In the 1970s, Abigail Housen's research demonstrated that viewers understand works of art in predictable patterns called stages. She found that when asked viewers talk in a stream-of-consciousness monologue about an image, and every idea, association, pause, and observation is transcribed and analyzed, the different stages become apparent. Each aesthetic stage is characterized by a knowable set of interrelated attributes. Each stage has its own particular, even idiosyncratic, way of making sense of the image.
In ensuing studies, Housen, with colleague Karin DeSantis, demonstrated that, if exposed to a carefully sequenced series of VTS materials and artworks, viewers' ways of interpreting images change in a predictable manner. Moreover, growth in critical and creative thinking accompanied growth in aesthetic thought. In other words, in the course of VTS lessons students develop skills not typically associated with art. Equally interesting was that these findings are consistent over a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Stage 1 – Accountive
Accountive viewers are storytellers. Using their senses, memories, and personal associations, they make concrete observations about a work of art that are woven into a narrative. Here, judgments are based on what is known and what is liked. Emotions color viewers' comments, as they seem to enter the work of art and become part of its unfolding narrative.
Stage 2 – Constructive
Constructive viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions, their knowledge of the natural world, and the values of their social, moral and conventional world. If the work does not look the way it is supposed to, if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, and function are not evident, or if the subject seems inappropriate, then these viewers judge the work to be weird, lacking, or of no value. Their sense of what is realistic is the standard often applied to determine value. As emotions begin to go underground, these viewers begin to distance themselves from the work of art.
Stage 3 – Classifying
Classifying viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time and provenance. They decode the work using their library of facts and figures which they are ready and eager to expand. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art's meaning and message can be explained and rationalized.
Stage 4 – Interpretive
Interpretive viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the work, letting its meaning slowly unfold, they appreciate subtleties of line and shape and color. Now critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions as these viewers let underlying meanings of the work what it symbolizes emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art's identity and value are subject to reinterpretation, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change.
Stage 5 – Re-Creative
Re-creative viewers, having a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now willingly suspend disbelief. A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on an elevated plane. As in all important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing Stage 5 viewers to know the ecology of a work — its time, its history, its questions, its travels, its intricacies. Drawing on their own history with one work in particular, and with viewing in general, these viewers combine personal contemplation with views that broadly encompass universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal.