Beyond the Frame: Using Art to Teach Critical Thinking

Finished, [the picture] changes further, according to the condition of him who looks at it. A picture lives its life like a living creature, undergoing the changes that daily life imposes upon us. That is natural, since a picture lives only through him who looks at it” – Pablo Picasso

On the 11th of November, MSc Digital Marketing students met at Tate Modern as part of a guided visit designed by the Tate’s museum educators to enhance students’ critical thinking skills. This was part of the ‘Foundations in Professional Development’ course facilitated by Dr. Lucy Gill-Simmen, which seeks to provide students with the soft skills required in the work place. Although the educational system is primarily geared towards the written word, works of art provide potent tools to help students think critically since they provoke rich, multi-layered meaning-making, raise questions, evoke connection-making and facilitate higher order thinking, requiring them to reflect upon and reconcile various perspectives and solutions. Indeed, art criticism encourages students to observe the world from many different perspectives through an understanding that art consists of layers of meanings. By emabarking on a journey through the galleries to look at a range of different contemporary artists from a Picasso painting to Duchamp’s urinal to Kara Walker’s current turbine hall commission Fons Americanus, a 13 metre tall working fountain, students were prompted to give their own interpretations of what they ‘saw’ in the artworks.

These interpretations showed that there is no right answer. Indeed, the natural complexity and ambiguity of the art ensured many differing observations could be supported. However, students had to cite evidence in their evaluation of the work of art, prompting them to provide reasons for their interpretation. The educators could therefore show the students how some interpretations could be perceived as stronger than others since they had more evidence, some descriptive observations are faulty (the subject is not a cow, but a horse!) and interpretations built on them are likely to be flawed. Good interpretations were revealed to be those that accurately reflected what is in the work and brought it to life, moving beyond description to critical analysis. This was evidenced through a focus on three types of statements that students could make about a work of art, describing its visual ‘facts,’ interpreting their reaction to what they described and evaluating the work of art by making a particular value judgment about it, moving from the experience to the concept. This cognitive framework is useful in that it is transferrable, although the stimulus (artwork vs. academic article) is different, students were urged to take these skills and apply them to their course readings, encouraging them to look closely at the work and think carefully about their reactions to it, bearing in mind that there will be varying perspectives available. As well as a welcome change of pace from lectures, students revelled in ‘new ways of seeing’ as one student said: “I’m looking at things really differently now and also thinking about what I read.”

In particular, by asking ‘what do we see?’ and ‘might we see differently?’ students were introduced to the notion that looking is a political act, so where and when we see something will affect how we see it, raising questions about hidden ideologies in the visual and the complex ways that values, beliefs and knowledge are interconnected with issues of agency, politics and power. For example, students were shown how Walker’s initially charming homage to a Victorian public monument hides a powerful critique of the legitimisation of colonial abuses. By integrating stories of black and particularly black female suffering, Walker shows how the British Empire was built on the injustice of the transatlantic 

slave trade. By rendering the hidden and invisible, visible, works of art show how we filter how we see and are seen in the world and that there is a need to interrogate this in our everyday lives. This process of observation and study allows the students to more intensely observe and analyse the world around them. In addition, building students’ critical thinking skills in their relationships to the image is essential in the age of the attention economy, where the visual is probably the most important site of socio-cultural meaning. The need for further critical consideration of the visual is particularly significant for a degree in Digital Marketing due to significance of the visual online and the ease with which images can be doctored for ‘fake news’ as well as the rise of deep fakes.

–Written by Dr. Chloe Preece

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