Aesthetic Understanding Overview

Most work on graphic representations within developmental psychology—including the work discussed in prior sections of this chapter—is embedded within the study of cognitive development. But once one appreciates that any given graphic representation is not a small, flat, singular replica of some portion of reality, the stage is set for considering a host of factors related to the creation of any particular representation (e.g., what was the creator's intent?) and to the impact of that particular representation (e.g., how does the graphic medium selected affect the emotional tone of the representation?). The former raises questions that are associated with research on theory of mind (e.g., Flavell, 1986), the latter raises questions that are associated with the study of aesthetic development. In the final section of this chapter, I focus on the latter. Thus, whereas in the prior sections I have discussed research that is addressed primarily to children's developing ability to see through graphic representations to the world that lies behind them, I now turn to empirical work that is concerned more directly with the representational surfaces themselves.

More specifically, the research described below concerns children's developing appreciation of the aesthetic nature of representational surfaces. Our work (e.g., Liben, 2003b; Liben & Szechter, 2002; Szechter & Liben, 2000b, 2003a; Szechter, 2003) has focused on one particular medium—photography. One reason for selecting this medium is practical: even very young children have the skills to produce photographic images and equipment is relatively inexpensive and portable. A second reason is conceptual, and is derived from the tendency for children and adults alike to think of photographs as if they were a means of capturing reality (e.g., see Beilin, 1991, 1999; Sontag, 1977). In actuality, any given photograph reflects many decisions: how it is framed, the kind of film, the lens, shutter speed, and aperture, lighting, printing process, and so on. Photographs thus provide a particularly strong test of participants' appreciation of the representational nature of graphics, of the extent to which the creator (rather than reality itself) controls the ultimate appearance of the representation, and of the range of substance and affect that may be communicated by a particular combination of choices. In an elegant statement that captures the intersection of the seeming opposing qualities of simplicity and complexity, Szarkowski (1973) wrote, "The simplicity of photography lies in the fact that it is very easy to make a picture. The staggering complexity of it lies in the fact that a thousand other pictures of the same subject would have been equally as easy" (p. 134).

Below I discuss three kinds of data bearing on aesthetics derived from asking participants to first, select and explain which photographs they liked most among a set they had themselves taken, second, to create a photograph with a requested expressive impact, and third, to reflect on photographic qualities in the course of comparing pairs or sorting photographs into categories.

Photographic Preferences

In a study of the bases for aesthetic judgments, 8-year-old children and college students were first taken on a walk through a college campus. As they walked, they were asked to take digital photographs, some of which were defined by the interviewer, and some of which left entirely to the participants' choice. After returning to the computer lab and downloading their images, participants were asked to select their three best- and three least-liked images, and to explain their selections.

Figure 12.10 provides a sample of best-liked selections and explanations given by children and adults. As illustrated there, children's explanations of their choices tended to focus on the referential content of the images, whereas adults' explanations were more likely to focus on what the surface of the image itself looked like (e.g., coloring, light patterns) or on some abstract idea or feeling the image itself conveyed (e.g., a sense of calm). To allow quantitative analyses, explanations were categorized as focused primarily on (a) the content of the photograph (i.e., on what was depicted), (b) the surface of the photograph (i.e., on how the image looked), (c) the technique used in creating it (e.g., a comment about camera position), or as (d) uncodable, either because the participant could not provide an explanation at all, or because the explanation could not be unambiguously assigned to one of the other categories (see Liben, 2003b). As would be expected given the examples provided in Figure 12.10, the quantitative data showed that when discussing most-like images, children gave greater attention to referents than did adults. Thus, the developmental progression reported for other visual arts (e.g., Freeman, 1995; Freeman & Parsons, 2001; Gardner, 1970; Parsons, 1987) in which an early focus on the referent gives way to a greater focus on the aesthetics of the image, appears to operate for photography as well.

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