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The Role of Art in Society:

A Relationship Between Communication, Thought, and the Ideal.

Colby Stephens.

Colby Stephens

A Thesis Proposed.
The purpose of art is to give form to that which is in a state of flux.1 It follows, then, that
art itself is ones way of engaging with, and making sense of, the world. Art may be an object,
process, or something else entirely. The thing of art is not critical to arts definition. Paul Klee,
in 1923, proposed the following question which serves as an excellent point of departure for
considering the purpose and function of art:
In the [art] works that (we hope) are successful, is it really poise and calm that we are
expressing or communicating? Isnt it rather the agitation within us? Is the balance of a
composition anything other than the pot in which the agitation is boiling?2
The questions speak to arts function as a means of thought, a means of communication, and a
means of giving form to those ideas that are in a state of flux. To this end, the mental function of
art is rooted in an overall vision of life and not solely based on observation that leads to
representation and reproduction.3
Because (good) art has a mental function, it cannot be something upon which viewers
merely cast their gaze. It becomes the the disembodied voice of the artist, and functions via a
visual language which can convey facts and ideas in a wider and deeper range than almost any
other means of communication.4 Because artists can communicate in such a significant manner,
they have a task which ought to be highly regarded, but more importantly it is one which ought
to be thoughtfully and excellently executed. Surely it is because of artists ability to communicate
on such a critical level that they are often at the forefront of nearly all conceptual, political and
social revolutions. Tolstoy says that all great revolutions in mens lives are made in thought.
When a change takes place in a mans thought, action follows the direction of thought as a ship
follows the direction given by its rudder.5

Colby Stephens

The thesis thus follows that artists function, and art exists, at the interstice of
thought and communication. This interstice is a locus unique to artists because both
components exist and intersect here simultaneously, and they function perpetually in the present.
The position of the artist can be immediate and nonlinear. This differs from other forms of
communication which require thinking to precede communication, which itself precedes
understanding on the part of the receiver: A linear process.
How the Thesis Functions.
Rudolph Arnheim proposes that vision is the primary medium of thought.6 He argues
that the other senses have a limited capacity in thought, and that they most frequently refer back
to a visual referent. For example, sounds of language frequently refer to visual things: Every
sentence has a noun. Additionally, listeners look for the object that makes a given sound so as to
be informed about the sound based on its visual source. Consider the sense of touch: Touch is
used to extend ones sense of vision. If a surface appears smooth, prickly, etc., then touch
informs that preexisting visual information incrementally: To what degree is the surface smooth
or rough or prickly? Conversely, were one to be experiencing the sense of touch prior to a visual
encounter with the object of the touch, he would imagine the appearance of the surface based on
his contact with it. Further, one cannot think in taste, but rather about it, and the same is true for
scent. Therefore, vision is commonly the primary medium of thought because, while informed by
other senses, it is the most articulate medium, it can receive information from the largest variety
of stimuli, and it is the most frequently used sense by which one engages the world.
The circumstance never exists for a functional individual that he would have an entirely
pure percept because he brings to every circumstance the memory of a previous experience
according to which the percept is immediately interpreted and converted into a concept.7 While

Colby Stephens

vision is the most prominent medium of thought, it needs to be honed like any skill. For a good
palate is not tried by strong flavours, but by a mixture of small ingredients.8 One can only hone
the sense of vision through the act and course of seeing, perceiving, conceiving and then living
according to that conception until an alternate experience forces a change in that conception. It
follows, then, that every perception becomes an act of discrimination based on previous related
experiences.9 The impressions formed by previous experiences are the basis for ones application
of context to any given percept because visual sensations are interwoven with memory
overlays and each visual configuration contains a meaningful text, evokes associations of
things, events; creates emotional and conscious responses.10 Therefore, memory,
discrimination, impressions, and previously-formed conceptions develop the sensitivity of ones
visual palate.
The visual palate short-circuits ones understanding of incoming percepts, and this may
have undesirable consequences. Arnheim says that to see means to see in relation.11 But the
relationships encountered in percepts are not as simple as they often seem, which can lead one to
develop misconceptions. Fortunately, artists function at the interstice of thought and
communication, and they have recourse to insulate viewers from such a circuitous fault:
Ambiguity. Consider the following:
The woodcut prints for the authors exhibition Normalcy, Not Nostrums use a very
specific visual language. Their compositions are appropriated from early 20th century Russian
and Soviet propaganda. The shows intended audience is American viewers, and thus viewers
who would be immediately suspicious of the content of the prints. The suspicion develops out of
the American visual palate which inherently distrusts the way Russian and Soviet aesthetics
(visual language) were used to manipulate an entire population into supporting an oppressive and

