This is a response to the introductory chapter of the book How to See, by George Nelson.
"Literacy is the bedrock on which all modern societies rest." -George Nelson
When we encounter a story about illiteracy, it’s often tragic. It’s the story of an adult who can’t find work, fears going to new places, and can’t read a letter from their friend. It’s the story of a child who drops out of school and enters a life of crime, because they can no longer cover up their inability to read. Illiteracy is heartbreaking, and, though we may not encounter it often or directly, it’s a problem that we are deeply aware of. Visual literacy is another matter entirely. While I’m not saying that visual literacy has the same urgent importance as reading literacy, I am positing that maybe… just maybe… it does.
Visual literacy is the ability to both see and understand what you see.
In his excellent book Art as Experience, John Dewey tells us that experiencing a piece of art lives within the perception of the viewer. The viewer brings with them every experience they’ve ever had, and they take their new experience in through a lens informed by their past. George Nelson says a similar thing about more general visual experience: “We all tend to see in terms of what we know, or believe.”
Visual literacy is an outcome of that knowing and believing. But it doesn’t just happen. You can put a child in front of the alphabet but without critical thought, guidance, and experimentation, that alphabet will never turn into communication. The child has to know and believe that letters, strung together just so, create a culturally universal language.
Several years ago, I worked as a buyer for a fashion retailer. A large part of my job was going to trade shows: enormous events where hundreds of vendors would bring together thousands upon thousands of garments for buyers like myself to see.
Magic is an enormous, twice-yearly fashion tradeshow. This is a photo of one room among many. (source: http://www.xpertexpo.com/tag/magic-marketplace-trade-show/)
This was a special kind of seeing. Each item was different in form, structure, function, color, style, social capital, brand status… each and every item held a different meaning through its design, and it was my job to see that meaning and select those items that would be meaningful for the audience of my company. Friends often envied my job, exclaiming things like, “you get to shop for a living!” Statements like this underestimated and undervalued the importance of the visual literacy I had developed. Learning to see so much in every garment was a hard-earned skill, and an understanding that changed my relationship with what I saw.
We do this often, as a culture. We think that seeing is seeing, and any old understanding will do.
Understanding comes from seeing, and it shouldn’t be a specialized skill. George Nelson says, as part of a discussion on education’s focus on other kinds of literacy, “Technology needs people who can read and write, add and subtract.” This brings us back to the urgent importance of visual literacy. Today, when so much of our technology is both visual and largely intangible, knowing how to “read” the manmade, visual environment of our devices and technology should be a universal skill. Just like the democratization of reading and writing that followed the advent of the printing press, the ability to see needs a galvanizing force.
This is a zoomed-in still from the concept video for Art Tap, a project I worked on in Spring 2013. Art Tap allowed people to engage with art museums… through their mobile phones. By engaging with a familiar visual, they could learn more about new visual languages.
I wonder sometimes if the Internet has been that force, and we just haven’t noticed yet. The Internet hasn’t made us more aware of the experience and meaning of a piece of art, but it has given us a new language of visual communication. The visual language of the internet is fast, fleeting, and constantly changing. There are a lot of cats. The grammar is sloppy and egalitarian. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and casual hate speech runs rampant. Yet the frequency with which we are able to share images, and the reach we are able to have with every instance of sharing, is unparalleled in our history. Perhaps we have developed visual literacy, but it’s a literacy that rests on a foundation of social norms, interactions, and experiences that have yet to fully develop into a language.
In the meantime, I will continue to cherish the visual literacy I have developed in art and fashion. Like George Nelson, I will hold out hope that the rich, slow, and consistent languages I speak will continue to remain relevant in an age that may primarily value the opposite.