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Commentary: Everyday Life Enhanced Through Art

By Joan Davidow, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

Looking at contemporary art makes most people feel uncomfortable; they don't have the tools to understand what they're looking at and feel intimidated and unsure; and no one likes to feel that way.

But there's a disarmingly simple way to teach people how to look at art - an approach that guides all viewers - from kids to seniors, first timers to seasoned collectors - to permit themselves to learn about, think, and talk about contemporary art, to respect each other's different points of view, and to take this open thinking process into their everyday lives.

Traditionally, art museum docents tell us all the details about a work of art, the artist, when it was done, what's in the picture, and maybe what it's about. A study initiated by art education guru Philip Yenawine, formerly at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, found that system wasn't working. When queried about the art, even docents, trained for two years, did not remember what they saw.

Yenawine and his colleague, psychologist Abigail Housen, helped developed a new curriculum called Visual Thinking Strategies, to engage the viewer in the process of looking.

It begins with only three questions. What's going on in this picture or work of art? What do you see that tells you that? What else do you see? That's not all. We point to and paraphrase what the viewers say, which validates their ideas, and helps them feel comfortable about speaking out and treading in unfamiliar territory. And then we continue the process. Ideas abound. Each person has different thoughts, that maybe even feel strange to them, and before we know it, in ten to twenty minutes - yes, standing in front of one artwork, together we've created a dynamic: free flowing concepts that tell us about that work of art, and tell us much more about life, how it relates to us, and those around us.

This technique works in other disciplines in school, work, home, family, life. What we hope happens is that now we see how we can accept someone else's ideas by acknowledging the differing points of view. That's one major goal, and the other, is that we take this form of creative thinking into our everyday life. Our world opens up when we see beyond the periphery, we make connections, we tie ideas together, and we learn from each other.

Here's an example. Looking down from an office tower on the new Ritz Carlton building site, I saw a huge vertical piece of equipment, like an overgrown yellow can opener, that was probably the biggest post-hole digger I'd ever seen. For me, it looked like a real life sculpture, like Mark di Suvero's high arching red arc on the Woodall side of the Meyerson Symphony Center. Yes, art does imitate life.

Or in a quiet moment, watching the night come in on little cat's feet, while looking at the Dallas skyline: majestic steel gray skyscrapers begin to blend into the deepening sky, so that as you watch, they reverse their positions. The sky becomes the forefront and the buildings become the background. Might that be telling me nothing is forever; there's a yin and yang to all things?

Exiting the Tollway en route to downtown, I saw bombarding images on both sides, billboards with news, beer, maybe, a restaurant. Too much information. Then lo and behold, on my left was a bright, white billboard. Empty. A tabula rasa. Yes, there is a breath of fresh air to start my day.

It's invigorating. You can do it, too; the skill begins with learning how to look at today's art. In fact, you get a multiple bonus. You learn how these artists are teaching us about what it's like to live in the 21st century and how to think and learn independently.

Try it; it's fun!


Joan Davidow is director of the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.