It will be essential in Education’s ‘new normal’ that the curriculum of the future cannot be built around a single, totalizing knowledge system. Indigenous knowledge systems need to find their place, as will a stronger engagement with the aesthetic field of learning and as Langer proposed it will be the symbolic orders provided by the creative arts and design disciplines that can secure this in any curriculum claiming depth and breadth.

But how? How does art work? How does a work of art – be it performative or visual–come to mean or do whatever it means or is meant to do? Asserting a singular answer is a fool’s errand; if centuries of dialectic effort by the best philosophers can’t stick a pin in it, this blog surely won’t. “Art” likely covers a complex of human functions, related but distinct. You have to expect that the way it works may be as varied as the purposes it serves.

That said, in order to teach art, one must act on a working definition of how art works – explicitly defined or implicitly assumed.  Approaches to art instruction are as variegated as art is, but it seems to us that the most successful approaches to arts education are consistent with an understanding of how art works, and particularly in how art making and reflection are coordinated.

Maxine Greene took a kaleidoscopic approach to writing on art education, but one systematic and defining feature of her work is her answer to the question: how does art work to produce meaning? Her answer to this question has been foundational to Lincoln Center Education’s (then Lincoln Center Institute)  approach to teaching and appreciating art.

Greene proposes that art makes meaning through the interaction between the audience member and the artwork or performance, between the person who is viewing or attending and the work of art itself. Attending is not just a matter of buying a ticket, taking a seat or standing in front of something.  It’s freighted with agency; to the extent that if any work of art means anything, it’s because of the transaction between the work and those attending to it.

Interestingly, the meaning the artist intends is not foregrounded by Greene. There is no disrespect in this; Greene has a vaulting regard for creative artists and was adamant that an artwork isn’t art without someone crafting it with deliberation. Her point is that the art experience is not a simple “sender/receiver” service between artist and audience, a kind of postal service delivering an envelope with a message. Instead, she often describes artworks as being “variously meaningful” in that they lead to multiple interpretations and meanings that are specific to each viewer or listener. Meaning is plural and various, a product of conceptual and sensory knowledge, imagination, intuition and memory. In this cognitive landscape, there is no hierarchy of meaning, with the ‘best’ interpretation being the one which most correctly matches the artist’s intent.

Anyone who has worked with a facilitator who has trained with Lincoln Center has probably heard some version of the question “What do you notice?” early in the conversation.  The facilitator will first ask audiences what they see before asking what the creator meant for people to see. If meaning is made transactively (through ‘an exchange or a trade’), if meaning is varied and plural, then it makes sense to begin cataloging the evidence on which various meanings can be built, so that everyone participating can draw from other participants’ meanings to deepen their own, even when those meanings diverge from their own.  By nature and by function, artworks create something like a cosmopolitan community, insofar as an audience might see itself as bound by one experience while also individuated by varied interpretations.

What follows is that to turn discussions about an artwork’s possible meanings, its ‘various meaningfulnesses’ (to clumsily apply Greene’s term),  into a game of “Hunt the artist’s intention” inefficiently neutralizes and stunts the richness of the discussions that lie ahead. It also refuses to set up an expectation that artists need to state their intended interpretation to the world, something the Canadian born painter and visual artist Stephanie Hier for example refuses to do. She is clear: “The painter is both a maker and a mediator of images, but not the prescriber of their meaning (p.128).”

The onus then, on every teacher, arts educator and teaching artist, is to ensure there is alignment between the art lessons, activities and encounters that engage learners with making and experiencing artworks, and the questions that lead students to learn from them. For Lincoln Center Education, when it comes to facilitating for the variously meaningful, “experience comes before information”.

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Professor Emeritus Brad Haseman, EVP, Kadenze, Inc.
John Holyoke, Associate Director, Lincoln Center Education, New York.

Photo credit: Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash