Arts-Based Educational Research: Foregrounding Critical Visual Languages
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Sketching in #wip
This entry commences thus, appropriately, with an image. The image is a photograph of a work in progress (#wip), namely, José Parlá’s “Nature of Language,” a mural commissioned for the James B. Hunt Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. The reason this work is included as a prologue to this entry is that it serves to accessibly position the notion of the visual as a critical language and thus performs as a conceptual launching for this paper.
José Parlá, a visual artist who lives and works in Brooklyn NY, is known for his large-scale paintings, which are richly layered, textured and strongly calligraphic, and resemble aging, distressed city walls. His work is often site-specific, drawing strongly from traditions of graffiti artists, having himself been a street artist from the age of 10, working under the name of Ease. Indeed, some critics have positioned Parlá’s work as drawing strongly from visual “street” traditions, since the work is so richly lyrical, entangled, and metropolitan. In fact, “Nature of Language” is a “written painting” that becomes “readable through feeling,” rather than through a linear reading such as that in a word-based text. In this way, the painting is “read” through affect, through the senses, and through emotion toward a process of meaning-making, in nonlinear, nonverbal ways and complex, nuanced, analytical, and conceptual ways.
In building the argument, the image above has been included as a work in progress intentionally, so that the premise of positioning the visual as a critical language is in itself a work in progress. Indeed, the work in progress (#wip) metaphor is a signifier of the notion of language as always alive, always a potential, always a work in progress, and always, always in movement. In this discussion, #wip also points toward the task of holding space for the visual as a language of theory and of praxis, which quite transcends prosaic notions of visual “literacy.” Rather, visual languages and forms can operate as activated languages of layered, sophisticated, nuanced, and complex inquiry, philosophy, and analysis in and of themselves, with or without the need for word-based exegetics, which indeed is the focus of this entry’s argument. (By visual, I am referring to the Visual Arts but acknowledge that all Arts have this agency. However, I am mostly qualified in the Visual Arts and thus take my arguments primarily from this domain.) In the world of Fine Arts, the positionings of images and objects as visual communicators of inquiry and praxis are beyond doubt and beyond judgment – indeed the notion of Art (visual text) as a research text in the domain of the Fine Arts is most certainly an accepted language of criticality.
For those scholars who have been and are artists working in the educational research space, the engagement of the visual as a praxical methodology, which transforms ideas into actions, analysis, and language, is still a troubled undertaking yet to be accommodated in the same way as the word. For artists, Art is the primary way of being, becoming, and knowing, the visual their first language. This is by no means a new construction, nor is it particularly innovative for artist scholars. Arts-based educational research [ABER] and arts-based research [ABR] are both established methodological fields (for details, see Lasczik Cutcher 2018). However, the nature of the work and the forms created are becoming increasingly innovative, creative, singular, and indeed, stubbornly and joyously resistant of traditional forms of scholarly publishing.
While this is a continued challenge for the methodology, this argument goes beyond the ergonomics and inequities of academic publishing. Rather, it seeks a shifting of thought toward a stabilized functioning and operationalizing of critical discourses through visual modalities, in much the same way as written modes operate in educational research. Ideally, visual (and gestural and performative) portrayals of inquiry ought to occupy an equitable and normalized positioning within and through academic discourses rather than as a curiosity or an idiosyncrasy, and for the current argument, particularly in the education domain.
Visual texts have distinctive contributions to make to educational inquiry. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987) note, the medium of thought affects the materiality of thought. The materiality of thought generated through visually created and visually posed inquiry has much to offer educational research and indeed to the field of education more broadly. The Arts and the Arts in educational inquiry teach us that problems can have multiple solutions, celebrate multiple perspectives, and make vivid that there are no limits to what we can know and tell; the limits of language do not define the limits of our cognition. Further, the Arts operate in subtlety and nuance, say what cannot be said in other forms, and allow for multiple, idiosyncratic, and layered readings.
