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Art and the Search for Identity

by Tom Hamil - 1970

Mr. Hamil, a graduate student at the University of Washington, here discusses how artists and children seek out forms through which to express their experiences and how symbolization makes such expression possible. Focusing particularly on visual symbols, he opens vistas on the kind of environments which "respect the expression of the learner." As he sees it, respect of this kind springs from regard for the "worthy existence" of every living child.

Each man must scratch his mark. Pub­lic monuments and facilities bear the graffiti of Chose who have had to reveal their names, loves, or sordid fantasies to posterity. And when we look at statues scarred with the mes­sages of love or defiance, we must wonder if the motives of the hero, the cited donors, the signed sculptor, and the young man with the eight-penny nail were not the same. For we extend ourselves, in part, through our marks. An infant's scribbles give him the satisfaction of recorded movement. The painting is the artist's push into the future, his en­during movement.

The mark is a lasting indication of our unique presence. It extends our identity into time.

For man must extend. He must reach out into his environment, not only in the sense of acquisition, the territoriality and domain that Lorenz1 discusses, but also as a fellow who seeks and shares. Domination is an effort of negative identifica­tion; the comparison of oneself to a debased other. Identity is found in the appropriation of the environment into the self and the influence of the self on the environment. Extension is through opening oneself to expe­rience, not by conquest and con­tainment. As Buber teaches us, it is the I-thou relationship which is rich with meaning. The I-it relationship is barren.2

The mode of interaction of self and environment is symbolization. Cassirer has called us the symbol-making animals.3 The internalization of environment through sym­bols is the means to self-structure. The self is composed of the count­less images of moment-by-moment awareness structured into satisfying relationships. Sullivan conjectured that there are three stages of develop­ment in the awareness of environ­ment. The first, the prototaxic stage, is the reception of undifferentiated impressions. Then, symbols are formed which have a "magical" re­lationship to each other. That is, what occurs simultaneously is con­sidered causal. That is the parataxic stage. Finally, a mode of logical in­terpretation of the environment is at­tained at the syntaxic stage.4 The chaos of unstructured symbols would be unbearable. We must ma­ture into the more sophisticated stages in order to maintain our­selves in the constantly shifting sur­roundings. We order the symbols, that is, the appropriated environ­ment, into a symbol-system that pro­vides for the continuity of the self in the integration of new events. The symbol-system also censors or con­trols the images we take from the environment. As has been shown in many studies,5 perception is very se­lective. In the terms of this paper, we can only see that which we can symbolize.

The Externalized Symbol

Another aspect of this process is the externalized symbol. The symbol is used to communicate with the en­vironment. The symbol is given form and externalized. This form is, in part, a testing of our symbol against the environment. It is a pro­cedure of comparison. The exter­nalized symbol also communicates our internal self-structure to the en­vironment. Self-identity is built by the externalization of symbol.

The degree of agreement between externalized symbols determines the extent of communication between people and the reception of the selves presented. Language is one of the most powerful symbol systems in our culture. Language enables the communication of certain aspects of the internalized environment and al­so certain aspects of the self-system. We are aware of the exposure of our­selves in speech and tend to be guarded when speaking with strang­ers or in situations of jeopardy. Cul­tures set up patterns of speech for those instances. Sometimes there is a very rigid pattern of formalities to be used with strangers as in diplo­matic speech. At other times, the pattern may be less formal but it is nonetheless rigorous. "Small talk" is an example of this. We use patterns of non-threatening speech about in­consequential matters in our intro­ductory conversations. It is startling if a stranger disregards this conven­tion and assumes intimacy.

People lacking verbal communica­tion may still share companionship and respect even though many parts of their experiences remain hidden. Communication, the sharing of exis­tence between the self-system and the environment including other self-systems is possible to the extent the externalized symbol-systems overlap. The commonality of symbols does not have to be in verbal language. Expression, gestures, acts, signals, and all forms of visual expression provide instances of communication. Symbols are not limited to verbal images. They include the multitu­dinous modes by which external events are internalized. They include also the fewer modes by which in­ternalized events are communicated. As Dewey said,

Communication is the process of creating participation, of making common what has been isolated and singular; and part of the mir­acle that it achieves is that, being communicated, the conveyance of meaning gives body and definite-ness to the experience of the one who utters as well as to that of those who listen.6

This is art: the invention of sym­bolic form that gives meaning to the environment both for the artist and for the viewer. This does not imply that the work of the artist must be readily understood by the viewer. As with other symbol-systems, the work may be in advance of the audience. The artist seeks new symbols with which to structure the environment. He is not content to take those sym­bols of hackneyed use that are devoid of strong meaning. The audience may be pleased with sentiment, the artist will give them passion.

