This post is part one of a two part blog series, “Wondering about Meaning” written by the Director of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Linda Duke.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between information and meaning. We live in a time that is commonly described as one of information overload. Information has never been more easily available or felt so overwhelming. Many have observed with concern a tendency to feel indifferent, even when the information we receive describes suffering for which we know we should feel empathy and compassion. I’ve started to think that part of the reason for blunted feeling in the face of information overload is that our minds require meaning, not just information, in order for any of us to respond as a whole person – a person with feelings. Information interpreted to create meaning feeds our humanity. Perhaps an analogy might be this: As photosynthesis enables plants to absorb sunlight and create the green chlorophyll that is their defining feature as plants, so the human mind takes information and synthesizes meaning, a defining feature of humans across cultures. An important way humans express, communicate, and discover meaning is through art.
I’ve been involved with art for over 40 years, if I count my time as a student. I’ve thought quite a lot about art: what art is and does. I’ve pondered the fact that I began to dedicate my life to art even before I could articulate why art matters. I was drawn to the art history I studied, sure, but that still didn’t help me understand why art matters. I had a sense that its value wasn’t just about beauty or, at least, not beauty as popular culture defines it. The more I got involved with art, the more I noticed that my thinking changed, thinking about beauty, yes, but also about art and about thinking itself, as a process.
I believe that meaning is both the alpha and the omega of our relationship with dense information, including works of art. With enough mental exercise in the process of noticing details and wondering about their meaning and purpose, people can learn to enjoy various features of art and to savor the ambiguity and richness of big information in other domains. We can come to enjoy the pleasures of ambiguity instead of finding it frustrating; we become habitual critical thinkers.
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of evidence that supports this premise. I remember vividly an incident with a group of high school students with whom I was facilitating a series of Visual Thinking Strategies discussions in the galleries of the museum in which I worked. One teenager had been listening to his fellow students’ interpretations for a long time, staring intently at the somewhat perplexing painting in front of us. He had slumped to a reclining position on the floor and I wondered if he might doze off. “Hey!” he suddenly cried out as he sat bolt upright, stopping the discussion in his excitement. “I just thought of something! Your whole life you could look at stuff and think about it. And you would NEVER have to be bored!”
So here’s where all of this comes together for me: wondering about meaning. Wondering, not knowing, might be our most fertile mode of conscious thought. Wondering about a work of art is an aesthetic experience, and our notion of aesthetic thought might arguably be expanded beyond art, as the thought mode best suited for dealing with complexity, density, and ambiguity more broadly. Advanced thinkers in science sometimes use “beauty” to describe their experiences and insights. Aesthetic thought evidences an almost mathematical calculation that takes unlike bits of observed information and asks, “What might it mean to have this and that at the same time? To have a figure that looks both angry and euphoric? A feature that looks both ancient and futuristic? A microbe that isn’t a bacteria or a virus?” We can count on works of art, along with the frontiers of science and the on-going socio-political challenges of our time, to provide this kind of complexity and ambiguity. I argue that we can use our experiences with works of art to sharpen our thinking strategies for facing and making sense of complexity, ambiguity, and information overload in non-art arenas. This is the reason why quality art experiences in public education are essential for empowering the future leaders and citizens of our society.