Visual Literacy… by way of Picasso and Hamlet.

I recently had an experience, quite by accident, that got me thinking about Art (not art). It was accidental because the conversation in which I was engaged, whose topic I had planned for, took a left turn in the most unexpected way. Perhaps “unexpected” is not the right word. When I’m engaged in “aesthetic experiences” (please note the art buzzwords) my line of thinking begins to meander and wind its way through a landscape unplanned. Unplanned but not unexpected.  Does that phrase make sense? It seems oxymoronic but I do like they way it sounds. Better, I like the way its contradictory quiddity makes me think. (As an aside, I really like the word quiddity. I probably should have remembered that word from all the Thomas Aquinas I read, and misunderstood, in grad school but I have to give credit to Simon Schama for bringing it to my attention in his book “Rembrandt’s Eyes”, a weighty tome by an author who I have to read with a dictionary within arms reach.) As usual, I digress as I am wont to do…. Back to the story.

The experience had shades of my high school experience as well. I had the great fortune to have a most excellent English teacher, Dr. Schutjer. Later she was my English professor at college. In high school she was Mrs. Schutjer. In college she became Dr. Schutjer and after my time as her student she told me, on several occasions, that I could call her Pat. I have never called her Pat. She is and always will be Dr. Schutjer. The esteem High School books stackand high regard which I have for her, for all she has done for me (most of which she will never know) precludes me from addressing her in the familiar. I have great affection for her and she is the rule by which I measure all other educators. Her intellect and heart cast long shadows, this towering giant of intellect and subtle wit fit snuggly in the delicate frame of a gentle, unassuming scholar. She taught me more than the English curriculum, of course. She is far too independent and passionate  to be limited by such mortal constraints. She taught me about a love of literature, of words, of communication of the most genuine sort. She taught me not of the Humanities but of humanity and did so with an ease and grace that now, years since, I recollect as if it were poetry. Because that’s what it was.

Of the many gifts she shared two hold fast in my memory: Satori: this word has its roots in Zen and the meager machinations of my mind can’t fully grasp its meaning (though it and quiddity may not be distant relations). I think of it as an instant realization. The other is Stream of Consciousness. My classmates and I referred to this as “random thought”. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was my painful introduction to this idea and, though having read the book, I cannot tell you what it was about. Perhaps the book wasn’t the lesson anyway. The idea stuck and has served me well over the years.

Another digression…. back to the topic, then.

I was having a conversation with some folks about visual literacy. In previous posts I have mentioned that sometimes I work with people that are beginning their great art adventure and this story is from such an occasion. The purpose was to explain the context of certain words we use in art and to help lead these fledgling image makers and craftspeople to think about context; the context of the word but also, hopefully, how we understand a thing within its context (and perhaps without as well). I try to address visual literacy in a way that non-art folks can relate to. When asked what it meant to be literate the usual definition came up: being able to read and write. Simple enough a definition but it falls short of encapsulating what literacy really means (or at least what I think it means). We examined another level of literacy. Certainly being able to read and write is important but at its basic level we are talking about recognizing and being able to reproduce symbols (letters) that form bigger symbols (words) that describe ideas. Some of those ideas are pretty basic. The symbol “D” denotes a sound. Joined with another sound symbol, “O”, the sound takes on a new meaning along with its new noise. Now the symbol means to commit an action. From noise to activity with a few scribbled shapes. A third symbol, “G”, turns that action into an animal. Interesting how pictures (letters) put images in your head along with all their meanings. You can take the same symbols and rearrange them and come up with a very different meaning. Context counts. This brings us to the level of comprehension. We can make all the noise we want and carve their accompanying lines but that is just so much scratching and gurgling without recognizing the meaning. So if I cannot understand the difference between DOG and its inverse how literate can I be? To be truly literate, in this simplified analogy, one must go just a bit further. There are associations with the symbol DOG. “Mans best friend”, loyalty, companionship, protector. These concepts can even cross cultures and time and maintain their meaning. Wasn’t Ireland’s greatest hero known as the “Hound of Ulster”? I think this is what it means to be literate. Reading and writing is basic and by definition a necessity. Comprehension is the thing created by those tools but it is the third thing, the result of the first two that makes a man literate. With this literacy comes knowledge, understanding, even empathy. To be literate one must see the whole and the parts simultaneously. Most of us, most of the time, are content with seeing the trees and miss out on the beauty of the forest. (Beauty is a whole other conundrum best left for another day but I think my little synopsis of literacy is linked somehow to beauty.)

