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National Art Education Association

Using Interpretation Theory in Art Education Research

Author(s): Cathy A. Brooks
Source: Studies in Art Education, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1982), pp. 43-47
Published by: National Art Education Association
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Studies in Art Education

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Using interpretation theory in art education research1

Cathy A. Brooks

One of the interpretive approaches currently finding favor in social science research is that of
the contemporary German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. For Gadamer, the interpretation
of a text is existentially grounded in the ontological significance of understanding that is
historical, dialectical, and linguistic. The author's use of hermeneutics in an inquiry illustrates
the essential aspects of Gadamer's theory, and indicates one of many possibilities that it offers
for art education research.

In art education, as in other fields allied to with the event of interpretation of a text, and
the social sciences, there is a growing interest the other is concerned with the more en-
in interpretive approaches to inquiry. This compassing questioning of the nature of
presentation summarizes one of the theories understanding itself (Palmer, 1969, p. 8). In
that is helpful in such inquiry, namely, Hans- its Greek roots the word hermeneutic refers
Georg Gadamer's dialectical hermeneutics, to the messenger-god Hermes, whose
describes some art education research in function was one of mediation, of explaining
which dialectical hermeneutics has been used, so that mortals might come to understand
and offers some suggestions for other inter- (p. 13). For centuries hermeneutics' tradi-
pretive inquiries. tional focus has been based upon the inter-
Gadamer offers a philosophical-critical- pretive task, especially as it pertains to
historical theory of interpretation. This biblical and literary texts. To many con-
excerpt from one of his recent essays provides temporary thinkers in the field hermeneutics
a fitting introduction to the discussion. is the deciphering process by which one
Having an historical sense is to conquer in a understands a work, that which carries the
consistent manner the natural naivete which imprint of human meaning (p. 7). In current
makes us judge the past by the so-called usage, a text is broadly defined as anything
obvious scales of our current life, in the that has a manifest content and a latent or
perspective of our institutions, and from our hidden meaning: literary texts, historical
acquired values and truths. Having an his- events and situations, dreams, cultural
torical sense signifies thinking explicitly about symbols, and memories of past experience
the historical horizon which is coextensive
(p. 43).
with the life we live and have lived . . . This
In this century the focus of hermeneutics
reflexive posture towards traditions is called
interpretation. And if something is able to
has been expanded to include philosophical
characterize the truly universal dimension of inquiry into the nature of understanding
this event it is surely the role that the word itself. This branch of the field stems from the
interpretation has begun to play in the landmark writings of the existential philoso-
modern sciences . . . Interpretation, as we pher Martin Heidegger. The essential theme
understand it today, is applied not only to of Heidegger's philosophical writings is the
texts and verbal tradition, but to everything disclosure of Being, or Dasein. In Being and
bequeathed to us by history; thus, for Time (1962) Heidegger rejects the conception
example, we will speak not only of the inter-
pretation of an historical incident, but also
of knowledge based upon a subject-object
dualism. Instead, Heidegger poses an exis-
the interpretation of behavior, and so forth.
We always intend by this that the meaning of tential conception of knowledge that is
what is given over for our interpretation is not fundamentally historical and ontological. For
revealed without mediation, and that we Heidegger all understanding is temporal,
must look beyond the immediate sense in intentional, and historical (Palmer, 1969, p.
order to discover the "true" hidden meaning 140). Understanding is an event in which one
(Gadamer, 1979, pp. 110-111). participates; it comes about in phenomeno-
logical inquiry into one's own existence in
The Historical Background the everyday world, and is the disclosure of
of the Discipline of Hermeneutics Dasein. Within this existential conception of
Modern hermeneutics is comprised of two understanding, Heidegger shows hermeneutics
distinct and interacting foci: one is concerned to be a fundamental human event that dis-

