In arts education, learning to look and interpret images is as important as learning to make them. Yet the idea of visual literacy is so often overlooked or accepted as an automatic result of having sight. Understanding the visual cues and the language that an artist uses in their work is very much a literacy, and like other literacies it must be taught or explored over time to become truly proficient in its use. The colour red means something – it has an immediate and powerful impact; a gestural, rough brushstroke dragged across a canvas conveys emotion and power; an image of an important person astride a powerful white horse reveals character and meaning. The ability to make meaning from visual stimuli is essential to communication and images make an immediate and powerful impact.
Unfortunately visual literacy has been taken for granted and in an increasingly image-driven culture this is a problem. This is where art-based education has an important role to play.
One of my goals as an art educator is to consider the relevance and application of art outside of traditional art history and art-making modes: to look at ways of reaching a broader audience in myriad ways that reflect the goals and values of artists and museums, but also those of the varied audiences that are currently engaging with the arts along with those who are not. It is a balancing act: on one side are the formal and conceptual aspects of the arts and the mandate to keep art from becoming simply a prop or décor, and on the other hand communicating and engaging audiences that may see art as just that. Mixed in with all of this is the question of whether considering art as entertainment is problematic or useful.
There are a lot of successful interdisciplinary activities that have succeeded in this. Doctors and researchers are being trained to look carefully at art to improve their diagnostic skills and bedside manner; police departments use art to gain powerful observational skills. Scavenger hunt companies have turned a museum visit into the next great adventure. Corporate trainers use art to explore body language, interpersonal dynamics and personality types. All of these ideas are exciting and have changed the way that I think about art education, and have provided new jumping-off points for a lot of program ideas.
I read recently that the average museum-goer spends approximately 17 seconds looking at each object they encounter. While this figure actually sounds like a high estimate to me, it is also concerning – the frantic pace and the volume of visual stimuli that is available to us is hard to escape, but with practice, the art of looking can offer opportunities for reflection, learning and inspiration. Visual language is beautiful, and with some time, fluency is easy to achieve.