David Perkins, The Intelligent Eye

JTF (just the facts): Subtitled Learning to Think by Looking at Art. Published by the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1994. 95 pages.

Comments/Context: We received this book this Christmas from a friend who runs the education department at a museum we support. The author, David Perkins, has been working at the Harvard Graduate School of Education since the early 1970s, primarily in a group called Project Zero, where he has focused on teaching/learning, especially in the context of arts education and creativity. This slim volume is a quick read, but grounded in some compelling concepts.
The first key underlying idea is that neuroscience (study of the brain) has come along far enough in the past decades to understand some fundamental things about how our brains work. (Another excellent book on this topic is On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, site here.) In a nutshell, our brains are hierarchical systems that use our memories to continuously pattern match and draw analogies. This activity creates a flow of predictions based on this data, trying to make sense of the stimuli that surround us and place it into a context that we can understand and make use of. In 90% of our daily activities, this “experiential intelligence” works extremely well and produces “right” answers and useful “solutions”.
Perkins argues that experiencing art falls into the other 10%, where our innate systems follow routines and well worn paths that don’t serve us particularly well. In these cases, the normal day-to-day approach is too hasty, often narrow, and sometimes fuzzy and sprawling (lacking discipline). Certainly, we have all had times when we blasted through a museum or gallery show, making 50,000 foot conclusions about what we had seen, without having really spent the time to take it all in.
His thesis is that a “reflective intelligence” is required in viewing art (and in other specific areas), almost as a check on the “experiental intelligence”, where an active, thoughtful and systematic approach is taken to ensure a deeper understanding. The second half of the book is a series of example artworks (several of which are photographs) and the stream of consciousness observations people made when consciously using his framework for thinking.
There are four anchor points to his “reflective intelligence” as applied to looking at art. The first is to slow your looking down, to resolve to spend several minutes with key works, and to allow your eyes to work and generate questions, and finally, when the flow stops, to look away, and then return again with a fresh perspective. This is really about giving your brain the time and space it needs to process what is before you. The second is to make your thinking “broad and adventurous”, to break away from the obvious conclusions that your brain has already provided and to look for open-ended solutions outside the normal boundaries. This involves looking for “surprises”, connections, and even technical specifics that can trigger a new pathway of thought. The third concept is to add a layer of more analytical thought on top of the expanded ideas that were generated by the second step. To summarize this idea perhaps simplistically, the concept is to dig in and investigate these ideas that have been surfaced with some rigor, “clearly and deeply”. Perkins’ final idea is that once you have gone through the first three steps, a summing up or orchestration of all the data is needed; organization is necessary to generate final conclusions. In this section, he refers to many well known strategies for looking at art, that include description, formal analysis, interpretation, and finally judgement, that are more oriented toward criticism. In his view, while these “art specific” strategies can be useful in providing frameworks for thinking, his view is that his “reflective” approach can be used for areas beyond the world of art. The final chapters of the book are about just this topic: how to apply and transfer this art-based thinking into other realms of thought.
Collector’s POV: This is a short book, but nevertheless, quite thought provoking in terms of challenging the established ways that most people (including ourselves) fly though art exhibits. I have always thought that people had an inherent “pace” to their viewing of art (slow, fast, or somewhere in the middle), and that it is important to find people with similar pacing to enjoy your art with, or you will be driven crazy (Have you ever gone to a large museum show with someone with meaningfully slower pacing than yourself? It’s maddening.) This book has led me to reevaluate this idea, and to consider slowing myself down a bit more, and to hopefully with a little more observant mindset, find some deeper and more interesting conclusions.

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