“We fixed the education system”, my classmate exclaimed during our group discussion on Tuesday. Later in the week, we found out that our “solution” to the education system in the U.S was closely related to market theory, and that has a lot of issues in and of itself. We have been aggressively looking for answers through debates and questioning. Every day, our class has a new set of discussion leaders. Their job is to lead the class in thoughtful and productive conversation. So far, this is one of my favorite things about the class. Every day, we gain a new perspective on how to question our current system because we have different people every day questioning us.
Today in class, the discussion leaders wanted us to work in a pair to create thought diagrams relating to a theme and set of questions. Their only instructions were to look at the questions and create a visual. The options were endless on how each group wanted to present their set of questions. Through this process, we came up with potential solutions to inequality in schools.
My partner and I focused on collaboration among schools to reach a more unified form of educating. We identified forms of collaboration that are already implemented but could be used in a greater magnitude to be effective in unifying education. Data-based decision making, teacher and administrative conferences that focus on training, and online forums (blogs) could all be used in this manner.
Another group focused their thought diagram on innovation as a way to resolve inequality. An idea this group had was to put more importance of qualitative data in conjunction with quantitative data. An example they gave of qualitative data used in schools was student testimonials.
One group dealt with a difficult question about who has the right to choose a child’s education. Their thought diagram expressed the benefits and consequences of government choice and parent choice. One of the benefits to government choice is standardization, but parents have more “skin in the game”. A consequence to making only parents accountable for choosing their child’s school is that information is power. Families with higher socioeconomic status have more access to information, and this process reproduces inequality.
Because families with higher socioeconomic status are privileged due to their access to information, another group worked on how to get the information about choosing schools to all parents. This group believed that it was essential for the schools to reach out to the parents besides the parents having to seek out information for themselves. Their main categories for getting information to parents included ads/pamphlets, sessions, the internet, public service announcements, and information given in class.
I enjoyed making thought diagrams as a brainstorming process. The activity produced great conversations and debates.
Dear U.S Education System,
Why can’t we fix you? My class has spent a total of nine hours this week talking about how to combat re-segregation alone, and we have not gotten the slightest bit close to an answer. My problem is that I don’t even know where to start. Re-segregation is only one problem among many, but I will start there.
In class this week, we have talked about the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. After Brown v. Board, the problem switched from de jure segregation to de facto segregation. Basically, after the law tried to fix you, U.S Education System, people were still able to segregate schools based on housing segregation and zoning. Not only were schools re-segregated, but some schools shut down because the whites did not want to integrate. In Prince Edward County, the public schools shut down, and a private school was created for white students only. The public schools were shut down for over five years. When they finally opened up, the public school was predominately for black students, and the private school was predominately white. We watched a video about Prince Edward County in class, and it was powerful to hear students’ stories about not having access to an education for over five years. We talked a bit about the idea of sacrificing an entire generation for a cause, and this concept has stuck with me for the past couple days. That is what happened in Prince Edward County, an entire generation was sacrificed.
The situation that occurred in Prince Edward County also made me question the power of court rulings. Brown v. Board was viewed as a victory for the Civil Rights Movement, but black students in that county went more than five years without an education. Why don’t people follow the laws that apply to you? I believe that is has to do with choice; you give people too much choice. Integration theory says that choice without civil rights considerations will lead to inequality. Maybe, this is why our schools are re-segregating.
I want to say that we need to write up an entire new system because there is so much flaw in you, but I do not think that is a possibility because of your history. Besides, I am learning more and more through this class that it is hard to please everyone with one set plan of action. I believe choice has created issues, and I blame you for that. On the other hand, if you were a different system, there would be a new issue at hand to address. That being said, you’re not off the hook. There are ways to fix de facto segregation. Magnet schools were created in the 1970’s to combat segregation and to provide minority students with a “better” education. Although Magnet and Charter schools come with their own problems, the idea is a step in the right direction. Magnet and Charter schools bring in the question of more choice, but I am personally not against choice alone. I am against choice without civil rights considerations.
Ultimately, U.S Education System, you’re a mess. I wish I could offer more constructive criticism, but I have tried my best to make sense of you. The further I dig into your policies and trends, the more confused I get. The more questions I try to answer, the more questions I seem to have. I hope my class, the Sociology of Education, continues in this manner. Questions and confusion aren’t bad, but I used to think they were. I thought that the more questions I had meant the less I knew. In fact, the more questions I have means how much I want to fix you.
