Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Death of the Democratic Dream?

Walter Benjamin claims that though the masses now have access to High Art (thank you Google Images!), the fact that they don't appreciate that Art, leads to the conclusion that the Egalitarian Dream is dead.

The story:

1. High Art was once only available to the elite.

2. The elite enjoyed High Art, and the masses felt slighted.

3. With the advent of the Internet, High Art all of sudden became available to the masses, but the masses rejected it!

4. The caviar wasn't as delicious as it looked, so to say. (Berger gives evidence to support this in "Ways of Seeing").

5. So, because the masses no longer really care to enjoy High Art, the democratic dream of art for all is no more.

But I say, let us not give up so easily! Let us instead teach the masses the tools necessary for appreciation. Aesthetic appreciation is a skill, like any other, that must be honed. You can give someone the best wood, nails and paint in the world, but without the proper tools and knowledge, that wood, nails and paint will never become a house. Similarly, you can throw the world's greatest art objects onto anyone's computer screen, but without an understanding of what exactly needs to be appreciated, the person in front of that computer screen will doubtlessly be turned off.

And, I say, to all us educators, it is up to us to teach this sense of appreciation! Such responsibility can no longer fall into the hands of art and music teachers alone, if for no other reason than that the current recession is forcing those teachers out of our schools.

Much like how, several years ago, the focus of English Education switched from teaching students to analyze classic novels to teaching students to love reading, we must all set about to instill our curriculum with some sense of "love" for art. Of course, this may be easier for liberal arts courses like English and History, but as we have seen at the Medical Lab, biological images have an aesthetic quality too! Even Mathematics, with that beautiful golden ratio which presents itself everywhere in nature, can become an opportunity to impart a little culture to our classes.

And what happens if we don't help create an appreciation for High Art in our students? Well, then they resort to this as their only interaction with art.

Visual Literacy Today

I think you'd be hard pressed to find a person today who could not "read" this image. Its structure is simple. Its meaning, undeniable.
This image tells us something.

This image is telling us, quite clearly, what is permissible and what is not. Furthermore, assuming that we are people who tend to follow the established rules, this image will is also telling us how to act.

I hold that this image is as affective, if not more affective, than a sign that reads: "No Cell Phones."

Now, like Elkins, I think we all "hope that images are not a language, and pictures are not writing" (128). But when confronted with the abundance of expressive images we see today, and the move towards using images to convey thought, it's hard to deny the possibility that one day our hope may only exist as a dusty old photograph.

Of course, by the dictionary definition (well, at least according to the dictionary definition found on my MacBook) images will never be a language, for language is a, "method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way."

Case closed. Hope saved.

But, weren't hieroglyphics also a language, primitive as it may have been? And wasn't that system just a system of symbolic images? (This was astutely detailed in a presentation on the last day of class, so I won't go any further. But you get the point...)

Elkins can hope and pray all he wants. It's still possible that language is de-voloving.

If you want proof, go to any Fast Food restaurant and see how much reading of words you have to do to order your food.

It's all just images and numbers.
But what about something a little more sophisticated than food?
What about for conveying information that will helps save lives?

Even the manuals giving directions on how to open the
emergency door in case of a plane crash are given entirely in

So, maybe literacy is de-volving into something simple.
Something image-based. And maybe it's not. Instead of
answering this question (because there is no easy answer)
let us look at something a bit different. Let us look at the
visual literacy of the youth.

In an attempt to analyze visual literacy, I'd like to use an
example of a sign I saw at Columbia's Butler Library a
couple weeks ago. In the library, next to the circulation
desk, there is a sign that says, essentially, no cell phones at
the circulation desk. But instead of the phrase,
"cell phones" there is an image. And as you may
have guessed, the image used is that of a cellular device.

What you may not have guessed is that the image used in
lieu of "cell phone" is a very specific type of cellular device.
It is a smart phone.

(If you don't know the difference between a smart phone
and a cell phone, ask any teenager. They will all know the
difference between the two because they will have seen the
difference advertised ad infinitum on subway posters, on tv, in
magazines, etc.)

Though the term "cell phone" is an umbrella term which
includes "smart phone,"there is certainly a difference between
the two.

So, while the sign at Butler may mean to say, "No Cell
Phones at the Circulation desk,"what it is actually, more
accurately, stating is, "No Smart Phones at the Circulation desk."
And because the technology imbedded inside a smart phone
is different than that of a regular cell phone, it is not
unreasonable to image a scenario in which cell phones would
be okay, but smart phones would not.

Given that, it is possible that someone, like an adolescent
subway goer, who is well versed in advertising will read
the poster more accurately than, say, the individual
employed by Columbia University who created the sign.

My point: visual literacy develops in youth "naturally"
through interaction with visual media, namely the internet
and advertising. Which is to say, people learn visual literacy
much the same way they learn regular literacy, by interacting
with their environment. There is noneed to teach visual literacy.

Remember, though: visual literacy in no way suggests
an aesthetic appreciation! That is a topic for another post.

The Contemporary

They say that Aristotle was the last person to understand the entirety of his culture. They go on to say that today's modern human lives in a world that is just too complex for one person to fully grasp.
Aristotle, they might conclude, was the world's last, true contemporary.
Now, I don't know exactly who this "they" are, and I'm not so sure where one would even begin in an attempt to collect a complete understanding of the zeitgeist today, even if for only one fleeting moment, but I do know this: there was at least one contemporary artist, by Agamben's standards, whose work was showcased at the Armory Show this year.

