Rhett Gérard Poché

A blog devoted to the study of art, art history, and visual literacy.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Art—Part Two

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Sister Wendy Beckett’s response.

In 2007, Cosimo Cavallaro’s My Sweet Lord, a chocolate sculpture depicting a nude Jesus Christ, was scheduled for exhibition during Holy Week (the week before Easter).  Naturally, many Christians saw the nudity and the timing of the exhibition as a deliberate affront to Christianity.  As with public responses to Piss Christ, Cavallaro’s sculpture was labeled as obscene and blasphemous.  Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called for protests and a boycott of the Roger Smith Hotel’s LAB Gallery, the space where the work was supposed to be exhibited.  In the end, the Roger Smith Hotel was forced to cancel the exhibition.  Yet, due to the controversy, My Sweet Lord made its way onto the national stage and its viewership, once relegated to Roger Smith in New York City, became global—a sweet deal for Cavallaro.

Cosimo Cavallaro, My Sweet Lord, chocolate, 2005

CLICK HERE to watch a debate between Cosimo Cavallaro and Bill Donohue on Anderson Cooper 360° (CNN).  Also, here is Bill Donohue (with the Pope) from an episode of South Park…sorry, I could not resist.

Bill Donohue (right) on South Park

According to Bill Donohue and other critics of My Sweet Lord, the nudity, in conjunction with the sensuous/sensual nature of the chocolate, is obscene and, henceforth, blasphemous.

If you watched the video, I am sure you noticed a fundamental problem with defending Cavallaro’s work.  The artist himself seems unable (or unwilling) to defend My Sweet Lord.  I am sure Cosimo Cavallaro is a very intelligent and thoughtful artist.  Yet, his defense of My Sweet Lord, or lack thereof, is quite disheartening.  After all, one may think that if the artist cannot defend the validity of his work, then it must be impossible for we art lovers to successfully do so.  Well, I have some good news here—we can, and I will, defend Cavallaro’s work.

I believe that we viewers are responsible for providing works of art with their ultimate meaning.  The art exists with or without the artist and his or her explanations.  At some point, the artist is rendered irrelevant and viewers must complete the art by giving it meaning.  So, here is my attempt to defend My Sweet Lord and give it meaning.

  • One could see My Sweet Lord as a critique of the secularization and commercialization of Easter.  Obviously, chocolate bunnies are ubiquitous during the Lenten season. Furthermore, other candied depictions of Jesus Christ are often available for purchase and, obviously, consumption.

  • Speaking of consumption, perhaps one could interpret the edible My Sweet Lord as a symbol of transubstantiation—the Catholic belief that the Eucharistic bread and wine change into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.
  • The sculpture may be a reminder of Jesus Christ’s humanity.  The Biblical Jesus was, of course, a mortal man—someone whose body was as mortal as ours.  His human body was as fragile and as “perishable” as Cavallaro’s use of chocolate implies.
  • Similarly, the supposedly inappropriate and sacrilegious nudity is also quite defensible.  The figure’s nudity highlights his humanity.  Moreover, it is unlikely that Christ’s executioners would have accommodated his sense of modesty and decency.  They probably did not supply him with a loincloth to wear while they tortured him to death.
  • Other artists throughout history have created nude images of Jesus Christ.  In fact, we have depictions of a nude Jesus from Giotto and Michelangelo.  Would Bill Donohue threaten such venerated artists with boycotts of their work?

View the images (below) to see various works of art that depict a nude Jesus Christ.

  • Baptism of Jesus Christ, mosaic, Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century
  • Giotto di Bondone, The Baptism of Jesus, fresco, Scrovengi (Arena) Chapel, Padua, 1305
  • Michelangelo, Christ Carrying the Cross, marble, 1521
  • Passion Façade, Calvary and Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Family, Barcelona, Spain, 1987
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Filed under: Visual Literacy

Don’t Be Afraid of the Art—Part One

I have no respect for artists who intentionally offend for the sake of being offensive and, therefore, deliberately court controversy.  Yet, I am a fan of provocative art.  I love the artistic equivalent of a sucker punch—images that, according to public opinion, are “offensive” and “controversial” because they challenge our most deeply-held beliefs or force us to face difficult truths (or at least the artist’s interpretation of such truths).

I believe intellectual value can be found in most works of art, even in those deemed provocative or downright obscene.  Moreover, if one views a seemingly offensive image with a critical and analytical eye, he or she may actually encounter a meaningful, even enlightening, work of art.

