Understanding students can be quite a challenging task for any teacher. On one hand, how does a teacher grant the developing students the right amount of credit in their abilities to learn more advanced subjects and think critically? Another task is how do teachers encourage their students to learn about themselves as unique individuals? Based on my previous studies in early childhood education and how animation in children's shows can engage young viewers in new insights if well written, I feel that these are the two most important questions one would start asking when working with and taking time to understand children. I have mentioned in a previous post how children’s programming can cover such topics in an effective and creative manner. In this blog post, I will be reviewing and analyzing an episode of Arthur and Hey Arnold to answer the two questions I inquire at the start using the developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. The episodes I will be covering are Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble and New Teacher, starting with a synopsis of the episodes and where the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky play an important role.
In the Arthur episode, Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble, Arthur and his best friend, Buster are lamenting how hard the work their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them and their fellow classmates. They are both seen exiting the school with a pile of books and papers, which appears to make their homework nights extremely daunting. Breaking a fourth wall, (which often takes place at the start of each episode of Arthur), Arthur turns to the viewer, describing the mountain of homework Mr. Ratburn gives them. He adds as an example how Mr. Ratburn must always make everything into a learning experience, even something as simple as a field trip to the zoo. Buster adds that sometimes he wishes their teacher would just disappear after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.
The episode proceeds with Mr. Ratburn needing to take some time off due to a sore throat, unable to carry on with the class for the remainder of the day. The school principal, Mr. Haney informs the students their teacher will be absent and during his time off, they will have a substitute teacher. The students are then left wondering who will be filling in for Mr. Ratburn. Later, Mr. Haney informs them that Mr. Ratburn’s sister, Rodentia Ratburn will cover for him, much to the children’s’ dismay in concern that she might be harder a teacher than Mr. Ratburn. The next day, Rodentia introduces herself to the students and it turns out that her teaching style is a far cry from that of her brother’s. The approach she takes is incredibly basic for a 3rd grade level. The subject matters and materials she provides the children is too easy and unchallenging, e.g., reciting the 1x’s table, mixing of colors and narrating in a high-pitched voice while utilizing a puppet. Inevitably, the children find their given tasks boring and look forward to Mr. Ratburn’s return.
When Mr. Ratburn gets back to work, his students celebrate and welcome him back. Without hesitation, Mr. Ratburn begins the lesson of the day, the episode ending with Arthur and Buster delighted by how challenging the assignment is.
This episode adds a new insight into the relationship between Nigel Ratburn and his students. At first, the 3rd class complains that the amount of homework they are given is too difficult compared to what other 3rd grade students from other classrooms are given, (which had been mentioned before in a few episodes prior). Arthur and his friends look at Mrs. Sweetwater’s students and envy how easy going she is on them. It only takes a substitute teacher who fails to grasp how truly capable of learning challenging concepts and subjects that they start to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s more challenging teaching style. The reason Mr. Ratburn appears to be so strict with the students regarding homework and their studies is because he gives students credit for their capabilities to learn more complex subjects, think critically and problem solve on their own. Those are the types of traits that demonstrate a tremendous sign of respect that a teacher has for their students. Rodentia Ratburn represents an example of a teacher lacking the skills to comprehend what type of curriculum is ideal for the 3rd grade level, which is the main contrast between her and her brother. To delve into more detail, here’s where Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory plays a role in this episode. Between the ages of 0-2 years, children learn to rely on their coordination senses via developing motor skills, which this stage is known as the Sensorimotor stage. The next stage of development is the Preoperational stage, which occurs between ages 2-7 years. During that time, children learn to think symbolically and expand their grammar to communication and describe concepts in full. They also rely on imagination as well as instinct despite their skills in abstract thought still being underdeveloped. Once the students are between the ages of 7-11 years old, the Concrete Operational stage involves thinking more critically and plausibly about concrete ideas as well as understanding in-depth conservation. Even so, the types of games children play together involve rules and problem solving. Last, but not least is the Formal Operations stage, which takes place at age 11 and onwards. By then, students can formulate abstract thought and think theoretically and hypothetically, building up on previous knowledge.
