editing disabled

Project 3: Research Design/Implementation

Random Beginnings, Profound Endings: Meaning-Making Through Making Art in Response to Aesthetic Encounters in Museums

Problem Statement:
I am interested in the seemingly random ways we create knowledge and understanding. While this has been an ongoing curiosity, it was recently re-ignited by our mapping, indexing and modeling project, our concepts project, and our class discussions. Through these structures and discussions, I keep confronting the idea that sometimes, one may begin with something nonsensical to make sense of a concept or an idea, and although at the beginning you may begin with a jumble of nonsense, you can end up with something quite profound.
For my undergraduate thesis, I wanted to write about Jasper Johns. I ended up taking an extended look at his Device Circles in the same space and breath as Duchamp’s Large Glass, and then threw in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception to try to get some understanding from a different angle. Somehow, meaning was created. To this day, however, combining those disparate ideas seems silly (reckless? naïve?), and I often think that I could’ve been given any other work of art, and any other philosopher, and Jasper Johns’ Device Circles would have attained a completely different but equally resonant personal meaning to me.
My current Masters Thesis work centers on Portrait of a Young Man by Bronzino. I have decided to spend the next year with this painting, visiting it weekly, as a way to engage in the type of extended looking that might inform my own art-making.
For the purposes of this assignment, however, it is my goal to create a corollary investigation for my thesis that addresses the idea that arbitrary or senseless combinations of ideas can still create deeply meaningful experiences for an artist–museum visitor. I’m wondering if the same kind of arbitrary magic that happened with my undergraduate thesis might occur again if I consider the Portrait alongside other works of art. How might my artwork be affected by these aesthetic encounters, and what new meanings or insights might I be able to glean about these encounters from looking at the artwork I’ve created?
What is driving this investigation, and what drives my thesis research, is the idea that much of museum educational programming is focused on groups and classes. I am interested in facilitating meaningful experiences with works of art on an individual level. The kinds of questions that interest me are, for example, “What happens when I visit a museum on my own, and how can works of art have resonance for me? What conditions might facilitate a meaningful aesthetic encounter?” Because my hope is to develop an individual pedagogy for the museum visitor / artist-practitioner, my interests center on my own art-making as a way to seek meaning and insights into my own art work and the art work of others.

Research Question:

What different conclusions, in the form of my own visual art practice, might be reached from considering different combinations of existing works of art? What meanings or insights might be reached via-à-vis my own art work as a response to these aesthetic encounters?

What were my lines of thought during this process of meaning-making?
What aspects of this encounter were emphasized?
What aspects of the existing artwork did I respond to through my own artwork?
After finding evidence of meaning-making in my own artwork about my aesthetic encounter with existing works of art, how might I go further with the artwork I created to better represent these insights?

Scopes and Type of Data:
My source – that is, where I will get the information that I need to conduct my research – is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Within this space, the sources that will serve to inspire are the works of art. For this project, I will be looking at Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man alongside two randomly selected works of art.

Types of data:
This presents a conundrum. It reminds me of the question we encountered on the Research Methods take-home exam, where we couldn’t figure out what was a dependent and what was an independent variable. I tended to agree with Reuben, although I have no idea what he was talking about when he gave his explanation. I agreed with him, but I would’ve explained it differently. Ah, how take-home tests imitate life… (life, here, being the subject of this research proposal: finding two equal explanations of data analysis to arrive at the same conclusion). In any event, to my mind, the data in this research project will be the visual artwork I create. This artwork will then be used (analyzed and interpreted) to give arrive at conclusions about meaning-making during an aesthetic encounter. Although… I suppose one could argue that the conclusions are the data, or even that the works of art are the data (…?)
Design of the Study:

As I mentioned above, while much of museum educational programming is focused on groups and classes, I am interested in facilitating meaningful aesthetic experiences with works of art on an individual level. I would like to develop a personal pedagogy for the museum visitor / artist-practitioner, because I see a gap in the field of art educational research that addresses aesthetic experiences for an individual visitor. (Most of the educational tools for the individual visitor are centered on new media, that is, audio guides, web podcasts, and touch screens.) I would like to shift the paradigm from individual museum-visitor to individual museum-participant. By engaging in my own art-making as a way to seek meaning and insights into my own art work and the art work of others, I feel the museum experience might become more resonant than it might be through the act of passive (or even active) looking at works of art. It is my goal to find tools and techniques to enrich the museum experience for the individual visitor.