When confronted with offensive images, viewers should discuss and debate rather than light the torches and storm the gates in protest.  Therefore, this post is going to encourage just that—a healthy debate—no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

My Visual Literacy students have been studying (in)famous works of art that are widely criticized as denigrating to religion, especially Christianity.  We discussed the apparent controversies, weighed various points of contention, and debated the claims of obscenity levied against Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Cosimo Cavallaro’s My Sweet Lord (among others).

In light of this discussion, I would like to encourage my readers to consider the following:

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, photograph, 1987

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ depicts a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine.  In 1989, it led the United States Senate to question why the tax-payer funded National Endowment for the Arts granted Serrano $15,000 to create the series of “obscene and blasphemous” photographs of which Piss Christ is a part.  Politicians and cultural watchdogs labeled the image as a denigration of Jesus Christ and an attack on the Christian faith.  Senator Jesse Helms even called Serrano a “jerk” on the Senate floor.

CLICK HERE to read the Congressional Record (Comments on Andres Serrano)—compiled by Julie C. Van Camp, 1997.

CLICK HERE to search Congressional Records of the 101st Congress (1989 to 1990).

The controversy has been ongoing.  Piss Christ was vandalized while on display in 1997 and 2011.   More recently, and without surprise, the image made headlines as part of an exhibition titled Body and Spirit: Andres Serrano, 1987-2012 (Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery, NYC).  The expected calls for protest and boycott ensued.

Piss Christ will always be labeled as an obscene, disgusting, and immoral attack on Christian values.  It will always instigate the righteous to protest and, again and again, Piss Christ will receive international attention (instead of fading into obscurity).

Naturally, a rather sound argument can be made in favor of seeing Piss Christ as a blasphemous attack on Christianity.  After all, the image literally depicts a crucifix in a jar of urine.  I cannot dispute that.  Yet, I can make a cogent argument in favor of stepping back from the supposed controversy and refraining from making a rush to judgment.  However, I can best make my point by deferring to the views of another, art expert and Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett.

Sister Wendy Beckett

CLICK HERE to hear Sister Wendy’s opinion of Piss Christ (Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers—WGBH-Boston, 1997).

In short, Sister Wendy says that viewers who see Piss Christ as blasphemous prefer “comforting art—art that is very easy to react to.”  She says that such works of art provide these viewers with the confidence of knowing that their interpretation is the only possible interpretation, the correct interpretation.  These comforted viewers do not appreciate challenging art that, like Piss Christ, “makes demands.”

Sister Wendy also states her opinion of Serrano and provides an interpretation of Piss Christ:

“I thought he was saying, in a rather simplistic, magazine-y type of way, that this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence.  His great sacrifice is not used.  We live very vulgar lives.  We put Christ in a bottle of urine–in practice.  It was a very admonitory work. Not a great work; one wouldn’t want to go on looking at it once one had already seen it once. But I think to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question: it could be, or it could not be.  It is what you make of it, and I could make something that made me feel a deep desire to reverence the death of Christ more by this suggestion that this is what, in practice, the world is doing.”

I completely agree with Sister Wendy.  Piss Christ could be seen as a symbol that true believers can regard as a counterpoint to their faith.  In the end, perhaps faith is best judged when provided with a counterpoint.  I see it as a binary—good/evil, heaven/hell, Christ/antichrist—such contradictory relationships are inextricably linked.  In order for one to truly see what is “good” he or she must see and understand the “evil.”

Perhaps the following article can provide an additional perspective:

CLICK HERE to read “Christ is Pissed, Again” by Hollis Phelps (Religion Dispatches Magazine, September 26, 2012).

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Do paintings sing?

Meanwhile, after Fall Break…

My Visual Literacy students had a rather engrossing conversation about race in contemporary art as seen in works by Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, and David Levinthal (among others).  We are currently screening Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and I am excited to learn what they have to say about its thematic relationship to works by the aforementioned artists.

Our investigation of race, an often complex and difficult issue, has been thought provoking and enlightening.  I am proud of my students and thank them for such a lively discussion.  Now, it is almost time for us to move on to another Visual Literacy topic—religion and the controversies that arise from religious art in the public sphere.  I will be writing posts that relate to our classroom discussions on religious art and controversy.  However, at the moment, my attention seems to be elsewhere.

For one reason or another, I am still thinking about previous posts on the connections between visual art and music.  So, to get it out of my system, it is time for another “visual-aural literacy” post.

