The Visual Arts, The Liberal Arts, and Information Technology

Claudia J. Esslinger
Professor of Art
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

The Need for Interdependence

Increases in the use of Information Technology in the Liberal Arts College calls for a greater interdependence of the divisions of the college, specifically a further integration of the modes of inquiry taught in the Visual Arts. Training in studio art includes practice in visual perception and research, creative problem solving, personal expressions and physical manipulations of design elements and tools, all done in a community of learning. These are all methods that are increasingly useful for other disciplines because they enhance student ability to use electronic media which in turn is a perfect enhancement for an interdisciplinary model for teaching. The interdisciplinary approaches that are increasing on the college level would occur with or without information technology, but the capabilities of the information age allow a greater flowering of the product of these alliances.

Historically the visual arts were one of the last areas to be accepted as a course of study at Kenyon. They were deemed too practical, too vocational. Apparently the thinking was that painting and drawing were an interesting aside to a life of rigorous intellectual development, but the methods of inquiry in the visual arts were not essential to a liberal education. The reason for inclusion in the curriculum rests on the profound difference in the nature of visual inquiry. The visually educated individual is able to perceive more clearly their surroundings, develop creative approaches to problem solving, and express themselves visually. These are tools all students should have the opportunity to develop.

This argument is strengthened by research since that time in different modes of learning (kinesthetic/tactile, visual and auditory) and multiple intelligences (linguistic, logical/mathematical, spacial, musical, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intra personal) (Gardner). The variety in human aptitude is also part of the argument for including technologies in our curriculum. (Twigg) It is also part of the educational philosophies advanced by Dewey and others that bring student centered learning into focus. (Brint) In the era of the information superhighway, multimedia processing and video production, the need for visual/kinesthetic modes of learning is clear. The practice of studio art addresses the needs of students previously unreached. Visual arts training makes minds more flexible and capable for other disciplines, and the skills to manipulate imagery are necessary for the full realization of the technological product.

Conversely, the visual arts need the interpretive discourse and research skills used in other disciplines to complete projects which are increasingly social and political in nature. In the field of Video Art, for example, many works approach social and political subjects through personal experience. Although the purpose and goals of this inquiry are different from sociology, some research skills remain the same. Artists choose whether or not to apply an interpretive -artistic filter, and may color the meanings of the research to serve their own goals. Ideas about objectivity, subjectivity, authorship and appropriation are all essential elements of the artists palette and are informed by the critical discourse of other disciplines.

Modes of Inquiry in the Visual Arts and Their Relationship to Interdisciplinary Information Technologies

One of the first attributes developed in studio classes is that of learning to see. Visual Perception involves seeing in a way that takes in details that are often overlooked; looking for similarities or differences in visual forms, looking for shapes between forms, seeing the whole image as interrelated. It allows one to be both specific and abstract, to fragment or synthesize or transform. It works in conjunction with the unconscious to encourage the imagination and awaken deep concentration. Drawing is a fundamental way to increase visual perceptiveness. “Drawing turns the creative mind to expose its workings. Drawing discloses the heart of visual thought, coalesces spirit and perception, conjures imagination; drawing is an act of meditation.” (Hill)

Perception skills increase ones ability to gather the most from research and access which visual information might be compelling for presentation. They help break down stereotypes and interpret unspoken information. People who are visually perceptive often have an ability to remember unusual details which might be pertinent to a subject. A visual style of research is similar to keeping a sketchbook, though it can be done with a video camera or even descriptive words. The compilation of images on tape or film can later be sorted and edited. It is a loose gathering of fragments in a style like weaving or quilting in that it is non-linear and web-like. It will be even more so as students use digital cameras.

