Visual literacy generally is defined as the ability to interpret and make meaning from information presented in image form.
The concept of understanding signs and symbols dates to prehistory. Indeed, the ancient cave drawings in Lascaux, France, more than 17,300 years old, are some of the earliest forms of visual literacy. But in our media-saturated world, what exactly does visual literacy mean?
People today must process a complex stew of signs and symbols to navigate both the physical and digital world. We stream photos endlessly, digest ever-increasing amounts of information, grapple with how to comprehend and simplify that data, create new forms of visual communication 😉 and more. How, then, does the visual aptitude of modern man translate into our experiencing of art?
Much like comprehension of sentence structure for the written word, the ability to see deeper meaning in visuals requires an understanding of the components that make up visual communication. The recognition of elements like color, line, space, shape and texture, together with a grasp of design principles such as balance, harmony, proportion and unity, enables viewers to move from merely looking at art to truly seeing it.
The Toledo Museum of Art has launched a visual literacy initiative intended to educate museumgoers about how visual literacy works and how to master it in order to gain deeper meaning from visual, image and graphic content. The Art of Seeing Art™ presents a cyclical process for viewing imagery: look > observe > see > interpret > analyze > describe (then back to look). The museum has created special tours, workshops, tools for educators as well as video and other content to further the curriculum.
In NYC, the Museum of Modern Art recently announced a shift from the conventional silos of discipline or medium to a more inclusive, cross-disciplinary approach. This allows curators to show visitors how movements and schools evolved in a broader context. For instance, MoMA’s current exhibition, From the Collection: 1960-1969, presents design alongside art, sculpture, and printmaking, displaying how each object is related to others created during the same time frame. Such a paradigm shift represents just one of the fresh ways the role of design is being acknowledged in art’s history.
We’ve written several Thinking pieces about the realities facing museums today: consumers, technology, communication and shifting values. Just as the notion of the dumb consumer is over, so is the idea that “consuming” art requires skills beyond the vision of the average public.
Advancing visual literacy is not only something that should drive art museums to evolve; it’s an evolution they should be driving.