Friday, September 9, 2016

Thoughts on Visual Literacy

This week, my Visual Literacy class was assigned to read chapters 1, 2, and 6 in our text, Visual Literacy: A Spectrum of Visual Learning by David M. (Mike) Moore and Francis M. Dwyer. That was a lot of reading, and many different content points were made! It was hard to select just a few that truly made me think (and relate to past experiences and knowledge) so that I could post them in this blog.

Overall, the readings for our Visual Literacy class this week forced me to think about the definition of visual literacy. I realized that this idea is far more complex than I originally thought, and there are opposing views as to what "visual literacy" truly means. Because visual literacy developed from a multitude of disciplines (including linguistics, art, psychology, and philosophy), it manifests itself differently in the minds of different people.

I particularly liked how visual literacy was described on page 22 of our text. The text states Arnheim's ideas, "...the comprehension of images cannot be taken lightly, nor do visual aids necessarily provide conditions for visual thinking. A visually literate person should be able to process information visually as well as verbally, and the processing of information visually might be called visual thinking." Visual literacy is not just being able to look at images and make sense of them; it is a way of thinking about and responding to visuals. In order to think about visual images in this way, we need to have a visual language that we can think about as well as express ourselves within. It is noted on page 26 that "Visual literacy is really training for visual thinking," separating the two processes, (and on page 109, "visual literacy," "visual thinking," "visual learning," and "visual communication" are all defined differently). However, I think they are truly interconnected. Can you think deeply, learn about, or communicate visually without a sense of visual literacy?

A painting of the relationship between visual literacy and visual thinking that I created through Paint Online... cool!

The whole discussion about the problems of defining visual literacy and what these terms mean to each person reminded me of the discussions I have had in my literacy classes at UNI. In our early language class, we discussed communication through words. We discussed how without sounds/movements (especially for ASL) and the written representations of those sounds, we would have a very tough time communicating anything. It is incredible to me that for example, many many years ago it became the rule that in our region, the /j/ sound can be represented so many different ways (as in "jam," "cage," "soldier," or "exaggerate"). When we're discussing visual literacy, we're talking about images. It is fascinating to me that some images are universal (such as the silhouette of a man indicating a men's restroom) while others are open to interpretation related to meaning (such as paintings by Jackson Pollock).

The universal men's restroom sign - Used with permission from Wikimedia Commons
Someone (not me) looking at a work by Jackson Pollock - Used with permission from Sergio Calleja (Life is a Trip) on flikr

When I was in elementary school (I can't remember which grade), my class took a field trip to an art museum that was doing a special exhibit on Grant Wood. We were given sheets of paper with the titles of different artworks on them and expected to "write our responses" to the creations. I remember feeling frustrated and confused about this assignment, as were our peers. We complained that we didn't know how we should respond because "paintings don't talk" and Wood wasn't there to explain his thinking. At the time, our visual literacy was not developed. We didn't know how to talk about what paintings symbolized, how they made us feel, or what they meant to us; we could only talk about them concretely. It would take much more experience and practice before we could meaningfully analyze art in that way! With a basic knowledge of visual literacy, would you analyze the below works of art differently?

Grant Wood's "American Gothic" - Used with permission by Wikimedia Commons

Grant Wood's "January" - Used with permission by Wikimedia Commons

Grant Wood's "The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa" - Used with permission by Wikimedia Commons
One last tidbit that I want to pull from our readings this week was the discussion about frames of reference. (This was brought up related to perception, or the "complex process by which we make sense out of our experiences," as the authors stated on page 32.) A frame of reference is the term used to describe the lens through which you experience the world around you. Your frame of reference is impacted by demographic factors (such as age, race, and religion) as well as background experiences, mood, etc. Each person's frame of reference is different because each person varies in these factors that affect frame of reference; therefore, everyone experiences the world in different ways.

Each person views the world through their own frame of reference, or colored lens - Image used with permission by Wikipedia

In the text, frame of reference is discussed in relation to perception of visual information. The background experiences and knowledge we have accumulated over our lifetimes affect how we perceive visuals. Therefore, people can vary widely in how they appreciate visual information. An example that comes to mind from my own life is the variety of symbols depicted on our uniforms in high school sports.

Excuse our haggard looks - we'd just finished a cold cross country race!

The above photo shows a symbol that looks like capital B's put back-to-back with a cross in the middle. (You can see it on my sweatshirt, Katy's long sleeve, and Katy's pants.) If you didn't have any background information, this symbol may not have meaning to you. However, Iowa City Regina cross country team members knew that this symbol was placed on our gear in remembrance of long-time inspirational and successful cross country coach Bob Brown, who passed away due to pancreatic cancer. That symbol was our reminder of a man who not only pushed through the hard times in his battle with cancer, but also encouraged others to never give up. I think most sports teams have symbols of mascots or landmarks from their schools that are depicted on their attire, but our background knowledge of Bob Brown gave our cross country symbol special meaning that others with different frames of reference may not know or understand.

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