This essay is somewhat self-explanatory. I'd like to formally recognize the irony that it is accompanied, like the rest of this website, by reproductions.
This is an updated version is a talk I originally gave to the New York State Art Teachers' Association in 2004. No reproduction or reprinting without written permission.
An Artist's Perspective on Visual Literacy
We find ourselves at the beginning of this new millennium awash in images, living in the most visually rich culture ever to have existed, and yet ours is largely a visually illiterate society.
We are bombarded to the point of being inured with images, and clearly a vast number of people are increasingly unable to perceive the importance of the physicality of images, even when they are declared to be art. People who are looking at and theoretically being seduced by ads are typically receiving them in a flat manner, the manner of video, the computer screen, billboards, magazines, etc. Their medium is chosen to translate into a wide variety of these information-conveyors. The lowest common denominator of this flatness tends to be photography, and its ubiquitous use is helping erode the perception of physicality in both ads and art. In the case of an advertisement, its materiality is subservient to the message it’s meant to convey, and doesn’t reside in its substance (“Image is Everything”, as the Canon Camera Company unapologetically reminded us in a popular ad campaign). Its strength is its expediency.
On the other hand, nuances in the mediums that produce art are, and should be, an important part of its meaning.
I am a painter, drawer and printmaker of unpeopled landscapes. I came to think about what i perceive as this problem of visual literacy while noticing that, during studio visits to see my work, collectors would often look at large charcoal drawings (which to me look like nothing else in the world) and innocently ask, “Is this a photograph?” Their intentions are good, and were in fact typically complimentary, but it aggrieves me that people would not see the difference between something that had been made by hand and something that had been made by a machine.
I would argue that no matter how manipulated a photograph is in the darkroom or on the computer, it cannot have the same weight and feeling of a drawing or painting. Fine-art photography has its own materiality, and in fact suffers from the same overload of photographic bombardment as other art mediums. But I am not simply alarmed by a failing of the correct perception of a medium, like some art-technological IQ test. I’m alarmed because I know that the physicality of an object is an important part of its effect. For instance, when I’m looking at a four-story ad on the side of a building, the chances are that I’m not looking at its scale within my own body context; I’m looking at something that’s simply huge, eye-catching, the equivalent of trying to give the spoken word weight by yelling. In art, it’s not size, it’s scale that counts, and particularity of scale.
When I talk about my work, I often mention a book called “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard. It’s a book that tries to explain how poetry works, and it does it in the smartest and perhaps only possible way: by being poetic itself. Bachelard has a whole chapter devoted to what he calls “intimacy in immensity”, by which he’s referring to the way we can make even an immense space be able to be absorbed by our imaginations, and in the case of a poem or a painting, induce a person to have the experience of vastness that feels in proportion to his or her inner expansiveness. He also talks about the ability of a person in his or her imagination to “inhabit” a work of art, but feeling miniaturized, within the art’s actual scale. They are both tricky things to achieve, but accuracy of scale is what makes a lot of great art great. There are many variations.
Above, Jackson Pollock expressing his whole body in the Museum of Modern Art's Autumn Rhythm. In a similar but entirely reverse way, when I look at an old painting like Jan Van Eyck’s “Last Judgment”, it is the ability of the mind and eye to self-miniaturize, and so enter into and participate in the painting in its complex and reduced scale, that is such an integral part of its wonder.
However different, these two paintings are both scale-specific, and have the effect of making us conscious of our bodies and their limitations while encouraging our imaginative selves to freely work beyond those actual limitations. It is precisely this interaction of a recognition of physical limitation meeting the act of realized imagination that makes art such a wonder. A huge billboard simply uses the lowest common denominator of scale, that is, size.
Vermeer’s portraits are different still, wonders not only because of their incredible light and sense of intimacy, but because the paintings themselves are approximately upper-body in scale, and we “fit” them as co-witnesses, participants in the letter-reading, weighing, and other private activities they record. We enjoy them in near-literal physical participation.
“The View of Delft”, on the other hand, is a much larger painting for Vermeer; it starts to leave that sense of upper body which focuses on the head and instead becomes directed outward, to our periphery, into space. The sense of proscenium in “The View of Delft” is profound. The clouds at the top and the gently curving shore open to the middle of the painting, like an eye opening, into the exterior world the painting reveals. Light in the distance draws us towards infinity and a sense of the immensity of space extending limitlessly out from us, but which Vermeer presents with great intimacy.