Given the ages of the main student characters in Arthur, eight to nine years old which places them in 3rd grade, their developmental level would be at the Concrete Operational stage. The way that their substitute teacher teaches and talks to the students falls into a strange mix between the later part of the Sensorimotor stage (age 2) and the Preoperational stage (up to 5 years), which is no surprise as the day goes on, the children start to feel disenchanted. Because these are subject matters they already know and understand, Mr. Ratburn’s class realize that the harder a challenge is, the more they can strengthen their skills and build up on previous ones. Perhaps the Brain’s remark “for goodness sake’s, we’re in 3rd grade, you know” to Rodentia Ratburn sums up the scenario best as well as his desire to run home to his computer in desperate need of a challenging activity.
The way that Lev Vygotsky’s theories play a role in this episode is how his theory of Zone of Proximal Development can be applied. To offer a belief overview of what the theory covers, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is represented in three circles ranking from large to medium to small. The largest circle represents what a child has yet to learn and struggles with doing on his/her own, which is outside the zone. The middle circle, which represents the zone itself, is where the instructors come in to help the child master the skill he/she is trying to learn. It covers what the child can do with help. The circle in the center of the previous ones, which is inside the zone, represents what the child already knows how to do on his/her own. As seen in Arthur's Substitute Teacher Trouble, the students already know all the basic material needed to progress in their skills, but find the more advanced material is too difficult. After Arthur and his classmates endure an entire day without challenging their current knowledge, they are delighted at the end when Mr. Ratburn assigns them advanced math problems and come to fully appreciate his teaching style. What is happening here is that when the students quietly proceed to work on the assignment, they are relying on what they already know. Although we don’t see how well the students perform on the assignment, this would be the time when they will know which areas they have the most hinderance and which areas highlight their forte. From there, it would be the teacher's job to pinpoint where the students need to go back and review upon grading their work, which we see many examples of Mr. Ratburn doing in other episodes.
In the episode of Hey Aronold, New Teacher, the students start their day with an announcement from Principal Wartz informing them that their teacher, Miss Slovak is retiring from teaching to pursue a career in golfing, which the students cheer. They are indifferent, however when they meet their new teacher, Robert Simmons, a good natured, charismatic, compassionate man who is excited to meet the class he will be teaching. Mr. Simmons is seen working with the students utilizing a unique teaching style in which he helps them embrace their own unique qualities. In addition to the curriculum, he even encourages the children to ask the “why” questions. This comes off as rather banal and trite at first, so the class begins to rebel in hopes of getting rid of Mr. Simmons. Once the revolt takes an emotional effect on Mr. Simmons, thus the students successfully eliminate him, the thoughtful and caring instructor is replaced by the ruthless and harsh Mr. Goose, formally known as Lieutenant Major Goose. As his former title implies, Mr. Goose’s teaching style is similar to that of drills that suit the army. It ends up taking a toll on the students’ wellbeing, making them realize how much Mr. Simmons genuinely cared and respected them as individuals. They remedy the situation by going over to Mr. Simmons’ house to apologize. Although he is skeptical at first, the students go out of their way to show they are truly remorseful. They even take the time to demonstrate their appreciation for him as a teacher and a person by taking the lessons he taught them so far and showing how he has helped them grow. Mr. Simmons is deeply moved by the students' display of kindness and wants to be their teacher again. Before Mr. Simmons officially returns, Arnold and his classmates challenge Mr. Goose with a bombardment of ‘why’ questions, causing the lieutenant intense anxiety and quitting the job. The episode ends with the entire class welcoming Mr. Simmons back and then spending a sunny afternoon on a field trip.
This episode of Hey Arnold shares some similarities to the episode of Arthur mentioned early on. Both Mr. Simmons and Mr. Ratburn have different teaching styles, yet both these characters are seen utilizing unique methods. What they also have in common is that they both encourage their students to think more critically than they normally would. Mr. Ratburn assigns tasks that advance his students' previous knowledge to the next level and Mr. Simmons encourages the 'why' questions, which are perhaps amongst the most important traits any teacher could have. At first, their students wish their situations were different because they do not see the benefits of the ways in which their teachers teach, but once they see the alternative, the latter encourages them to appreciate the former. Although Rodentia Ratburn and Mr. Goose are not the same personality wise, they both represent teaching methods that do a major disservice for child development, one being on the softer extreme of the spectrum and the other being on the rougher extreme.
