We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Elliott, The Four Quartets: Little Giddings

A piece of art provides space for exploration. A painting can take us on a journey, allowing us to probe new ideas and return back to our origin with a shifted or different understanding.

umbrella image

A VTS discussion begins with the leader asking, “What’s going on here?”

There are conditions that can help us on the journey, such as permission to make mistakes, or the opportunity to reflect, or the experience of looking from the point of view of others. When we view and talk about art, our eyes and minds work together to combine perceptions, feelings, logic, memory, reason, imagination, information, and common sense. We draw on our experience as well as our creativity. We find language to express ideas to others. In the right setting and with the right support, we can explore new aspects of an art piece, and through it, ourselves.

The way we feel confronting some social issues may be similar to the way we feel confronting an obscure piece of art. The complexity of an issue like education or climate change may leave us frozen, wondering what is going on, just like we feel viewing an inaccessible piece of art. We may find that the more we try to grasp or solve the problem, the more complex it gets and the more helpless we feel.

Creative ways of looking and thinking have been developed to help facilitate the interaction between a viewer and art. With these tools, interactions with art can nurture critical, creative, and innovative ways of thinking. What if we used these tools to develop deeper thinking skills that would help us look at complex social issues?

That is the mission of a new program at Commonweal we named EDGE—The Center for Creative Community. EDGE explores the intersection of dialogue, cognition, creativity, and community. Through work in different communities, EDGE seeks to deepen our exploration of complex issues in our world—issues that Commonweal programs confront daily.

EDGE is inspired by the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method, which is the result of more than 25 years of collaboration between Harvard-trained cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen, veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine, and their colleagues. Art is the essential first VTS discussion topic because it enables participants to use existing visual and cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience, learning to use what they already know to figure out what they don’t. VTS discussions are participant centered, open ended, and rigorous; they are widely used in the service of helping people become more critical thinkers, adept communicators, and effective collaborators.

Experience leading and participating in VTS discussions can change the way individuals and groups view and interact with the world. Trainers have reported a change in the attitudes and behaviors of people who took part in VTS image discussions on a regular basis. That shift in attitude was reported even after one image discussion: there was a sense of group intelligence, of communal thinking, and of deep understanding. A discussion-based reaching and learning tool with such varied and substantive applications holds significant promise and utility for our 21st Century society.

This article was featured in our June 2014 Commonweal Newsletter.