An introduction to Visual Thinking Strategies.


how do people perceive art?

In the early 1990's Philip Yenawine, Director of Education of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, USA, was asked by the Board of Directors to study how effective the MoMa's educational programme was. What they knew, was that there was a great need among visitors for information and guidance and the feedback on the MoMA's guided gallery tours was consistently very positive. What was unknown up till that point however, was what visitors actually took in from the information that was given to them by the talented and engaged MoMA staff. In other words, what did they learn? Did the gallery talks help visitors to get a better understanding of the art?

To answer this question, Yenawine set up a study in collaboration with Cognitive Psychologist Abigail Housen, who had developed a theory of Aesthetic Development based on doing decades of research on how people perceive visual art. The method behind this research was to record people while they talked about a visual artwork in a stream-of-consciousness way, the so-called Aesthetic Development Interview (ADI), which was then transcribed and analysed. Housen's research revealed that viewers understand works of art in predictable patterns, which she defined as 5 stages of Aesthetic Development in this way:


Stage 1: Accountive

Accountive viewers are storytellers. Using their senses, memories, and personal associations, they make concrete observations about a work of art that are woven into a narrative. Here, judgments are based on what is known and what is liked. Emotions colour viewers' comments, as they seem to enter the work of art and become part of its unfolding narrative.


Stage 2: constructive

Constructive viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social, moral and conventional world. If the work does not look the way it is supposed to, if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, and function are not evident, or if the subject seems inappropriate, then these viewers judge the work to be weird, lacking, or of no value. Their sense of what is realistic is the standard often applied to determine value. As emotions begin to go underground, these viewers begin to distance themselves from the work of art.


Stage 3: classifying

Classifying viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time and provenance. They decode the work using their library of facts and figures which they are ready and eager to expand. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art's meaning and message can be explained and rationalized.


Stage 4: Interpretive

Interpretive viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the work, letting its meaning slowly unfold, they appreciate subtleties of line and shape and color. Now critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions as these viewers let underlying meanings of the work what it symbolizes emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art's identity and value are subject to reinterpretation, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change.


Stage 5: re-creative

Re-creative viewers, having a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now willingly suspend disbelief. A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on an elevated plane. As in all important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing Stage 5 viewers to know the ecology of a work — its time, its history, its questions, its travels, its intricacies. Drawing on their own history with one work in particular, and with viewing in general, these viewers combine personal contemplation with views that broadly encompass universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal.


The MoMA Gallery Talks Study

The MoMA gallery talk study set out to explore whether gallery talks led to a greater understanding of art and how this might be related to the visitors' Stage of Aesthetic Development. To this purpose, Yenawine and Housen recruited a group of 22 adults and first conducted an Aesthetic Development Interview with them to determine their Stage of Aesthetic Development. The participants then took part in a gallery talk on abstract and expressionist art, delivered by an experienced and engaging MoMA guide. Afterwards, participants were asked to recall what they remembered from the gallery talk. What emerged was that what people reported back was coloured and filtered by their Stage of Aesthetic Development. Beginner viewers (stage I & II) would frame the galley talk in their personal world view, norms & values and everything that fell outside this construct would be dismissed. What these outcomes showed, was that beginner viewers couldn't accommodate factual information yet in the analytical way stage III viewers and upwards could. Gallery talks with early stage viewers did not lead to a greater understanding of art that was not familiar or liked. Given Housen's earlier findings that most museum visitors are beginner viewers, the study's outcomes made Yenawine realise that the museum's much appreciated gallery talks were actually not the most helpful educational tool to the bulk of visitors. What these visitors needed more was a guiding framework that would assist them with looking at and making sense of art, which led Yenawine and Housen to develop the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method.


How does vTS work?

The Thinking Eye works with Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a method to both study and develop visual thinking skills. Facilitated VTS discussions about visual works of art or complex imagery ideally take place in a group and are always structured by the same basic 3 questions:

What’s going on in this ...(picture/sculpture/installation/situation/etc)?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can we find?

The role of the facilitator is not to provide information that satisfies these questions, but to guide people through a process of curious exploration, critical reflection and collective meaning making. The consistency in discussion technique provides a structural thinking strategy that people can internalise over time so that they become able to independently and critically guide their visual meaning making. VTS discussions are most effective when the facilitator tailors the visual artworks to the specific interests and developmental level of the audience. As described by Housen’s 5 stages of Aesthetic Development, early stage visual thinkers tend to make little distinction between personal perceptions and what they consider to be objective truths. Observations will be communicated matter of factly, without any critical reflection or additional explanation as it is assumed the perception is objectively true. In this process of actively constructing an understanding of what is being observed, learning is aided by skillful guidance of the facilitator and alternative views of group members.

An extensive body of research, conducted over the past decades has demonstrated that VTS is a highly effective teaching tool to develop observation, critical & creative thinking as well as communication skills. VTS has shown to be of great value to not only museums but the entire spectrum of public education, because of its ability to adapt to the developmental level and personal interest of the specific audience. An added benefit is that VTS discussions can be successfully led by facilitators without any formal art training. In addition to leading museums, the VTS method is now internationally used in primary & higher education, professional development programmes, medical schools -including Harvard- as well in rehabilitation programmes for people with acquired brain trauma.


LEARN MORE ABOUT VTS                                                             

The Thinking Eye offers tailored VTS training for individuals and teams, find upcoming events under the calendar or feel free to get in touch.