When is Inquiry with Art Philosophical Inquiry?


Isamu Noguchi, "Sun at Noon"

Isamu Noguchi, “Sun at Noon”

It looks like a donut.

It kind of reminds me of a desert, because of the colors. And since there are lines and cracks, it makes me think of canyons in a desert.

I know what it is: some type of porthole. Maybe there’s a whole world in there, you can go inside.1

Over the past decade or so, art museum educators have developed very sophisticated, widely used approaches to facilitating inquiry-based conversations around works of art. The resulting conversations with visitors are varied and wonderfully unpredictable. The best conversations lead us all somewhere new, often to ideas that shed light on the art but also on the world. We all – the educator included – leave the conversation with a deep, personal connection to the work of art, and the sense that it has a meaning beyond its formal qualities and art historical context.

Art educators are hesitant to judge responses to art. Sometimes we go so far as to claim that there are no wrong answers to an open-ended interpretive question. But, as Sharon Vatsky often reminds me, sure there are.  There are just lots of right answers, too.

But within the vast field of “right answers,” not all interpretive comments are equal. Some are more profound, more insightful, more meaningful than others. Even within a group of five-year-olds one sees variation in the ability to find meaning in art. How do we understand what makes a strong interpretation while helping visitors build their own interpretive skills?

The field of philosophy has some tools we can use.  A quick disclaimer here: There are unquestionably important responses to works of art that are not philosophical, and some that are not even verbal. In this investigation, I am interested here in a specific category of interpretation: interpretations that make connections between the work of art and ideas that explain something about the world.

Philosophy is the search to answer big questions about the world: What is time? Are humans free? Is change possible? Strong philosophical interpretations of art make connections between a work of art and the world.  They often do this through metaphor: one thing stands in for another. This is, very often, what visitors do in front of a work of art:

Isamu Noguchi, "Floor Frame: Remembering India"

Isamu Noguchi, “Floor Frame: Remembering India”

Maybe this is a person’s struggle between going to heaven and hell.  But I guess the person eventually gets to heaven because at the end of the chain of dark and light stones, the path [points to the branch and] leads up…..We are always going back and forth between doing right and wrong, this is a place where you sit and think about your choices.2

Once interpretations are assigned the status of philosophy, we can turn to the field of philosophy for guidance in understanding criteria for good interpretations, and ideas for helping people interpret art. This is a field I continue to explore, but one model worth considering is the idea of metaphor as philosophical hypothesis. Stephen Pepper wrote about this decades ago, and argues that a comment like “It looks like a donut” (see above) fails as a philosophical interpretation because it does not provide a hypothesis about the world. One then tests that metaphor by refining, expanding, and testing it.  Through this process, a successful metaphor grows into a true metaphysical hypothesis.

This theory is particularly compelling for art educators because it suggests that the better metaphor is one that explains more about both the world AND the work of art. Noguchi’s Floor Frame: Remembering India can only be interpreted as a struggle between heaven and hell if that metaphor can be expanded to explain aspects of the sculpture other than the alternating black and white marble, and the sculpture, in turn, can explain aspects of humanity’s, or at least the viewer’s, understanding about the struggle between heaven and hell. The speaker in the quote at the beginning of the post extends the metaphor in both of these directions.

Pepper’s theory is also appealing in its openness.  He argues that one hypothesis cannot judge another – each theory must find its own internal justification. This resonates well with the pedagogical approach of museum educators, who remain open to multiple interpretations. But it simultaneously offers criteria for testing the validity of an interpretation: What can it explain? How strong a metaphor is it?

During one conversation, a museum visitor looking at Isamu Noguchi’s Sun at Noon said, “I know what it is: some type of porthole. Maybe there’s a whole world in there, you can go inside.” This is a perfect example of a thoughtful interpretation ripe for testing. If Sun at Noon is a porthole, what can we learn about relationships between worlds from the work? What types of worlds might this work open us up to, and how? And what does this interpretation add to our understanding of Noguchi’s sculpture?  If museum educators intend to foster interpretive skills in visitors, problematizing metaphors such as this one is an excellent tool.

I am continuing to explore this topic, and welcome your ideas. Do you agree that often vibrant gallery conversations are those that lead to philosophical meaning-making? What philosophers provide ideas we should look at?

This was adapted from a talk given at NAEA in 2014. The original presentation is available here.




4 thoughts on “When is Inquiry with Art Philosophical Inquiry?

  1. Pingback: Field Trips that Teach Thinking Skills | Museum Questions

  2. This post speaks very well to ideas that I often grapple with. I would love to hear the artist’s response to this post. I’m not familiar with Isamu Noguchi’s “Sun at Noon,” but the title does suggest some insight into the artist’s thinking about the work. In philosophy we can never know the perspective or intention of the creator, but with art we sometimes can. Should the artist’s intentions play a role in evaluating a viewer’s meaning-making? If so, what role should that be? What about artists who do not intend for their work to explain anything?

    • Good questions, Alli. Noguchi’s comments on his own work often read like poetry. Here is what he said about “Sun at Noon,” created during a period when he was experimenting with alternating colors of marble and “post-tensioning” as an engineering principle: “The circular shape of varicolored marble here is not for tensioning. It is simply that small segments of marble have been used rationally to make a circle. Large objects can be made from small stone elements which may thus result in a structurally homogeneous element called sculpture, unlike a house, let us say, which remains a piling of discrete stones. The structure of the sun translates into a visually powerful entity because of its inherent tensile unity of shape.”

      I do think that a full understanding of a work of art can only come when one knows something about the artist’s context or intent. But as a museum educator I do not always aim for a “full understanding” (which might take years) as much as a meaningful dialogue with the art.

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s