Friday, December 14, 2012

Solving Problems by Taking Apart & Abstracting: An Exercise in Aesthetics

So I feel like the direction of my blog is changing as I continue to define aesthetics and the ways we can use it in solving problems, visual and otherwise. Yesterday I posted about the amazing 12-panel woodblock print by James Kerry Marshall on exhibit at Harvard's Sackler Museum.

I decided to pursue my thoughts about Marshall's work a bit further and I decided on a little aesthetics/rhetoric experiment. 
My inquiry was to find out whether I could observe the work at several different levels, all descriptive, and each time using less words to describe what I saw. 

This is a challenge I encounter frequently when reviewing books for the American Library Association journal "CHOICE," where my comments are limited to 191 words. Most of the time I enjoy the challenge and I especially like presenting it to students. 

In all of my classes I assign writing within strict word constraints, ten words, 100 words, 500 words. If you've tried something like this you may have noticed that students don't particularly like to be held responsible for limited word counts. All of us like some wiggle room, especially when we're not quite sure how to organize our thoughts.

But I think it's important to try. Words are an abstraction and when we put anything into words, whether oral or written, we are creating an abstraction. Can words help solve problems by taking apart an image, a situation, a phenomenon, and abstracting it? I think yes. And further, I think this can work in all kinds of settings, not just art criticism but science problem solving and, hey, why not? conflict resolution.

Anyway, here's my exercise in "taking apart" and abstracting what I consider to be a formidable piece of art. 

I studied each panel and wrote my "long" description, then came back to each panel and wrote a shorter description, and finally returned a second time to write my "short" description, comprised of only one word. Below I've included some photos of the panels and all of my written work. Of course I'd love to hear what you think about this approach.


James Kerry Marshall
Untitled  1998

Color woodcut with hand coloring
Twelve panels

Panel 1

The city endless grid stamped like dollar bills a sky of floating clouds

17 blocks straight line perspective


Panel 2

The brick wall yellow and flower box fake planting?

Five flowers three bricks angle



Panel 3

The rug a lamp inside a line a space an opening

Rug and wall horizon table plays


Panel 4

An upturned head a hand outreached a host in shorts ballet

Shoes and legs three men kitchen


Panel 5

Spare couch with resting hand food plates on floor & table

Three plates one hand


Panel 6

Three men sit on the green rug under lampshade and black box

Back and front torsos, verticals


Panel 7

A corner bisect pink & yellow quiet but empty & expectant

Two panels and a rug


Panel 8

A frank pink wall but lighter than the wall in panel 5 a corridor

Large panel narrow run of rug


Panel 9

Opens a door and first glimpse of new space. The door is pink

Door jamb white formal angles


Panel 10

A bed well made recessed under a black hole in the bedroom private

Tight secret


Panel 11

Shadow of a a vase & flowers in a shadowy black vertical rectangle

Abstract secret


Panel 12

Turn the corner for another pink wall a rectangle a lost black face

Humorous secret



  1. . The post is trying to get across the idea that everything has a simple base. It relates to the goals of observing, documenting, and analyzing, because in order to get to the simple part you have to do all those things more than once to slowly break it down. They approach the idea by connecting art and science by using the same process.
    O Taiwo, H Gecawich, M Bruzzese, M Maisel

  2. This did not make as much sense to us as the other passages we have just read because the end result of each description of each panel would not have been our choice. You are trying to get across the process of deep analysis of the different artwork. You observe and document each step of your analysis very well. This art connects to science because each description of the panel breaks down more and more until it is very specific just like the process of experimenting in a lab. We can not think of anything that we would add in this moment.

    Sammy Nassif
    Alli Armstrong
    Meg Shepro
    Alana Rockoff

  3. When we observe natural phenomena, instead of breaking our observations down into scientific details, we can look at it with an aesthetic perspective. These posts do make sense in that we were able to understand the reasoning behind these observations. We observed that the paintings are arranged in the same area to be connected and related to one another and that the paintings relate to life. When you look at paintings, you can only see, but not hear or feel the senses in the painting. But through imagination, you can make the scene (of the painting) just as real as an actual scenery. There are artistic values to be seen in the natural world, it’s just a matter of perspective. In the “Tangled Bank” picture, there is a multitude of things inside the picture, and that itself is somewhat similar to an art gallery because there are various components to it as if it were a gallery. These posts relate to the process of aesthetics because we say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but using just a few words to describe makes the picture just as abstract as the words. When you dissect the painting into words, you are putting effort into analyzing the picture. The more you analyze it, the more you appreciate it. If I were the writer, I would add descriptions to my analyzing process.