The history of technology indicates causative changes in our collective perceptions. The creation of the linear perspective system in the Renaissance placed the viewer at the center of every painting’s universe. The invention of photography flattened space, presented us with visuals hailed as truth. Film gave us multiple viewpoints and fragmented time. Printing technology brought us reproductions of beautiful landscapes available as postcards, offering idyllic points of view and skewed, dotted colors. Television technology broke color into luminous lines. The image was flattened, idealized and somewhat fuzzy. Computers offer us the opportunity to interact and choose (within available choices) our next visual image. As these technologies have changed, the nature of our perceptions have changed with them. It is hard to really see that Caribbean beach scene in real life without conjuring the postcard image and conflating the two. Thus we must be trained to see. Learning first hand visual acuity from drawing will give us a standard by which to critique the media.

Hands on learning is the way in which artists process visual information. The kinesthetic/tactile approach is combined with visual perceptiveness to develop personal expressions. This involves the use of a variety of tools as intermediaries while manipulating the visual elements. Therefore the use of tools is common for the visual artist and in that way, using new technologies is just a variation on a theme. Often a new tool will influence the content of the work because of the new capabilities and problems it presents. Artists are used to trying new tools, gaining some mastery, but allowing the tool to have a voice in the process. They are used to allowing the integrity of the process to influence the content. The tools we are most familiar with, those we no longer need to think about how to use such as the pencil and paintbrush, the word processor and copier, are tools we would consider direct in their interpretation of what we intended of them. Tools that have more variables, partly because of complexity and partly because of our lack of familiarity become indirect in that we most often act upon the tool in one way and have it come out a different way in the product. I am comfortable with that process as a printmaker/ videographer. There are so many variables and steps in each of these processes that I count on the things that occur in the in-between land of intention and result. I can always make a choice to edit it out later, but often the voice of the machine in dialog with my own is more magical than my presuppositions.

A danger in this dialog may lurk in the programming options for some CAD systems. The similarity in options can lead to work that is visually redundant. Thus the visual art training which encourages one to take risks and push the limits of the process are even more important to extend to all of the liberal arts.

A problem for artists specifically related to use of computers is the nature of computer programs. Originated by linear, logical and sequential thinkers, the environment and methods can be alien to many users, including artists who need to see in order to manipulate rather than remember linguistic/numerical commands. Kinesthetic/ tactile learning styles should be taken into account in computer design in order to increase user friendliness. Ergonomics for people who learn with their bodily movement should be employed. Touch pads and screens, a variety of mouse styles, virtual gloves and sketchbook style pads that read handwriting are steps toward fulfilling this need.

Technological innovations have brought unimagined options to all disciplines. The electronic tools of today simulate brain functions in much the same way as the tools of the industrial revolution simulated muscle functions. There were worries then about the machine eclipsing our humanity, parallel to current concerns. The constant in all of this change is the need for us to be able to use the new tool and still maintain our humanity. The probability is that we will make a fair amount of art work about precisely the interaction of the two. Historically this happens while machines are not yet matured in society.

Hands on development of design skills taught in the visual arts are needed for the quality of product expected in multimedia productions, visually compelling Web pages, and unified video presentations. This includes a knowledge of the elements of visual language (line, shape, color, texture, value) and the principles used to organize them (unity, focal points, balance, scale, rhythm, illusion of space and motion, etc.) The visual and manual skills developed in learning these principles will enhance a student’s understanding of how to manipulate them on the computer. This is perhaps the most obvious need from the point of view of the other disciplines, but is modified and accomplished partly through the development of perception, problem solving and personal expression. Artists learn to break the rules as soon as they learn what they are.

Problem Solving in the visual arts is often non-linear and intuitive. Rather than reading the manual and following steps A-Z , the visual thinker often brainstorms many options, thinking simultaneously of possible solutions, and willingly tries them out even if they are not logical. They may rely on the leaps of insight that occur during the physical manipulation of the tool rather than the pre-thinking of a course of action. They may visualize a result and the way to get there without being able to verbalize it. To a visual thinker it is clear that “… you cannot replace intuition, judgement, imagination and creativity with logic, equations, formats and rules” (Munoz, p.48)

