Today I spent my lunchtime listening to an intriguing talk given by three Brooklyn College psychology researchers and a member of Pratt’s Foundation Art department. Aaron Kozbelt, Jennifer Drake, and Rebecca Chamberlain teamed up to describe their study of Pratt Foundation Art students (and a control group of non-art students from Brooklyn College). Andrea Kantrowitz put their study of our students in context by giving a visual account of some of the drawing projects students are challenged with in Foundation Arts.
You often hear the phrase “artists see the world differently” on Pratt’s campus. But what does this mean? Kozbelt gave a tour of this idea, breaking down the difference between performing and perceiving visually. Clearly trained artists can draw better than the untrained, but how much of this drawing skill is about the actual performance of the physical task of drawing and how much is about the ability to perceive subject matter? It’s possible that artists can actually “see better”, both because they are capable of avoiding misperception and because they can selectively filter in and out aspects of a seen object.
Drake gave an overview of the experiments that were performed, which were based on a “comprehensive battery” of visual tests. Some of these I was familiar with, such as visual illusions that ask the viewer to estimate the size of different shapes that are placed in the vicinity of shapes of differing sizes. Others I had never heard of. Two fascinating tests involved “bistable figures” and duct tape. Bistable figures are images which can be seen in two distinct ways, and in this study an animated figure that can appear to rotate in either one of two directions was shown to participants, who were asked to “switch” the perceived direction of the animation in their head. In this study, the ability to make frequent switches was interpreted as indicative of perceptive skill. Duct tape tests were conducted by giving participants a picture (in this study, a contrasty portrait of Samuel Beckett) and a bunch of small, thin slices of duct tape that were applied to a transparency covering the picture. Previous implementations of this method have shown that trained artists are more adept at creating duct tape images that capture the most salient features of a given image.
To better understand how perceptive skills are developed over time in drawing classes, Pratt Foundation Art students were tested at three time points during their foundation year. To provide a control group, Brooklyn College psychology students were given the same test once. Chamberlain reviewed their initial results, which were interesting but equivocal. Overall art students outperformed non-art students, although I was surprised that their “margin of victory” was rather small. For some perception tasks, art students weren’t any better than the control group.
Kantrowitz then gave a visual tour of some of the assignments that students complete during their Foundation year, explaining how these assignments challenge students’ perception and ability to focus their visual attention.
I think that this is really important work, and I am excited to see Pratt Foundation faculty collaborating with researchers to assess how a Pratt education changes the ability of our students to make work. This initial work needs to be followed up with more in-depth studies that more rigorously probe the differences between those trained in the visual arts and those who lack such training. I am particularly interested in how to truly create a control in these experiments. Clearly a real control requires that both the art students and their non-art comrades be studied at multiple time points to better understand how the training of art students entrains their ability to perceive. I am also concerned that the experimental work completed thus far is a potentially biased: it is hard for me to believe that art students didn’t come into this study with a greater probability of having encountered these perceptive tests before. If experience with these tests — rather than the actual training received by art students — accounts for their better results, that would be rather uninteresting. It’s critical that a control group that’s very similar to the art student test group be given these tests at the same junctures in their academic career; one avenue for performing such a test would be to engage Pratt’s non-art students (Critical & Visual Studies and Art & Design History majors) in these experiments.
The other thing that I am interested in is the question to what degree is art training a cultural enterprise? This study very much treated their tests as an absolute gauge of perceptive abilities. This assumption might be right, but it might be wrong. What if these perceptive tests really test a culturally-mediated form of attention? In other words, perhaps the art students don’t “see” any differently… they have just been taught what to look for as constructed by a particular culture (in other words, what kind of attention is valued in a particular art culture). If this is a possibility in the perceptual training of art students, it is even more possible in the work they produce, which is somewhat circularly judged by art teachers for its quality. Rather than considering the results of this study meaningless because they might be culturally referential, I find this facet of this sort of research fascinating. There’s a big question about whether art perceptions and skills reconfigure the way the brain sees or just makes the brain see what a particular culture values? If cultural ways of seeing are just about teaching that way of seeing, then one might predict that being trained by a conceptual art historian would have the same effect on perceptive skills as completing a Foundation Art program. This kind of prediction is ripe for the testing at Pratt.A Major Post, Art & Design, Pratt Institute, Psychology, Talks & Seminars, Uncategorized, Visual Perception