Activity Group 1: Reading is a Creative Act
We often assume that an author’s voice is a definitive authority, or that images convey true or trustworthy representations. Yet texts and images need not be read as imposing unquestionable knowledge, but rather, as invitations for dialog. In writing a text or composing an image, an author opens a discussion that grants the reader both the responsibility and agency to respond.
In order to understand how reading is a creative act, we need to know how to approach a text creatively and critically. The creative reader actively participates in making meaning by judging, interpreting, and acting upon what she reads. By thus transforming a text’s meanings, the creative reader becomes the text’s co-author and continues to write it.
Glenn Ligon's methods of artistic creation offer us a useful model for creative and critical reading. Considering our Guiding Question posed by Ligon’s work, “How Can The Master’s Tools Dismantle the Master’s House?” we have identified several strategies the artist uses to formulate the inquiry of his painting:
Asking Essential Questions
These strategies demonstrate how reading enables Ligon to transform Lorde’s statement (“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”) into a question (“How can…?”).
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Close reading is a process of reading and rereading a section of a text or image in order to develop a deeper understanding of its form and interpretive possibilities. Close Reading assumes that a text or visual’s meaning is not transparent nor purely literal. Rather, it approaches texts and visual images as a complex fabric of patterns and strangeness in which content (what a text says) and form (how a text says it) shape each other.
Close Readers begin this process by concentrating on the text or visual image’s form and language. Generating as many observations as possible about the text or visual image’s form, they identify patterns and strangeness that lead to further questioning and interpretive possibility.
Close reading and writing are integrally related: close reading should be a first step in the writing process; and close readers annotate the text, marking language and jotting down notes as they read and think through their questions, confusions, and interpretive possibilities. This is a creative act: it demonstrates how a reader’s sustained attention to a text or visual’s form can open up unexpected interpretations, both those intended and unintended by a writer or visual artist.
Using the process of close reading, begin with the question: "How can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?”
Before responding to Ligon’s question directly, first spend time annotating and close reading its language. This will help you have more to work with in your response. Write out Ligon’s question on a piece of paper and mark up or annotate it directly on the page.
First look up important or unknown words. In this case, look up “dismantle” in the dictionary (the Oxford English Dictionary is preferable). Are there unexpected nuances in this word’s definition? Does it have multiple definitions with some difference between them? Write down the definition(s) directly on your page.
Next, make observations about the question’s form or language. What do you observe or notice about this question? Write down all observations (nothing is too small).
Now take a look at the “master’s tools” and “master’s house” language. For each one, brainstorm any and all associations, images, and ideas that these terms bring up for you.
You may want to make a bubble map out of each one around which you can either write down or draw these associations, images, and ideas.
After spending some time unpacking and engaging with this question’s language, respond to it in a guided free-write using the associations you developed.
One way to do this is to write for at least five minutes, letting your thinking develop on the page. Don’t worry about correct grammar or spelling, just write.
Making Connections between a text and a reader’s own life, references, and ideas is a cornerstone of literacy building. By exploring and trusting one’s personal responses to a text or a visual artwork, readers listen to and articulate their own experiences. They also establish a possible point of entry into a text that leads to other ways of engaging and thinking about it. Readers can also connect a text to other texts: in doing so, readers chart conversations and key ideas that facilitate a broader understanding of history and the present.
Glenn Ligon's painting establishes a connection to Audre Lorde’s speech by turning her statement into a question. In this exercise, we invite you to reflect upon the kinds of connection that you see Ligon making. And, as viewers of his painting, what kinds of connections does his painting encourage us to make?
Important to making connections is moving beyond the surface-level connection to ones that further develop understanding.
Surface-level connections are ones that are merely “there.” For example, “Ligon paints and so do I.”
A more complex connection will go further and locate an aspect of Ligon’s work with painting. For example, Ligon positions Lorde’s text in the middle of his painting in white and surrounds it with a mottled black. A personal connection would start with, “This reminds me of…” and continue the thought. Perhaps the size and cursive handwriting reminds you of the kinds of questions you might ask privately in your journal or to yourself. Perhaps it reminds you of a time when your question went unheard or was silenced somehow.