A concerned student,
P.S: On an unrelated note, why didn’t I learn about how to pay taxes in high school. I think that’s important. You should get on that.
The ballroom was dim, and the music was loud. All I could see were my peers lumped into one organism, flowing on the floor, spinning like a tornado, and destroying everything in its path. All I could hear was the chatter of students and jazz music. All I could feel was hypocrisy itchy down my spine like a spider full of venom. Not only was I feeling and experiencing hypocrisy, but I was a hypocrite, myself. On Friday night, I attended the Winter Ball: Enchanted Forest at the Antler’s Hotel, and I left more confused and dazed than I have ever felt before.
In light of the Winter Ball this weekend, I would like to take the opportunity to examine what I witnessed and experienced Friday night using the sociological theories of education I learned in class last week. Our class began with the history of public education in the United States, and we moved on later in the week to talk about sociological theories relating to the purpose of education and why inequality exists in terms of education. The Winter Ball can be examined through two macro-level theories of education. First, there is the functionalist theory which focuses on how education helps society run smoothly. Contrastly, there is the conflict theory which focuses on how education serves the needs of the elite class. Both of these theories can be applied to the events I witnessed on Friday. I would like to clarify that I don’t mean to bash the students who attended the Winter Ball through this analysis. I mean to bring to light some problematic social features of the Winter ball. Clearly, I am no expert. Take what I have to say with a grain of salt because I am clueless. Simply, I am trying to make sense of the world around me through the sociological theories SO280 has taught me.
The aftermath of the Winter Ball has made me question why a college would provide its student body with a giant party. If you look at other colleges, especially larger universities, institutions of higher education rarely provide dances that equate to high school homecoming dances or prom. If you do see celebrations like these in college, they are run by student organizations or Greek life. Functionalists would argue that the Winter Ball serves a purpose for the college and for the students, but it is not for the reason you may think. Functionalists view education as a means to equip youth with the tools they need to be successful in society. For example, teaching students physics will equip them with the knowledge to be successful engineers. Functionalists would say that the Winter Ball is a tool used by the college to socialize its student body. Everyone comes together and mingles. Although we don’t view the Winter ball as a ploy to control us as students, perhaps it is. It could just be a fun night for all, but maybe there are hidden intentions. Functionalists say that a part of education is the manifest function of maintaining social order through shared knowledge and national principles. Based on what I have learned this week in class, I would argue that the Winter ball could be used to do just that. We get dressed up in a nice outfit, listen to music (good or bad), and we see all of our friends in a formal setting. An event like the Winter Ball could be used to teach us how to socialize and behave at formal events. Of course, the intention backfires and what I am arguing is a stretch, but events like the Winter Ball could serve this purpose.
I remember sitting at a table near the food in the Jazz room with my two best friends, and we were eating citrus tasting cheesecake bites. The plates from the people before us were piled on the table, and one of the boys helping run the event came over to clear off the table. We looked around us, and we saw plates scattered all over the place. There was food on the floor and lost items littering the tables. The boy who cleared off the table I was sitting at couldn’t have been older than fifteen years old, and it made me wonder what kind of people were working the Winter Ball and what kind of people were attending the Winter Ball. When my friends and I got back on the bus to head back to campus, my friend next to me turned to me and said, “I’m disgusted.” I didn’t say anything for a few seconds thinking about what I had experienced. I turned back to her and said, “Yeah, me too.” Although applying the functionalist theory to the Winter Ball was a stretch, conflict theory is pretty spot on. Collectively, we like to think of ourselves as warriors for social justice, but maybe the Winter Ball has problematic social implications. Conflict theory focuses on how groups compete for resources, power, and status. Education is a resource, and the winners obtain and maintain this resource. In terms of the Winter Ball, we are allowed to go because our institution provides this event. We would not be at this institution if we did not have some sort of intellectual or economic resource to be here. Because we attend CC, we have the privilege of a college education. We have the resources to go to Winter Ball. On the other hand, the workers at the Winter Ball did not, yet they had to clean up our mess which was a big mess. Conflict theory would argue that students from high socioeconomic status families or white students made it to CC because of their elite status in society. It is beneficial to be white and rich. For students who do not fit these categories, conflict theory would argue that you are at CC because you were not tracked in school at an early age.
