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Visual Literacy & Art Meritocracy

Textual Literacy

There are multiple levels of textual literacy. Its base level requires an individual’s recognition of agreed upon elementary rules for word definitions, grammar, and syntax. Those who fail to understand these basic concepts, we typically classify as illiterates.

Beyond this fundamental level, literacy becomes an exercise in experience: experiencing different combinations and permutations of textual elements with increasing complexity. An understanding of simple sentence structure expands to complex sentence structure; word meaning expands from literal definition to literal and figurative definition; narrative form expands from linear to non-linear structure; etc. And while there may not be a rigid curriculum for literacy development, most people agree that practice makes perfect—the theory being that the more one reads, the more comfortable one becomes with the breadth of its language.

It follows that if literacy is dependent upon the quantity of experience, it is also dependent on quality. Because our textual language is unbelievably complex in its literal and subjective differentiation, exposure to variations of its use helps develop a higher level of literacy. Has one read Joyce, Eliot, or Chaucer in addition to Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling? Has one read fiction, non-fiction, sociology, history, and philosophy, in addition to grocery lists, road signs, instruction manuals, and legal contracts? Is the reader familiar with multiple contexts as a result?

In order to scrutinize more sophisticated variations of text, these experiential variables become important assessment tools. Since the quantity of literary documents exceeds our ability to read them all, there will never be a “complete” literacy. The best we can do is to equate literacy to literary experience.

Other Forms of Literacy

Can literacy be applied to other kinds of experience? Could we define cigarette literacy for example?

Suppose I were to manufacture a new brand of cigarettes. I approach two different smokers for their opinions. The first (Subject A) has only smoked two brands of cigarettes: Marlboro Lights and Camel Lights. Upon trying my cigarettes, he proclaims: “These are the best cigarettes I’ve ever tasted! I rank them number one!” The second test subject (Subject B) is a worldly type; she’s made an effort to try every brand of cigarette she’s encountered. Tasting my cigarettes, she responds: “These are excellent cigarettes! Number 150, closely behind A, B, and C; much better than D, E, F, and …. Wonderful job!”

Based on each subject’s background, I’d probably conclude that Subject B was the more literate of the two. And if there were a Subject C, a non-smoker, well, I’d go so far as to call them cigarette illiterate.

Naturally, for all three subjects, the question of literacy depends upon their own subjective experiences. While the discrepancy between sophisticated literacy and objectivity can be debated ad nausea, given a choice among the test subjects, I’d value B’s opinion above the rest. For when it comes to subjective opinion, a highly literate smoker might be able to tell you the nuanced difference between Marlboros manufactured with Virginia tobacco and Marlboros made from North African tobacco, much the same way a highly textually literate individual could differentiate one poet’s idiosyncratic flavor against another’s.

I’ll get back to the idea of literacy, subjectivity, and objectivity later, but consider for now that the same literacy model could be applied to virtually all modes of experience: automobile literacy, potato literacy, boy-band literacy, etc.

Visual Literacy

The concept of visual literacy is, in theory, no different from its textual counterpart, yet somehow, the former seems fraught with hefty cultural stigmas absent in the latter’s case. Being a textually dependent culture, textual literacy tends to be an individual’s most sophisticated and familiar literacy type. And although, the development of a visual literacy in Western culture begins almost automatically at a very young age, we must not forget that it remains a learned (and rather formalized) literacy.

Because of our textual immersion, we are fairly comfortable with the notions of textual literacy. When an individual claims familiarity with books, we can safely assume he’s referring to their textual content—not their existence as shelved objects. While almost absurd as an example, this very misinterpretation applied to visual texts occurs frequently, where having eyes and being familiar with the existence of paintings as paint-covered objects constitutes an accepted basis for painting literacy.

Sadly, this cannot be the case. Visual texts are no less complex than textually based ones. Color, for example, possesses a complicated grammar and syntax of its own, as does composition, surface, and dimensionality. Furthermore, visual texts take the shape of various idiosyncratic media, each with its own additional textuality.

The one major difference between visual texts and written texts is that the former does not preclude the individual from gaining experience without a base literacy. Without the knowledge that nouns are, verbs do, and adjectives and adverbs qualify, written texts are inaccessible. With visual art, however, we are immersed in its world the moment we open our eyes, and the distinction between experience and literacy becomes rather blurry. This phenomenon fosters a commonly accepted stigma that visual literacy is as subjective as first-person perspective.

In my opinion, this problem of experience without base literacy predisposes the individual to endorsing such stigmas. More often than not, it’s the widespread adherence of these stigmas that erroneously taint the interpretation of visual art with so much controversy and demerit.

Are these stigmas reconcilable? Potentially, but only when sophisticated visual texts permeate culture as ubiquitously as our written texts do.

[A TANGENT: At the moment, photography becomes an interesting example. Compared to other visual media, the advent of digital technology encourages its use dramatically. Disincentives like cost and delayed gratification will soon become issues of the past. Most likely, digital photography will integrate into common communication practices with near textual ubiquity. Furthermore, increased experience will raise the average level of photo-literacy and encourage more curious amateur practitioners to investigate the language at higher levels of sophistication.]