Using your dialogic journal work on one complex moment from Lorde’s text or from Ligon’s painting, spend some time making connections between his/her ideas and language and your own life experiences (text to self) and other texts or visual images of which you are reminded (text to text).
A meta-note chart is a helpful scaffolding tool on which to record your thinking for this.
From here, you can move on to making connections between Lorde/Ligon and any other source, be it political, literary, artistic, or otherwise.
Next, using your connections as a springboard, find a way to creatively respond. This will be different for each person and should be specific to the important connections that you discovered. What ideas emerge from your work with connections? How can you manifest your connection to either Ligon or Lorde’s work into a new form?
Your response can take any form that you see fit. Some possibilities: journal or diary entry, poem, painting, short video, short story, letter to Lorde or to Ligon, etc.
After having engaged with connection making and then a response, take a few minutes to look over your work. How did the connections help you to understand Lorde or Ligon’s work more deeply? What unexpected idea or detail do you now see more clearly? What did your work help you to understand about yourself?
Close Reading: Textual / Visual Analysis
Close reading is a multi-layered process that begins with careful observation of the form and language of a text or visual. From the observation work, a close reader moves on to paraphrase and then to generate interpretative possibilities and pose questions. One way to understand this close reading process is as a dialog that unfolds over time between a reader, and a text or visual and between a reader and their thinking.
Observations about a text or visual image are not immediate; when one circles back through the close reading process, more details are noticed, more interpretive possibilities emerge. This is an iterative process, one that requires the reader to revisit, re-observe, rethink.
Using a Dialogic Journal to Close Read a Text
A dialogic journal is a scaffolding tool that helps structure the close reading process as a dialogue between the reader and their subject. This tool should be used as a first step into the close reading process, one that can be updated and added to as a reader spends more time with the given text or visual image.
Because of the attention to detail required of the close reading process, when working with a text, it’s important to choose a smaller moment from the text (3-5 consecutive sentences or lines).
The reader then writes out each sentence or line and engages with the language part by part. It is important that a reader doesn’t try to interpret or figure out what the language says at first. The reader should spend time making observations of the language's form and noticing the smallest details.
Patterns and strangeness are a useful frame through which to help a close reader with the observations. What kinds of patterns or repetitions can the close reader locate in the language? Perhaps a particular kind of image is repeated, or there is a rhyme scheme. Perhaps a word is repeated or perhaps there is a pattern to the syntax of the line or sentence. Conversely, strangeness is whatever the close reader observes to be odd, out of place, to not make sense; strangeness also marks the places in the language where the patterns are broken. These observations then inform and help build the interpretive possibilities and questions.
Close Reading a Visual
The close reading process for analyzing a visual image works in similar ways to how we analyze a text. Instead of making observations about the formal features of language in a given text (imagery, rhyme, word choice, etc.), observations of a visual image focus on its use of a VISUAL VOCABULARY (use of line, perspective, space, shapes, color, etc.), before moving on to interpretive possibilities and question asking. Here is an example of a visual analysis dialogic journal to help guide you through this process.
Reading Resources: Glenn Ligon was produced by Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in collaboration with Wendy Tronrud (A.R.T. Education Consultant) in summer 2016.
Contributors to Ways of Reading:
Web programming by Jeff Khonsary, with typography by Benedikt Reichenbach.
Copyedited by Sara Jane Stoner.
A.R.T. Staff: Alejandro Cesarco, Kylie Gilchrist, Jo Stewart.
A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:
LUHRING AUGUSTINE (specially Lauren Wittles and Lisa Vargehese)
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY’S ART + EDUCATION DEPARTMENT, Jessica Hamlin
A.R.T. Board of Directors
and most specially, Glenn Ligon.
We also acknowledge the assistance and support of institutions who have granted permission for image use:
ANDREA ROSEN GALLERY / FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES FOUNDATION
JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY
MITCHELL-INNES & NASH
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2016.
All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.
A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.