The Search for Symbols

 Herbert Read has written:

. . . perfection of art must arise from its practice—from the dis­cipline of tools and materials, of form and function ... it is a mis­take to define a world of art and set it apart from life ... it is a mistake to confine the teaching of art to appreciation, for the im­plied attitude is too detached . . . art must be practiced to be ap­preciated, and must be taught in intimate apprenticeship . . . For art cannot be learned by precept, by any verbal instruction. It is, properly speaking, a contagion, and passes like fire from spirit to spirit.7

It is in the practice of art that we gain the symbols of art. The learner behaves as an artist, molding his ex­perience into an expressive form.

Art gives structure to experience. The artist, whether child or master, searches for the forms which express his experiences. The experiences may be in the environment or it may be a reorganization of internal symbols. The invention of symbol makes the expression possible. This is shown by Rhoda Kellogg8 when she dis­cusses the development of the sym­bol from early scribbles that mark the motion of the child through stages to formal shapes. It is interesting to notice that the child does not de­velop the idea, "man," and then search for the symbol to communi­cate that idea, but rather the man-dala figure is evolved, then used to express the idea. The sequence points out the necessity of allowing the child to develop his own symbols. It is evolutionary. The child extends himself as he gains each new level. To teach the child a pictorial sym­bol without the antecedent symbols would be confusing. The symbol might have some meaning for the adult introducing it but for the child it would be strange marks that the adult inexplicably called "man."

Arnheim also discusses the child's use of drawing9 and conjectures thatit is not the roundness of an object that the child express in his early shapes but rather the existence. The shape separates the thing from the ground and becomes the symbol for all separated objects. The same shape will be called "mamma," "pap-pa," "baby," "dog," or anything, for it is the thing that may be symbolized in this new manner, not the specific.

Each form adds to the repertoire of the child as he develops visual sym­bols to be used to explore the en­vironment. The forms function as surrogate experience as well as ob­jects in the environment. Thus, the child can enact the unfolding drama of his drawing as he works on it. Sometimes the picture becomes so overladen with action that the orig­inal picture is hidden.

The personal quality of the draw­ing should not be denied to the child. Overzealous or misinformed adults sometimes set models for the child that are beyond his level of develop­ment. The child then mimics the adult drawing or gives up the use of visual expression. Too often we see these escapes used. The child pre­cocious in art is often one who has been thwarted in his own develop­ment and to gain the approval of adults has adopted facility in place of authenticity. For the authentic work of child or master artist is the expression of his own internalized environment in terms of his own symbol-system.

Visual expression is natural to man. There seem to be no cultures that do not have some form of visual art. The form may be used for magical purposes or decoration but there is some attempt to articulate a surface, to give a surface meaning. The cul­tures whose art is decorative have probably discerned the power of the visual image and restricted its use to controlled and stylized forms. The restrictions to geometric and letter symbols in Islamic art are examples of this. Even within cultural limita­tions, the individual artist will make his unique contribution. In our cul­ture, however, we propose to devel­op the individual, not restrict him. The use of this natural mode of ex­pression, visual art, is an important adjunct to this development.

Vision is one of the major sources of contact with the environment. As all sensory avenues, vision is subject to mediation by cognition and emo­tion.10 We do not all see the same but rather we "see" our own mental constructs or reality. These con­structs vary from person to person but there is a general agreement within a culture. An example of these differences is the vision of the hunter. Signs of minute changes in the surroundings have meaning to him. In many instances we exclude from our vision aspects of a scene which are unimportant, distasteful, or wor­risome. These are instances of choice, made at a more or less cognitive level of awareness. There are other aspects of the scene which we do not see because for us they do not exist. We have no symbol with which to internalize them.

The limitation of vision is danger­ous. We need actual, sensitive con­tact with our environment instead of accepting the mottos, signals, stereotypes, and conventions and dis­torting reality to fit them. Ignorance curtails our existence.

The construction of visual symbols enables us to extend ourselves. It gives us a means to learn. These symbols may be used at any level of skill. Skill gives the user more com­fortable and efficient use of a sys­tem. It is perfected in use, not by superimposition of technique.