All of this being said, the Winter Ball made me think of conflict theory relating to education because we like to think that we are at CC because of our merit, but maybe it is because of luck. Maybe, you were born into the right family. Maybe, you were born with the right skin color. Maybe, the people who weren’t born into the right family or with the right skin color were working Friday night at the Antler’s Hotel to clean up after the people who were given the luck to attend CC. We went into the Winter Ball privileged, and we didn’t think about who had the job of cleaning up after us.
For these reasons, that is why I felt like a hypocrite. I like to think of myself as a pretty liberal person, but I participated in Winter Ball. I want to major in Sociology, yet I didn’t think about the underlying implications of Winter Ball until I got on the bus. I didn’t question my participation until after I took advantage of the event provided for me. Seriously, I don’t mean to ruin the fun of Winter Ball, but I think the student body should question these events more. We should question the purpose of college run events and how they might be reproducing inequality in our community. Yes, SO 280 is teaching me a lot of sociological theories, but most importantly, it is teaching me how to question everyday life.
As my adventure in Florence comes to an end, I circle back to the discussion around what makes art so impactful. Though most works, especially those from Renaissance, are static, flat, and unresponsive, I find them personally meaningful. In psychology, the inner stirring that art can inspire is called “aesthetic experience”: a feeling of sublime, and overpowering awe. At the extreme end of the aesthetics spectrum is Stendhal Syndrome (also known as “Florence Syndrome”), which describes the symptoms that sometimes emerge in travelers overcome by artwork.
Stendhal’s Syndrome seems to manifest differently across people, with some victims enduring bouts of severe dizziness, fainting, and heart palpitations, and others experiencing elaborate hallucinations. This year, upon seeing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, one man undressed completely, and struck a Venus-like pose, before he was dragged off by museum security. Though clinicians disagree about whether or not this slew of symptoms represents a discrete medical condition, the bizarre somatic reaction known as Stendhal Syndrome is not uncommon amongst travelers to Florence.
What causes some people to be so completely overcome by artwork? Though the answer is still unknown, we discussed two possible explanations. The first is that people tend to to rush through art, especially in Florence, because there is so much to see and so little time. Many travelers, trying to “do Florence” in a couple days, do not have the energy to process the art as completely as they need to. Rushing from the Uffizi to the Medici Palace to the Boboli Gardens, travelers are ultimately buried in unresolved feelings that the works of art evoke. Because these emotions remain unprocessed, people’s bodies shut down, so that they are forced to slow down and acknowledge what they are feeling.
The other explanation is that art evokes an outflow of emotions repressed in everyday life; and because people are not used to such intense feelings, they are overcome by them. We live in a world where the full expression of emotion is not socially accepted. If we saw someone throw down their plate when the restaurant service was slow, or weep deeply when they had a hard day at work, or skip through the halls when their daughter passed her test, we would think they were crazy. Because display rules don’t allow us to experience the full extent of our emotions, we learn to suppress much of what we are feeling.
Yet we have this visceral, often unacknowledged desire, to feel those feelings we have shoved down, causing us to seek out stimuli that will emotionally activate us, like art. Through art, we are allowed a brief outlet for our emotion, empathizing with the subjects in the pieces. In some cases, we actually see our own experiences in the work, inspiring a sort of meta-empathy with ourselves. In other words, our ability to connect with the subjects depicted in art, while retaining some distance from the work, allows us a novel perspective into our own lives. This perspective leads some people to have almost spiritual “aha!” moments of understanding and connectedness upon seeing art. It is possible that this sudden insight and intense emotion overpowers travelers, especially those without an outlet for expression and reflection in their everyday lives, causing Stendhal Syndrome.
Whatever the explanation, and whether we pass out, stay conscious, or get naked, art can be incredibly powerful. Though it is inert and inanimate, art has the capacity to move us. In fact, I think I might be coming down with a mild case of Stendhal Syndrome myself.
