Why, in a world of visual saturation, where everyone is their own marketer, are only a handful of individuals visually literate?

Instagram is used to post over 55M photos and videos every day, but interestingly the photo is still viewed more than the video.* This does not include snapchat, Facebook, Pinterest or TV. So in a culture which is so preoccupied with visuals, where we will freely judge, discriminate, and obsess about how we and others look, or how we pretend we look? Why isn’t analysing and understanding visual language taught in every school in the world?

Prior to the invention of photography in the 1800s, the world of images was left to the artist. For thousands of years artists had attempted to produce meaningful works capturing the likeness. Artists were striving for a sense of perfection, to inspire, to service religion, to evoke emotion.

When I asked a Year 13 student what God looked like , she told me “He is an old man with a big white beard.”

“Have you seen him?” I asked.

“No!” she laughed.

“So how do you know what he looks like?”

She could not answer. Maybe, I explained, because of Art History and how he has been represented over centuries, particularly by the Renaissance artists, as an old white man with a white beard. Maybe because that image has been ingrained in common culture? We underestimate the importance of History of Art in our digital age. We have forgotten the part it has played in the knowledge we have, which we now take for granted.

Yet when I dare to venture into Facebook (or Face-ache as I like to call it), I see image after image of people’s lives, of their thoughts and dreams and their perfection. So when everyone is marketing themselves, and images are playing an even bigger role in our society, where you can be famous and make a substantial living just from your image, why are we not teaching image analysis and understanding?

I want my students to ask why they feel they have to look a certain way. I want my students to understand why they make assumptions about the way someone else looks. I want them to question why they think that a particular brand in the supermarket is better than another brand. To know why they feel an urge to purchase something they have seen in an advert. To understand why they want to post an image of themselves looking a particular way, and what that is saying about them to others. I want them to critically th­ink through their world, not to be visually blind.

Brian Kennedy who is currently the Director of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio says, “It’s as important to be visually literate, to understand pictures and how they affect us, as it is to be word-literate.” It’s a form of critical thinking and a universal language that, he argues, is more necessary than ever in today’s digital age. New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith agrees that we need to place more emphasis on visual learning. “While society expects us to develop a high level of verbal literacy,” she says, “visual literacy and visual IQ are essentially perceived as useless.”

Some would argue that we are all naturally visually literate and that anyone can read an image. Kennedy says there is a distinct difference between looking and seeing. “If visual literacy is the ability to read, write, and comprehend visual language, then looking at an image is similar to skimming a text while seeing an image is comparable to reading it.”

As a society we need to be critically thinking about the images that are surrounding us. We live in a world where media saturates every corner of our lives. We base our views, our looks, our truths upon this. We have more choice of content than at any point in history, yet we seem to have our exposure funnelled into a narrower viewpoint than ever before.

The algorithms used by social media giants mean that it is too easy to exist in an echo chamber, where only those sources and ideas that support our existing understanding and beliefs are visible, and lead to confirmation bias rather than questioning and critical thinking. We are in danger of limiting and reinforcing our own beliefs not challenging beliefs, but accepting all that comes across our screens.

In a world where media is everything, particularly for our present generation, is it not important to get rid of the idea that visual language is only for those who are good at art? Or for the communities who hang around galleries? Visuals language is the ultimate form of communication. Shouldn’t we give it more educational importance?




By Nicky Lewis