Visual literacy is the capacity for an individual to find an interest and an appreciation, as well as to interpret and to understand, an artwork/image. An artwork/image can be a painting, a sculpture or an installation, but it can also be a movie, a moving image and everything in between. Just like a book, artwork has its own language, with an alphabet inevitably creating a vocabulary, which in turn forms a language, which is then used to fashion a vision of the art world. As readers, we have a relationship to what we see. But what is the difference between the understanding and the interpretation of a piece of art? Visual literacy will allow the reader to grasp the additional dimension of an artwork. But to unlock its meaning and the interpretation, the reader needs the proper tools and the key. A link needs to be made between the interpretation of a work of art and the understanding.
In the medieval age, cathedrals were built to display tall, colourful stained glass windows. To the Catholic Church, this was a communication strategy that allowed illiterate followers to read the Bible through the symbolism in the artwork. These windows created their own vocabulary and language that was read by the eyes of churchgoers. It was not only admired for its vibrant colour, but also for the biblical messages that were interpreted and understood. This was also a way for the Church to state its belief and ideology.
The reception and interaction between the artwork and the individual are important steps toward the meaning of the message. In many cases, it is believed that the individual can appreciate art through simple exposure. This is true on a superficial level, as the individual might appreciate the visual and aesthetic aspect of the artwork. Museums, art galleries, cultural centres and artist-run centres all contribute to embellishing our landscape with artworks. Not only do we find art in its traditional venues, but we also now find local artists exhibiting in our coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, parks, in the streets, offices, etc. It would seem that art is everywhere around us. But, do we, as individuals, take the time to look? Once we have looked, have we taken the time to read it and interpret it? Today, our reality is very different from the medieval age. We are not only exposed to images in a closed setting. The democracy of art has pushed art outside of its conventional space. As a result, we are constantly bombarded by images: on TV, on billboards, on the Internet, in store windows, etc. The constant act of looking means that we will only look at an image quickly, without necessarily taking the time to understand its meaning. The vision of the artist becomes cluttered and foggy. However, an artwork is more than something pretty to hang on a wall; it has a meaning and a message that is meant to be understood by the individual. But let us not be fooled, we can not presume that exposure alone will be enough to grasp an artwork. It is the combination of the intellectual and the practical that truly allows for appreciation.
Education is not only developing intellectual skills, but also practical abilities. This is especially true when it comes to art education. But, what are the tools we give to our children at school? How do we educate them to become art appreciators? Art education is not only about giving the tools to understand, but it is also about creating awareness. Art education is mostly about the opportunity to create and to express views, experiences and values. It should be taught in the language of visions, and give students ideas about structure, and ways and means of understanding content. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
An artwork is meant to provoke, to initiate a creative thinking process. The artist has already going through these steps and is secretly hoping the reader will do the same. Art is not only about bringing an aesthetic sense to our world, but also about bringing new ideas, pushing the envelope, arguing, discussing and reflecting. In most cases, a reader will simply look at a piece of art. They will admire the colours, the shapes, the composition and even the space where it is located. But will the reader go further? Can they go further? In many cases, there is an inability to articulate the visual experience.
An art work can generate two types of reactions. One is the act of rejection, where the artwork will simply be ignored or disliked. The second is the act of discovery and enjoyment, which will lead to further inquiry of the art work and its world. In either case, it is the encounter with the artwork that creates the initial response, that moment when one decides which category it falls into, that is what is interesting to us today. These encounters were provoked by the artwork itself, but initiated the instant the eyes looked at it. In both circumstances, there was a reaction and dialogue between the reader and the artwork. But that reaction can only be initiated if the reader goes beyond the superficial and into the nitty-gritty. This thirst for knowledge, which originated in the artwork, will lead directly to critical thinking. Art is meant to create a change, a perspective, a revolution in the world to provoke thought, to interpellate the individual, the reader, the audience, the reader. No player, art is dumb.