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closes the nature of being. This discovery of Understanding is an historically funded

the ontological significance of understanding, and operative structure based in universal
conceived as the historical event of interpre- past-present-future temporality. Our under-
tation, paved the way for fully philosophical standing of a text is of the past, in that we
concerns within the field of hermeneutics (p. understand in and through what a tradition
42). has bequeathed to us; it is of the present, in
Following this lead, the German philoso- that our questions to the text are ordered by
pher Hans-Georg Gadamer has developed our situation in the present moment of that
Heidegger's hermeneutical phenomenology tradition; it is of the future in that we project
into a systematic philosophical hermeneutics. ourselves futureward in the very act of
In his book Truth and Method (1975) understanding.
Gadamer takes Heidegger's conception of
understanding further by questioning the Dialectical Understanding
relationship of language to being, under- The historicality of understanding places
standing, history, existence, and reality. both the interpreter and the text in the stream
Gadamer's purpose is not methodological; of history. Reflecting the historicality of be-
rather, his focus is upon understanding the ing, the interpreter brings to the event of
ontological process in man, and in establish- interpretation present understanding, or
ing one's encounter with being through horizon, in and through which he or she
language as the foundation of the human encounters the text. The text is an other with
sciences. "The work of hermeneutics is not its own horizon, standing with the interpreter
to develop a procedure of understanding, but in the stream of history. The process of inter-
to clarify the conditions in which under- action between the horizons of the interpreter
standing takes place" (p. 263). and the text is like a dialogue between per-
sons. It is experience structured in question
Gadamer's Theory and answer.
of Dialectical Hermeneutics The inauguration of dialectical experience
For Gadamer understanding generally, is grounded in the interpreter's encounter of
and hermeneutical experience especially, is negativity; that is, in the realization that
always an historical, dialectical, and linguistic some matter is not as one first thought.
event. The interpretation of a text is grounded Present understanding in some way breaks
in the nature of understanding as ontolog- down: negativity is the knowledge of not
ically significant. knowing. This, says Gadamer, is the ground-
ing of true questioning, which presupposes
Historical Understanding that the answer is unknown and, at the same
As historical beings, our understanding of time, that the questioning is posed within the
a text is possible because of our situation specific boundaries of the interpreter's
within a tradition. In an event of understand- horizon. In the dialectic of question and
ing we bring into play an established way of answer the posture of the interpreter must be
seeing, certain ideological preconceptions, one of questioning responsiveness, an attitude
and a preliminary intention, all bequeathed of openness and expectancy to what the text
to us from the tradition. This is what consti- has to say. The dialectical experience consists
tutes the historical reality of one's being: "in in the interpreter's posing a question to the
fact, history does not belong to us, but we text, and in turn, being questioned by it.
belong to it" (Gadamer, 1975, p. 245). The goal of the dialectic is a fusion of
The present is the given in which the event horizons. In its questioning of the interpreter,
of understanding is rooted. The meaning the text lights up the interpreter's horizon,
that the text has is defined by the questions making self-understanding of that horizon
put to it from the present, questions that are possible. In coming to understand the
ordered by our situation in a particular meaning of the text, the interpreter's horizon
moment in history (p. 238). This temporal is not abandoned; rather, it expands to
structure of understanding is also ordered by include that of the text. Moreover, the
the way being projects itself into the future. interpreter comes to understand not only the
The intentionality of our questions to the meaning of the horizons, but also to recog-
text., and the meaning of the text for us in the nize the fundamental historicality of the
present, are a way of projecting ourselves in horizons, of their belonging to a tradition.
understanding into the future. Thus, the fusion of horizons becomes a

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Using interpretation theory in art education research

