Thomas Munro, Art Historian, 1897–1974


In the years leading up to and following World War II, there was a sea-change in the way we look at, talk about, think about art. Or at least in the way scholars, critics and serious students of art talk and think about it. And, though it has been challenged in recent years, and undergone some modification, this way of thinking about art still dominates art education and the way most museums approach the subject.

And so it was that the Cleveland Arts Prize Committee in 1964 decided the time had come to recognize Thomas Munro for his seminal contributions to the shaping of “postmodern” aesthetics. Munro, who was curator of education at the Cleveland Museum of Art and professor of art history at Western Reserve University, had been among the first to sound the new battle cry with the publication of his 1928 manifesto, The Scientific Method in Aesthetics.

Rejecting the time-honored view of art in all its forms as timeless, transcendent productions of the human spirit, Munro, then a young instructor of philosophy at Rutgers, insisted that all art works were products of a specific time and place. As such, he argued, they reflected the styles and conventions, values and biases of their eras and cultures.

“Strictly speaking,” he elaborated in a 1943 essay, “the ingredients of a work of art are not really ‘in’ the object (e.g., a painting) as a physical thing, but largely in the behavior of humans toward it. People respond to a given type of art in a more or less similar way, because of similarities in their innate equipment and cultural conditioning, and tend to project these responses onto the object which arouses them, as if they were attributes of the object itself.” (This explains why some art or music or writing can be hailed as great or important art at some time or place, and exert no appeal at all to later generations or other population groups.)

But since we also come to a work of art as individuals, “no two persons will see exactly the same thing in a picture, for each is led by his nature and habits to select slightly different aspects for special notice.”

Thus, said Munro, it is meaningless to “‘describe’ a work of art as beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, well or badly drawn.” Or, for that matter, to make rigid distinctions between “fine” art and objects made for “use,” with the implication that non-useful arts are somehow superior. Musical compositions, he pointed out, often had utilitarian purposes, as did such elements of visual art as compositional organization. Nor should one look down on so-called “decorative” art, since “all arts contain some decoration and design as well as some representation.”

Such traditional distinctions and rankings must be recognized, in other words, for what they are: subjective or learned cultural biases.

By the same token, the attempt to explain art as the self-expression of the artist is, Munro argued, doomed to irrelevance since the artist’s intent, to the extent that it was conscious at all, could not be subjected to scientific scrutiny.* Indeed, with the development of scientific and rational thought—and such disciplines as historiography, psychoanalysis, sociology, semantics and phenomenology—humanity is able, perhaps for the first time in history, to throw real light on what art is and, more to the point, how it impacts viewers in the ways that it does.

Born in 1897 in Omaha, Nebraska, and educated at Amherst College and Columbia University (B.A., 1916; master’s degree, 1917), where he was influenced by the progressive views of the great philosopher and educator John Dewey, Munro served as a sergeant with the psychological services of the Army Medical Corps before returning to Columbia to get his Ph.D.

It is fair to say he caused a stir, exciting many, with his developing ideas as a visiting professor of modern art at the University of Pennsylvania (1924–27) and a member of the philosophy faculty at Rutgers (1928–31). But it was after moving to Cleveland in 1931 that his reputation exploded—through a stream of articles and books such as The Arts and Their Interrelations (1949) about the creative process; Art Education: Its Philosophy and Psychology: Selected Essays (1956); and Evolution in the Arts and Other Theories of Culture History (1963), the first monograph in English to examine the discipline of art history and its roots.

As a founder in 1942 of the American Society for Aesthetics and editor (1945–64) of the influential Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Munro argued passionately that the arts—properly taught—were essential to a liberal arts education. He was appalled that thousands of American students annually “receive the degree of ‘Bachelor of Arts’ without the most rudimentary acquaintance with great painting, architecture, and music of the past or present.”

He outlined his ideas for how this situation could best be remedied in his book, The Creative Arts in American Education: The Interrelation of the Arts in Secondary Education (Harvard University Press, 1960). But he was equally passionate about the role of museums in educating the public, a role he sought to exemplify during his 36-year tenure as curator of education at the Cleveland Museum of Art (1931–67). The true test of any theory of aesthetics, he was fond of saying, is its applicability to actual works of art.