The aspects in which Jean Piaget’s developmental theories can be applied to New Teacher from Hey Arnold would be to evaluate the third stage of cognitive development, Concrete Operational as brought up earlier. Because the main characters of Hey Arnold are around the same age as the ones from Arthur, Arthur’s class being in the third grade and Arnold’s class in the fourth, we see examples of where the students are put in positions where they cover concepts and apply them to concrete scenarios. At that age, aside from learning basic math as a foundation (academics), we see examples of how the children question their own thinking and evaluate their own ideas as well as understanding others. We also see that the characters from Hey Arnold learn how to deal with their everyday stress through critical thought and putting things in perspective. The reason Mr. Simmons’ teaching approaches surpass what an overtly strict teacher does is because the more anxiety inducing the learning environment becomes, the less the student is able to put things into perspective. Worse yet, the less the learning environment leaves little to no room for the student to examine their own thinking and that of others, the less critical their understanding becomes and thus their further development is stifled.
The way in which the theories of Lev Vygotsky can be highlighted in this episode is that the viewer sees that the students are already capable of thinking on a standard academic level. Before Mr. Simmons became Arnold and his classmates’ new teacher, the students already abide by the standard techniques taught by their previous teacher, Miss Slovak. After her departure, the role Mr. Simmons represents is one that genuinely respects the students’ capabilities as to how understanding themselves as individuals helps them academically and in life in general, that he goes out of his way to inspire and encourage them to reach their full potential. The circle outside the Zone of Proximal Development, (what the learner can’t do on his/her own), in this case would be that the students haven’t learned how to think more abstractly and outside the box, let alone ask themselves the ‘why’ questions. With Mr. Simmons’ assistance, the children learn how to develop this important and often sidelined skill. On a side note, Hey Arnold creator, Craig Bartlett stated in an interview why Miss Slovak was replaced. “She was too much of a caricature. That seemed a little bit too simple – it wasn’t smart enough. What if we put, instead, a great teacher who really cares about the students and is just full of passion?” Bottom-line is that Mr. Simmons is the type of character that best depicts how individual and critical thinking would be applied to Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the viewer sees examples as such when contrasting him to other teacher characters like Miss Slovak and Mr. Goose. Going back to Mr. Goose, we see he is too far to an extreme that he leave absolutely no room whatsoever for open discussion.
It’s seldom to see that many children’s programming cover a topic as what defines a good teacher who truly respects their students with regards to their capabilities and individuality. Even so, such qualities are hard to come by with real life teachers. The most important questions teachers might often ask themselves is are they giving the students enough credit for what they can do as independent thinkers and advance in their skill level and are they being respected and encouraged as individuals? Children’s programming such as Arthur (which is geared towards edutainment) and Hey Arnold have had writers on the shows who took the time to study the issues kids face and how they properly confront the situation through teamwork and problem solving. For this blog post, I just examined an episode from both these shows that best covered how a teacher demonstrated genuine respect for their students and describing how the child developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky play a role. In the episode of Arthur, Arthur’s Teacher Trouble, the students feel that the homework their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them is too difficult and stressful. At first, they don’t realize how his teaching style benefits them in contrast to their fellow third grades from the other classrooms. Upon enduring an entire day with the unchallenging and over simplistic, Rodentia Ratburn, the students begin to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s approaches and how it challenges their academic skills. The episode of Hey Arnold, New Teacher marks the introduction of Mr. Simmons, who has a unique way of teaching his students, which Arnold and his classmates fail to appreciate and understand how it advances their development. It took an overtly strict teacher for them to realize how being able to think critically and philosophically improves their well-being, a trait that their previous teacher lacked as well.
If more teachers take time to get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses in academics and in creative thinking, even so find ways to advocate for students to reach their full potential in both those areas, it will make a whole world of difference in a child's life. Students will garner more confidence in their capabilities and understanding themselves as individuals will even spark a greater desire to continue learning and growing.
