In the Beginning was the Word; In the End was the Picture


     Visual literacy like literal literacy is a matter of degree. In this day and age, inhabitants of the United States can read and write; but what do we read and what do we write? If we were to compare the level of literacy now to, say, 150 years ago, we might ask, how does the average e-mail compare to letters of the Civil War era? One could say, perhaps, that despite the stripping away of outmoded formalities, the letters would still seem eloquent compared to today’s e-mail messages.

     Perhaps we have exchanged one form of literacy for another. In the nineteenth century, the publication of a book of poems was greeted with as much excitement as a Hollywood premiere. I would suggest that the trend has been away from the verbal and toward the visual. This trend has been accelerating with the proliferation, in fact the bombardment, of images brought about by the ease of reproduction. At the same time the average quality of even a single letter of the alphabet has declined from the tactile richness of an imprint from a letterpress using metal type and fonts designed by Bodini or other Renaissance masters to the facsimile, the mere simulacrum of this letter using a photographic process called Linotype, developed by Ottmar Mergenthaler in the 1880’s, and finally reduced even further and encoded by Microsoft as a series of vectors to be read on the screen or printed out at 72 dots per inch. Is this evolution or devolution indicative of the stock placed in words?

     It would be unfair to attempt an answer without taking into account the influence of other forms of information and communication, particularly visual, which has replaced the written, or for that matter spoken, word. What we call “progress” is always an exchange. The Druid priests, who were the “bards,” lamented the spread of literacy in the British Isles, believing that it would destroy the faculty of memory. Indeed, oral culture, of which poetry was an important part, containing as it does mnemonic devices such as meter and, in certain languages, rhyme to facilitate memorization of long passages, was accompanied by feats of recitation lasting for hours. Scholars of the Talmud, another vestige of oral culture, can also recite for hours. So, in a way the bards were right..

     Now that the written word has replaced the spoken word, and the picture has replaced, or partially replaced, the written word, what is the state of our visual literacy?  This is important because the ability to distinguish between the subtle and the obvious, between the original and the reproduction, the authentic and the fake becomes an ethical matter.

     This literal eclipse of words by pictures is an international phenomenon and it is slightly different in each culture. In France, where they always try to marry the mind and the senses, and Jerry Lewis movies are analyzed by film scholars, words and images co-exist. Many innovations in both photography and film came from France. In America, everything from both the mind to the senses gets mixed with commerce. Nevertheless, the competition of the marketplace has brought about some improvements in production values as well as content in both still and moving pictures. The film industry has been the perfect product of consumer culture, which educates the public to some level of connoisseurship in order to sell its item. Without the public relations juggernaut, there would be no blockbusters, but neither would there be groundbreaking independent films. The critics would merely be voices crying in the wilderness.

     In literature, the difference between a hack and the Nobel prizewinner is that the former is engaging only a segmented market of readers while the latter is engaging the same readers but also other writers, both present and past, writers of stories, myths, philosophy, history. Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with these subjects from high school. What about visual literacy, visual allusions or references or styles or tecniques? Without at least a basic understanding of these, film notwithstanding, we will always opt for the obvious, the garish, the shocking, or the merely familiar.

     But how do we become visually literate, and how do we who have learned something pass it on. Words alone do not suffice. Rendering visual images into words is what has led to so much academic art in the universities, galleries, and museums. Artists who in the past could leave pieces untitled now write manifestos for the exhibit or somebody else writes it for them. Tom Wolfe deals with this trend in his book, The Painted Word, published back in 1975. The problem in teaching about pictures is that our educational system must find a way to reduce it, once again, to letters on a page, namely A, B, C, D, or F. Perhaps art and music education should be mandatory but non-graded.

     It takes talent to be an artist and taste to be a good artist. Both talent and taste are innate but also can be trained. Someone’s talent and taste are specific, largely genetic dispositions. Not everyone can become a visual artist. In terms of art appreciation, like music appreciation, it begins before the age of five. This is where the love of it, the need for it, is set. Later, we are trained to the level of our aptitude and allow our tastes to be trained as well. We may not be exposed to every art, but it is important that in some area we are exposed to good art so that we may viscerally experience what excellence is and learn to distinguish among slight variations. It is, as I said before, a moral issue.

                                                                                                         -Chaim Bezalel (2007)