In “Reconsidering Critical Response: Student Judgements of Purpose, Interpretation, and Relationships in Visual Culture,” Freedman and Wood conduct an inquiry into how students develop an understanding of art and visual culture. Their findings indicate that the majority of secondary and even post-secondary students struggle to move beyond the literal representation, emotional impact, and technique found in a work of art and to begin to interpret greater meaning from an image. By the time most young people have reached secondary school, they have already been exposed to a diverse range of visual culture. Much like how new language is acquired, assimilated or adapted to fit an existing scheme, processing new pieces of visual culture requires students to relate their interpretation to their existing understanding of the contemporaries and precedents that it may be in dialogue with.
This common way of knowing seems to have a detrimental by-product. When young people begin to be exposed to traditional artworks, they must reference their existing understanding of how to read visual culture that they’ve largely developed as a result of their exposure to popular culture. The unfortunate complication is that the images of visual culture that they have been exposed to generally have a specific, agreed upon reading backed by a particular agenda. In the case of advertising, political campaigning, or popular consumer culture, these images are meant to persuade and are not necessarily open to greater individual interpretation.
In Freedman and Wood’s experiment, a mixed group of secondary students were shown four popular culture images and four traditional fine art images which depicted similar subject matter. When prompted to explain what each image reminded them of, their responses were categorized as being either predominantly internal or external interpretations: In other words, interpretations that relied solely on examining internal content as opposed to relying on outside references or knowledge. The students in this experiment were generally inclined to believe that the traditional fine art images were simply meant to communicate a message or emotion that the artist was trying to express, and could rarely recognize the artists’ intent to influence, capture, or explore in fine art pieces. At the same time, students were able to quickly identify a singular reading when examining images from popular culture. They had been trained by the images presented in popular culture to develop very confined, shared readings.
Young people have been equipped with advanced tools to read visual culture, but are novices when it comes to exploring meaning when interpreting a work of art. In the experiment, the students had trouble looking beyond the ‘thingness’ of a work to discover visual metaphors, and were much more reliant on visual cues. Young people struggle to recognize that there may be multiple meanings of equal value in an artwork. They are not taught to continue to look deeper after finding a serviceable reading of an image. This disengagement is supported by polling which suggests that the students did not believe that the practice of art held much if any crossover with other disciplines. This frightening trend shows how young people have difficulty finding significance in art and typically consider it to be ancillary to a developed understanding of their world.
I believe this struggle to openly receive a work of art is indicative of a much larger issue. Why is it that considering art as more than a means of communication is not a notion that society tries to introduce until such a late stage of development? It seems that the failure is on the part of the societal inability to see the potential for children to develop a multitude of thoughtful, if not necessarily articulate, interpretations of art. The fact that young people can quickly and efficiently read a work popular culture reveals their untapped intellectual potential they hold to achieve equally sophisticated and personalized interpretations of art.
Freedman, K., & Wood, J. (1999). Reconsidering critical response: Student judgments of purpose, interpretation, and relationships in visual culture. Studies in Art Education, 40(2), 128-142.