In the latter half of the twentieth century, blind children were given little—if any—instruction in art appreciation and criticism. This lamentable gap in their education made it difficult for them not only to appreciate pictures but also to understand artistic conventions. The author relates instances of how he came to grapple with the meaning of artistic movements and how they could be enhanced by realizing their connections with parallel movements in music. A consistent process by which art can be elucidated to blind people should include explaining the basics of what is going on in the picture, putting the work in an artistic context, elaborating on seemingly minute but important details, and discussing any critical controversies about the work's interpretation. Commendable work is being done in helping the blind appreciate art, but more needs to be done.
The personal remarks that follow, which come from one who is neither an art critic nor a disability studies scholar, constitute a brief summary of my attempts, however infrequent and random, better to understand something of artistic expression. Being congenitally blind and not able to interpret art first-hand has thrown up barriers for me and for others with my disability as well. I hope my words shed some light on why these barriers have made accessibility to art difficult for me and for many blind people I know. On a more positive note, I also have written a few words on how I feel a picture should be approached by someone attempting to describe it to someone who has never seen—and probably never will see—an artistic canvass.
I grew up in the fifties and sixties in a world largely without pictures. That as a congenitally blind person I was not able to see pictures in books or paintings in museums was obviously a liability, but an equal liability was that, for the most part, pictures were not even described to me. I was aware of their primacy as both conveyors of information and as sources of entertainment, but during my childhood, rich in educational opportunity and perspective, their strengths were largely a mystery to me. I was a prolific Braille reader, and I had all the benefits of a non-mainstreamed education at a school for the blind in New York City, which meant that plenty of time was afforded for extracurricular activities; but when it came to illustrations, I was not even treated to the briefest of captions describing them. (This feature is implemented in some Braille books today, primarily those intended for children, but the books I read as a child did not even indicate the points at which a picture was present in the print edition.) If the words in a book did not enthrall me, nothing would. The words must have done their trick, for my career choice was to teach English on the university level, specializing in children's literature, where illustrations are obviously of extreme importance, a fact especially evident in picture books with no words to fall back on. I realize in retrospect that the omission of reference to illustrations and descriptions of them constituted severe educational failings. However, like so many pedagogical omissions, the loss they created was felt much later when, as a children's literature professor, I devised ways to understand the pictures in my chosen texts and to discuss them with students who obviously were in a position to grasp more about them than I ever could without sighted assistance.
I grew up in a highly musically knowledgeable family. My father was a professional opera and church singer, and I was taken to concerts at a very early age both by my parents and by my teachers. Unfortunately, I was never offered a parallel track designed to make me aware of the visual arts. My reading and conversations with parents, teachers, and others entrusted with my development included references to the great masters of art, of course, and sometimes, even individual pictures were mentioned; but these references seldom occupied center stage for long, and the conviction I was left with was that artistic technique and interpretation could not be adequately grasped by blind people.
As my education progressed, raised line drawings found their way into commercially-produced Braille books; but they were often unaccompanied by keys or other explanatory material, making me feel little incentive to use them. How woefully prepared I was to understand them was driven home to me one day when I was perhaps a junior or senior in high school. An organization that prepared materials for the blind recruited students in my school to conduct experiments in tactile picture recognition. I was shown raised line drawings of common objects and asked if I could identify them. I recall that they were quite literally reproduced; that is, they were not artistically rendered. To my surprise and distress, the only object I correctly named was a fork lying flat. I quickly realized that any object with a three-dimensional perspective, such as a tree, dog, or building was utterly indiscernible to me. The fork, however, with its tines and simple handle, felt on paper much like it would while resting on a table. Years later, when I had progressed beyond secondary school education, I realized how simplistic and incomplete my knowledge of pictures was. I was not only unable to identify simple objects rendered using raised lines on paper but was also incapable of understanding the nature and degree of artistic nuance that a picture could convey.
Interestingly enough, my initiation into gaining a perspective in painting came because of another art form: music. As a freshman, I took a course in music history, and I recall a central point in the introduction of a once influential book: Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization. Lang asserts that musical periods and their characteristics could only be properly understood by paralleling them with artistic periods. It was then that I began considering musical words such as Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classical, and Impressionism as applying to art and music. Shortly after this realization, I made the acquaintance of a graduate student with a vibrant interest in art and a corresponding fascination with how blind people evaluated the world. We started going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she described pictures to me. Hers was a daunting task: introducing me to artistic terms that I had never grappled with before; talking about the essential points of famous pictures; putting artists and their work in context; and providing interpretations of works of the great masters. Lacking a systematic understanding of art history, virtually everything was new to me, and the irony of only now scratching the surface of a large-scale discipline was not lost on me. How could I, roundly educated as I thought I was, manage this new arena, I wondered. My attempts to understand art were simultaneously exciting and frustrating. The collaboration translated into our desire to offer our services to schools and organizations serving the blind. This might have worked in New York City, with its large population of visually impaired people and the great number of groups dedicated to their education and rehabilitation. However, I was a busy undergraduate bent on securing a Ph.D. in English, and my student friend soon left New York City for a married life in Italy.
Further investigation into my understanding of the artistic experience had to wait until I finished my Ph.D. and returned from my first teaching job, a three-year visiting professorship at a women's college in Japan. When I returned, I discovered that museums had begun to provide audio descriptions for their visually impaired visitors. As time and opportunity allowed, I excitedly tried the audio guides accompanying exhibits at such sites as The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. As fascinating as these were, I felt they were random and unfocused in the ways they presented information about art. Sometimes, an artist's works would be placed in context with those of other practitioners; at others, pictures were represented in isolation. Sometimes, descriptions would be highly opinionated or poetic; at others, they would be concretely literal and dull. This lack of unifying approach compelled me to design my own set of suggestions for explaining art. I offer them not as critical dogma but rather as a layman's attempt to gain a foothold in the understanding of a medium which is still fraught with mystery for me.
First and foremost, the most complete description for me begins with the answer to a simple question: What is happening in the picture? I recall my piano teacher in high school telling me of a concert by a young pianist who left out a huge portion of the last movement of Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," perhaps not the most grievous of sins considering the rather recursive structure of the piece. In noting that the New York Times reviewer did not mention the omission, my teacher admonished, "At the very least, tell what happened." This principle, it seems to me, is inviolable. Second, the describer should put the picture in artistic context, a point which, considering my arguments earlier, hardly needs belaboring. Third, the describer should make an effort to mention minute and elusive details without which the picture's quality would suffer. This point was forcefully driven home to me by articles about photographers in Smithsonian, which pointed out details which I never would have realized could be so poignantly presented in pictures. For me, and for other blind people I have spoken to, sophisticated details in pictures are much more important, numerous, and varied than we imagine. Finally, if interpretations are controversial, or if there is a great divergence among them, the describer should manage to convey the diversity and scope of this controversy.
I am pleased that the work done by the Art Beyond Sight Institute, which first came to my attention when I attended one of their workshops at Buffalo State College, has sounded the call for serious, sustained, and systematic study of how people with visual impairments understand art and how art can be better conveyed to them. I hope that scholarship will be brought to bear not only to make more museums and galleries aware of the needs of a special audience hungry for information about art but also that this scholarship will result in the implementation of carefully designed approaches to descriptions of artistic expression. By way of addressing an embarrassing gap in the education of the blind, this scholarship is vital and timely.
Craig Werner taught English at Buffalo State College, San Diego State University, and Kinjo Gakuin University (Nagoya, Japan). He received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University and specialized in children's literature, chaired Buffalo State College's English Department, served as President of the Children's Literature Association, and received the Buffalo State College President's Award for Excellence in Service.