Engaging with Art and Culture Using Critical Thinking

In previous months we have discussed how the expressive nature of different artistic and cultural mediums enable us to connect with ideas and emotions from other perspectives. This perspective though, is not always obvious. As the audience, we are required to do some work. We need to be active participants of cultural experience, which is to say we should engage in the arts with a philosophical mindset, with an open mind that endeavours to ask questions first before asserting meaning.

Our brains are wired to sort information based on our own experiences and categorise things, which is a useful way of making sense of the world, but it can put limits on our understanding and influence our judgements. For example many things beyond our control such as the type of society we grow up in, the wealth of our parents, the colour of our skin and our own experiences all influence our ideas about race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation and culture. And we bring these biases to every part of our lives, albeit unconsciously. If we can learn how to recognise our biases and be mindful of them we can begin to engage with the perspectives around us in more depth.

Our default cognitive settings might assist us in our youth as we learn more about the world around us, but it usually isn’t until adulthood that we begin to deconstruct our subjectivity. American writer and philosopher, Sam McNerney writes “we spend most of our mental life confirming our opinions and not questioning them, even when those opinions involve complex issues.”  He theorises that accepting the truth of our thinking errors does not eradicate them, instead we should be more mindful and accepting of our errors.


“In contrast to introspection, which usually only affirms beliefs and increases overconfidence, mindfulness involves observing without questioning. If the takeaway from research on cognitive biases is not simply that thinking errors exist but the belief that we are immune from them, then the virtues of mindfulness is pausing to observe our errors in a non-evaluative way. We spend a lot of energy protecting our egos instead of considering our faults. Mindfulness may help reverse this… We must stop trying to “correct” or “eradicate” thinking errors. They’re here to stay, as they are likely an innate feature of cognition. That means pausing to realise that the mind filters the world selectively, and in the process it effectively creates a new world that blinds us from the truth: that we are average people living in a world of average people, and that we’d be better when we recognised this.”


Take this example of a painting entitled ‘Cleansing’ by artist Omi Lee. The title itself might influence how you view this image and what you begin to understand about it. It might suggest to me that this image is about washing away negativity or forgiveness of oneself. My default cognitive settings begin to draw some immediate conclusions: This is a picture of a woman in water – which in fact might be wrong. My experience tells me that the colour blue is representative of water, when it might represent more abstract concepts such as emotion, and although I might assume that this is in fact an image of a woman (confirmation bias) it might actually represent either gender.

Omi Lee - Cleansing Omi Lee – Cleansing

If I do assume this is an image of a woman in water however, I automatically begin to deconstruct the image based on my own experiences (availability bias). I am not a very strong swimmer and this image might spark anxiety, might spark within me an urge me to take control again – although the woman herself looks to be in a state of surrender.

But what if the person isn’t in a state of surrender? What if they are in pain? What if the artist does not have the same underlying fear of water that I do? What if the artist came from a completely different cultural background than my own? What significance might the colours and the person in the image have then? What assumptions had I made about their culture and about mine?

There are an infinite amount of ways we can draw meaning from art. Each of us bring something to it that is different and yet we have commonalities. It is important to remember that despite our biases, any connection we make is valid, but mindful engagement with the arts adds complexity to the tapestry of our understanding.  Whether its visual art, music, dance, stories or poetry being mindful enables a deeper connection.

For this reason, it seems particularly important that we strive for this awareness when engaging with multicultural arts so that we might begin to ask questions, see perspectives and connections that we wouldn’t have before.


If you would like to know more about our inherent cognitive biases you can search the many different types here:

Wikipedia list of cognitive biases

And for a more playful look at how they affect our reasoning:



Ali. x