The contemporary, Agamben argues, not only refuses to adjust to the new world, but also, almost by definition, must sit at least a little outside of that which is "in vogue". The contemporary must be a witness of the time we live in, and how can we witness and observe that which we are immersed in?

So, sitting outside the circle of popular art, the contemporary observes and comments. The artist at this year's Armory to whom I am referring did his commenting through his art:

The image above, in the shape of a neon circle, reads simply enough, "The true artist makes useless shit for rich people to buy."

This work, as far as I noticed, was the only piece that commented not only on the state of High Art today, but also on the Armory Show itself!

And interestingly enough, as I stood there, a few feet off to the right, I watched countless people come up the work, drawn in by the bright neon lights. Their necks craned around the circle, reading in an attempt to discover just who the "true artist" was. And more than once, when the viewer finally read the end of the sentence–neck now fully strained–he or she, miffed and mumbling, immediately left the gallery without further comment.

I guess it's also true that the Contemporary is often times also unpopular.

Sexualized Images at the Armory Show

Walking the floor of the Armory Show with a discerning eye, I happened to notice that there were numerous paintings, sculptures and photographs of nude models. And I'm sure it says something about my sterile, suburban upbringing, but the only nude image I snapped a picture of that day was the cartoonish drawing to the left. Doubtlessly, it was some invisible fetter of socialization that kept me from taking pictures of more nude images, even though as I passed naked body after additional, naked flesh, I noticed a pattern that I wanted to write about.

The pattern was simple. Obvious. To be expected. The nude figures portrayed were largely, and of the vast majority, female. Male nudes were not only rare, but even when they did surface, they were often presented in such a way as to be devoid of sexuality and instead wrought with a basic sense of anatomy. This was not always the case with the ladies.

Many of the female nudes certainly did lack sexualization (which some say may be the difference between art and pornography) but still, many others did not demurely hide behind such a lack. Of course, I'm begging a question that has been begged countless times before: is the objectification of the female body art or exploitation, or some sort of exploitative art?

In class, the merit of the voyeur / photographer snapping posterior photographs of unsuspecting women was called into question. I'm not sure if an answer was ever given. But let's leave that example aside for a moment, because the unwillingness of models calls all kinds of further objections into play. In fact, let's leave the whole tiresome question of art v. porn aside as well.

Instead, I would like to focus solely on the image I was not too shy to take a picture of that day: the image of the 50's pinup girl batting her big eyes over a curved shoulder, showing the slightest crescent of her bottom.

Nearing the end of my time at the Armory Show, having seen maybe 15 representations of naked females, I pored through the digital photos I had collected and decided, quite certainly, that the cartoon seen above was the most sexually charged image of the day. Even when pitted against a live nude, in all the glorious and glossy light that film can capture, the cartoon was the most, well, explicit.

You may argue that this type of qualification is moot because it is based entirely on my subjective view point, and in doing so, you'd have a valid point. But hear me out.

Let's set the image of the young woman aside for a moment, and focus instead on the text. This person (who, again, for the time being is invisible to us) is saying, or rather, because of the exclamation points, yelling, or maybe even moaning, "Ohhh! Dan!" It is my belief that the text instills this simple image, which is comprised of only a few simple, curved lines, with a feeling that the other photographs, which lacked text, lacked. When the artist gave the character (who should still be invisible to us by the way!) words, s/he gave her desire! And with that desire, the image becomes human.

Moreover, and this is my favorite aspect of this image, in addition to the text bubble, right below the "Ohhh! Dan!" is a phrase that has been erased, of which only a trace remains! Set aside Deconstructivism for a moment too–I don't care how sexy Derrida may or may not be! Instead, focus on the trace of the missing words as something much simpler: a mystery. And think, what's sexier than the unknown?

The above two paragraphs were a very quick argument for the sexuality of the cartoon above. If, however, you do happen to agree with me, even if only a little, I would like to point out one further thing about the sexy cartoon woman. And that one thing is that it amazes me how simple it is to create a sexualized image. Just take a few simple curved, a pair of big ole eyes, and a suggestive posture (imbued with some charged text) and you have sex in a sketch!

Moreover, the fact that you do not need an accurate representation to create sexuality, leads me to my favorite discussion topic of all: truth versus illusion! To avoid being verbose, I will sum up with a thought: is (sexual) fantasy more desirable to today's modern human than (sexual) reality? Is this cartoonish image perhaps one small piece of evidence that suggests that maybe, yes, it is?

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I enjoy visual media.
Images tickle my fancy and my eyeballs, so to say.
More importantly though, I have–as I understand the word–an aesthetic appreciation of images.

What I do not have is an understanding of how to best teach this image appreciation to my high school students. Certainly, I feel comfortable talking about theme in a painting or stylistic choice in a photograph. I would like to learn, however, to go beyond these topics and talk about 1. how one "learns" to enjoy an artistic image and 2. how images create the world and culture in which we find ourselves living. In other words, I'm hoping to gather an understanding of how what we see affects (and effects) our world, how to live within that image-driven world, and how to share this understanding with others.

...a few words about me...

As an undergraduate student my academic focus was varied and my interests were unsettled. During the four years I spent studying at The College of New Jersey my major field of study jumped from Biology to Psychology, Psychology to Philosophy, and then after some time finally settled in English Literature.

After graduation I took the only position available (and agreeable) to a Literature Major with a Minor in Philosophy: I taught English and Psychology at a nontraditional, private school.

Today I am enrolled in Teachers College's Teaching of English Master of Arts program.

...a picture of me...