Thinking about Art: Philosophy and Art Integration Tour

In the acclaimed dialogue Meno written by Plato, the conversation between Socrates and Meno involves an argument around the act of “teaching” virtue. In response to Meno’s suspicion of the methodological approach to teaching, Socrates asks a boy to solve a mathematical problem without giving the answer directly. Instead, he guides the boy with a series of questions. When the boy answers the questions and solves the problem, Socrates says: “You see, Meno; I am not teaching the boy anything. All I do is question him.”

As a sophomore student in philosophy, I approached virtually everything with an inquisitive mind. While the discussions and readings I encountered in my classes were mesmerizing, I was left with one unanswered question: how can I use this study of philosophy in my life?

In January 2019, I found an opportunity to do just that. Taking Philosophy Public is a recurring Jan Plan course taught by Professor Jill Gordon in the Philosophy Department at Colby. The objective is for each student to develop an independent project that facilitates public engagement in philosophical discussions outside of an academic setting. Throughout the course, my classmates and I read several philosophical essays that focused on the significance of the study and practice of philosophy in the context of a broader community.

James Kim ’21 leading an Art + Philosophy tour

I was particularly intrigued by an essay by Dr. Justin Weinberg from the University of South Carolina, “Selling Ourselves Short: How Public Philosophy Is Dishonest, Misguided, Bad for Academic Philosophy.” While I did not agree with all of Dr. Weinberg’s points, I was struck by his call to place the process of questioning on a pedestal. He writes:

For one thing, formally, if the answers to questions are valuable, then the questions, insofar as they led to the answers, are themselves at least instrumentally valuable in that way. Second, insofar as people value something like philosophical thinking, the creation of these questions is valuable insofar as they help and structure and encourage such thinking.

For my project for the class, I wanted to use Dr. Weinberg’s theory of inquisitive value to spark organic conversations with younger audiences through asking questions. My internship at the Colby College Museum of Art gave me the opportunity for this to become a reality. As an education intern, my projects usually include updating and creating school tours in the Museum for the K–12 field trips for schools and other educational groups from around the state of Maine. I saw my internship experience as an appropriate outlet to create a Philosophy + Art Integration tour.

Since our class reading had no direct reference to the discipline of art, I started out by checking out twelve library books on the intersection of art and philosophy by authors like Julian Young, Noël Carroll, and Arthur Danto. These books allowed me to get a clearer understanding of appreciating art through the philosophies of aesthetics, expression, and nature. After extensive research on combining the discussion of art with philosophy, I walked into Gordon Gallery and picked out five works—Untitled by Anish Kapoor, Composition with Masked Forms by Jackson Pollock, Disappearing Bodies of Water: Arctic Ice by Maya Lin, Colored Vases by Ai Weiwei, and Palindrome #1 by Glenn Ligon—that I thought would make good stopping points on the tour. I envisioned groups engaging in philosophical discussions sparked by a series of questions around each work. However, throughout the editing stage of creating the integration tour, I was reminded by Dr. Weinberg’s essay of the significance of creating questioning. I realized that I wanted the students to organically generate questions throughout the discussions. I reframed the tour as an opportunity for students to create a series of follow-up questions for a discussion throughout the gallery, in response to quotes or leading questions that came along with each of the five artworks. As a result, no two tours would be the same, and each iteration would be shaped by each group of students and their questions.

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2006–08. Neolithic Vases (5000–3000 BCE) and industrial paint, dimensions variable. The Lunder Collection, 2017.004.
Jackson Pollock, Composition with Masked Forms, 1941. Oil on canvas, 27 ¾ x 49 ¾ in. (70 x 126 cm). Gift of the Barsalona Family, Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisition Fund, and gift of Peter and Paula Lunder, The Lunder Collection, 2018.084.

After the tour was finalized, I was grateful to see the Philosophy + Art Integration tour come into being thanks to a collaboration with Suzanne Goulet’s art class at Waterville High School. Her students carried on a series of meaningful, intellectual philosophical discussions throughout the tour, and the questions that they generated went beyond my expectations of the possibility of effective questioning. The experience with Ms. Goulet’s art class was a strong reinforcement for the goal of my project: to use the practice of asking philosophical questions while actively considering the significance of different artworks. When discussing Jackson Pollock’s Composition with Masked Forms, the students asked sophisticated questions about the value of aesthetics and what allowed something to be considered beautiful. The tour created a space for students to formulate their own questions in examining the meaning behind a work of art; it was exactly what I had hoped for.

My experience shows the true value of a liberal arts education. I was able to observe the practicality of a cross-discipline methodology and its effectiveness in generating meaningful discussions, and I got to help students engage in deep thinking about art and philosophy. Taking Philosophy Public allowed me to experience the true difference between receiving a degree in higher education and simply earning a degree.