Taking risks in an attitude of playfulness is an overarching attitude in problem solving and in the development of the imagination that is too often overlooked in our drive to create a product. Playfulness is the core attitude that allows problem solving to occur, imagination to flourish and intuitive insights to succeed. It allows the association of two or three radically different elements to feed each other creating vibrant new implications. Playfulness is the mode of inquiry that keeps us in the studio late at night, or at least keeps us able to enjoy it. It is the part of visual inquiry that is easiest to lose, given the pressures we face, yet it is the element that we most need to keep our work fresh and exciting. Once basic technologies are conquered, playfulness is easier than ever as we are able to try out several design elements with the click of the mouse. We can change this color, or that texture, we have so much choice, at such speed that it increases our tendencies to try them all.

Personal expression is the process and product of the methods used in visual inquiry. Though artists may strive for a degree of objectivity and universality in some work to suit a purpose, there is no question about the fact that nothing can be objective, and the work must have personal resonance to have integrity. Though the romantic notions of artist as genius are no longer supportable, the honesty of choosing a subject one is personally familiar with allows for a passion to pursue the project to its end. Personal experience also affords insights and a “litmus test” for the arguments advanced by others. It allows dreams to influence the work and sees a full exploration of metaphors as equal in value to the original subject. This aspect is true of other arts including creative writing, music composition, improvisations, etc. Trusting this approach could be a gift of the arts to academia. Questioning it could be the gift of academia to the arts.

The influence of technological innovations on personal expression can be both liberating and constrictive. The liberation comes from the possibilities opened which were unapproachable before. An example of this is the increasing use of enveloping installations with moving images and sound. This provides the appropriate artist with a more saturated way to express their personal vision. This could become more intense with increasing use of virtual reality, holographic, and laser technologies that approximate the artist’s own experience/vision in a more complete way than ever before. The constriction comes from the learning curve needed to utilize these tools, the lack of training immediately accessible, and the cost of that training both in financial and personal terms. The profound dedication it takes to come in on the cutting edge of new technologies can blur an artist’s concept. Often the work must be at least in part about the technology used to create it. Sometimes the early work in a medium is dry or thin, though technically virtuous. One has to ask the question about how this work will fare in the long run. Will it be merely an example of “Early Laser Art”, or will it be significant on conceptual and aesthetic levels as well? Despite all of these detractions, it is the involvement of artists early in technology development that is crucial overcoming them.

Proximity learning is the only way to approach the teaching of visual art making. We may be technically able to present examples of previous work, exhibit technical skills, and present assignments to a group in remote ways, but the learning comes from doing and assessing and doing again in concert with these presentations. In addition, the nature of the presentation changes with the nature of the group, their questions and size, etc. The more complex the tools, the more one-on-one teaching needs to take place. The more abstract or difficult the concept, the more personal discussions need to take place. In fact working with students in the expressive arts can create an unusual intimacy between teacher and student and the class as a whole. Working in a group aids the education and development of the students, as they are willing to share information and ideas. The critical forum for the visual arts class is open “critique”. This is a place where students put their personal investment on the line in a very public way. The nature of the student/ teacher and inter-student relationship is important for the success of this style of learning. They must learn how to analyze and communicate verbally in a helpful way what they perceive from the visual product.

The speed of burgeoning new technologies and the fact that students have grown up with and are more familiar with some technologies than we are makes this clear: teachers are forever students and together we are partners in inquiry. This attitude toward learning helps students to be more willing to solve problems on their own, develop their confidence and be able to function without the structure of a class.

Some Specific Uses of Information Technology in Studio Art

The opportunities offered by information technology that the Kenyon Art Department has explored to varying degrees include: video processing, photographic manipulation, simple negative manipulations for photo-mechanical processes in printmaking, research on the WWW, E-mail, and early computer imaging techniques (1980s). The bulk of my time with technology has been spent investigating the options of video for the visual artist. I have used it in simple form with a beginning level class called “Thematic Studio” and in depth with an intermediate level class entitled “Video Art”.