    Jerry Tarn

  4. Yes, these posts make sense to each of us because they straightforward and his examples are clear and thorough. Both articles are trying to explore the difference between how an individual digests an image in nature or art. Professor Hammer gives his readers the example of the waves crashing and the portraits in the museum to illustrate that each individual interprets information in a different, unique way. Scientists approach the idea of connecting art and science through questions and reach similar conclusions. There is no solid answer but it is crucial for one to utilize both science and art to reach a more definite conclusion. These posts relate to the process of aesthetics because when an individual first observes an image they may have one interpretation and when they continue to observe and depict it that opinion often changes. This relates to the connection between abstract and articulate because abstract things are often complicated to understand and therefore difficult to put into definitive words. If we were the writers we would add how every person has their own interpretation of the world around them and there is no right or wrong way to understand abstraction.

    Adina, Alexa, Victoria

  5. These posts both make sense. They are trying to get across that no matter how complex something can be there is a simple underlying message. The panels all separately had their own story and all put together told a bigger story. The posts relate to our goals of observing, documenting, and analyzing because through observation you can see the bigger picture really has many smaller parts that are key to the understanding of the whole picture. The two posts relate to aesthetics because both portray the message of breaking down complex organisms or objects to their simplest meanings. We would add even more written detail to the post about the MFA. We would have liked to know just how busy the walls are like if they were covered top to bottom and maybe even what color the walls were.

    Danielle McKinnon
    Talley Perkins

  6. Yes, they both make sense. We tend to overanalyze and extrapolate when that can complicate the message. By thinking of things in simpler terms, we can understand them on a different level. In terms of observing, documenting and analyzing: it's important to observe without overanalyzing, and our documentation can become confused when we attempt to observe everything all at once and then analyze the larger picture. Art is often considered abstract and loose, with a greater emphasis on a separation from reality; art is commonly thought of as a transporting medium, where we are not expected to consider how real life applies necessarily. Science is usually reduced to raw facts, with an emphasis on clear and direct comprehension; we are not expected to evaluate science on the same level as art because science is, by nature, about real life. However, when you cross the two--consider art in the light of science and science in the light of art--you can understand each topic on a different level: that art can be simple and factual without degrading its beauty, and that science can be abstract and loose without delegitimizing its truths. Aesthetics concerns inspiration and beauty, and the conceptuality of art and the straight-forwardness of science can both inspire feelings of awe and surprise in equal measure--just as you don't need something to be abstract to consider it beautiful, you don't need something to be factual to consider it valid. If we had authored these articles, we would have considered how understanding things on a smaller level can assist in the understanding of the whole; the difference between top-down and bottom-up processing.

    Jane Lu
    Eliza Zhitnik
    Brendan Sullivan
    Anna Greene
    Megan Uehlein
    Natalie Jamnik
    Jaime Bennis

  7. These posts make sense: the short descriptions in this post help other viewers visualize what the original viewer is seeing, and the other post discusses simplicity versus complexity. Both posts have a theme of attempting to break down how we think about art and science, which helps us observe and analyze the piece better. For this piece, it originally has more words, making it a description of art, but by the time you break it down to one word it becomes more scientific. The other post connects the artwork in a museum to the artwork created by nature, which can also be translated to science (the science of the waves and the beach). In order to understand aesthetic value you have to process what you're looking at. As the writers of this post, we would have put all the pictures together so that the reader could see the whole thing as well as the dissection of the pieces. In the first post, we would have ended with an opinion on the questions posed, rather than just querying.

    Matthew Almengor
    Yesennia Pinkley
    Ali Edwards
    Katie Headley
    Claire Ertel
    Tyler Toti
    Judy Le

  8. This a great idea, to self-impose restrictions on one's thoughts and descriptions. A very human instinct is self-importance, which I think leads to loving the sound of our voices and thoughts ( I know I'm guilty of that.) Also, By shortening the description of the panels, you managed to capture a complex sentiment or feeling or expression, without complicating it, that while it may not resonate with every reader, it is sure to make a great connection with few.

    Alejandra Rodriguez