On that note (pun intended), I now present this self-portrait by Judith Leyster:

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The portrait depicts Leyster at work as she momentarily breaks from her painting and glances toward the viewer with a smile.  It is as if Leyster warmly welcomes us into her studio.  More importantly, she allows us to see one of her paintings in progress—a smiling violinist who, like Leyster with her palette and brush, employs his own instruments, a violin and bow, to create a work of art.

Leyster’s painting obviously alludes to the relationships between painting and music, but does not significantly elaborate on the topic.  Perhaps the links between painting and music are more evident in works by James Abbot McNeill Whistler (artist) and Claude Debussy (composer).  I’m sure Judith Leyster would agree.

Whistler created paintings that he described using terms associated with music, such as “arrangement,” “symphony,” and “nocturne.”  His likely intention was to underscore the formal relationships between painting and music.  For example, both the arrangement of form and color on a canvas and the arrangement of musical notes on a page culminate in finished compositions.

Whistler said:

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose…that the result may be beautiful–as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

Such “glorious harmony” (of form and color) can be seen in Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, 1876.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, oil on canvas, 1876, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, USA / Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop / The Bridgeman Art Library

In response to Whistler’s paintings, more specifically, his “nocturnes,” Claude Debussy composed an orchestral suite titled Nocturnes (including Nuages, Fétes and Sirèns) as a “study in gray painting.”

Click here to listen to Claude Debussy’s Nuages (Clouds)

Whistler and Debussy were obviously interested in conveying the emotive qualities of their respective art forms—in how painting and music share a common aesthetic language that can be deconstructed and rearranged to express fundamental human emotions.  A painting can “sing” of heartache, joy, loneliness, and the complexities of the human condition.  Color and texture can be “seen” in music as it renders mental images that touch us in deeply personal ways.

As someone old enough to actually remember audiocassettes, I could not resist making this final visual comparison.  Click on the images for a larger view.

Left: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871, oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Right: Blown-Away Man, Maxell tape advertisement, 1980. Concept by Ed McCabe.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Supermodels

Time for more “visual-aural literacy”…and I have a question for you:

What do Kehinde Wiley and Handsome Boy Modeling School have in common?—SAMPLING!

I’ll explain…Let’s start with a track from Handsome Boy Modeling School’s album, White People.  Listen to the following track.  What do you hear?  Listen very carefully.  Do you hear any samples?

Handsome Boy Modeling School—Rock & Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) (from White People, 2004)

If you listened carefully, you likely heard the following:

Luigi Boccherini—String Quintet in E Major, Op. 11, No. 5 (1775)

Antonio Vivaldi—Concerto No. 1 in E Major, Op. 8, RV 269, “La Primavera” (Spring) (1723)

Fatboy Slim—The Rockafeller Skank (1998)

What are the implications of mixing contemporary hip hop with eighteenth-century compositions by Boccherini, Vivaldi, AND a track by Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim?  Do these samples have racial implications within the context of hip hop?  Did you hear a commentary on world history, music history, race relations, and the notion of power?

Try this—play Rock & Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) while viewing the following paintings:

Left: Jacques-Louis David. Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. oil on canvas. 1800-1. Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison
Right: Kehinde Wiley. Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps. oil on canvas. 2005. Brooklyn Museum, Collection of Suzi and Andrew B. Cohen. © Kehinde Wiley, Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Did you “hear” Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps?

In essence, Wiley’s painting investigates contemporary race relations by appropriating/sampling Jacques-Louis David and eighteenth-century motifs of power, much like Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People samples Boccherini, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Brahms.  Also, you may want to note that White People was released in 2004.  Wiley’s painting was completed in 2005.  Coincidence?

If you listened critically, you likely see exactly what the Brooklyn Museum says about Wiley’s painting:

Historically, the role of portraiture has been not only to create a likeness but also to communicate ideas about the subject’s status, wealth, and power. During the eighteenth century, for example, major patrons from the church and the aristocracy commissioned portraits in part to signify their importance in society. This portrait imitates the posture of the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte in Jacques-Louis David’s painting Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. Wiley transforms the traditional equestrian portrait by substituting an anonymous young Black man dressed in contemporary clothing for the figure of Napoleon. The artist thereby confronts and critiques historical traditions  that do not acknowledge Black cultural experience. Wiley presents a new brand of portraiture that redefines and affirms Black identity and simultaneously questions of the history of Western painting.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Drip, Drip, Drip

Everyone’s a critic, especially my Visual Literacy students.  In fact, their critical and creative thinking skills are put to the test every single class.  As discussed in previous posts, we are currently examining Marcel Duchamp’s readymades as part of a lecture series titled “What is Art?/Is it Art?”.  Our mission has been to qualify Duchamp’s “junk” (his readymades) as works of genius—artful objects that question the nature of authorship and viewership.