The majority of this week has consisted of learning about proteins, one of the most complex, necessary, and incredible things that make up our bodies and the world around us. Forgive me as I go off on a bit of an absurd tangent – I blame the astonishing nature of cells and proteins for skewing my mind off topic. But I thought, why not share my weird thought digression – after all, it was prompted by something pertaining to class…
Yesterday, a classmate said something like, “you’d think these cells have brains… it is amazing that they do this all without even knowing it”. I thought it an interesting thing to say and started to fantasize on the idea, pretending it was in fact true. In this dream world, I pretended cells did have brains and they were listening, like a visiting student, in our class. I came to possess a great desire to ask a cell (as if it were so easy to pick one out) what they thought about what we were saying about them. I wanted to know if they would be impressed, or outright embarrassed for us. Yes, there is an incredible amount of proof as to the behavior of the cells within our bodies, but having this perspective, just for a second, made me pretend to be an uneducated fool, and think how much we just may be assuming – how far we were stretching our facts. I guess this doubt in our (referring to the collective human race) knowledge was created through a close correlation of two things: the first thing being (ironically) all the things I had just learned to be true (specifically about how cells form proteins). The second being my provisional acknowledgment of the things only cells know and we do not. As a result of this shifted perspective, I realized the incredible intellect and ignorance that human beings possess. From this, I came to the conclusion that a cell would both be impressed with and ashamed of our knowledge.
So, let me share some of the knowledge that took my breath away, but would probably put a cell to sleep… After covering the basic concept of protein folding (that a protein is a chain of amino acids that essentially fold up on themselves), we zoomed into that chain of amino acids and discovered interactions of energy which significantly affect how proteins fold and the structure at which they eventually arrive. Because these energy interactions happen on the cellular level, everything we learned about the specific behavior of cells brought me back to the idea of personifying a cell. We first discussed the concept of energy minimization (the natural tendency of objects to seek to minimize their energy by sharing it equally with their surrounding environment). Cells are so generous with one another! Although not everyone may be so kind and generous on the outside, always take the compliment that they are still sharing their cellular energy with you and their surroundings! I’ll take it.
This thought, though, was shot down after our professor told us that energy minimalization is connected to a theory about the death of our earth… not so encouraging.
Another concept I could not help but to personify is that of miss-folded proteins. A protein gets miss folded if it arrives at and gets stuck at an energy level higher than its native state (its lowest energy level). A protein gets stuck in this local energy level because it does not possess the excess energy to pop itself out. Thus, it is like someone who has become complacent – one who is content with their position or state of mind yet knows they possess a higher potential they have not yet put forth the energy into accomplishing. But is this necessarily a problem they can control? Is their success entirely up to them or partly determined by their environment?
Since these are quite personal questions, I decided not to ask the cell. So, the conversation ended there.
Taking a step back, this dream world, while quite absurd, allowed me to interact with something I would have otherwise never interacted with. Although not physically there talking with me, this theoretical subject was able to challenge and expand my thoughts without me even knowing it, just as is keeps me alive, just now I have a glimpse of how it does that!
Today, we talked about the concept of an aesthetic experience. When I first heard the term, my mind immediately jumped to the visual factor. Given that this is an art-heavy class and Florence is renowned for its visual beauty, this felt like a fair assumption. As the philosophy major in our class explained, however, the feeling we get when looking at a particularly breathtaking view or painting can be generalized to all kinds of situations. This might seem obvious, but in some ways this was a bit of a revelation for me. An aesthetic experience is one where you are speechless, and your mind is overcome by the thing you are beholding. It overtakes all else, and you feel like you are, for just a moment, one with whatever is being observed. It can be something you see, a piece of music you hear, or even a captivating idea.
The three facets of an aesthetic experience are: novelty, complexity, and a challenge to our capacity to understand. Each of these factors is fascinating in its own right.
Novelty means that the thing is new to you, but that does not mean you cannot feel in awe of something even if you’ve seen in 20 times. Maybe you notice something new, or maybe you relate to it in a different way than you did before. In a way, the variability of daily events we experience means that even if you do the same thing over and over, each day it’s a little bit different. Even recalling a memory in a new context can shed new light on an old experience.
Complexity puzzled me. It sounds like it’s saying that the more complex something is, the more aesthetic the experience will be. How can this be if something as simple as an entirely blue canvas can inspire shock and awe (as anyone who has been to a modern art exhibit can observe)? Tomi-Ann explained that complexity works as a bell curve. If something is remarkably complex or remarkably simple and pure, you will be more likely to have an awe inspiring experience.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the challenge to one’s capacity to understand. This, to me, feels the most human. It takes a mind capable of knowing what it does and doesn’t know to consciously be dazzled by the wonderful mysteriousness of an awe-inspiring masterpiece. The Grand Canyon was formed by a river, yes, but it truly feels beyond our ability as humans to fully comprehend the process of canyon carving. The millions and millions of years and gradual change is hard to wrap the mind around. The same can be said of a work of art. To have this aesthetic experience, you must be blown away by the sheer mystery of creation of whatever is being observed.