Blocking in the #wip: Art as Language
The visual portrayal of inquiry is thus not merely explanatory or descriptive but rather communicative of theoretical and aesthetic action. Through inquiry, aesthetic, and conceptual development as well as creative and conceptual resolution, artmaking as theoria (thinking), praxis (making), and poesis (doing) engages and exemplifies thought (Lasczik Cutcher 2018). The visual portrayal of ABER texts thus functions as theory, as artwork, as action, as exhibition. Visual renderings are and are not themselves; they are always more than – both intrinsic to and transcendent from the images and poetics of the work.
Rather than a representation, Art is an “experimentation with the real” that generates fresh networks of thought, generated through entangled sensations and affective capacities (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 12) that transcend word-based portrayals. In this vein, it is important to note that artmaking is an act of inquiry; the resultant artwork is thus not mimetic but rather a theoretical text, a resolved material, and critical creation of experience, of ideas, of theories in its own right – a visual depiction of theory (Lasczik Cutcher 2018). The Art in ABER works functions rigorously in the same manner and is to be read affectively, through an entangling of thought.
In ABER, the Arts are engaged as a mode of inquiry and a language. However it also may be engaged as an analytical lens or process and a way to illuminate and express theory and emergent concepts. It moves beyond Art as mimetic, as imitation. Rather, in the way of much contemporary Art, ABER positions Art as acting through and toward (further) thought, as a language of its own, towards dialectical reflection, where the moment of expression through its linguistic self is constitutive and creative. Moreover, Art has its own essence, is it itself, rather than a translation of other linguistic forms; in ABER, the Art is both transcendent and embedded in the inquiry that inspires it. Such entanglements act to destabilize academic conventions iteratively, and ultimately, generatively. Such experiments with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) identify, are indeed thought experiments; however, they also perform as material experiments. Thus, in ABER work, findings are constituted from both conceptual and idiosyncratic material resolutions of inquiry. This richness is a central feature of ABER work.
Layering Up the #wip: Sensations and Becomings
Educational research has much to learn from the practices of the visual and from Art. The domain of educational research has exclusive contexts, loaded with praxical conventions that privilege the word. A more complete paradigmatic shift toward the visual-as-critical/theoretical in educational research is an experimental premise, as it pushes directly against enduring academic conventions of science and of positivism. Despite the field of ABER having developed and refined its modes and methods, the preeminent technique of discourse in academia is word-based, engaging written language, which is too often opaque and exclusive. As a woman from a heritage culture and language other than English, I feel such exclusions keenly – as do my students and colleagues of similar (and other) backgrounds. Despite the promises of postmodernism, which proclaimed to be a more democratic and flattened space for exchange, the dominant and privileged spaces for publication in the field, and indeed many high-ranking journals and book publishers, still eschew ABER in both methodology and forms of dissemination. ABER yet remains in the margins, somewhat.
And yet, as Grosz (2009, p. 81) asserts, Art has much to offer knowledge and philosophy, as she reminds us that Art is a special knowing, which heightens, intensifies, illuminates “excess in the world,” and magnifies experience and sensation, through invention and production. As Art is an energy or force that resists containment, all artworks have in common the composition of materialities, which in turn intensify perceptions, so that sensations are monumentalized rather than persons, materials, or forms (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 164, emphasis added). Although it can be argued that reading Art is a cognitive event, it is more wholly affective, and thus sensation performs as an act of knowing and becoming. Sensation and affect impact through the skin to the body (rather than directly to the brain), in the organs and cells, and nervous system (Grosz 2009). When thought of this way, the affective and sensory reaction to Art is in itself onto-epistemological, located in the intertextuality between artwork, and audience, artist and world, and in the sensations in between.