We will eventually turn our attention to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings which, like Duchamp’s readymades, are often met with derision and suspicion.  Detractors label readymades and drip paintings as hoaxes—ordinary objects or mad scribblings audaciously passed off as legitimate art.

Those who see Pollock’s drip paintings as illegitimate suffer from a myopic insistence that all images should follow the paradigms of objective imagery and traditional craftsmanship.  Yet, I would argue that such resistance is forgivable and even understandable.  After all, as I mentioned earlier, everyone’s a critic and, to quote Cursive, “We all know art is hard.”  However, I believe that such responses to the drip paintings are further complicated when casual viewers encounter theorists and art historians who (rightfully) use big words and even BIGGER ideas (Jungian archetypes, Primitivism, automatism, subjectivity, etc.) when analyzing Pollock’s work.

Therefore, I’m going to encourage my Visual Literacy students, especially those who see the drip paintings with suspicion, to consider one very simple, accessible framework from which they may come to understand and appreciate Pollock’s images—MODERN JAZZ.

Left: Charlie Parker; Right: Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock painting Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950. © Hans Namuth Ltd.

Modern jazz is spontaneous, improvisational, intuitive, primal, rhythmic, chaotic, and “dripping” with American cool.  The same can be said about Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.  I see an obvious connection here.  Yet, I’m not going to write about my theories as to why Pollock’s drip paintings look like visual representations of Gillespie, Monk, or Davis.  I’m saving that discussion for class.  For now, I suppose I’m more interested in simply encouraging my readers and students to appreciate the emotive and lyrical qualities of Pollock’s paintings and to do so with Charlie Parker in mind.

Listen—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Atmosphere, 1945

View—Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), enamel on canvas, 1950

© 2011 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Duchamp Reciprocated

Just for fun…

An excerpt from Duchamp’s Apropos of “Readymades”

Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961.
Published in: Art and Artists, 1, 4 (July, 1966).

One important characteristic was the short sentence which I occasionally inscribed on the “readymade.”

That sentence instead of describing the object like a title was meant to carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal.

Sometimes I would add a graphic detail of presentation which in order to satisfy my craving for alliterations, would be called “readymade aided.”

At another time wanting to expose the basic antinomy between art and readymades I imagined a “reciprocal readymade”: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board!

Even though I have read Apropos of “Readymades” about 50 times, I still wonder what a Rembrandt would look like if actually used as an ironing board.

My reimagined Rembrandt. The original is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art—Yes, there is a Rembrandt in the great state of Indiana!
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, oil on wood, 1629.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

FRESH WIDOW (not French window)

I am confident that my Visual Literacy students will be up to the challenge of discussing Duchamp’s readymades.  In fact, I think Duchamp’s work will provide us with an excellent exercise in reading and analyzing visual rhetoric.

Duchamp’s readymades investigate the notions of authorship, originality, and craftsmanship (or lack thereof).  They challenge biases that favor more “traditional” approaches to art.  Moreover, and more to the point, love him or hate him, one must note that Monsieur Duchamp was certainly generous to his viewers.

I contend that within the framework of his readymades, Duchamp allows viewers to step into the art-making process to complete his work.  In essence, viewers can embody Duchamp much like he embodied his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (Rrose is a discussion for another time).  Therefore, if viewers are part of the act of creation, if viewers relpace the artist himself, then their interpretations, ANY interpretations, become part of the work of art.  Their interpretations ARE the work of art.  In short, one can make Duchamp’s work mean whatever he or she wants it to mean.  The possibilities are endless.  That’s not so challenging, is it?

To prepare for the Visual Literacy discussion of Duchamp’s readymades, I would like to share a few common interpretations of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow—a piece he would have labeled “readymade aided”—a found object that was altered via the application of text and/or an art object that was created by hired craftspeople according to Duchamp’s specifications.

Fresh Widow is a miniature French window made from a painted wood frame and panes of glass covered with black leather.  The windowsill features the text: FRESH WIDOW—COPYRIGHT—RROSE SÉLAVY—1920.  This piece was reproduced.  Various versions exist.