Rugrats in Retrospect: A Response to Saberspark's Video 'What RUINED Rugrats - The Untold Drama' and Why Paul Germain was Spot on about Good StorytellingRead Now
In the 1990's, animation was starting to evolve from toy commercial centric cartoons like Care Bears and My Little Pony to creator driven content as seen with Nickelodeon's hit shows of the time like Doug, Rocko's Modern Life and Nick's then pop cultural phenomenon, Rugrats. At the start of the decade, media and technology entrepreneur, Geraldine Laybourne served as Nickelodeon's first president from 1984 to 1996. She and the rest of the team set out to make Nickelodeon the first network for kids with their unique line-up of shows that were original creator content in order to differentiate themselves from other networks during those years. At the beginning, Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats were the first three animated shows to be greenlit into production. Of the three, Rugrats would go on to be Nickelodeon's biggest hit, paving the way for the network's upcoming animated shows like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!. More to the point, Rugrats became the face of Nickelodeon throughout most of the '90's, but then in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000's, its popularity gradually began to die down, eventually being eclipsed by Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a very specific reason as to why that happened. However, contrary to popular belief, the decline in popularity for Rugrats wasn't so much for the addition of new characters, though, there is some merit to that assumption. The real problem that caused this series to lose its momentum, as seen in Saberspark's video, What RUINED Rugrats? - The Untold Drama, had everything to do with the show creators failing to see eye to eye. The show was created by then married couple, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Cspuo along with fellow co-worker, Paul Germain. In this blog post, I'm not going to delve too much into the notorious drama that went on amongst the writers. I'm just going to pin point the main source of it. Rather, I'm going to discuss my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of an aspiring writer and early childhood teacher. Using my animation and illustration background as well as my experience so far working with children, I will explain with an in-depth analysis on why I favor Mr. Germain's side of the story.
For starters, before Rugrats made its debut, the trio worked on a few episodes of The Simpsons shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989 before it made its debut as a television series itself on December 17th, 1989. The Klasky-Csupo team worked on this series during the first three seasons. The Simpsons, which was created by Matt Groening, has been a pop cultural icon for nearly three decades now, and is still going strong to this day, making it the longest running American animated sitcom in history. As we know, the show deals with the titular dysfunctional family and their interactions and responses toward American culture. As simple a concept that may be, what contributes a great deal to the success of The Simpsons is character development and stories that explore the human condition by going into the characters' minds and challenges. Having previously worked on the show, Paul Germain knew that the key to making a top tier animated series was quality storytelling, so his level of expertise would bode well for him in the long run. (I know The Simpsons did suffer a bit in quality over the years, but that's another topic for another day).
When pitching a show for Nickelodeon, Arlene Klasky created the concept for Rugrats with one basic idea in mind that made it truly memorable: "if babies could talk, what would they say?" Having been pregnant during the show's conception, making this a very personal show that was important to her, she had Paul Germain help her elaborate on the idea. Inevitably, Nickelodeon greenlighted production on the series and a total of sixty-five episodes would be in the contract. Rugrats debuted in the summer of 1991. Due to solid promotion, its success and viewership increased immensely. From films, to merchandise, and even a giant parade balloon making its debut in the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was no denying Rugrats became the crown jewel for Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, as Saberspark pointed out, the events building up towards the show's success was ultimately what lead the show to crumble. There were several feuds between Klasky and Germain that would often put Csupo in the middle as the swing voter between the two.
Long story short, Arlene Klasky favored the idea of the baby characters acting more like their age rather than see them acting on adult-like behaviors as seen in the 1992 episode, The Trial in which the babies have a courtroom setup after one of the children destroys Tommy's favorite lamp. Paul Germain was all for writing plot driven narratives with solid character development like that of The Simpsons, but for kids. To make this disconnect between the show creators worse, it was the introduction of Angelica that increased conflict between Klasky and Germain. Germain created Angelica, feeling that the show having an antagonist would tip the scales in its favor. Klasky, having not created the character, strongly disliked Angelica and often complained about her portrayal being too cruel towards the younger children. Inspired by a childhood bully, Germain wanted to explore Angelica's character and craft character driven plots examining why some kids who bully other kids behave the way they do. After Paul Germain's departure in the mid-1990's along with other members of the writing staff, the quality of the writing began to shift. Although that was the time Rugrats skyrocketed in success, a few years later, it began to fizzle and eventually the show ended in 2004. Given all that was happening behind the scenes with this show and in regards to good writing and how children learn and develop through cooperative and explorative play, Paul Germain was definitely on-point when it came to what would have been best for this kind of series.