Video Art on the Beginning and Intermediate Level

The projects we have explored help the students develop some of the abilities especially important in the visual arts, as mentioned in the first part of this paper: visual perception and research, creative problem solving, personal expressions, and physical manipulation of design elements and tools through proximity learning. In addition, there are special problems we address in these assignments that are relevant to other disciplines. These include in part elements of time progression, and the integration of audio, narrative sequencing and text. They also include critical analysis of our purpose with television and film and a comfort with themselves as performers. All of these are new elements for visual artists. The type of tools change, but the comfort of using the body in kinesthetic/ tactile learning remains familiar.

In the intermediate level class which focuses on video, students get to explore essentials of video more deeply and in some ways are even more interdisciplinary . All of the above issues are dealt with more throughly and more refinement is expected. More emphasis is placed on context, of understanding the concepts behind television, film and video art. Awareness and criticism of popular culture is addressed throughout the course as the students become informed producers, rather than consumers. They also have more sophisticated processing options on this level available through a computer controlled editing center. Here they can create special visual and aural effects that can layer art projects with more meaning. (Negatives, polarizations, color shifts, distortions, more text options, etc.)

One element of the video revolution is its affordability which places it in the hands of those who are normally voiceless. Students are encouraged to realize this power. Groups that have made use of this opportunity in the context of video art and cable TV options include gay and lesbian groups, those in a variety of racial groups, feminists, etc. In addition the proliferation of consumer grade camcorders has changed forever the nature of courtroom evidence and television entertainment.

Is there something inherently valuable about this mode of visual inquiry that we have been missing without it? First of all, the basic processes are quick, allowing instant image feedback. In addition students have appreciated the direct connections this creates between their visual work and the rest of their lives, both personal and academic. There is palpable excitement in this class partly because of these connections, partly due to the nature of a new technology, and probably initially due to the hype of Hollywood, which students soon realize is very far from what we are after.

One danger in using television technology is that an over use of special effects is tempting and can look shallow. This is due to familiarity by the student with popular culture use of these technologies such as MTV as well as the wealth of options available. Their intuition can be so saturated with the knowledge of these cultural icons that it takes a while to crawl into fresh territory.

There is also the issue of the learning curve, as with all new technologies. How much do you have to learn before you can produce something? How long does it take to work intuitively? How solid is the software? If it is unproven, students and faculty may spend an inordinate amount of time on something that may not work well in the end. A good deal of technical support from training and maintenance of equipment is essential for class and professional research use of these tools. This is difficult in any situation, but in a small liberal arts college, decisions must be made about what to support, how quickly to bring in new technology, and how broadly to disseminate it. Both faculty and administration must be part of this discussion.

Computer Imaging and Printmaking

Another area of information technology we are exploring is that of computer manipulation of still images for the purpose of printmaking, photography, etc. Our work in this area has been minimal, and we have been interested in having the output from these be prints and photographs rather than the image on the computer screen. The advantages for this application for printmaking, to which I can speak more directly, includes the ability to understand color separation by playing with layers of color in Photoshop. One can also create images or type, or video frames, output them onto acetate and use them to create a photo-silkscreen, litho or etching. Printmakers in the larger world are investigating techniques in output such as luminous IRIS prints, wax/ ink prints and color inkjet plotters. It is natural for printmakers to be involved in this type of technology, for the whole history of printmaking as a fine art is that of an alliance with commercial processes. Alois Senefelder, the father of Lithography was involved in finding a cheaper way to print music when he stumbled on the grease and water principles that still sustain the basis of our commercial printing industry.

The resurgence of printmaking in the United States in the 1960’s was related in part to the idea of democratizing art, making it available for those who previously could not afford it. The idea that multiples could be created by painters put less emphasis on the preciousness of the painting. Many painters and sculptors were guests at printing ateliers and made wonderful prints. This was synchronous with the rise of conceptual/ performance and video art as non- object oriented art. It was an anti “High Art ” stand.

