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Do you think that there is an age that is appropriate for children to
begin to look for meaning in a painting?
What kind of information do you give your children about an art work
before they talk about it? How does it different for various age
Ah! Another interesting something to think about. "Meaning" is a
fascinating and popular word. We all assume it exists somehow or
somewhere and we all have a pretty good idea what it is WE "mean" when we
use the word. Not infrequently we go on to presume that other people
share our interpretation of the word relative to our conversations.
(Recently I encountered a quotation from Condilliac to the effect that if
one wished to learn science the best place to begin would be learning
one's own language - French in the case of Condilliac. I think the same
advice could be well applied to art.)
We could begin to look at meaning in terms of prediction and causality.
If we perceive "X" then we can expect "Y". Therefore "X" means "Y" is
the next case or context. Concrete and empirical qualities assume meaning
of a sort. In infant recognizes in the sensations surrounding a presented
breast or bottle the imminent potential for nursing. That is a level of
meaning. It is a level exclusive of language however. For the infant it
could be the direct experience/perception of meaning.
We could look at meaning relative to symbolism and representation.
Medieval Art is full of such meanings. "X" stands for "Y", in the simple
terms of language "X" is a metaphor for "Y". A problem with metaphors is
the possibility that people will misinterpret the metaphor; not "X" stands
for "Y" but rather "X" and "Y" are the same thing or so closely associated
to allow the substitution of the more common "Y" for the rare "X". This
level of meaning is much more abstract than the causal level. Language is
very useful at this level. Any kid who watches T.V. is being prepared to
grasp meaning in this sense. From a commercial point of view this is the
level of "brand awareness". The long time president of the Sony
Corporation related a story of a grandson who, it appeared, at 3 or 4,
could read the classic Chinese characters used in some formal contexts in
Japan. In actuality the child was recognizing corporate logos. It is
worth checking this out for yourself, What brands do the children in your
class recognize? When do they learn "Sesame Street" "Power Rangers" or SEGA?
We could look at meaning as and indication or mark of significance. "X"
HAS meaning; or "X" is meaningful. It suggests that "X" is worthy of
something. That "something" could be rememberence, reverence, reflection,
reproduction.... (It need not be something the begins with "re" of course
those are just the first things I thought of. In any case, you get the
idea.) This is extremely abstract stuff. It has to be associated with
powerful notions to sink into the mind of a small child and even then is
not comprehended as much different from brand recognition. SOME fairly
young children seem to be able to distinguish religious meaning to a
degree; to recognize significance as important and "serious". I wouldn't
expect to be able to extend such awareness to art class.
We can, if we wish, divide a child's life by any number of criteria.
Awareness of various models of "meaning" might be as good as any other.
Obviously, the things I'm noting are anecdotal and not the any
formal research. It could be intereting tho.
>From my perspective, if kids can begin to recognize that something means
"story time" or "lunch time"; or if they can look at a picture in a picture
book and predict what comes next then they are probably ready to discuss the
idea that pictures can have or can carry "meaning". It's a first step.
Ann's note is quite exciting. It reminds us that predictive or causal
structures can be perceived as running two ways, that what is about to
occur and what HAS ALREADY occured can both be predicted. Ann's students
are predicting qualities or states which existed before the paintings
reviewed were painted. It points out that 6 and 7 year olds can make
abstract jumps such as that of jumping from the painting to the painter.
I think that's neat!
By the way, Poetry can be an interesting entre to meaning. Gregory
Bateson used to quote Wordsworth's "Peter Bell" (1819):
A primrose by the river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.
What could a flower, a yellow primrose, beside a river, be? What could it
suggest or remind us of? What was Peter Bell missing?
Maybe the first notion to get across about art is that frequently, not
always but frequently, and in certain types of art, it gets us thinking of
something else. Art is not always simple categorical representation.
"This is a rose, family rosacae, genus rosa, species centrifolia, variety
mucosa: A Moss Rose." A rose might remind us of death in one context, of
spring in another, of beauty, youth, blood, snow, many many things.
Any "thing" of art can be experienced as a mystery to be unravelled. What
connections can be made? What relationships can be discovered? It is also
useful to remember that the information we gather may have or have not
any connection to the art relative to the artist or to history. It may
"mean" something to us alone or a potential meaning which we have rejected.
Finally "meaning" can become so interconnected and chaotic as to become
"meaningless". It might only be an entertaining game we play with
ourselves. It might be much more. We get to decide tho.... IF we know
it's allowed. Meaning is a wonderful puzzle we can play with (and
build or construct with) throughout our lives.
Thanks for reading this far. It's reminded me of a lot of things and made
interesting connections for me. Sometimes it feels as if I don't know
anything until I get into a discussion about it. It ends up being the
best way I have for learning and putting ideas together.