Justin B. Makemson, PhD, assistant professor of art and the art education program coordinator at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, contributed this essay, part of a study of selective artistic self-identification.

Creative action is defined largely by the artist’s relationship to significant artistic others. Even the youngest of emerging artists are acutely aware of images and objects that surround their own creative explorations. To help address the social negotiations of artistic self-identification and specifically to parse the creative influence of significant artistic others, I developed a comparative visual research method for my dissertation work at Indiana University that combined the analysis of prompted Artstor Digital Library searches with an examination of student portfolios, narrative self-histories, and more traditional portraiture research methods. The purpose of my research was twofold: To better understand the events and circumstances associated with the development of students’ artistic identity and awareness/ownership of that identity; and to draw insight from the examination of a group of seven students that might be expanded to benefit the field of art education.

Why examine artistic self-identification? Society regularly identifies some people as artists and others as “non-artists” but neglects to consider the significance and consequence of selective artistic identification: We apply artistic distinctions with such frequency and automaticity that we have obfuscated any clear definition of what it means to be an artist. For some the definition of artist appears to be an ontological position, whereas for others the definition of artist is tied to vocational or professional measures. While both definitions (and there are likely to be others) demonstrate unique sets of affordances and constraints, we still apply the term indiscriminately. Moreover, we make and act upon decisions grounded in our unmeasured application of an under-defined construct; these decisions have significant and lasting social, educational, and creative implications for both artist and “non-artist” designees. For example, I recognized consequences of selective artistic identification, both self-initiated and initiated by others, in several episodes from the research participants’ narrative self-histories and my own experiences as an artist, educator, and researcher:

  • A third grader meeting his teacher’s compliment of a crayon drawing with “Thank you, ma’am, I’m an artist.”
  • A high school student who thinks of herself as an artist despite not having taken an art class since elementary school expressing dismay at her omission from the AP Portfolio process.
  • A graduate-level painting student finally embracing the artist label after two years of bristling at her mother’s introductions of her “daughter the artist.”
  • Even, a doctoral candidate in the throes of finishing his dissertation self-identifying as artist despite having created no artwork of significance in over three years.

This particular research focus required a critical-comparative method for the evaluation of student-generated visual analogies, for the researcher to be able to deconstruct creative influences and the student to have a heuristic measure by which to gauge artistic self-definition. Despite the seemingly robust theoretical foundation in support of critical-comparative visual research methods, I found little methodological precedent nor record of established research procedures when I began preparation for the visual analysis thread of my own research. Significant review of methodological options concluded that no single research treatment sufficiently addressed the prerequisites of my research, so I designed an eclectic critical-comparative visual research method that appropriated conceptual and procedural elements from various qualitative traditions including visual analysis, narrative analysis, search protocol analysis, self-report, and portraiture.

In terms of the search-based portion of this research, students completed three think-aloud search protocols using the Artstor Digital Library; each think-aloud protocol focused on the search and selection of a prompted representational form, defined herein as an image or object somehow symbolic of a specific creative or interpretive construct:

  • First protocol– I prompted participants to search for the image or object most representative of their current artistic self.
  • Second protocol– I prompted participants to search for the image or object most representative of their projected future artistic self.
  • Third protocol– I prompted participants to search for the image or object most representative of the artwork they appreciate or enjoy viewing; I also framed to this final search protocol as the search for the participant’s “significant artistic other.”

Student search forms ranged from Chauvet+Cave and Gregory+Crewdson to dark+surreal+moody and minimal+ceramics+material, and I recorded their use of keyword searches, advanced searches, faceted searches, and orientations towards browsing or more direct forms of searching. Although the Artstor collection of fine art and visual culture artifacts is extensive (during the period of this research Artstor contained over 1.5 million digitally archived images and objects), some students reported having a specific image or object in mind for a given prompt only to discover that it was not part of the collection. Interestingly, I found that the collection limitations compelled participants to consider the critical aspects or the object properties most central to their comparative analysis and resulted in significantly more representative rather than depictive image selections. In select cases where participants pushed back against the search parameters, I encouraged them to share images found elsewhere on the internet, but only after they had selected a surrogate selection from Artstor.

Following each prompted search session, I independently analyzed search protocol data and digital copies of student artwork for evidence of compositional, conceptual, formal-material, affective, and biographical similitude. In overview of these five interpretive measures:

  1. Compositional similitude signified commonalities in formal design elements and principles; this point of analysis examined color palette, implementation of line, distribution of form and space, rendering of objects, surface treatment, and visual representation.
  2. Conceptual similitude signified commonalities in creative intent or in the artists’ attempt to address similar creative problems; this point of analysis examined creative content, ideation, intent, themes, messages, symbol use, and purpose.
  3. Formal-material similitude signified commonalities in materials and methods; this point of analysis examined the processes and resources invested in the creative act, as well as the artists’ valuation of creative processes and resources.
  4. Affective similitude signified commonalities in emotive or tonal visual elements; this point of analysis examined the image’s emotional impact on the viewer and the means employed by the artist to achieve the desired affect– I also addressed considerations of emotional sensitivity/authenticity and effectiveness of artistic treatment within this measure.
  5. Biographical similitude signified commonalities in shared events and circumstances within the artists’ respective life histories; this point of analysis examined biographical elements such as educational experience, formal training, family life, precocity and disability, socioeconomic status, peer relationships, and geographic origins.

I concluded this critical-comparative visual research by cross-referencing this data against the students’ in-protocol and post-protocol self-reports, and I integrated the findings with additional research threads to construct a gallery of independent narrative representations or “seven portraits of artistic self.”

Closing remarks

This experience with critical-comparative visual research largely reinforced the findings of my literature review, notably that self reconciliation is primarily a socially-situated phenomenon, that artists rely heavily on the work of others to define their own creative practice, and that evidence of self-reconciliatory negotiation is readily available in created objects and artful discourse. In terms of application, critical-comparative visual research has the potential to explicate individual-level value systems and help guide pedagogical development. Whereas I applied these research methods to parse the influence of artistic other on emerging definitions of artistic self, comparable methodological designs would work for a variety of inquiry threads involving creative influence, visual interpretation, and/or artistic value systems.

You may also be interested in Grammar in art by Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.