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Thinking about Thinking in Rome: part three

I have the incredible privilege of spending four weeks at the American Academy in Rome as an Affiliate Fellow, representing the IMA. From time to time I hope to post some of my adventures and discoveries here. What a ride! (To read the rest of the posts in this series, click here.)

This is the project description that I sent to members of the Academy community, attached to an email inviting them to schedule an interview time with me:

3 October, 2009
Member of the Academy Community:

My name is Linda Duke and I am an Affiliate Fellow in residence at the Academy for four weeks, Sept. 28-Oct. 26, 2009. Back home, I serve as Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. While in residence in Rome, I hope to collect from members of the Academy community descriptions of and reflections on their recent aesthetic experiences – with works of art, architecture and other design arts, gardens and thoughtfully-prepared food.

View from AAR balcony

View from AAR balcony

Volunteers will be invited to speak or write about whichever experiences they choose and may participate as many times as they wish. There are precedents for using language as a window into the types of thinking that are engaged (see below). In this project, it will be important to capture participants’ actual words, via audio recording or in written form. My interest is in examining what commonalities of critical and aesthetic thought might be found across the domains of art, design and culinary art.

If such commonalities can be documented, the implications for educators in any of the three areas would be significant. They would indicate that experiences with the tastes, textures, aromas and appearances of food – experiences that are commonly enjoyed – could be used as an entry point for expanding young people’s capacities for noticing, describing and other activities and mental habits that are fundamental to appreciating art and design. Noticing, wondering, savoring – these mental activities slow us down and put our full attention in the present moment, connect our senses and emotions, and often prompt us to make links to related knowledge from past experiences. Engagement with the arts both fosters and requires these activities. So does the enjoyment of real food, the kind of food that nourishes body and spirit with its sensual beauty. Rich or poor, urban or rural, people, including school children, enjoy food. I hope the data I collect might provide an argument for educators to more often exploit the use of language – in discussion and writing  – related to direct, personal experiences with art, design and food to enhance aesthetic development and awareness. I anticipate writing one or more articles describing what I learn in this project.

AAR Pranza

AAR Pranza

A well-known model for using discussion and writing to support aesthetic growth and development related to viewing works of art is Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS, a discussion-based approach to teaching in museum galleries, a professional development program for classroom teachers, and an image curriculum based on the research of psychologist Abigail Housen. VTS is the basis of the IMA’s highly regarded Viewfinders program in several Central Indiana school districts. In her basic research, Housen has demonstrated that language can be used as a kind of window into thinking and, therefore, into the changes in thinking that occur with aesthetic growth. Housen and others have shown that VTS supports aesthetic development in controlled studies. She has also demonstrated that aesthetic thought can be shown to overlap with what is more generally called critical and creative thought. This makes the implications of a program such as VTS, as well as the promotion of aesthetic development itself, important for educators very broadly, beyond the disciplines of art or art history. If aesthetic development is very similar – if not identical – to the development of critical and agile thinking in any field or arena, then the term “aesthetic” is due for a make-over. Instead of referring to something effete and impractical, it may be understood to be an essential aspect of human consciousness and creativity.

For my Academy project, I imagine applying some of the same techniques for gathering language that Housen has developed, expanding them to elicit language describing experiences in the three arenas. With nearly 20 years of professional experience in facilitating discussions about art, I look forward to exploring the potential for fostering discussions of the three arenas (art, design, food) with the Academy residents. I hope that the raw data I collect – the recorded interviews and discussions – might be of interest to others who have the scientific training to analyze them through the lenses of linguistic anthropology and developmental psychology. I am currently seeking collaborators who might play this role. Developmental psychologist Karin DeSantis has agreed to review the material. I hope to engage the assistance of a linguistic anthropologist as well. I imagine these specialists might look at language from several points of view. When and why do people pull terms from other domains? For example, when is it helpful or even necessary to describe a painting’s colors as luscious, a building’s roofline as inspiring, or a pastry crust as heartbreakingly flaky? Do these kinds of appropriations occur more often when people have more or different kinds of experience with art, design or food?

Chefs in AAR

Chefs in AAR

A few words about the usefulness of initiating this project at the American Academy are in order. A quick scan of the impressive list of scholars and artists who are in residence shows that this is a gathering of gifted and uniquely experienced people. So this project is not about collecting samples that would be considered “average” in any way. However, it is an opportunity to learn how much variation there might be between the kind of noticing, reflecting, and wondering an individual directs to an experience with a painting and a building, or a garden, or a seasonal dish. The Academy may afford the opportunity to gather data from individuals who have highly developed critical thinking skills in at least one arena, and to examine whether and how those show up in a non-specialty arena.

The fact that internationally renowned chef and food educator Alice Waters has recently helped the Academy overhaul its dining program is a plus (In Rome, the Academy Learns to Cook, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, NY Times, 3/15/09). That fact ensures that some of the residents will have noticed the quality of the produce and other foodstuffs brought in for meals, as well as the nuances of preparation and flavor juxtapositions. Back at the IMA, educators have been considering opportunities to partner with that organization’s new food provider, Nourish Café.  They’d like to experiment with educational programs that might link thoughtful sensory experiences with food to thoughtful experiences with works of visual art. For me, the opportunity to learn first hand about how a fellow arts organization, the American Academy in Rome, is pursuing this idea will be very useful and timely.

Thank you for your consideration.

Linda Duke
Director of Education, Indianapolis Museum of Art

A few days after sending this, I decided that some interviewees would feel more comfortable if I asked them to choose a picture to discuss. I paid a visit to the wonderful photo archive and was able to get digital images of Academy gardens, the historic Villa, works of art made by artist Fellows, and the nearby Tempietto of Bramante.


Bass and Kitchen Gardens at the Academy

I grateful to say that I have been able to record some wonderfully thoughtful interviews. One of the first was with Alexandra Vinciguerra, the master gardener who has restored all of the Academy’s gardens – the Bass Garden and kitchen gardens at the main building as well as the historic gardens of the Villa Aurelia just down the street. I’ve interviewed the master chefs and interns in the kitchen as they chopped and stirred. I’ve captured the thoughts of scholars about their work here. They talk about the buildings, paintings, music and ruins that have captivated them and sometimes drawn them into relationships lasting decades. The artists and musicians have also given me some astonishing and thought-provoking interviews – fueling my growing sense that our culture needs to better understand that range of aesthetic thinking and the role of the senses in understanding our world and lives. I started with a simple idea: collect samples of language people use to describe aesthetic experiences and see what similarities are found across domains of experience from the arts to design to food. I now feel I have material that begs to be looked from other angles as well.

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