© 2012 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp

Here are links to resources that provide common interpretations of Fresh Widow:

Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal provides an interpretation of Fresh Widow HERE.

MoMA’s interpretation can be found HERE.

Both MoMA and Tout-Fait provide a bit of history and, more importantly, possible interpretations, particularly gendered and Freudian interpretations, of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow.  Although I do agree with these gendered interpretations and, to some extent, their Freudian implications, Fresh Widow, like any other readymade, should be seen from various perspectives.  So, let’s move on.

In 2012, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf examined Fresh Widow in an exhibition and catalog titled Fresh Widow: The Window in Art since Matisse and Duchamp.  More information can be found HERE.  Obviously, there is something important about the nature of Fresh Widow as a miniature French window.

Fresh Widow is not an actual, life-sized French window.  As a miniature representation of a French window, one cannot enter or exit Fresh Widow with ease.  Given that this window is merely a representation of a window, it is likely that Duchamp intended to draw a parallel to other representations of windows or representations that are like windows—paintings and other works of two-dimensional art.

In accordance with the conventions of two-dimensional art, such as linear perspective, we can visually/metaphorically “enter” images as if they are windows onto actual spaces.  Yet, we cannot visually enter Fresh Widow.  The windowpanes are blocked with black leather.  The expectation of an image/scene beyond the glass is eliminated.  The window’s purpose is negated.  It is useless.  The view (the image) is vacant and “dead.”

Could these ideas be part of a visual metaphor that predicted the supposed “death” of painting during the late twentieth century?

The Duchampian notion of “trope as title” also provides additional possibilities for interpretation.  This is one of the reasons why I think his work is so appropriate for a visual literacy course.

Consider the meanings that are derived when we, like Duchamp, rearrange and/or reinterpret the descriptive term, “French window”

FRESH WIDOW=NEW WIDOW/WIDOWER (whose partner has died):

Perhaps the “new widow” is the artist himself/herself.  Perhaps art as we know it, has come to an end.  Art has died.  The widow/widower, Rrose Sélavy/Marcel Duchamp, is left without a partner (his or her art).  Additionally, we could also see this as the art left behind after the passing of the artist.  Can the widow/widower (as the art or the artist left without a partner) remarry?  Does this second marriage represent the theory that viewers can replace Duchamp (the irrelevant or “dead” artist) in the art-making process?

FRESH WI(N)DOW=FRESH PAINTING=NEW FORM OF ART:

Theoretically, as mentioned earlier, paintings can be seen as analogous to windows.  Perhaps the “fresh painting” is a new form of art—art that does not require manual craftsmanship because it is made with the mind, not with the hand (like a readymade).  Could this allude to the advent of purely conceptual art?

FRESH WIDOW=CLEVER WIDOW=CLEVER ARTIST (whose art has died):

Duchamp wanted viewers to consider the word play almost always evident in the titles given to readymades.  Readymades can be seen as intellectual games and Duchamp was the cheeky gamemaster.  We should play along.

To recap the above interpretations, I have created a “Visual Essay” that I think represents and explains many of the aforementioned theories regarding the meaning of Fresh Widow.  In some cases, images do speak more loudly than words.  Please feel free to comment.

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• Marcel Duchamp. Fresh Widow. Miniature French window, painted wood frame, and panes of glass covered with black leather. 1920. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

• Artist Unknown. Woodcut from Eyn schön nützlich büchlin und underweisung der kunst des Messens (A Fine, Useful Booklet and Instruction in the Art of Measurement) by Hieronymus Rodler, 1531.

• Film still from Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1954. Paramount Pictures.

• Andrea Mantegna. St. Mark. oil on canvas.1447-1448. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

• René Magritte. The Human Condition. oil on canvas.1933. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

• Jan Van Eyck. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail). oil on panel. 1415. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

• Illustration from De pictura. Leon Battista Alberti. 1435.

• René Magritte. The False Mirror. oil on canvas.1928. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Why are you L.H.O.O.Q-ing at me like that?

In conjunction with a lecture titled, “What is Art?/Is it Art?,” my Visual Literacy students will be discussing the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.  They will also be making their own readymades and blogging about their projects—Holy Cross College Visual Literacy Blog Project.

While I fully expect a classroom full of open eyes and minds, I know this will be the first time many of my students, especially the non-art majors, will ever see Duchamp’s work.  I also know that introductions to Duchamp can be a bit challenging, to say the least.  In response to Duchamp’s readymades, I often receive comments like:

“That dude made art out of a TOILET!”