Colby Stephens

cruel communist
government. For proof of this
sentiment in the American
visual palate, one need not
look any further than the
controversy surrounding the
use of such a visual language
to promote both of President
Obamas campaigns. Evidence for this controversy is available in the myriad conservative attack
responses that connect Obamas aesthetics with socialist dictators. The suspicion and
controversy, however, invites a thoughtful viewer to engage with the work by making the Soviet
aesthetics Americanized in both the Normalcy prints and in President Obamas campaigns.
This opportunity for engagement exists specifically because of the ambiguity that develops at the
intersection of the disparate nature of America and Soviet aesthetics. Umberto Eco explains that,
modern psychology and phenomenology use the term perceptive ambiguities, which
indicates the availability of new cognitive positions that fall short of conventional
epistemological stances and that allow the observer to conceive the world in a fresh
dynamics of potentiality before the fixative process of habit and familiarity comes into
play.12 (italics for emphasis)
Consequently, using the Soviet aesthetics appeals to expected discriminations in such a way
that, when paired with a twist in the expected content of such a visual language, it causes the
viewer to suspend his traditional response to such imagery. This suspended state results from
what Eco describes as perceptive ambiguities. In this suspended state, the work becomes open
for intellectual engagement on behalf of the viewer. When this type of intellectual engagement
happens, it supplements a traditional view of art as little more than a beautiful thing with a

Colby Stephens

psychological educational approach that recognizes art as visual form, and visual form as the
principal medium of productive thinking.13 The conclusion to be made here is that artists
function, and art exists, at the interstice of thought and communication specifically because of
the science of perception.
Visual metaphor is another method of altering perception. Metaphor is an excellent
communicator because it translates those concepts that are in a state of flux into a solid
relationship with some referent with which the viewer is familiar. Metaphor functions as a
conceptual common ground. Promoting the concept of metaphor, Arnheim states that nothing
we can learn about an individual thing is of use unless we can find generality in the particular.14
For the Normalcy exhibition previously mentioned,
a sculpture titled A Gown For Lady Liberty served as a
visual metaphor. The material of the gown was the
Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and throughout the entire
document every letter A or a was converted to a
scarlet red color. The gown was the centerpiece of the
exhibition, and attracted viewers first because of its
aesthetically pleasing feminine form, which engages the
viewer to look more closely. It is a metaphor for the
adulteration of a nations liberty by the Congressional
decision to give control of the American economy to a private central bank that is run by bankers
not elected by American citizens. The intrigue of the work is at once its communicative,
subversive, and thoughtful quality. The virtuous task of beauty is to enfranchise the audience
and acknowledge its power -- to designate a territory of shared values between the [work] and its

Colby Stephens

beholder and then [. . .] to advance an argument by valorizing the [arts] problematic content.15
Because metaphor and beauty have the capacity to enfranchise viewers, art is capable of a
perpetual immediacy that allows it to exist at the interstice of thought and communication.
A metaphor from Gyorgi Kepes is a fitting way to conclude a discussion of the function
of aesthetics: A magnetized bar of steel is more than its own mass; its electrical field belongs to
it just as much as do its substance, its shape, and its weight.16
The Critical Nature of the Thesis in Education.
It is difficult to separate a discussion of the function of art from a discussion of learning
because, at its core, art is a form of communication, and communication is the very process of
delivering information for learning. This applies to all forms of learning: both formal and
informal. However, there are some distinctions to be made when one considers the formal K-12
and higher education environments, and the critical role of art within that framework.
As previously discussed, vision is commonly the primary medium of thought. As such, it
is critical to develop ones understanding of vision and visual communication if he is to develop
his ability to effectively think. Paul Klee says that art does not reproduce the visible, but makes
the visible.17 The logical conclusion that follows is that giving form to that which is in a state
of flux, thereby the process of making the visible, ought to be the primary medium of education.
Art, even here in formal education, is found at the interstice of thought and communication. A
secondary thesis is hereby proposed: Art education should not be distinct from other modes
of education. It should, instead, be the medium of education wherein art is the basis for
exploring any given discipline.
If education is about developing in an individual the capacity for critical thinking, then
it is important to take a moment and flesh out the term. The term itself is an empty rhetoric that is