moment of ontological disclosure, a dis- makes one open to the past as it operates in
closure of the nature of one's being. the present and to speculation about the
Understanding occurs in the dialectical future (pp. 304-305). In existential terms,
experience of the interpreter's encounter historical consciousness is one's experience
with the text. Through the movement of of the authentic movement of being.
question and answer the interpreter
Hermeneutics and Art Education Research
experiences the disclosure of the meaning of
the text as a relative other, as well as the Probably the best known and best docu-
meaning of his or her own horizon and the mented art education research incorporating
stream of tradition in which the horizons Gadamer's theory is Beittel's (1973) research
mutually exist. into the lived experience of artists making
series of drawings. But the focus upon mak-
Linguistic Understanding ing art is only one area of inquiry for which
The medium in and through which this dialectical hermeneutics can be fruitful.
disclosure can take place is language. We do Wilson (1974) proposed in-cultural evaluation
not first have extralinguistic contact with the of art schooling, that is, assessing what
world and then put this world into the instru- happens in art classrooms from an out-of-
mentation of language; language is not a tool school, culturally-situated point of view.
that we bring into use. Rather than our pos- Traditional educational assessment remains
session of language, it is our possession by within the institutional structure, often leav-
language which is the condition of our exper- ing underlying assumptions unquestioned.
ience and thus of understanding (Linge, This myopia contributes to a lack of perspec-
1976, p. xxix). As we belong to tradition, so tive regarding the relationships between art
we belong to language. schooling and the broader context of cultural
The belonging of interpreter and text to art education. Wilson suggests strategies for
language is significant to hermeneutical indicating aspects of these relationships,
experience, for it makes the fusion of including articulation of aesthetic systems
horizons possible. The interpreter enters into other than those of high art, the study of
a dialogue with the text, bringing a heritage individuals' lifestyles for indications of the
of assumptions hidden in the language long-term consequences of art schooling,
through which the text is questioned. The and the search for unexpected outcomes of
text also carries a heritage hidden in the art schooling.
language that constitutes it. In its life in As an example of the interpretive approach
dialectical experience, language is the I will briefly describe my hermeneutic inquiry
common medium that enables the disclosure into some aspects of art education (Brooks,
of being and the fusion of these two horizons. 1980). In the course of my professional train-
In keeping with its lived nature, language it- ing I had appropriated many of the theo-
self also moves and changes, transformed in retical assumptions that influence the art
the very act of disclosure (Gadamer, 1975). educator's enterprise. Confronted with a
plethora of explanations served up to per-
Knowledge as Historical Consciousness suade us about everything from the nature of
Knowledge as it comes about through the art and aesthetic experience to the nature of
dialectical experience is the threefold under- human beings and how they learn, I found
standing of the text's horizon, the interpreter's myself increasingly aware that some of those
horizon, and the tradition in which both explanations did not ring true for my own
stand. Knowledge is the wisdom that comes childhood art experience. Why did those
through experience which discloses the generalizations not account for my own life?
historical, dialectical, and linguistic nature Out of this confrontation with negativity, I
of being. Gadamer calls this knowledge decided to search my childhood art experi-
historical consciousness.2 It is characterized ences for their significance so I could better
as one's experiential openness to the past understand art education's functions and my
and to the future; its essence is in one's purpose in being a teacher and researcher.
critical understanding of belonging to tradi- The text that I interpreted was composed
tion and in one's increased openness to of over 400 collected artifacts of my child-
questioning. It is knowledge seen not as hood art activities, and the memories of
objectified information about an object, but associated experiences that I described
rather as nonobjectifiable consciousness that phenomenologically in a memory journal.