Theoretical Framework:
Where does the aesthetic experience begin? John Dewey suggests “the word ‘esthetic’ refers […] to experience as appreciative, perceiving, and enjoying. It denotes the consumer’s rather than the producer’s standpoint” (p. 209). Here, Dewey asserts the aesthetic experience should be considered as an aesthetic encounter, one that occurs as the viewer confronts a finished work of art. He conceives of the relationship between artist, art work, and viewer as integral: “the act of producing that is directed by intent to produce something that is enjoyed in the immediate experience of perceiving has qualities that a spontaneous or uncontrolled activity does not have. [T]he artist embodies in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works” (p. 210). Thus, Dewey conceives of a “triadic” relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer: “the external object, the product of art, is the connecting link between artist and audience. Even when the artist works in solitude all three terms are present. The works is there in progress, and the artist has to become vicariously the receiving audience. He can speak only as his work appeals to him as one spoken to through what he perceives. He observes and understands as a third person might note and interpret” (p. 214). He goes further, suggesting that in the act of reception by the viewer, the work of art is “complete only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it” (p. 214). While nothing more technically happens to a finished work of art when encountered by the viewer, Dewey moves beyond the material object toward an understanding of the artwork as perceived anew with each new viewer. Indeed, he argues, “[a] work of art no matter how old and classic is actually, not just potentially, a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience. As a piece of parchment, of marble, of canvas, it remains (subject to the ravages of time) self-identical through the ages. But as a work of art, it is recreated every time it is esthetically experienced” (p. 215). It is the substance, the meaning of the work of art, redefined and renegotiated with each new viewpoint, that completes a work of art.
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, as a professor of psychology, approaches this inquiry analytically, anecdotally, and specifically by interviewing curators and art museum professionals, whom he considers uniquely qualified to speak on the nature of the aesthetic experience (p. 20). Using charts, figures, and graphs to quantify patterns in these experiences, he (inadvertently) arrives at much the same place as Dewey, albeit with a greater degree of articulated detail. He describes “two central components of the aesthetic experience…: the merging of attention and awareness on the art object and the bringing of the viewer’s skills to bear on the challenges the work represents… given the overwhelming number of virtually identical accounts in our interviews, we do not doubt that this is in fact the way in which the temporal flow of the aesthetic encounter is phenomenologically understood by our respondents” (p. 118). He goes on to isolate a third component which “represents all of the perceptual, emotional, intellectual, and communicative factors that went into the creation of the work. For convenience, we will refer to this aspect as the artist, but it necessarily includes all of the sociocultural factors that influenced the work in an indirect fashion” (p. 134). Thus, Csikzentmihalyi reasserts John Dewey’s schema of the triadic relationship between artist, viewer, and artwork as an integrated whole: “though the experience continues through time, the stimulus for that experience does not. Thus, while a climber faces new configurations of available holds, pitches, and obstacles with every move, someone standing before a painting or sculpture is confronted with an object that physically does not change. If the work is not changing,” he continues, “these revelations, these insights and epiphanies, must come from changes within the viewer” (p. 133).
Maxine Greene envisions the aesthetic encounter as entirely viewer-driven. For her, all the vitality is present in the role of the viewer; this is where the verbs are located. Because the artwork serves as a conduit to a meaningful experience, understandably, Greene focuses on pedagogy as the locus of aesthetic possibility. It is only though collective action, through dialogue, through participation, through “a going out of energy,” that works of art can come to life. She suggests, “we need to go further to create situations in which something new can be added each day to a learner’s life. Postmodern thinking does not conceive the human subject as either predetermined or finally defined. It thinks of persons in process, in pursuit of themselves, and, it is to be hoped, of possibilities for themselves” (p. 41). The focus here is not to make art more meaningful, but to co-create meaning with the participation of the viewer.