First of all, since Rugrats is a cartoon about children from ages one to three and a half years old, it should delve into topics that focus on the inner workings of early childhood development. The key ingredient that goes into good writing is having a deep understanding of your subject matter and drawing even more inspiration from the real world. It could be from personal experience, people you know or some new insights you've garnered working with others. All of those elements are vital to good storytelling, if not an important foundation for it. Arlene Klasky was right about one thing. When coming up with an idea for a story, it's a good idea to write something that is personal to you, but her unwillingness to listen to her peers left almost no room for personal growth. Good ideas become stronger when you garner deeper understandings of what you're writing about. If Klasky wanted to make a show that was about babies exploring the world around them, she'd be wiser to take those concepts into account. With Paul Germain's approach to writing, he was willing to add and explore those aspects of early childhood development blended with personal experiences and incorporate them into the plots. For example, when the children mimic adult behaviors, that's a prime example in early childhood development with children letting themselves think freely in a risk-free environment. What contributes to children's growth is their freedom to explore certain attributes of adult behaviors and thus, begin to learn about themselves and how the world works. As is the case with The Trial episode, the babies have a courtroom setting in the living room because they have already seen and know that adults attend jury duty. They are somewhat familiar with how that process works. Certainly they may not understand every little detail that there is to know, but at an early age, children observe adults on one side of a testimony and others representing the other perspective in order to determine who might be guilty and who might be innocent.
To add to this, from my experience so far working with preschoolers and what I've been studying, I've seen how children play certain games like house, kitchen, or store. Social referencing is something that occurs in infants between six to nine months, which is when babies observe how their caregivers react to certain situations and use that as a model for the appropriate response. Preschoolers already know this social cue from their infancy and build up from it. In terms of childhood development theories, Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interaction among other children is what adds to the child making meaning and gaining new knowledge. He also believed that, unlike Jean Piaget, who categorized childhood development in four stages, children's development is continuous and occurs through cooperative learning. Children, thus learn from each other. Jerome Bruner's Three Modes of Representation observes that children continuously and actively learn by adding on previous knowledge. Enactive, which is based inaction occurs during the early years. Iconic, which is image based, occurs during the mid-childhood years. Symbolic, which is rooted in language, takes place during adolescence. Applying this to The Trail, we see these examples playing out in the episode. We see that the children in the cartoon already understand why adults resolve disputes in a courtroom, so there is a bit of social referencing displayed as the babies are seen referencing adult behaviors to respond to their situation. The way that the Lev Vygotsky theory is depicted, the children are interacting with one another and thus, through this type of play, they are learning through cooperation and making meaning in order to find out who broke the lamp. The way that Bruner's theory plays a role is that at the age that the Rugrats characters are, they are learning through action or Enactive imagery and that is knowledge that gets built on with new knowledge over time.
That being said, drawing from real-life examples and knowledge of how children develop are important elements that contribute to good writing. The topic or subject matter you are writing about may be personal to you, but if you don't take the time to build up a deeper understanding from other perspectives and real-life observations, your concept may still be good on paper, but stale in representation. This also leads me to another reason why Germain's approach to storytelling excels over Klasky's, one that should always be at the forefront when crafting a story: who is your target audience? This question may already be a matter of common sense, but its one that seems to get a bit lost as new writers join a team on a show or other type of creative project. As mentioned earlier, Paul Germain envisioned Rugrats being The Simpsons of children's television. What he meant was that the target demographic for Rugrats could appeal to not only children, but adults as well. Just because of the age of the main characters, it shouldn't imply that there can't be stories written in a way that would resonate with older audiences as well. From the sound of the debates between Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, it was obvious that Klasky failed to understand her audience, much less ever listen to why Germain's writing team was on point. Klasky felt that if they were to make a show about babies, it automatically meant that the main characters should consistently do what babies do. However, there is a major flaw in this thought process: aside from it leaving very little room for character development, it leaves very little room certain topics to be covered, rendering the show's content too stale.
