Visual Arts: Exploring the World Beyond Names

Visual Arts: Exploring the World Beyond Names

Peter Klam, Middle School Head

The ancient world fully appreciated the power that words have. Words allow us to codify the world—to break it down into discrete elements and to differentiate among similar things by naming them. It is not coincidental that one of Adam’s first tasks in the book of Genesis was the naming of animals. Names gave him (and give us) dominion over the world. 

Words and names are the foundation of our logical and analytical approach to the world. Our near mastery of the physical world is due in part to our ability to ever more precisely assign names to the nuanced elements of our world as we gain an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how these discrete elements interact. Much of the work that we do in schools centers around the power of logical knowledge that we impart to children as they learn the names of things, as they learn what those names imply about the nature of things, and as they learn how discrete elements of our world with particular names interact with other particularly named elements. In social studies, place names and the names of people are essential to the work of the classroom. In science, every element, process, and physical phenomenon is named and analyzed. And vocabulary is a foundational piece of the study of language arts and of foreign languages. 

It is interesting how different cultures and backgrounds divide the world differently using their own languages. In Portuguese, the word saudade is the longing feeling that someone experiences when a person they care about has gone away or recently returned. And we all know the German word Schadenfreude, which expresses an emotion so wickedly appealing that we have essentially imported it wholesale into our own language. But deeper even than particular languages and the way they divide things up, there is a gestalt to the world. Beyond and before names, the world existed and was experienced. And in naming things, we have manufactured boundaries that are at times arbitrary and are always limiting. Learning to engage in the world in a way that doesn’t limit itself to the fencing of names gives students a wholly different and equally powerful way of understanding and interpreting the world and their experiences in it. 

Part of the fundamental importance of the visual arts is that art so often explores the world beyond names—before names—and helps us to understand a different, non-logical (or pre-logical) way of experiencing the phenomena around us. It’s not that there are never words in art class. Students learn of the different media and the techniques for manipulating them. And they also discuss the concepts and leitmotifs that we see across the artistic world. But the core of visual art is the non-literate self-expression that it allows. 

When our 6th graders painted self-portraits, the analogous colors they chose and the aspects of their painted faces gave us a glimpse into their evolving sense of self—what are the most important characteristics that they see in themselves? What kind of people do they want to be? Much is expressed and much can be mined from those works, and not all of that expression is well-served by limiting it to words. 

And when our 7th and 8th graders explore the emotional dichotomies of life and death through their Calaveras del Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead skulls) they explore the sadness of separation, the hope for a better life to come, the saudade of death, and the requisite cocktail of fear, love, mourning, and respect that go along with that separation. Even describing them limits what each skull expresses. Their expression is emotional and complex, and allowing them to just be without naming or breaking them down affords them the capacity to embody their full meaning. 

Words have taken us a long way, no doubt. We have developed incredibly complex societies, economies, and industries via the study of our world through words. But other ways of understanding and knowing—principally through the visual arts—give us a deeper appreciation for what this world is and what our place is in it. And giving students the skills and opportunities to explore their world without words through our visual arts program gives them access to the fundamental truth that relying solely on the word-walls of our logical mind negates the potential of our artistic one.