Conceptual Framework:
Dewey, Csikzentmihalyi, and Greene all explicitly or implicitly speak of the intrinsic relationship between the artist, artwork, and viewer. From here, it is a natural next step to posit the artist-practitioner as having a unique position to be a more engaged museum visitor. In this schema, the “going out of energy” of which Maxine Greene speaks is redirected and focused into the viewer’s own art-making, which bring to life the insights and meaning that have been drawn from the aesthetic experience.
Graeme Sullivan investigates the role of the artist-practitioner as researcher. As Greta Refsum notes in his book, Art Practice as Research, “If the field of visual art wants to establish itself as a profession with a theoretical framework it must…build its theory production on that which happens before art is produced, that is, the processes that lead to the finished objects of art” (Refsum in Sullivan, p. 87). While there are many ways to do this, one approach can be centered on the aesthetic encounter informing studio practices. Here, through a discursive domain of inquiry, “theoretical issues surrounding Art Practice and Interpretivist dimensions can be explored by means of making and meaning processes,” that is, the aesthetic encounter will be explored through art making (Sullivan 98). In turn, “dimensions of theory… can be analyzed in the relationship between Art Practice and Empiricist [which] involve enacting and explaining strategies” (Sullivan 98). Here, the art work will then be used as a window into meanings and insights gained during the aesthetic encounter.

Empirical Framework:
I will conduct my study by considering Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man, separately, with two different works of art, and making artwork to explore possible insights and meanings derived from this aesthetic encounter. In this way, the focus of attention will be on the artwork, as opposed to the art historical contexts or critical analyses that may surround them. Here, the art-practitioner-interpretivist role will be explored, by investigating art making and meaning practices and process. It is possible that this role will coexist with the next mode of inquiry, that of the art-practitioner-empiricist: as the artwork comes to life, insights and meanings may reveal themselves. These insights, hopefully, will continue upon considering the finished works of art made in response to these aesthetic encounters.

I first considered Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man:

with the following object:

Artist: unknown
Object Name: Gloves, 1824, French
Medium: Leather
Accession Number: C.I.46.59.15a, b

Conclusions: Artwork: Men's T-shirt with Feminine Embellishments:
Men's_shirt_with_lace_detail_-_1.jpg Men's_shirt_with_lace_detail_-_3.jpg Men's_shirt_with_lace_detail_-_2.jpg Men's_shirt_with_lace_detail_-_4.jpg

Conclusions: Insights:
What different conclusions, in the form of my own visual art practice, might be reached from considering different combinations of existing works of art? What meanings or insights might be reached via-à-vis my own art work as a response to these aesthetic encounters?
Taking a look at these two works of art together, the androgynous beauty of the young man in the portrait started to be emphasized in my mind. I noticed his full lips, and the baroque quality of his clothing, the details and embellishments - slashed and frayed edges on his jacket, gold beads, a ruffled collar, etc. I thought it might be nice to live in the time that Bronzino painted this portrait, when men could wear clothing with this degree of embellishment and not be considered less masculine. It inspired me to consider ways in which these elements, which are now considered very feminine, might be introduced into menswear. Because the glove has a certain delicacy, both because of its color, the fine printing on the leather, and the floral detail on the cuff, I wanted to include some elements that were especially "dainty" in my design. I thought one way to do this would be to begin with a pretty straightforward men's t-shirt and incorporate "ladylike" details of black lace with a floral design, and larger buttons with poodles on them.
As I was making the t-shirt, I wanted to balance one finished edge of the lace with the more raw unfinished edge, so the floral design might creep in on one side. I can't trace this choice back to any one element in the painting or the glove, except that I wanted something unexpected, balancing opposite ideas, as they seem to be echoed in the painting and in the glove.
What aspects of this encounter were emphasized?
It appears that in retrospect, I was focused on the physical, sensual details of the two works of art, and finding a modern context for these reactions. At first, I didn't think I was addressing the historical context of the artworks at all, but the more I think about it, I guess I was reacting to the huge shift in menswear over the centuries, and what the connotations of masculine and feminine elements implied then, and what they imply now.
What aspects of the existing artwork did I respond to through my own artwork?
Upon further consideration, I need to amend my earlier statement. I didn't really make an artwork in response to the physical, sensual qualities of the paint on wood. I made an artwork in response to the subject matter. So in this case, I'm really taking a look at the two dimensional world of the painting and the three dimensional world of the glove. The three dimensional world of the painting didn't really factor in - otherwise, I would've addressed issues like smoothness, sheen, the absence of the artist's hand... I mean, I don't know if I would have but I would have had to consider it if that's what I was focusing on.
After finding evidence of meaning-making in my own artwork about my aesthetic encounter with existing works of art, how might I go further with the artwork I created to better represent these insights?
I don't know what the greater implications, insights, and meaning are of this aesthetic encounter at this point. The artwork I made is pretty recently made, and I feel like it will take a while for a cohesive understanding of this aesthetic encounter.