I don’t want to suggest that in the making of art the artist consciously schemes to produce these effects, but in the same way that a painting holds within itself the history, time, and the tale of its formation, a person looking at it is informed, enriched, and is subliminally able to experience all of that input. This physicality, the way an art object is “built”, speaks to us, and our response is an affirmation of our own sensory abilities, forming a connection and an interface of time and space, intent and emotion, even history. A painting’s actual physical presence allows us to react in terms of the scale of our own humanity, both personally and as a culture. Its spiritual and psychological impact works because of the way it is made, in terms of subject matter and medium and scale. When we see a representation, like a reproduction, that cannot use the weight and fact of the original object’s physicality to empower it, it can only be an image of the actual, empowered object.
When we are watching television, we see the world miniaturized before us, which is the nature of the medium, and an impressive nature it has. But one difference between it and art is that while watching it we don’t separate ourselves from its effect. Television is a kind of talking head that never becomes the “other” in the way that art does, a separate physical entity meant to both challenge and involve ourselves in our distance from it.
The inability on the part of the public to be aware of the difference between art and information delivery systems like ads and television is not something for which I fault these mediums. We are taught literature, taught the fundamentals for understanding writing, themes, and styles, and taught the difference between great literature and ad copy. But this important distinction is not stressed in the teaching of visual art in this most visual of all cultures. In the case of schooling in America, where teaching art, the history of art, and the experience of art are all endangered except in specialized schools and on occasional outings, there is sadly little encouragement for students to develop a sensitivity to the basic language of art, in this argument the importance of material and scale. A painting in the flesh is, and should be, a somatic experience for the viewer. An image painted by hand, rather than reproduced in a magazine, contains in its painted surface a person, a world, in the manner in which the paint is applied and the object made, be it realistic or abstract.
To return to Vermeer for a moment, even though to the modern viewer the realism of a painting may appear “photographic”, our culture’s litmus test for realism, the materiality of the paint itself, however smoothly applied, can represent a weight and meaning a photograph cannot contain. This is activated and in part dictated by the painting’s dimensions. For an object to be 6 ft. wide and be roughly the size of a person, or even the size of a crowd of people, rather than the size of an average window, or to be only the size of a human face – these are things that are part of the decision-making process and responsibility of the artist, and part of the gestalt of the work of art. Whether the effect is that of the viewer feeling miniaturized by the work of art, wherein the viewer “enters” the work of art by imaginatively becoming its size, or whether the work of art feels as big as a room that one can enter, to be experienced as one’s full physical self, these are some of the amazing things art can cause a viewer to literally “experience”. But to know the difference between these possibilities and to experience that difference is all the difference in the world, and it is nothing like the way most visual information is paraded before us and perceived.
This poverty of discernment is high irony in terms of the technological advances for which our culture is so fond of congratulating itself. I am not at all adverse to technology in general. I am thrilled about the dissemination of art to a greater audience via the World Wide Web, and I use a computer for sketching and collaging. I find it to be an invaluable preparatory tool for my work.
When I go to a museum, however, I find that the physicality of the works of art I see is actually enhanced by any recent experiences of gazing at a flat computer screen; there’s a heightened pleasure for me in seeing a “real”, handmade object, with that wealth of embedded information. But I know that many other people are seeing those same objects simply as images, and are expecting only to be given a quick visual fix, to be attracted or repelled and move on. It’s critical that children be taught to understand that physicality makes a world of difference in perceiving art, the difference between art and advertising, and between art and the reproduction of it in a book. It’s critical to their understanding of their own physicality, and their own poetic/perceptual satisfaction. The disembodied image is useful as information. But the visual arts are and always have been a certain kind of virtual reality.
The real power of visual art is its capacity as virtual reality to create a complex physical experience. Painting is so specifically powerful, and more powerful than other mediums, because an artist who makes one builds into it their actual experience, including decision-making, intent, corrections, and (importantly) actual time passed. Paintings generate all this experience back to the viewer. The summary that a painting is of all that activity is capable of both holding and regenerating that experience. The object powers the somatic connection that remains between the work of art, the artist who made it, and the person looking at it. That connection is an essential part of the human experience, a verification of humanity, history, and our connectedness itself.