The Subjective Calculus

Why is a discussion of visual literacy relevant? Personally, I think it has a lot to do with a cultural double standard that occurs when assessing the merit of visual art in comparison with acceptable norms of literary critique. Because base textual literacy is culturally prevalent whereas base visual literacy is not, the criticism of the former is culturally accessible and the later, widely questioned, when, in fact, the same calculus is at work.

Beyond a base literacy, assessing the merits of a new creative work is done by comparison. Is this book better or worse than what I’ve read? On what levels? Like the cigarette example, the more experience one has, the more informed one’s criticism becomes. This is not to say that personal biases don’t affect assessment in a subjective manner, but on a mass scale, repetitive biases become recognizable critical lenses. An informed reader can identify these biases and dismiss its subjective slant appropriately. Furthermore, we can only compare like merits, which for visual art, typically means a consideration of context. We do not ask whether Eliot was a better poet than Keats or Shelley, because the literary landscape that contextualizes their unique merits is not comparable. Rather, we concede that they were all poets who represent the highest level of literary merit.

The closest we have to objective criticism in both literary and art worlds alike is a subjective calculus. We understand that someone’s subjective opinion gains merit by virtue of their literacy level. A literary critic who’s read upwards of ten thousand books, with a formal education in literature and literary criticism, will, due to her literary experience, have a more acute basis for comparison, even though it remains inherently subjective.

Likewise, a curator of painting at the Museum of Modern Art will have seen thousands upon thousands of paintings before gaining any authority to select what becomes accessible to the viewing public. The difference here is that the gap between the curator’s literacy and that of the viewer is exponentially greater than that of the literary critic and the average reader.

Why? Well, base visual literacy aside, visual art is not catered to mass media conduits. It operates under a different distribution paradigm. Books, music, and films exist as mass-multiples where each reproduction is an authentic original. But in order to see a specific painting, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, for example, you have to go to New York or wait until it travels geographically closer. Photoreproductions are not authentic originals, except perhaps in the case of photography. In the case of painting, photoreproductions fail completely at describing the textured surfaces and colors accurately. The reproduction doesn’t allow you to vary your distance from the work, to come up close to investigate the painter’s choice in brushes or technique.

And it doesn’t stop there. Not all art is reproduced. Even if you subscribe to Art Forum, Art in America, Art Review, Frieze, ArtReview, and a slew of other art mags, you might glimpse one painting reproduced from thirty in a show, out of three hundred shows occurring that month. The reproduction lag for widely distributed catalogues is even greater, where a contemporary artist might only enter the book-store distribution sphere after ten years of being in the contemporary art sphere.

The result is that visual art literacy requires serious effort. It is difficult to attain, and as a result of its distribution infrastructure, is not widely accessible. Those who try to broaden their visual literacy beyond what’s leaked out in the mass-media sphere are labelled “art snobs”. The sad truth is that the general public is—by no fault of their own—rather illiterate visually.

Painters’ Painters and Poets’ Poets

The gulf between levels of literacy usually results in two distinct worlds of “good” art: popular art and art-snob art. To avoid the negative stigmas of the latter category, consider the commonly used expressions “painters’ painter” and “poets’ poet”. In both cases, the expressions are used to differentiate practitioners already in the public sphere. Where Jackson Pollock might have been more culturally accepted as being the “best” painter of the Abstract Expressionists, among painters, figures like Franz Kline or Willem De Kooning might be considered more significant. They are more frequently labelled “painters’ painters”.

Pollock’s widespread acclaim results as much from his painting ability as it does the public awareness of it. All three painters are in the public sphere, but Pollock perhaps is the only one in the mass-media sphere. Both Kline and De Kooning are accessible artists, but compared to Pollock, seeing their art requires a desire to see more paintings than the mass-media forces upon its viewership.

As a result, knowing about Pollock, and knowing about all three painters—or all Abstract Expressionists—constitutes two distinct degrees of literacy. For the most part, base modern-art literacy consists of the Van Gogh-Picasso-Pollock-Warhol-Basquiat-Hirst myth. But while the myth represents an important through-line in modern art history, it is an insufficient basis for making literate claims about painting.

Probing Beyond The Art Myths

Art-myth figures seep into the collective conscious for a variety of reasons. I’ll generalize slightly: Pollock for being America’s first art-hero, during an era when American nationalism was priority one. Andy Warhol for identifying with hyper-accessible American subject matter—for painting America’s favorites Elvis, Marilyn, Jackie, and Campbell’s Soup with a very American, assembly-line, philosophy. Others like Damien Hirst burst into the media due to heavy-handed controversial aesthetics. All of them succeeded—in the media at least—for being sellable caricatures. Do these publicized figures represent the scope and sophistication of art produced at the time? Only partially. But do they deserve the attention? For the most part, yes.

I mentioned “Painters’ Painters” specifically because it responds to the myth that meritocracy within the sphere of visual arts is nonexistent, that subjective assessment prevents deserving artists from being rewarded. One does not become an “Artists’ Artist” without merit. It is a title representing the respect of one’s peers, usually among the most visually literate. Furthermore, it operates outside the realm of market and media dynamics, which misconstrue marketability and price-tags as objective notions of success.

If the two spheres of visual art literacy weren’t so polarized, the “Artists’ Artist” title would just be dropped altogether: we’d simply call them “the best”.

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