However especially in printmaking, that idea was easy to corrupt. Some painters had printing technicians photographically reproduce a favorite painting rather than using the qualities unique to the print process and reveling in their capabilities. The approach of just reproducing a painting is repugnant to printmakers, who are inspired by the peculiarities of the process, who seek the same for computer manipulated imagery. To be true to its nature, the computer aided image should not try to look like something it is not, video should not try to be film, but use the unique properties available to each media as the basis for image making.

The complications about using these technologies in Printmaking include the pixelization of the image output for use in the print. In addition, the size and orientation of the computer screen is difficult to work with and movable monitors are too costly. The color qualities on a luminous screen are very different from that of ink on a white page, and therefore students must learn to make adjustments. Use of some of the computer options can appear “gimmicky” or “slick” since they are created for the commercial press and must be used very carefully. In addition the cost to the individual student for processing images in a way we can’t accommodate here can be quite high. The last but probably most important issue is technical support. Things can and do go wrong all the time. If they can’t be fixed quickly, projects will be delayed and plans for the class can collapse.

Research on the World Wide Web

One option which appears promising, though is full of problems at this point is the World Wide Web. For artists who are in a location where museums are not plentiful, seeing reproductions of artwork, even digitally reproduced, is better than nothing. Most major museums offer sites on the Web, and therefore access to some images in their collection and educational materials. Some of these are reproduced in printed form, and I prefer these when available, but the speed of publication on the Web allows for simultaneous viewing while a show is on exhibit. In addition, there are many on-line galleries, associations and independent artists who have pages on the Web, all with the most current work. It is hard to get reproductions of a wide range of current visual work, and therefore the potential for students of contemporary art is great. Portions of video work can even be accessed this way. There is simply no other source this current, multi-sensory and available.

There are problems with the Web for artistic research of course, related to problems everyone else has. The largest issue for me is the unedited nature of the work. One can spend vast amounts of time looking at junk and only finding a few gems. Of course this isn’t much different from a physical trip to Soho in my experience, and costs far less. Directories of proven sites published in trusted magazines are a partial relief from this problem. The flip side of this is the fact that even I or my students could publish on the Web without too much cost or trouble. We could have a class portfolio, under the Kenyon Home page to help prospective students understand the quality of the work done here.

The learning curve is another omnipresent issue. Until surfing the net is easier than programming one’s VCR, it won’t become a universal tool. User friendly interfaces are helping this, but in all technological areas, this needs to improve to the degree that most consumers are comfortable with.

The issue of copyright and the nature of protection of intellectual property will have to be dealt with more thoroughly. Some museums have small images of entire works that are highly pixilated and only sections in clear detail, to avoid piracy. Some artists won’t take the chance, and others would rather their work be seen than protected. This issue will only increase as laws are made, regulations applied.

Access is another issue. At this point, the difficulties of access keep me from a full use of this tool. When it is on every desk, and everyone is well versed in using it, it will be much easier to assign tasks on the Web. The issue of access can also be critiqued on a larger scale, where access and knowledge are still reserved for those who can afford it. This creates an even further division between rich and poor. Those with access will have an unfair advantage in classes. There are arguments for a less expensive education through the use of the Web for distance learning, for those who cannot afford to attend a residential school. I find this idea lacking because distance learning would preclude developing a culture of learning that includes some of the methods of visual inquiry. (Twigg, Brown)


Throughout the development of technologies, artists have been on the forefront of exploration. Joining with scientists and inventors, they have been willing to brave the learning curve, playing with new tools as a means of discovery and conceptual development. Teachers of art have long been facilitators within communities of learners who are willing to risk their personal expressions with each other in critical discourse. This student centered, hands-on learning style is now being embraced by other disciplines in the Liberal Arts. This change is in keeping with the new information technologies, and is an asset to learning in as much as it is reliable, approachable and accessible. In this way we are preparing students to be flexible, life long learners, a long standing goal of a Liberal Education.


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