The topic was value.So we spoke of value as dollar signs. A painting is valuable because of the price tag attached to it. This is the value that makes the news and how many people relate to art. Not everyone is familiar with art but we are all familiar with money so that is the common ground where we meet to talk about pictures on canvas or shapes carved from stone. Sometimes folks will direct me to news articles about some work of art that sold for millions of dollars and ask if it was worth it. My answer is frequently the same. The delete button is in the upper right corner of the keyboard. Tens of millions for a Warhol? With all sincerity I don’t care. If you tell me that I am out of touch with the art world or have a narrow or naive view of it you’ll perhaps see me moving my index finger toward the upper right as I think, ever so briefly, about my rebuttal. Money doesn’t move me a great deal when part of the discussion about art. In this way money doesn’t have a whole lot of value. We then turned our attention to the Mona Lisa, a work most people are familiar with. How valuable is it? A dollar figure. How about a hundred million billion dollars? That is a pleasantly ridiculous number. It’s value is cultural and historical not monetary. I’m not sure why it is so valuable. Is it because of all the other things that da Vinci accomplished and this painting must be important, too, since he made it? A shallow interpretation. It makes me think of collectors that covet any object used by someone famous. Maybe the Mona Lisa should be understood as if it were akin to a holy relic. Don’t people make a pilgrimage to the Louvre “cathedral” to see the “holy relic” of the painting by “St. Leonardo”? Maybe it is valuable because it exemplifies the major ideas that developed during the high Renaissance, executed to a high degree of excellence by the very person who discovered or developed most of them. Maybe that mysterious smile isn’t so much a smile as it is a wink linking Leo to those great Greek craftsmen who chiseled for eternity the enigmatic “Archaic Smile” across the faces of kouros and kore millennia ago. What followed, in my Joycian meanderings and stumblings, was a work by Picasso. I preface what follows with this: I don’t really like Picasso’s stuff all that much. It does not excite me (with few exceptions) and interests me only insofar as Picasso is one of those unavoidable colossuses (colossi?) of art history, like it or not. The one good painting, truly valuable painting, by Picasso is Guernica. I showed a reproduction of the painting to my small audience. “Do you know the story of Guernica?” Silence. “Painting or city…either one.” I Guernicaprompted. I thought I heard crickets. I then told stories. I often tell stories when talking about art. Sometimes those stories are directly about art though generally I’m telling stories “around” art, “near” art, “related to” art and eventually making the parts connect. I told them about a town and what happened during the Spanish civil war. I told them about the purpose of the act. I tried as best I could to describe its brutality, its irrationality, the inhumanity so characteristic of us. Some politely listened and others listened. Unexpectedly I found myself becoming a more than a little emotional as I drew the connection from Guernica to Dresden. I told them those stories, too. I shared some stories from sources close to me who had been close to what happened then. I’ll let you do your own research to track down those tales so phantastic and tragic that they had to be true. A few giggles that made me stop in disbelief for a second then I reconciled myself to thinking it was a laugh borne of disbelief and discomfort. A Guernica, Ruinenquestioning laugh of the stupefied. Speechless, only noises trickled out. I make no attempt to convince you, dear reader, that I know anything of true tragedy; certainly not of the magnitude represented by this painting or of the Guernica 3unpainted horrors that followed. As I type this self indulgent passage (of words? time?) I sit very comfortably at my kitchen table, warm, with a full belly, and Vivaldi coming from the speakers in my living room. I am a stranger to real tragedy. As our discussion progressed I knew I had to make a change of direction for the sake of the appearance of my emotional state. Guernica, Dresden, Mai Lai perhaps? Could the name of a village in Afghanistan or Iraq be inscribed beneath the black and white canvas of broken limbs and screaming animals and people by a Spanish painter? Would the words “New York” fit on that nameplate, too?

When I think of Guernica I often think of Graydon Parrish’s “The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy”. I am in no way equating these paintings but  they do seem linked. I am not going to speak of Parrish’s skill or aesthetic philosophy. I’ll leave that to those more knowledgeable than I. I also unequivocally state that if my technical skill was personified it should not be permitted within a mile of Mr. Parrish’s work. In a shallow assessment both paintings try to make tangible the subjectivity of irrationality, fear, desperation, pain…..a hopelessness that is almost palpable. But it is Picasso’s painting that moves me emotionally. Parrish engages my intellect but Picasso causes a visceral response. I try to imagine Guernica in a polished classical style. The image never materializes in my mind. It cannot. Picasso’s brutal Cubism is necessary to explore these ideas. I say brutal because Cubism”looks” violent. It takes things that are whole and breaks them. Carves, no… chops, objects into pieces like limbs from bodies. Cubism destroys, as bombs destroy, shattering what we think we know into infinite carnage. And it is in these exploded images, these frozen moments of familiar things reduced to minutiae that we come to know the thing. In this we see the forest we thought we knew as trees, we squint and see those trees as their younger sapling selves. And at the limits of our internal vision, the seeds from which the forest sprang. When we see all the parts in their totality and then see how those parts ripple out into eternity, and farther still, when we see the totality made of the infinite smallness then we know; knowing makes us whole. This knowing is literacy. To know, in it’s true sense, is a mighty and terrible thing…and the proper goal of humanity. To be literate is to be human. To be, despite our fumblings and failures, humane.

This all seems melancholy and reminds me of another experience from Dr. Schutjer’s class; from Hamlet:

Claudius: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet: Not so my lord; I am too much i’ the sun.

Perhaps I misunderstand the bard and this fellow Hamlet. But I don’t care.

How valuable is visual literacy? Let’s start at a hundred million billion.



~ by Kelson Barber on November 17, 2013.

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