Smith, L. (2013). THE RIGHT RED – FROM VIEWER TO LEARNER: AN ARTS-INFORMED INQUIRY. University of Calgary. PhD thesis.

The Right Red—From Viewer to Learner: An Arts-Informed Inquiry,

 Laurel Smith

 The University of Calgary


This qualitative dissertation provides an autobiographical exemplar of emergent, arts-informed inquiry, inspired by the viewing of an abstract painting that prompted a question, “What is the right red?” The topic of the right red presents a cross-disciplinary research focus within the scope of adult learning to demonstrate the potential learning that occurs when viewing art or phenomena, such as the colour red. This research employs interpretive analysis, adult learning theory, artistic research, critical reflection, and survey responses by artists and adult learners and introduces the concept of the moment of inertia. The moment of inertia—when a viewer hesitates to consider what he or she sees and what it means—is presented as a learning moment. From the viewpoint of a learner, a viewer may ask questions that lead to new insights, or meaning perspectives. The goal of this research is to encourage adult educators and adult learners, particularly those in formal learning environments, to recognize and engage moments of inertia as learning opportunities.

 The moment of inertia is a term that bridges the language of learning within a shared artistic and adult learning context. The goal is to expand and contribute to ongoing arts education research that assumes art is an educative pursuit. As Barone (2008) explained, the arts face continuing challenges to overcome education policies that advocate for “retrogressive research orthodoxy” (p. 34) and undervalue alternative and experimental approaches to educational research. He suggested that artistic inquiry that is socially engaged or “epistemologically humble” (p. 38), or in other words, art that actively engages audiences to learn could begin to change these policies. This research supports the view that the arts contribute significantly to learning across disciplines. Therefore, the presentation of this arts-informed research, within the formal written structure of an education dissertation, creates another space for arts learning to generate knowledge within academe.

The topic of this research was initiated by a viewer’s statement that a painting was “not the right red.” The remark was considered to have educational implications when an awkward silence or hesitation was perceived and questioned by the artist (who is researcher and author of this dissertation). From an education researcher’s point of view, the hesitation had qualities similar to Mezirow’s (1991) disorienting dilemma. The comparison of art viewing to the disorienting dilemma of Transformative Learning theory exposed an educational opportunity for research to commence. Pinpointing the hesitation prompted by a viewer’s opinion also identified questions arising from what Plato (cited in Gadamer, 2004) asserted, that opinions often shut down dialogue.

Transformative Learning theory provided a route of investigation. However, determining whether a painting was the right red or not, was not perceived to be a problem of disorientation. Rather, red is presented to be an opportunity for ongoing learning. As Mezirow’s term suggests, disorientation carries a negative connotation, “to lose one’s bearings” (“disorientation,”1993, p. 652) a learner’s disorientation may be construed as a problem or dilemma to overcome as quickly as possible. Bohm (2004) reflected that our culture teaches us to avoid negativity. Therefore, this research provides neutral terminology to encourage viewers to sustain or even welcome their uncertainties as learners. An alternative to the disorienting dilemma, the moment of inertia, is presented as signalling the onset of potential learning opportunities that may or may not lead to resolution. The moment of inertia is a learner’s state of “resistance” or “hesitancy,” experienced as they have come “to rest; slow to move or act” (“inertia,” 1993, p. 1156). From this neutral stance, learners may extend their capacity to critically and imaginatively examine other possibilities regarding the catalyst that caused their moment of inertia.

A multi-method approach was employed to provide various directions for educational research to be applied to the viewing of a red painting. The methodology chosen for this study was arts-informed research as a stand-alone qualitative methodology (Knowles & Cole, 2008). Arts-informed inquiry is considered emergent qualitative research. “The inquiry is considered the method, not separate from it” (Butler-Kisber, 2010, p. 5). The topic of research was led by the question, “What is the right red?” and was investigated by an autobiographical account of the participant-researcher’s methods of artistic research, that shifted from arts-based research to arts-informed inquiry, adult learning research, and interpretive analysis that led to the disclosure and articulation of the moment of inertia. An independent survey of adult participants confirmed the existence of held biases and preconditioned responses to the right red. An examination of artworks by other professional artists whose red works were similarly created in reaction to viewer biases also confirmed the ongoing nature of arts informed inquiry. The multiple methods implemented in this research expose overlapping boundaries of knowledge shared by adult education and visual art. For example, the creation of a written survey instrument that provided interpretive data was translated as a colour chart data that led to the creation of a painting (Fig. 1). Other drawings, installation artworks, the launch of an artist bookwork, and a rocket launch performance were inspired by the data and generated new iterations of arts-informed knowledge.

The pictorial and textual data contained in this dissertation contributes to general adult education knowledge by integrating adult learning language. Adult learning language can assist viewers to regard themselves as learners. The research also provides the moment of inertia as a teaching tool, for educators and artists to facilitate learning for viewers who feel intimidated by artworks, or other subject matter, that cause them to momentarily hesitate. This research also provides evidence that arts-informed inquiry can occur within an education context whereby arts learning extends beyond the silo of the arts and illustrates how art contributes to learning praxis by inviting viewers to engage in open-ended, ongoing inquiry.


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