In his 1997 article Thoughts on Visual Literacy, Philip Yenawine describes visual literacy as

“…the ability to find meaning in imagery. It involves a set of skills ranging from simple identification (naming what one sees) to complex interpretation on contextual, metaphoric and philosophical levels. Many aspects of cognition are called upon, such as personal association, questioning, speculating, analyzing, fact-finding, and categorizing. Objective understanding is the premise of much of this literacy, but subjective and affective aspects of knowing are equally important.”

Coined by German-born author and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, whose primary book shares the same name, “Visual Thinking” stands paramount in Abigail Housen’s “empirical research” and resulting theory of aesthetic development. The application of Housen, Arnheim, Piaget and others constitute the genesis and ongoing theoretical underpinnings behind the development of Visual Thinking Strategies methods and curricula.

Through the process of collecting and analyzing Aesthetic Development Interviews (see Research Methods) and identifying and understanding the concrete words and ideas of novice viewers in the moment and over time, Housen derived the developmental stage theory that informs all VTS methods and curricula. In Housen’s essay Eye of the Beholder: Research, Theory and Practice, she provides an account of how she began her study of Aesthetic Development, how she came up with her research methodology, and the overall findings of her 20 years oldf research. Housen also briefly discusses how she applied what she learned to creating the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum.

Abigail Housen’s Theory of Aesthetic Development & Research Approach

Abigail Housen began in the mid-1970s to try to understand how varying degrees of exposure to viewing works of art affected people’s viewing experiences. Her search for understanding of what she came to call aesthetic development was based on the same empirical approach that had guided Piaget, Vygotsky and Loevinger. Abigail looked for patterns and order in behaviors she could observe, and followed the interpretations that emerged based on her findings. She used unobtrusive measures that left the subject free to behave entirely naturally. Unlike many theorists in arts education, she did not begin with a hypothesis that she then tried to prove. This firm grounding in empirical evidence and in unobtrusive measures continues to set Abigail’s theory apart from other prevalent theories on learning in the arts.

Housen’s theory describes the viewer’s experience of the visual world, and specifically of visual art. Her work is based on over 4,000 subject interviews, as well as published, peer-reviewed research. The core of Housen’s data collection is a non-directive, stream-of-consciousness interview, called the Aesthetic Development Interview (see Methods), which has proven reliable in a wide range of studies. The interviewee is given an image and asked to talk about what he or she is looking at. No directive questions are asked, thus insuring that the interviewer does not influence the interview. The subject is simply invited to talk as if s/he were thinking out loud, talking about what is seen. The interviews are taped, and then transcribed and coded using an empirically-derived coding manual. A temporary aesthetic stage is assigned in this process, and this scoring is then compared to a clinical analysis, arrived at by an independent reading of the entire interview.

Only when these two stage scores — derived by two very different means of study of the same material — conform is a final aesthetic stage assigned to the interview. The aesthetic development stage score is used as a framework for understanding other information gathered through observations, questionnaires, content questions, journals, portfolios of related assignments, and other primary and secondary data.

Aesthetic Development Stage Model and Descriptions

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.

Aesthetic Stage Descriptions

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.

Examples of Stage 1 comments

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.”Lines, ovals, squares?” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)

At times, the viewer makes observations and associations, which appear idiosyncratic and imaginative.

  • “[A] giraffe’s back…a dog’s face.” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)

Likewise, the viewer may incorporate people and objects into an idiosyncratic narrative.

  • “I see two ladies, holding each other.” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)
  • “It seems to me he’s going home now and he can’t find his clothes.” (Cezanne, Bather)

Judgments are based on what the viewer knows and likes.

  • “The wallpaper is beautiful.” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)

Emotions color the comments, as the viewer animates the image with words and becomes part of an unfolding drama.

  • “Like he’s hurt [his arms] when he was swimming or like he was mad or something the way he was holding his arms.” (Cezanne, The Bather)

The viewer (the “storyteller”) and the image (“the story”) are one. The viewer engages in an imaginatively resourceful, autonomous, and aesthetic response.

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.

Examples of Stage 2 comments

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.

Observations have a concrete, known reference point.