Lastly, today in class we discussed Stendhal Syndrome. Although questionable in its scientific merits, Stendhal Syndrome is the anecdotal occurrence of feeling positively overwhelmed by something, typically a work of art, to the point of getting dizzy, fainting, or even hallucinating. The symptoms have been reported in places like Jerusalem and Florence, where the rich history, beautiful elements, and wonder of the location combine to overload a person’s ability to experience. Now there are a lot of reasons this might happen, most notably are the stresses of travel and the preexistence of mental health issues, perhaps leaving an individual tourist more vulnerable to this type of “overload.” Regardless, I enjoy thinking about Stendhal Syndrome. I like the idea that an aesthetic experience can be so incredibly powerful that someone simply cannot handle it, and faints. The beauty and the history and the context are just too much, and your brain crashes, like a computer. It’s nice to think that someone is capable of creating an item so astoundingly shocking and remarkably beautiful that tourists collapse at its sight. I don’t know why that idea captivates me so much, but as I said earlier, it feels so viscerally human. It speaks to the innocence I feel one should pursue as a tourist in a new place. To allow one’s self to be so open to the novelty, complexity, and incomprehensibleness that you literally faint is a mindset we should all strive for. I hope that I never stop feeling awed by beautiful paintings, or architecture, or mountain views. There’s just something so lovely about being able to be astounded by beauty.
Second week has come to a close and third week starts up tomorrow… Scary? Exciting? Both! We are more than half way through the block – we have leaned so much yet still have so much to learn! At this point in any block, you are fully submerged in the material of your course yet haven’t been exposed to what may be the most exciting part of it. You have done what seems to be loads of work and (try to) remain hopeful and excited for all the new material that has yet to come!
My first three blocks consisted of my double block FYE Freedom and Authority followed by Intro to Poetry. While both of these were highly reading and writing intensive classes, biophysics has proven to expose my rusty math and science skills. Being thrown back into a way of thinking and problem solving I haven’t practiced in over 6 months has been both terrifying and exhilarating. Though, most of the terror existed only in the first day or two of biophysics and was quickly replaced with excitement.
Biophysics, although easily perceived as an advanced science course, has proven to be ideal for both exposing and treating and my rusty math and science skills. The course has no required prerequisites, therefore all the basic physics formulas and concepts are taught as part of the course. Since this is my first blog post and it’s pretty late in the block, I will summarize some of the main topics we have covered thus far here:
We have covered many physics tools and have applied them to several different biological problem sets. We started with simple kinematic equations and applied them to both pendulums and projectiles. We explored how a human leg can behave more or less like a simple pendulum and from there we could solve for a persons walking speed based on the same variables. We even compared these findings to what they would be on the moon ! This helped us better understand how specific variables behave within a formula while also providing us with some cool knowledge about what walking ad jumping would be like on the moon! We then transitioned from kinematics to exploring forces and Newton’s three laws. We used forces (along with previous knowledge of kinematics) to calculate heights of jumps and how they varied from problems which involved running and jumping together. After this, we learned about energy – my personal favorite physics concept/tool! We explored many different types of energy and was able to translate them to nearly every concept covered previously. We then moved from learning the biophysics of physical actions one has direct control over and started to explore the physics of fluids and the circulatory system. The circulatory system proved to be extremely fascinating to learn about, not only because it is what literally keeps us alive, but because it is something we are unconscious of in every day life. We learned about density, pressure, flow rate, viscosity, and many more important concepts related to the movement and behavior of fluid. Exploring the incredible complexity of just one system within our body makes all the duties our bodies do for us seem quite magical. This pretty much sums up what we have covered up until Friday.
Friday’s class introduced probably the most complex idea we’ve looked at thus far in the class. We had a guest speaker, Phoebe Lostroh (a professor from the molecular biology department), come in and discuss what proteins are, how they are made, their structure, function, and essentially their importance to life of earth. This provided the class with a baseline of knowledge which would then help us to fully understand central dogma and eventually Florence microscopy. We covered many things which are essential to understanding florescence microscopy which I will not bore you with… but its all seriously cool stuff – if you don’t know anything about it, I suggest looking into it!
This block started out pretty light while most the physics and applications were review to me. But, fear not, it certainly picked up. This last week especially has proven to challenge me the most. I feel the “challenge” I am referring to is mainly rooted in the conceptual applications and not so much the physics knowledge. As we use different biological applications, we naturally learn things about those specific subjects which may be (and have proven to be this last week to me) completely new. That is what has made this class challenging and interesting at the same time! What could be better than to try to understand how living things work, move, and interact through exploring the physics behind them?!
I am looking forward to the last full week of biophysics and will be updating you along the way!
We’re moving from two dimensions to three this week, from painting to sculpture! During the Renaissance, sculptures were a way to influence public perceptions and identity- a form of political propaganda. The sculpture that I fell most in love with is the Juno Fountain, by Bartolomeo Ammannati. The fountain was commissioned by Cosimo I of the Medici family in 1556. If you haven’t heard of the Medici, (or have heard of them a million times but don’t actually know what they were famous for), here’s a refresher. The Medici family basically invented money and banking. Before the Medici, bartering was the standard of trade, but the Medici realized that one way to make money really fast is to just make the money. The family’s riches gave them power and many Medici served in Florentine government.
Cosimo I was Duke of Florence at the time, and commissioned the fountain when he was able to connect Florence with a new water source. Though the fountain was intended to be the centerpiece of the Great Council Hall, it was never installed there; Cosimo I came into possession of a Michelangelo statue, and replaced the Juno Fountain with it. Newly homeless, the Juno Fountain was moved temporarily the royal gardens, before it’s component parts were (tragically) scattered around the park. It wasn’t until recently that the pieces of the fountain were reassembled at the Bargello Museum in Florence. To quote Peaches and Herb, “Reunited and it feels so good!”
I love this fountain because it so appropriately addresses the achievement it commemorates. The entire fountain is centered around the idea of the water cycle as it was understood by Aristotle. Aristotle believed that water was created from a combination of the elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Fittingly, the characters depicted in this fountain have allegorical significance, with each representing a natural element.
On top of the fountain, sits Juno, protector of the state, with a tambourine in her hand. The clap of her tambourine signifies thunder and lighting, indicating that the gods could strike down any misbehaving mortals. Juno sits atop a stone rainbow, the path of connection between heaven and earth. Beneath the rainbow, lie two bodies of water, personified as a man and a woman. On the left, is Arno, the river that still provides water to the city of Florence. On the right, is Parnassus, the spring that famously arose from Mt. Helicon, providing poetic inspiration to all who drank from her waters.
Though each of these characters have their charm, the woman in the center of the fountain, Ceres (Roman goddess of Earth and agriculture), is the clear star of the show. Ceres stands with her hands on her breasts, squeezing the fountain water from them. Ironically, fountains that depict a urinating man are very common, yet fountains where women produce water from their breasts are rare. Ceres’ body shape is concave, with her shoulders rounded forward, as she seems to push the water out from within her. Her right cheek is turned to the viewer, an indication of authority and power. With her ocularis and zygomaticus muscles slightly contracted, she appears to be smiling softly, yet knowingly down at us.
Ceres is completely naked, and her body looks more feminine than most Renaissance statues. Because the Catholic Church was still very influential at the time, females were not allowed to pose nude for artists. As a result, early female nudes looked like female heads atop hulking male bodies. Ceres however, is distinctly female, with rounded features and an hourglass shape. Though females nudes existed before the Juno Fountain, women were depicted as sexual objects of the male gaze. In this piece however, Ceres’ comfort with touching her own body, in a totally non-sexual way, implies agency and self-ownership. Her naturalness suggests lack of self-consciousness and a confidence that is striking even in modern day.
Ceres also represents the feminine power to give and sustain life (by giving water in this sculpture, and by giving birth in real life). The idea of female autonomy, much less feminine power, was unheard of in the Renaissance; yet Ceres seems to sidestep cultural norms.This work may seem like a small step for women, but it’s a giant leap for mankind — or should I say womankind. Kudos to you, Ammannati.
Artwork in this city is starting to feel much more interconnected than I had realized before.
Quinn’s last blog post described the process of VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies, which involve slowing down and observing before making judgments or coming to conclusions. I feel that by constantly reminding myself to practice VTS while observing art in our museums, I am beginning to see a bigger picture emerge.