Colby Stephens

common place in educational systems, and it is foolishly accepted that the term is universally
understood in academia. For the present purpose, critical thinking is not demonstrated by one
arriving at an objective via a natural and direct route, but rather when presented with
circumstances that block the obvious course, one develops a course of action unique to the
circumstance which allow the individual to meet the requirements of the situation and thus
satisfy his objective.18 Gyorgi Kepes declares that the development of ones ability to think
abstractly is paramount:
Man is a dynamic being struggling individually and socially for survival. To survive he
must orient himself to his surroundings. He must measure and order the visual impacts of
his reinforcement to correspond with nature. He must communicate his findings to his
fellow men for the mutual reinforcement of their actions. He asserts himself in the
material world by means of his sensory equipment as well as his thinking process.19
One concludes from these things that the purpose of education is for the students to develop an
aptitude for critical thinking which results in the selection of a feasible world, for there can be
no other sustainable and benevolent reason for performing any of the other disciplines in
education without such a selection. 20 Further, critical thinking develops ideational behavior
which is ones behavior that relates to the ideals formed about the world beyond the
phenomenons present to the senses in his physical world. 21 There is an indisputable relationship
between the formation of ideational behavior and the selection of a feasible world.
For example, ones ideational behavior does not allow him to steal food from another
individual when he is hungry. Instead, the development of such behavior defines his work ethic
with which he finds employment so he can afford to purchase the food he requires. The selection
of a feasible world is clearly related to this because it allows society to function without
devolving into chaos. This is, of course, a basic elementary ideational behavior that is taught to
young children. The relationship between the maturation of an individual (and thereby his

Colby Stephens

ideational development) and the maturation of his ability to think critically is undeniable.
Therefore, critical thought must be fostered by educators. Because art functions to give form to
abstract ideas in flux, it is the most excellent means for developing critical thought processes and
accordingly it is a most effective way for developing the maturity of a student. Art contributes,
therefore, indispensably to the development of a reasoning and imaginative human being.22 It
is important to note that what makes this so effective is that teaching in this way does not (to
extrapolate and abstract Paul Klees vision of art that was referenced earlier) mold students into
representations and reproductions of their instructors. Instead, it develops in the student a
capacity to become the best version of themselves that they can be.
Reasoning and imaginative skills are intimately paired with selecting a feasible world
because they produce ideational behavior. The pursuit of ideational behavior is inherently the
pursuit of an ideal. On the topic of the ideal, Herbert Read states:
We must assert with Plato that the ideal is the true. The ideal may be manifested only
imperfectly and intermittently, but nevertheless the only rational activity in which we can
engage, and which can justify existence is to strive daily to make the ideal an actuality.23
Reason suggests that if the ideal is the true, then it must be selected. If reason is then tempered
with perspective rooted in reality (a knowledge that no ideal is universally accepted, nor
attainable), then imaginative human beings must utilize critical thinking as a means to solving
the finite problems that present themselves as the roadblocks to the ideal.
Here, the argument begins to have circular, or perhaps spherical, reasoning. At the center
of the circle (or sphere, depending on how many tangential relationships the reader begins to
find), is that interstice of thought and communication where the ideal can be made manifest and
from which radiate all of the other topics discussed here.

Colby Stephens

A Conclusion.
A reasonable conclusion to all of the contentions proposed here is that art as a way of
thinking needs prominence in the lives of individuals as well as in the larger context of society.
Individuals, on their own finite scale, need art as a means to developing critical thinking and
thereby develop themselves and their own ideational behavior. Society, on its grand scale, needs
art as a means to developing and communicating ideas which move toward its pursuit of the
ideal, albeit unattainable and inconsistent. It is specifically because artists function, and art
exists, at the interstice of thought and communication that art is so vital to the development and
sustenance of mankind.


Colby Stephens

End Notes.

Gyorgy Kepes, Language of Vision. (Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co., 1959), 58.

Jean-Louis Ferrier, Paul Klee. (Italy: Terrail, 1999), 65.

Ibid., 34.

Kepes, 13.

Herbert Read, Education Through Art. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 296.

Rudolf Arnheim. Visual Thinking. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 18.

Kepes, 15.

David Hume. The Standard of Taste, from English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics.
Ed. Charles Eliot. (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1910), Paragraph 17.

Read, 37.


Kepes, 200.


Arnheim, 54.


Umberto Eco. The Poetics of the Open Work, from Participation, Ed. Claire Bishop. (Cambridge: MIT
Press, 2006), 33.


Arnheim, 296.


Ibid., 1.


Dave Hickey. The Invisible Dragon. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 9.


Kepes, 29.


Ferrier, 110.


Arnheim, 25.


Kepes, 66.


Read, 290.


Ibid., 56-57.


Arnheim, 3.


Read, 297.


Colby Stephens

Arnheim, Rudolph. Visual Thinking. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
Eco, Umberto. The Poetics of the Open Work, from Participation, Ed. Claire Bishop.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
Ferrier, Jean-Louis. Paul Klee. Italy: Terrail, 1999.
Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Hume, David. The Standard of Taste, from English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard
Classics. Ed. Charles Eliot. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1910.
Kepes, Gyorgi. Language of Vision. Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co., 1959.
Read, Herbert. Education Through Art. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.


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