Saturday, January 13, 2007

Juxtaposition I

One of the courses I teach is a sophomore English class with a critical thinking emphasis. There's a complicated history leading into the creation of the course which I'm not going to get into now (there's a somewhat outdated by more or less accurate summary here). But one of the throughlines in the course has to do with providing the students with strategies for testing and expanding the range of their thinking skills—making observations, drawing inferences, asking questions, formulating hypotheses, and so on—in a more or less self-conscious, metacognitive way. There are a couple of basic moves that we identify and practice together. One of them is to periodically ask yourself strategic questions: "Where am I now? Where am I trying to get to? How might I get there?" One of them is to make a conscious effort to shift your point of view. And one of them, which I've been thinking a lot about the last few days, is a variation on the shift-your-point-of-view exercise. For lack of a better term, I'll refer to it here as juxtaposition.

Here, for example is a (somewhat inadequate digital reproduction of a) famous painting by Inness called "The Lackawanna Valley"

Even a very cursory look at the painting will register its major elements: The fields in the foreground, the valley itself, with smokestacks, the mountains (and the haze that separates us from them), the sky, the large on the left, and in the center, steaming out of the valley and up the hill more or in less in our direction, the railroad train. A closer look would might bring to our attention the figure of a man sitting on the ground next to the path that leads from the left foreground toward the center of the picture. It may be difficult to see in a reproduction this size, but the man is wearing a red sweater-vest and a straw hat, and he is looking down into the valley in the direction of the train, perhaps watching it. It also might be noted that he is looking over a pasture (there are barely discernable cows in the distance, just to the right of the big tree) which once was a forest; the stumps of the trees are still visible all over the hillside. There's more to be seen, but even the elements we have enumerated so far raise some fairly obvious questions: who is the man? why is he sitting out in the pasture? what's he thinking? What's the significance of the train? What's the subject matter of the picture? What does it make you think about? And so on.

The thing about this kind of "reading" is that it is pretty predictable. It deals with what has been put in front of us in a fairly straightforward way. If this were a class discussion, at the end of the class most of the students would be in position to write an analysis of the picture which would in all likelihood deal with the themes which this painting: the passing of time, the changing landscape of America, the effects, positive and negative, of industrialization. Such an analysis would be accurate, but not necessarily sufficient. There are a lot of other ways to think about this painting, and my point is that neither you nor I, not the students, would be likely to think outside of this particular box unless this painting were placed in the context of another work of art that would represent an alternative. If we were to look at another painting, to juxtapose one against the other, what we notice about one might lead us back to the other with a different set of eyes. So here goes:

This is a familiar image, and one that it might be difficult see freshly if we hadn't just been looking at the Inness painting. But to begin again with the obvious things: this is a picture of a valley as well. It also has sky at the top, buildings in the middle, and a large tree in the left foreground. But the real locus of attention is the sky itself, which is a sky unlike any literal sky. The stars and the moon are rendered in an inventive and somewhat peculiar way. This isn't how stars look, but it seems to be trying to represent something true about the stars through its presumably intentionial mis-representation. The points of light are surrounded by expanding circles of color, they appear on the canvas larger than they actually would be; it's almost as if they are pulsating. Likewise, the swirling movement in the center of the sky seems to suggest another kind of energy or life, perhaps the presence of wind or the movement of light itself. What comes to the foreground here is, in fact, less the subject matter than the technique. Van Gogh, wielding a palette knife in lieu of a brush, has carved himself a painting that seems to have an entirely different agenda than the Inness painting. The challenge for Inness was to render literally what was before him; the challenge for Van Gogh was to render symbolically that which could not be rendered literally: the life of the night sky.

If we now go back to the Inness painting and look at what we said before, several things call themselves to our attention. First of all, we said nothing of painterly technique in the first case. That was taken for granted, a given (although, interestingly, it might not have been if we had looked at the Van Gogh first). It is clear, in retrospect, that Inness is a master of a certain kind of realistic brushwork that Van Gogh, for lots of reasons—biographical, geographical, historical, and cultural—has chosen in this instance to forgo. Having noted this, we might begin to ask different questions about Inness himself: who did he study with? What made him paint this way? What assumptions did his viewers make about what was to be valued in art?

One might hypothesize that Inness was a painter from an earlier era, and that Van Gogh came later, as a kind of transition piece between the realism of the past and the abstract expressionism of the future. That hypotheis would turn out to be at least partially mistaken: Inness was born in 1825 and lived until 1894; Van Gogh was born in 1853 and died, at 37, in 1890. "The Lackwanna Valley" was painted in 1867, "Starry Night" in 1889, only twenty years apart.

My point is this: having looked at one painting in juxtapostition with the other, we are now engaged in an entirely different set of questions than we were when we began by looking at only one. This may seem like the most elementary kind of common sense, but from a pedagogical point of view I think it is worth paying attention to. Tomorrow I'd like to look at a couple of other examples of the ways in which juxtapositions can broaden and deepen student thinking.

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