In language, in religion, in art, in science, man can do no more than to build up his own universe—a symbolic universe that enables him to understand and interpret, to ar­ticulate and organize, to synthe­size and universalize his human ex­perience.11

Skill is the degree of competence in building a particular universe. But the lack of skill or an undeveloped skill does not deny the use of that art. There are few of us with the speaking skill of Charles Laughton or President Kennedy but that does not prevent our talking.

Schools are responsible for en­couraging the expansion of individ­uals through all modes of symbol formation and expression by making available the tools, time, and guid­ance for pursuing the various modes. The schools have a dual task of pre­senting the culture and allowing the child to choose those aspects of the culture he would appropriate. This choice implies the responsibility of the child. The child gains his uni­verse through impression and expres­sion. Who would dare choose this for another person?

The choice must be guided, how­ever. The child must be led to the arena in which the choice is made. He must be shown the alternatives. Techniques that expand the learner's scope in art may be taught. These are best taught by example, not pre­cept. The teacher-artist and the stu­dent-artist must work side by side, each searching for the symbols with which to express his unique being and the symbols with which to im­press aesthetic form on the chaotic environment.

The imposition of symbols on the learner denies his identity. It puts him in the degraded position of homo mechanicus,12 responding to a world that is not his own.

As an heir, even though he were heir to the treasure of all the world, nevertheless does not pos­sess his property before he comes of age, so even the richest per­sonality is nothing before he has chosen himself, and on the other hand even what one might call the poorest personality is every­thing when he has chosen himself, for the great thing is not to be this or that but to be oneself.13

The use of mimeographed color­ing sheets is a horrendous example of the abuse of the individual. Not only is the child denied his own expres­sion and the chance to explore his own symbols but he is presented with the poorest examples of his cul­ture's visual art. This abuse is es­pecially insidious as the examples are presented by significant adults with their apparent approval. The work ceases to be a way to draw and be­comes the way to draw. Whether the sheets are presented in Art or Read­ing or Social Studies or Arithmetic does not change their influence on the child's visual expression.

Goodman has postulated that "Fundamentally, there is no right education except growing up in a worthwhile world."14 This seems es­pecially true to art education. The learner develops his unique expres­sion in an environment that respects visual expression. In our eclectic so­ciety, the environment should pre­sent the vast heritage of visual art forms, showing them as cherished symbols of man's experience.

To formulate the significance of an experience a man must take into account the experience of others. He must try to find a standpoint which includes the experiences of others as well as his own. Other­wise his communication cannot be understood . . . Aesthetic formu­lation reveals and enhances the meaning of experiences one al­ready has . . .15

The environment that respects the expression of others must also respect the expression of the learner. This respect is not to be confused with tolerance that allows the expres­sion knowing it to be immature, un­formed, and subject to the approxi­mation of some standard. It is re­spect for the child as an individual whose symbols are the externalization of his worthy existence.


1.Konrad Lorenz. On Aggression. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.

2. Martin Buber.  I and Thou.  New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

3. Ernst Cassirer. Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945.

4.Henry Stack Sullivan. The Inter­personal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1953.

5. Jerome Bruner, "The Cognitive Consequences of Early Sensory De­privation," in J. L. Frost and G. R. Hawkes, Eds., The Disadvantaged Child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

6. John Dewey. An as Experience. New York: Capricorn Books, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1958.

7. Herbert Read. The Redemption of the Robot. New York: Trident Press, 1966.

8. Rhoda Kellogg. What Children Scribble and Why. Palo Alto: Na­tional Press, 1955.

9. Rudolf Arnheim. Art and Visual Perception. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

10. Jerome    Bruner    and    I.    Postman, "Emotional   Selectivity   in   Perception and Reaction," Journal of Per­sonality 15, 1947, pp. 300-308. 

11. Cassirer. op. cit.

12. S. Luchin. "Implications of Gestalt Psychology for AV Learning," AV Communication Review, 9, April 1961, pp. 7-31.

13. Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in Ar­thur Jersild, In Search of Self. New York:  Teachers College, Columbia University, 1952.

14. Paul Goodman. Compulsory Mis-education. New York: Horizon 1964.

15. John Dewey. Democracy and Edu­cation. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 71 Number 3, 1970, p. 463-468
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1726, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:25:25 PM

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