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Visual Literacy And The Arts In

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Visual Literacy and the Arts in Modern Education Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, and generate original, as well as generally acknowledged, meaning from images. To put it more succinctly, it is the capacity to deduct meaning and messages from visual information and images (Giorgis 1). It is pivotal to the graphic arts but is often seen as “peripheral to the ‘real business’ of school and schooling” (Dimitriadis 361). Current issues in education often involve how to develop literate students. Students acquire the necessary skills to understand the meaning in texts and be able to produce their own puissant writing as well. Arguments concerning literacy are centered almost exclusively on written text and this is the only definition of literacy in which most are exposed to. However, we live and work in a visually oriented society in which the idea of being visually literate remains extraneous to the mainstream definition of an educated person. Our current culture is one in which we are subjected daily to images in every form, and over- saturated with pictorial advertising, both informative and misleading. The importance of visual literacy as an important aspect of critical thinking in present times becomes clear in the face of such prolific output. It has been traditionally placed in the realm of fine arts, taught as a component of art and, specifically, design. The popular mode of thought is that one either has some artistic talent that includes visual literacy or does not, but it is rather a skill that can be taught, much like reading. Visual literacy should be an integral part of a modern education and it should be central to the contemporary definition of literacy. It is estimated that almost half of the knowledge we acquire is through visual means, pointing to its relevance beyond traditional art education (Krauth). When budget cuts become necessary, schools often mark arts programs as the first to be cut. They regard education for the humanities as an extravagance that is not so important when money is scarce, yet financial constraint is not the only threat. In our current education system, school curricula are designed around state mandated tests. It is no wonder then that time dedicated to arts education and visual literacy is often seen as time taken from more important studies, specifically those that states test for. With strict limits on time and money, visual literacy and education for the arts has become a luxury that schools cannot or will not afford. The idea that arts education is only a frivolity isn't new. Booker T. Washington argued that only once the African-American community had begun to achieve a certain prosperity should the arts be added to their education (Washington 17). Nevertheless, the concept that visual literacy is inessential to an effective education ignores the preponderance of art, visual communication and the necessity of visual literacy. The earliest known paintings and drawings are roughly 14,000 years old. Prosperity, it would seem, is not a precondition for a culture of rich visual communication.
Rather than supporting visual literacy and arts education, though, the ubiquity of the arts and visual forms can serve as a logical argument against it. If people are making art regardless of their education and economic stature then why should schools devote time and money teaching it? Why not just let art, design, and the understanding of it happen as it will? We are surrounded daily by pictures both informative and aesthetic in a vast number of forms, therefore visual literacy will come on its own, perhaps through experience or simply chance.
If this is considered a sound argument against teaching art, then it is equally logical to argue against teaching language. Kids can learn a language simply by growing up around people that speak it fluently. However, nobody has argued that we ought to let nature take its course and drop the study of English from our schools for the sake of saving money. We can appreciate how modern education improves the capability to read, write and speak effectively, yet schools do not give visual literacy the same consideration.
Skepticism concerning the feasibleness of art education is bound in the false notion that art cannot be taught. Talent is a gift, something that a number of people are simply born with, and art results from inspiration. Coinciding with these ideas is the concept that art appreciation is entirely subjective, a matter of however art makes the viewer feel. If these stereotypes were true, education could not do much for the development of creative people or their audience. Nor could it teach young minds how to make sense of the visual information they are subjected to on a near constant basis. The misconception lies in the idea that education consists exclusively in the transfer of information and ends there. Since art is not strictly propositional, it must not contain verifiable truths or facts, and since most art does not present any arguments, or at least in an easily recognizable fashion, it must not require justification. Works of art then have very little, if any, credible data to convey. “Construed as sources of information,” Mary Mothersill writes, “the arts create a poor showing; as a means of acquiring new truths about the world or the soul, they are in competition with science and with philosophy” (8).
While inspiration certainly figures in the creation of art, the idea that art is entirely a product of inspiration is unwarranted. Within the visual arts, students learn the powers and limitations of the various media available, as well as the effects of color, light, shade, shape, and form. Further, artists benefit greatly from studying art history. Even if creative talent is a genetic gift, education can foster and develop those creative skills and the level of critical thinking needed to use those skills effectively. Regardless of the fact that most people will never be artists in the traditional sense, and comparatively few people will even be serious amateur artists, we are all part of a greater audience. Audiences of the humanities do not consist entirely of cultural elite. They embody everyone who watches TV, goes to the movies, reads the news or uses the internet. Indeed we are bombarded with visual stimuli continuously. Information graphics are everywhere we look.
Visual literacy is worth it for its own sake, however it also provides a platform for understanding both of art and other matters as well. Through an education that includes visual literacy we can develop perspectives that allow us to raise questions that, without them, we might not have. It is also important to note that visual literacy and the arts in education can cultivate a demand for art that is economically essential. Data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows evidence of a chronic decline in the audience (Zakaras 27). Equally as worrying is the steady decline of young adult participation. As the authors of, Cultivating Demand for the Arts, Arts learning, Arts Engagement, and State Arts Policy declare, “declining demand leads to a loss of the public and private benefits derived from the arts” (27). While this trend may not be directly related to the attention given to visual literacy in the sphere of education it is interesting nonetheless that these downturns are seemingly simultaneous.

Works Cited
Dimitriadis, Greg, Emily Cole, and Adrienne Costello. "The Social Field(S) Of Arts Education Today: Living Vulnerability In Neo-Liberal Times." Discourse: Studies In The Cultural Politics Of Education30.4 (2009): 361-379. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 4 Apr. 2014.
Giorgis, Cyndi, and Nancy J. Johnson. "Children's Book: Visual Literacy." Reading Teacher 53.2 (1999): 146. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
Krauth, Kathy . "Visual Literacy: A Must for the 21st Century." Visual Literacy: A Must for the 21st Century. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. <http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/asia_rising/cur_teacher/ar_cur_intro.html>.
Mothersill, Mary. Beauty restored. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. Print
Washington, Booker T.. The Negro problem; a series of articles by representative American Negroes of to-day.. New York: AMS Press, 1970. Print.
Zakaras, Laura, and Julia Lowell. Cultivating Demand for the Arts, Arts learning, Arts engagement, and State Arts Policy. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2008. Print.

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