The main problem I see with Klasky's approach as to what she thought was right for Rugrats is that she wanted to play the show too safe. Audiences eventually get bored of that. They can easily tell when writers are taking creative risks and when they are selling themselves short. By having the main characters constantly act their ages, not only are there limitations on story and character growth, but it fails to resonate with audiences. If Rugrats was intended to be a show both kids and adults could relate to, this approach was absolutely not the ideal choice for that demographic. You can't just have one foot in the door for a certain age group and the other one stepping out for another. A good kids show written for both kids and adults in mind should always be an open space for writers to be adventurous and explorative when it comes to dealing with new ideas. Plus this is the type of audience that wants to see something beyond the comfort level. There have been episodes of Rugrats, like the PBS Kids edutainment show, Arthur, where difficult topics were covered, such as neglect, loss of a pet or family member, jealousy, generational differences and of course, child growth and developmental milestones. There have even been episodes that deal with fears adults struggle with and new experiences that come with each stage in life. Even most impressive was that there have been holiday specials that focus on Hanukah and Passover and their religious significance, something that not very many shows at the time were covering. Being open to topics like these make room for both kids and adults to have a dialogue with one another. Because early childhood development is the seed that shapes how we grow up as our earliest experiences shape us, our perception of others and the world around us, it makes more sense that character driven plots were the best way to construct an episode of a show like Rugrats. Playing it safe with very little for the characters to do eventually alienates viewers and thus, that is why Paul Germain had the right idea all along. Even so, when it came to Angelica, her role wasn't solely to be a one-dimensional bully as mentioned earlier, but rather to represent a figure of the type of kid everyone has to deal with at times. As children grow up, they will always encounter a bully. Contrary to some of the stereotypes portraying bully characters over the years prior to Rugrats and other shows afterwards, there are underlying reasons why some children lash out the way they do. Over simplifying or dodging the subject altogether is not only playing storytelling safely, but it's also denying the reality of the world we live in. (I would like to delve into the topic of bully/brat characters in kids shows in a separate blog post sometime because I think it's a topic deserving of its own post).
With all that has been said and done and how well Rugrats aged as a pop cultural icon, in the end, it was Paul Germain's values as a storyteller that made it stand the test of time. With all due respect to Arlene Klasky, who undeniably had a brilliant idea for a television show, her concepts sounded good on paper, but Germain had ideas to help take her concept up another step further. It was unfortunate that Klasky and Germain failed to find common ground, but one can't deny that it's one thing to have a good idea on your hands. It's a whole world of difference to build up on it. Going off of Klasky's approach, there would have left very little room for character development and growth due to limitations on plotlines as was the case with the later seasons. Germain had all the right pieces in mind that fit into crafting good stories that would resonate with the show's respective audience. With an understanding of real world examples, such as studies related to the subject matter that the series centers around and personal experiences along with comprehending who the show is for, those are all important factors that contributes to both a show's quality and increased level of success in the long run. Stories can teach us about our struggles and shed them in a different light when delved into correctly, inspiring viewers to ask themselves the right questions and reflect on their own situations. By playing it safe and shunning other suggestions to further improve your concept as well as knowing less about who your target audience is, you not only put limitations on the potential of your ideas, but also on yourself as a writer. The more explorative you become with your concept and how it relates to the real world along with knowing what kind of stories your audiences are hoping to see, the better rounded you become as a creator. Your concept will grow and flourish, reaching its full potential. As with any creative medium, it will always be a continuing process that no one ever stops learning from because our experiences never stop shaping us and endless knowledge is always being spread around. You yourself will never stop learning. It's either you're open to it or you just stick to what is already familiar to you. By the latter, you will have many missed opportunities. By the former, you will constantly be exposed to them and those new opportunities and insights are what you give your audiences in return.
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