A decade before Tom Munro died in 1974 at the age of 77, Max Rieser took the measure of the man. “When Munro stated that the world center of aesthetic studies [had] moved from the German-speaking countries to America,” wrote Rieser, “he failed to mention how much he himself had contributed to this shift by his own activities. . . . [Indeed,] the resumption of the International Congresses of Aesthetics after the Second World War was due largely to his untiring labors and persuasions, and his example was certainly instrumental in the founding of aesthetic journals in Great Britain and Greece.”

Thus, said Rieser, Munro not only made important contributions of his own to the emerging dialogue concerning modern aesthetics, but provided it “with a hitherto nonexistent forum of discussion and with organizational continuity without which a coherent and orderly development of a scientific discipline is impossible.”

—Dennis Dooley

* This assumption has been challenged in recent years, perhaps most persuasively by the American philosopher Ken Wilber, the leading proponent of Integral Thinking, who argues that art, like everything else, has collective and individual, exterior and interior dimensions and can only be fully understood when all of those pieces of authentic but partial truth are put together. (See

What and How Art Means

No two persons will see exactly the same thing in a picture, for each is led by his nature and habits to select slightly different aspects for special notice. No two will imagine or understand exactly the same things, because of differences in mental constitution, habits and education. But presented factors are comparatively easy to verify and agree upon. One can point out that certain lines are straight or curved; certain areas light or dark, blue or yellow; and all persons of normal vision will agree substantially upon their presence.

As to suggested factors, there is often more disagreement on exactly what is meant or represented. Various modes of suggestion are employed by visual art. One is imitation or mimesis, as in a picture of a tree. One is arbitrary symbolism, as in the use of a cross to suggest Christianity. In addition, certain visual qualities often derive suggestive power from common associations in experience. Thus reds and yellows may suggest warmth, blues and greens coolness; horizontal lines rest or stability, and diagonal, wavy or zigzag lines may suggest disbalance, movement, or agitation.

Sometimes the associations suggested in one or more of these ways are so vague, conflicting or fragmentary as to arouse different interpretations. A picture may look somewhat like a tree, but not exactly. A symbol like the swastika may have different meanings. Thus it is often impossible to say objectively just what the suggestive content of a work of art is. However, there is usually a nucleus of comparatively obvious meanings upon which most observers will agree. Within a particular cultural environment, common usage tends to attach fairly definite meanings to particular images and groups of images. Artists come to use certain images with a definite intention, and observers to understand them in the same way, by tradition and convention. Authoritative reference works, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and books on the iconography of art, confirm a number of these symbol-meaning relations. On a basis of social custom, then, it becomes possible to say with some objective authority that a certain picture has certain definite meanings, whether uneducated or disputatious persons understand it so or not.

—“Form in the Arts: An Outline for Descriptive Analysis,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Education, Fall 1943

Why Study Art

It is a truism to say that the arts cover a major phase of the world’s cultural heritage, without which no man or woman can be said to be broadly and deeply educated. As compared with past productions in scientific, political, and many other modes of thinking, past productions in art contain a larger proportion of material which is accepted as valuable today; worth looking at, reading, or listening to; not outgrown or obsolete. The history of the visual arts alone provides the most extensive and concrete of all frameworks for the history of civilization. It provides the most tangible and sometimes the only surviving data from which an ancient culture can be reconstructed. It provides a revealing expression of modern culture in all its periods, and in its leading racial, national and local manifestations.

From a psychological point of view, the study of the arts is a means of developing through exercise a set of human functions and abilities which tend to be neglected in our excessively verbal, intellectual approach to liberal education—especially those of perception, imagination, emotion, and the skilled coordination of nerves and muscles in carrying out a planned enterprise. It is easily adapted to cooperative projects, in which students can learn how to work with each other. Through continuous study and practice of the arts, we can help to keep alive the child’s vivid sensory and imaginative life, and other phases of an all-round, well-balanced personality. By this and similar means, including the right kinds of sport and recreation, we can oppose the tendency of modern life to arrest and atrophy many potential lines of development, and to produce a mutilated, over-specialized adult personality, prone to fatigue and neurosis.

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