Art makes unique experiences possible, drawing sensation never before experienced or experienced in any alternate way. For example, the “appleyness of the apple” of Cézanne’s still lives; the “Rembrandt’s universe” of affects (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) are complex readings. Such readings are seductive; they draw the reader into extraordinary and new becomings, epiphanies, and thought experiments. Thus, Art is a lush and verdant site for theoria, praxis, and poesis (Lasczik Cutcher 2018), usefully applicable to educational research as well as being immanently transcendent of it. As Grosz (2009, p. 85) continues, “Art is this process of composing, extracting from the materiality of forces sensations capable of affecting life, that is, becomings, that have not existed before and may summon up future sensations, new becomings.”
Finished Work #incomplete #alwaysawip
A question that has endured for the past decades of ABER growth and development is: How might the Arts merge/combine/unite with conventions of social science data collection, analysis, and reporting? (Lasczik Cutcher 2018). The answer is that they do not meld; rather, they resist.
Such resistances are fertile sites for learning. In the time since the original 1993 AERA Winter Institute on ABER organized by Elliot Eisner and Tom Barone and held near the campus of Stanford University, artist scholars have found this resistance to be a richly iterative and procreant understanding. The resistance of ABER to dominant modes of thinking, doing, knowing, and portraying has resulted in an exciting field of scholarship, of ABER work, and of lush and fecund possibility. In a relatively short period of time, ABER has developed from an obscure novelty on the educational landscape, to a transdisciplinary international movement. It is a field that is in constant flux, development, adrift, and constantly migrating in innovative and profound ways. Such enacting features of creativity, imagination, and innovation are among the most characteristic and idiosyncratic impacts that ABER makes to the domain of educational research (Lasczik Cutcher 2018).
However, the constraints of dissemination of such stimulating scholarship in a field dominated by scientific form in publishing mean that we scholars are inhibited from “showing” more and “telling” less; scientific form remains the dominant modality. Although it is true that some journals accommodate visual and performative texts, high-ranking journals do not, and neither do high-ranking book publishers to the extent necessary as demanded by the pragmatics of the work. ABER work thus risks erasure from academic texts. Most usually, artist scholars adapt to the constraints and limitations of traditional publishing, to ensure searchability, readability across platforms and endurance, working with the constraints, and seeking to flatten the borders. And yet, the work and possibilities of ABER work remain underserved. Visual knowings, doings, and tellings cohere with persistent human behaviors, thought experiments, and engagements with matter (Grosz 2009).
In closing this entry, I return to the oeuvre of Jose Parlá, whose work, though largely in the domain of painting, can also be read as visual mantras, diaries, experiences, landscapes, and memoir. As mentioned, Parlá’s work functions within this paper as a bridge between the traditional languages of scientific publishing and dissemination conventions and the innovations and potentials of ABER work, since he engages cursive written language in layers that result in luscious and visually poetic, rhythmic, and fluid surfaces: artworks. He asserts of his own work that it ought not be read directly, but rather gesturally, not replicating old walls, but rather an attempt to capture memory and experience.
Have a highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information… [it would seem that] discrimination of artistic styles is not a higher cognitive function that is unique to humans, but simply due to the capacity of animals—from insects to humans—to extract and categorize the visual characteristics of complex images. (ibid.)
If nonhuman animal species can read and discriminate and process dense and nuanced visual data, then it follows that other species can also do so, and certainly the human species responsible for those self-same artworks. Taken with the assertion that artmaking and viewing is a persistent human behavior, dating back to the first human species (Grosz 2009), then clearly holding and making space for the authentic dissemination of ABER work is a timely and necessary possibility.
- Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
- Grosz, E. (2009). Sensation: The earth, a people, art. In E. W. Holland, D. W. Smith, & C. J. Stivale (Eds.), Gilles Deleuze: Image and text (pp. 82–103). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.Google Scholar
- Parlá, J. (2013). Nature of language [mural]. Commissioned by SNØHETTA and North Carolina State University for the James B. Hunt Library in Raleigh.Google Scholar