  • “And they have five fingers, just like us.” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)

If the tree is orange instead of brown, or if the subject seems inappropriate (if, for example, themes of motherhood are transposed into themes about sexuality,) the viewer judges the work to be “weird” or lacking in value.

  • “The hair on the first person is blond and it is true, but there is no such thing as a purple face.” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)

As this viewer strives to map what he sees onto what he knows from his own conventions, values and beliefs, his observations and associations become more linked and detailed. The viewer looks carefully and puzzles. An interest in the artist’s intentions develops.

  • “The person has chosen, instead of using circles for the background he used lots of diamonds.” (Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror)

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.

Examples of Stage 3 comments

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.

Studying the conventions and canons of art history, the viewer wants to know all that can be known about the artist’s life and times. Her interests range from when and where an artist lived to how the work is viewed in the panoply of artists.

  • “I guess how much this resembles primitive art in a sense because the figures are flat and representational, and yet they’re nudes which were sort of an 18th century, 19th century preoccupation and yet [it] foreshadows modern art.” (Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)

The viewer searches the surface of the canvas for clues, using his library of facts, which he is eager to expand. His chain of information becomes increasingly complex and multi-layered.

  • “It seems to me that this is one of a number of Picassos that really is very indicative of, of two of his styles that are blending, this sort of monumental style of female drawing and the later Cubist style which you see entering into it.” (Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)

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.

Examples of Stage 4 comments

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 IV viewers seek an encounter that is interactive and spontaneous.

  • “I don’t think that [drawing the ideal human form] was what he really had in mind as being that important, so maybe he de-emphasized some of the features, abstracted more because he was looking for us to look at other things – she does seem to be having some trouble with her reach, closing that circle, so that adds a little stress to the picture, that’s nice, it gives you so much to think about.” (Matisse, Dance)

Exploring the canvas, the viewer unwraps methods and processes in a new way. She discovers new themes in a familiar composition and distinguishes subtle comparisons and contradictions.

  • “It also reminds me of, I mean, I can imagine like the Suffragettes of the time just thinking this painting was so terrific. I don’t know this, this is just an assumption if mine, but I think they would really like take it in, and like want it to be theirs as well, like the strength, the unity of women, sort of helping and nurturing each other in a way, sort of leading each other on a path.” (Matisse, Dance)

Critical skills are put in service of feelings and intuitions, as the viewer lets the meaning of the work — its symbols — emerge, and with each new ‘A-Ha’ comes a new engagement.

  • “And it’s not perfect, there’s like a humanity in this piece that speaks very clearly because of that irregularity in the line and the size, the proportion of each, which I’m sure means other things as well but really speak to me.” (Matisse, Dance)

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.

Examples of Stage 5 comments

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.

At Stage V, Re-Creative viewers, having established a long history of viewing and reflecting about art, now willingly suspend belief, as described by Coleridge (1983). The work of art is not just paper and paint. The viewer sees the object as semblant, real, and animated with a life of its own.

  • “The more I look at the painting, the more I have this sense of the sexuality as being a kind of pressure that pushes away from the canvas but in some ways is tightly held by the canvas itself.” (Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)

The viewer begins an imaginative contemplation of the work (Baldwin, 1975). Transcending prior knowledge and experience, the viewer gives himself permission to encounter the artwork with a childlike openness. A trained eye, critical stance, and responsive attitude are his lenses as the multifaceted experience of the artwork guides his viewing. A familiar painting is like an old friend, known intimately yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level, but also existing on a more elevated plane.

  • “I think just the freshness of it just keeps coming through continuously even though it’s quite an old painting at this point it still seems very new to me.” (Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)

Drawing on their own history with the work in particular, and with viewing in general, these viewers combine a more personal, playful contemplation with one more broadly encompassing and reflecting universal concerns. As with important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing the Stage V viewer to closely know the biography of the work: its history, its questions, its intricacies, and its ecology. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal.

  • “There are preliminary drawings for this painting which incorporated a sailor and a doctor, I believe, standing to the side and pulling back a curtain and seeing the interior of a whorehouse, and the idea that Picasso eliminated those male figures and just presented the painting directly to the viewer, almost asking the viewer to be in that position seemed to be a very interesting change in the thinking about art.” (Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)