgement is the final step in critique, although looking does not involve critique. Proficiency in looking will however, result in better critiques in the future as students hone their perceptive skills.
I hope you have found this article helpful. I am quite passionate about reframing art education to move away from being product-focused to being process-focused. Looking does not produce a product but gives students valuable experience with art engagement, making them more likely to continue to look at art once they leave the classroom. We call this practice “slowing the looking down”. Please let me know if you try any of these techniques with your students!