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The Value of Visual Literacy

Niamh Bhalla | November 21, 2019

The Value of Visual Literacy

Bedford Square Festival, 4 July 2019


Sight has been understood as humankind’s most immediate form of sensory interaction with the world since Greco-Roman antiquity. Human beings made images before they could write and image making is a primary form of human communication and expression, an inherent part of our human condition that crosses geographical and linguistic divides. Our everyday is saturated in imagery that we often passively ingest as we walk, commute, eat, shop, relax and perhaps most importantly, scroll relentlessly in the digital ecosphere. Yet despite the ubiquity and immediacy of images in our lives, text-based subjects dominate the Humanities in the UK education system. The primacy of word over image persists not only in historical inquiry, but in the hierarchy of skills deemed necessary for successful interaction with the modern world. Few schools offer Art History as a subject, making visual literacy inaccessible but to the few at second level, which in turn impacts the numbers of those who go on to study it at university. At a time when imagery often appears as the lingua franca cutting across cultural boundaries in an increasingly globalised world, not many people are trained to engage critically and productively with their visual environment and as a society we are missing out on opportunities to develop cultural empathy through teaching students how to connect to the visual traditions of other people groups.

Armed with the conviction that the ability to make, read and interpret the visual environment is now more important, and perhaps more complicated, than ever in an increasingly digitalised and globalised era, the Art History faculty at NCH ran a pop up, research-based event aimed at the general public as part of Bedford Square Festival, 2019. Experts working in the field of visual culture in and around Bedford Square came together to give micro- papers and engage in a panel discussion on the theme of the value of, and barriers to, visual literacy. Bedford Square is home to some of the most specialised institutions teaching the history of art and architecture in London, and we organised the event with the intention of drawing together a range of perspectives to initiate a dialogue on the challenges and opportunities around teaching, interpreting and access to visual culture in the 21st century. The contributors and audience alike were struck by the strong synergies and shared themes and concerns that we are all facing in our research and teaching, which emerged across all of the papers despite the breadth of the theme.

Dr Susan Green and I, both lecturers in Art History here at NCH, opened and closed the event with a pendant pair of papers under the theme There is More to an Artwork than Meets the Eye. We approached the theme from two different perspectives. Susie discussed how the evolution of modern technology has allowed art historians to look beneath the surface of art works, facilitating robust material analysis that bolsters and is crucial to proficient visual literacy. She demonstrated how understanding materials and the techniques of production, and how the art work has changed over time, are foundational to a proper interpretation of individual pieces of art. Susie showed how projects in the digital humanities have made technical examination available to the public, contributing to the democratisation of visual literacy by making what lies beneath the surface of a work of art available to a global audience.

My paper looked at the impossibility of a purely visual literacy. I connected the fiction of the image as a purely optical phenomenon to early modern philosophy, particularly the thought of René Descartes, and discussed how the reification of sight continues to impact the design of museums today. Thinking through the lens of the history of the senses, I examined how touch was understood in the Greco-Roman world, and discussed the importance of being literate in the materiality of ancient works of art that now lie frozen underneath the museum vitrine, but which were once handled and used. I considered a late Roman ivory box, now dissembled and laid flat in the British Museum to demonstrate how handling the object was implicated in the creation of meaning, and how manipulating the box enlivened the representations on its surfaces and expressed realities that strained the communicative abilities of visual motifs alone.

This theme of handling as not only enhancing but as necessary to our visual literacy, despite the hegemony of sight, was approached from the perspective of pedagogy, and in particular how we teach students about visual culture by Elisabeth Bogdan, Faculty and Subject Leader in the History of Design at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. In her talk entitled, Thinking through the Eye, she discussed the importance of object-based learning through an intriguing case study on Sotheby's Kiddell Collection of Fakes, Forgeries and Reproductions. She discussed how authenticity could only be established through close looking in conjunction with handling. Dr Mark Morris, the Head of Teaching at The Architectural Association, also addressed the issue of pedagogy in A Toehold in Reality: How Architects View Scale Models, discussing in particular how different forms of representation are used in architectural training. He traced the divergence of drawing and making architectural models to divergent historical schools of architectural training, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Bauhaus respectively, and showed how drawing and the iterative process of modelling are two different modes of creative cognition and design.

Dr Gilda Williams, Senior Lecturer on the MFA in Curating programme at Goldsmith’s College discussed the barriers imposed on visual literacy by incomprehensible art writing in her talk Art Writing Basics, or Writing v. Typing about Art and the resulting alienation of both students and broad audiences through meaningless art-texts. She gave hilarious instances of bewildering contemporary art writing, alongside examples of accessible and engaging writers from David Sylvester to Chris Kraus that could provide an entry point for the uninitiated into an appreciation and understanding of art. Her talk highlighted the need for quality writing to enable confident visual literacy in students.

The panel discussion raised several interesting themes and in particular the democratisation of access to art collections through social media, and whether or not this was augmenting or hampering visual literacy in distancing the viewer from the reality of the work through the medium of the screen. We also discussed the role of social media in perpetuating a view of imagery as being objective and immediate in its communication, rather than needing acute skills of visual literacy to critically engage with it. The event was well attended and the lively dialogue between the audience and speakers confirmed to us that the nature and importance of visual literacy is a topic that we as a society and as teaching professionals need to keep on discussing.

Niamh Bhalla

Course Leader & Lecturer in Art History