This is the pattern I usually find within the block plan, where the first week feels chaotic and scattered, but by the second week and especially the third, things are coming together in a tangible way. As material from the class and from our individual work and projects come together, the larger themes of the class begin to make sense.
Last week, we were discussing the intricacies of the human facial musculature alongside the evolutionary advantages of various expressions in humans and animals. These seemed like weird concepts to talk about in a class that places so much weight on art, but this week we have been exploring differing methods that renaissance painters and sculptors used to convey emotion. Suddenly, the importance of a facial expression started to seem like it mattered greatly for a work of art. This may seem obvious, but we continued to really ask how emotion can be conveyed, and it appears more nuanced than I first thought. Yes, the face is important in paintings, but emotion is so much more than that.
To demonstrate this idea, we played a little game in class. In the first round, somebody would get up in front of the class and, using just their face, try to convey a complex emotion, such as awe or guilt. Everyone wrote down a guess, and the next person went up. In the second round, the same “actor” was allowed to use their whole bodies and some simple motions, then everybody guessed again. In almost every single case, people got the emotion wrong in the first round and right in the second. An emotional expression goes so far beyond just the face.
Additionally, the face might be quite misleading. Furrowed brows, a wrinkled nose, and an open mouth could be a face of extreme excitement and celebration or burning anger, depending on the context. Combining salient, “real-world” examples like the game from class with the strategies of VTS has given me a much deeper appreciation for what is going on in any given painting or sculpture. Yes, the man is sad, but how do you know that? Is it the tear on his face? Is it his body language, showing him crumple in despair? Is it due to what the people around him are doing to him? It is all these things, and simply stopping artistic analysis at “the man is sad” limits not only our understanding of what is really going on in the depicted scene, but also our appreciation for the depth of the art and the immense talent of the artist.
To be an artist is to truly understand human expressions in a way that most people cannot even articulate. It is to understand the human form in a very “meta” way, and to be able to move past something as simple as a facial expression.
I’m starting to understand why people are so into this art! I’ve never been much of an “art museum person.” I’ve always felt that museums center on art history, and I’m more interested in the story the work tells. Yet this class is allowing me to appreciate museums anew; I’m learning to understand the story each piece tells on my own, without reading the wall text beside it.
This week we have been practicing Visual Thinking Strategies, or VTS. VTS is a way of looking at art that requires viewers to pause, and consider the individual elements of the work. It asks viewers to look slowly, lengthening the time between observation and conclusion. Though this process sounds simple, it is really challenging. As someone who likes to know — to think in facts rather than in probabilities and ideas — hovering in this uncertainty is really difficult for me.
I am good at making quick judgements. I walk down the street and I know: “That is the Duomo,” “That woman looks cold,” “That gelato smells delicious.” But what happens when what I am observing is less clear-cut?
The ease with which we categorize and sort stimuli is usually very useful; however, it can also cause us to jump to conclusions before fully understanding what we are seeing. Through VTS, I am learning to suspend my judgements for a little longer each day, collecting the facts that I need to support my assertions before I make them.
In VTS, when viewers find themselves jumping to conclusions, they must explain how they know what they know. For example, consider Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus.” You have probably seen this piece before, but just take a second to really look at it. What do you see? There are an unlimited number of aspects of the painting that you could focus on, but for the purpose of this analysis, focus on the woman in the center of the piece, Venus.
A viewer might observe, “Venus looks like a modest woman.” But in VTS, the viewer would then have to explain their observation: “Venus is using her hands and hair to cover her naked body. She is also averting her gaze, looking down and to the left, and tucking her chin in towards her body, possibly indicating shyness. A character at the right of the frame is offering Venus a cloak with which to cover herself. These components lead me to believe that Venus is a modest character in this painting.”
VTS provided me with a framework through which I am able to slow down and consider the details of the work, rather than blindly forming an opinion at a glance. Instead of just seeing the art, I am savoring it.
I am trying to extend my understanding of VTS to other areas of my life, lengthening the time between my observations and conclusions, but I’m still a work in progress. It turns out it’s a lot easier to change the way I see art than the way I see the world. But now that I recognize the information to be gleaned from the details, I know that slowing down to attend to them is worthwhile.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said “ God is in the details;” I’m starting to appreciate how right he was.