For the second work, I chose the following, and then just for reference here's Bronzino's Young Man again:
bust_2.jpg 2636_1126766322795_1036262065_357087_1485890_n.jpg

Artist: Pierre-Antoine Verschaffelt, 1710-1793
Title: Bust of an Englishman, 1740, Flemish
Carrara marble; gray marble (pedestal)
Accession Number: 1978.3

Conclusions: Artwork: Unisex Leather Neck Cuff
Unisex_leather_neck_cuff-1.jpg Unisex_leather_neck_cuff-3.jpg Unisex_leather_neck_cuff-2.jpg

Conclusions: Insights:
What different conclusions, in the form of my own visual art practice, might be reached from considering different combinations of existing works of art? What were my lines of thought during this process of meaning-making?

Considering the painting and the marble bust together, two things were prominent: again, the androgynous beauty of the young man in the painting, but also the calm, noble presence of both the young man and the bust of an Englishman. I noticed a certain regal quality to both men, but with this feeling was also the sense of a certain rigidity.

What aspects of this encounter were emphasized?
I think because I was focusing on the rigidity, I noticed the hard wrinkles in the marble bust, and the buttons. I paid more attention to the structure of their garments giving them a certain imposing affect.

What aspects of the existing artwork did I respond to through my own artwork?
Because I was drawn to the structure of the garments, I thought it would be interesting to work with leather. Leather, as a material, drapes differently then say, cotton or silk. It doesn't flow or hang, instead it holds a certain structure that is somewhat sculptural. I wanted to focus on the neck, because there is a certain regal effect to "holding one's head high." If you see someone holding their head up with their neck stretched tall, you sense a certain pride or aloofness. I wanted to use the leather to create a sculptural effect that spoke at once to the drapery and detail (which again, these days, would be considered feminine) and to the pride and psychological presence implied by their posture and garments. I chose a piece of leather I had with a floral print to create another layer (as opposed to a more straightforward piece of brown or black leather, which would be more masculine), and some buttons I purchased the last time I was in Tokyo. It's hard to see from the pictures, but the buttons have a beautiful antique quality to them. Overall, I wanted to capture this psychological rigidity and elaborate (somewhat feminine) costuming.

After finding evidence of meaning-making in my own artwork about my aesthetic encounter with existing works of art, how might I go further with the artwork I created to better represent these insights?
I would like to create more of these pieces and explore different design elements and see how they affect the overall impact of the design. I feel that this is a strong piece because I like the result aesthetically (I like the shirt as well but I really like the way this turned out), and I also feel like it captures a little bit more of the psychology of the subjects in the artworks, as well as the technical descriptions featured in the artwork.

I would like to pursue these ideas further, because they really brought to life different aspects of these three works of art. Considering both encounters together, I see some overlap in inspiration and observations, but I also see where the inspiration diverged. I realized that it might take more time than "immediately after the artworks are made" to come up with broader insight as to the meaning of the aesthetic encounters. But my participation with the works of art, as a viewer, is much more involved and engaged than if I had just stopped in front of the painting, glove, and marble bust, had a few nice moments of contemplation, and walked away. I definitely feel I had a more focused way of looking and responding to different elements in the artworks. And, I felt inspired to make my own artwork, which is great. I think this process is a really good way to facilitate inspiration for my own art practice in the future, and the nice thing is, is because it's self-driven, I can be as much of an empiricist about it as I want to be. In the end, the investigation can mean something, or just serve as a springboard for an entirely different result. It's exciting.

Csikzentmihalyi, M. and R. Robinson. (1990).
The art of seeing: An interpretation of the aesthetic encounter. Malibu, California: J.P. Getty Museum and Getty Center for Education in the Arts.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. In Ross, S.D. (Ed.). (1987).
Art and its significance: An anthology of aesthetic theory. (pp. 207-221) Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Greene, M. (1995).
Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Refsum, G. (2002). Bete comme un peintre? Contribution to an understanding of the knowledge base in the field of visual arts In Sullivan, G. (2005).
Art practice as research. California: Sage Publications.

Sullivan, G. (2005).
Art practice as research. California: Sage Publications.