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This text presented the horizon of my child- intentions of the student. In terms of
hood identity and world, that is, myself as a Gadamer's theory, this point in the inquiry
child interested in making things, as a marked the fusion of horizons, where the
daughter, and as a public school student interpreter's horizon is changed by the dis-
living in a 1950s world of visual and verbal closure of the text's horizon. This fusion also
discourse in a middle-class family, an provides a glimpse of the tradition in which
industrial town, and its public schools. As both horizons stand. Beyond the connections
interpreter I brought to the inquiry my of my childhood and adulthood as part of a
horizon of adult identity and world, that is, continuing personal history, the interpre-
myself as trained artist and art educator in tation disclosed the tradition of America's
the 1970s world of visual and verbal discourse schooling, as well as the encompassing social
about fine art and education, at work in a tradition at work in past and present
university community of academics and pro- horizons.
fessionals. What do I do with this understanding? As
The ensuing dialectic between these two Gadamer stressed, the significance of
horizons produced an interpretation of the hermeneutical inquiry is in understanding
text that disclosed a distinction between defined as historical consciousness, that is,
school art and home art based on their understanding as the existential foundation
differing intentions for constituting my for future action. It is understanding that
individual identity. School intentions for my changes the way I think and talk about the
identity were modeled on the convention of meaning of childhood art experiences; it is
an ideal average American: a reflection of critical self-understanding of my particular
the national myth and ethos, homogeneous relationship to the discourse of my profes-
and a good worker. The making of images sion. In the ontological sense, historical
and objects in school was characterized by consciousness means I can take up my par-
abundant depictions of emblems of the ticular place and time in the educational and
national myths, activity structured by social tradition and project it into the future
scheduled time and assignments, and pro- in a way that is authentically my own, not
duction that used a limited range of specified merely perpetuate unexamined, generalized
materials. At home, intentions for identity assumptions.
focused on the conventions needed to There are many possibilities for similar
actualize upward movement in the society's interpretive inquiries, done either retrospec-
class hierarchy, on models of prosperous tively into the inquirer's own life,3 or ethno-
mainstream American culture, and on distin- historically into the life of another person.
guishing oneself from the average. Making Studies might focus upon the span of an
activity was determined by desire and individual's formal art schooling, childhood
interest in something, and in establishing a and adolescent art experiences, or profes-
sense of being different. Play was a practice sional training as artist or art teacher. Even
ground for learning the conventions that more useful might be the study of the artistic
determined my social identity and making life of an individual who is not a professional
things was an integral part of my play. artist or art educator, the hobbyist or amateur
As the text began to disclose these mean- whom we professionals often dismiss without
ings, it prompted me to rethink many of the truly understanding. The substantial theo-
theoretical generalizations of conventional retical and philosophical grounding provided
art education practice, and to critically re- by Gadamer offers promising opportunities
evaluate the role of teacher in relating to the for art educators to expand their critical
dialectical tension between the ideological understanding of themselves and their
intentions of schooling and the individual educative enterprise.

Cathy A. Brooks is a researcher in art education living in Tolono, Illinois.


Beittel, K. R. Alternatives in art education research: Inquiry into the making of art. Dubuque, Iowa:
William C. Brown, 1973.

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Using interpretation theory in art education research 47

Brooks, C. A. The meaning of childhood art experiences: A dialectical hermeneutic (Doctoral dissertation,
The Pennsylvania State University, 1980). Dissertation Abstracts International, 1981, 41, 3843-A (Univer-
sity Microfilms No. 8105702).
Gadamer, H-G. [Truth and method] (2nd ed.) (G. Barden & J. Cumming, Eds. and trans.). New York:
The Seabury Press, 1975.
Gadamer, H-G. The problem of historical consciousness. In P. Rabinow & W. M. Sullivan (Eds.),
Interpretive social science: A reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Heidegger, M. [Being and time] (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, trans.). New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
(Originally published, 1927.)
Linge, D. E. Introduction. In H-G Gadamer, [Philosophical hermeneutics] (D. E. Linge, Ed. and trans.).
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Palmer, R. E. Hermeneutics. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1969.
Proust, M. [Remembrance of things past] (7 vols.) (C. K. S. Moncrieff, trans.). New York: Vintage Books,
1970. (Originally published, 1919-1927.)
Wilson, B. The other side of evaluation in art education. In G. W. Hardiman and T. Zernich (Eds.),
Curricular considerations for visual arts education: Rationale, development, and evaluation. Champaign,
Illinois: Stipes Publishing Co., 1974.

1. This paper was presented at the National Art Education Association Convention in Chicago, April,

2. Effective-historical consciousness is the translation of Wirkungsgeschichtliche Bewusstein, as used in

Truth and Method (1975). Palmer (1969) translated it as historically-operative consciousness. In more
recent English writings (1979), Gadamer uses simply historical consciousness.
3. A model for a retrospective hermeneutic is Marcel Proust's well known novel Remembrance of Things
Past (1919-1927/1970).

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