“If I doodle on a picture of Mona Lisa, does that make me an artist too?”

“Poché, are you serious?”

Yes, I’m totally serious.

Duchamp’s readymades tend to activate certain biases that favor more “traditional” art.  Many students attempt to disregard Duchamp by summoning visions of Van Gogh, Picasso, and—sigh—Thomas Kinkade.  They were “real” artists…right?  They made art about things people actually care about.  More importantly, their works of art were handmade.  Anyone can turn a urinal upside down and call it art—NO SKILL REQUIRED!…right?

Like I said, challenging, to say the least.

Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Image courtesy of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Filed under: Visual Literacy

Visual Essay

To continue my explanation of Visual Literacy and open a discussion that will mirror those common in my Visual Literacy class, I would like to encourage readers (that’s you) to flex their skills of interpretation.

Please read my “visual essay.”  You will find it in the slide show (below).  I composed this essay with seemingly disparate images that appear to be unrelated.  Yet, I contend that these images are related and that they can be interpreted (individually or collectively) as presenting a common theme.

The slide images are numbered #1 to #3.  If I were you, I would see these images like words in a sentence.  Read them in order (from #1 to #3) and consider the meaning of each individual image.  Then, put the images together.  Form a “sentence” that interprets the images as a whole.

I suspect your interpretation will be similar to my own.  Yet, it is quite possible that you will have a COMPLETELY different understanding of what my visual essay says.  I am open to any and all interpretations.  I would really like to see where our interpretations match and where they differ.

Please feel free to share your interpretations in the “Leave a Reply” section (public) or in the “Comment” section (private).  You could even offer potential titles for my visual essay.  After I receive a few comments, I will likely provide my own title and interpretation.

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F.Y.I.—These are the images you will find in my visual essay…always give proper credit where credit is due:

#1. Félix González-Torres. Untitled (Perfect Lovers). clocks, paint on wall. 1991, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Dannheisser Foundation, © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York

#2. Damien Hirst. The Kingdom. tiger shark, glass, steel, silicone and formaldehyde solution with steel plinth. 2008, Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

#3. Käthe Kollwitz, Death Seizing a Woman. lithograph 1934, © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Filed under: Visual Literacy

What is Visual Literacy?

If you are a visitor to this blog who is not a student in my class, you are probably asking yourself—“What is Visual Literacy?”  I’ll do my best to explain.  Yet, before I do so, I would like to direct you to the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).  The IVLA’s website features a thorough definition of Visual Literacy in addition to various resources devoted to this very important skill.

Here is how I see Visual Literacy:

Visual Literacy applies to many different disciplines and is essential to living a well-rounded life of the mind.  In fact, the pluralistic nature of Visual Literacy mirrors the common human need to understand the images we encounter on a daily basis.

If we are unable to decode or “read” images, we fall victim to a form of illiteracy that is similar to the inability to read the written word.  Visual Literacy is a skill that gives us the capacity to understand the language of images so that we may recognize and appreciate the important cultural concepts they present.  Furthermore, I think Visual Literacy affords individuals the opportunity to view visual culture (art, design, film, advertising, websites, etc.) from three distinct perspectives—as spectators, critics, and/or artists.  The visually literate, despite their roles in the making or viewing of visual culture, are able to understand visual information from all three perspectives.

As spectators and critics the visually literate view images with a critical eye.  They can interpret or “read” images with an expanded knowledge of the artistic processes, cultural concepts, and historical factors that shape their creation.  Moreover, those who are not image-makers are able to place themselves in the position of artists.  They understand the relationship between craft and content, and learn to appreciate the artist’s ability to create with his or her hands as well as with his or her mind.

I love teaching ARTS 100—Visual Literacy:  How to “Read” Art and Culture.  Creating and teaching this course has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career.  My job is to provide students with the keys to unlocking and demystifying art—to show them that they have complete access to the “secrets” of visual information.  It really is akin to teaching a second language.  I savor the moment when students realize they are fluent in art and other forms of visual culture, and that this very special language will enrich their lives for years to come.

On another note, I must also confess that I do take great pleasure in using my course to recruit potential Visual Arts majors and convert those who have declared themselves as majors of a more “practical” discipline—I’m talking to you, Business majors.   You know, a double major in Business and Visual Arts sounds like a good idea to me.  Maybe even a Visual Arts minor?

Filed under: Visual Literacy

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