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engage 38: Visual Literacy

Editor's Introduction

Barbara Dougan

engage Journal Editor

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Barbara Dougan
Editor's Introduction
engage 38: Visual Literacy
Pages 6
Editor: Barbara Dougan
Autumn 2016
Published by engage, London

This edition of the engage Journal explores the purposes and value of viewing, critically engaging and creating in the visual arts, and the broader world of imagery and objects.

The term ‘visual literacy’ was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, who gave the following definition:

‘Visual literacy refers to a group of visioncompetencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment.’ 1

Since the concept was outlined by Debes there has been lively debate about what the term means and its implications, informed by different ideologies and changing circumstances. As Karen Raney summarises, broadly ‘the change has been from thinking of literacy as a set of fixed skills, to thinking of literacies – in the plural – as kinds of social practices’.2

Currently – at least in the United Kingdom – reductions to public funding are threatening galleries and museums, and in England particularly the status of the arts is being undermined in schools and further education. The opportunities to engage critically with historical and contemporary objects and images, and learn how to do so, are arguably eroding. This is occurring during a vast increase in the employment of imagery in the arts and the expanding, sophisticated fields of marketing, the internet, print, digital and social media and digital entertainment. A critical engagement with, and understanding of images and objects is vital to understanding the world.

In his article, Ernst Wagner reports on a survey of national art education curricula across 28 European states, that analyses ‘visual literacy’ and the competencies which result in ‘European, visually literate citizens who can lead a successful life (personal domain), succeed in their career (occupational domain) and play an active part in social, public and political life (public domain).’ The research undertaken by the European Network for Visual Literacy (ENViL) has developed the Common European Framework of Reference on Visual Literacy, published in August 2016.

It was a prerequisite to find a common understanding of visual literacy. ‘In the first sense literacy is understood as the ability to read and write. But there is a broader definition of literacy, which we have referred to’: ‘Literacy involves a complex set of abilities to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture for personal and community development’.3 This conception expands the idea of literacy to further symbol systems than language. Further, to inform the framework:

‘we decided to adhere to the definition of Brill, Kim and Branch who define visual literacy – independent from specific areas – as “a group of acquired sub-competencies for interpreting and composing visible messages. A visually literate person is able to a) discriminate and make sense of visible objects as part of a visual acuity, b) create static and dynamic visible objects effectively in a defined space, c) comprehend and appreciate the visual testaments of others, and d) conjure objects in the mind’s eye.”’

In its employment of ‘situations’ in which individuals act, ‘competencies’ and ‘sub-competencies’ the framework addresses Raney’s assertion that:

‘within this expanded field of visual culture, we need to be specific in respect of two things: particular kinds of products and particular kinds of responses or abilities. By visual literacy do we mean being able to follow MTV, or being able to discuss the symbolism in a medieval altarpiece? Do we mean being able to tell a Morisot from a Manet, or being able to analyse an advertisement in terms of theories about representing the ‘other’? One can be versed in fashion codes, but unable to relate to a silent film. One can draw, but know nothing about the conventions of soap operas. To broaden our scope but refuse to generalise, is to recognise that there is a huge range of visual skills, habits and inclinations which are called upon in different contexts and for different purposes.’ 4

Wagner highlights issues that other contributors discuss, particularly the problematic reliance on linguistic literacy in developing visual literacy, and the necessity for verbal and language skills to satisfy some of the competencies.

‘... a unique problem occurs with regard to the subcompetencies in visual literacy that require the medium of language in order to explore images/ objects. These include the sub-competencies describe, analyse and interpret images/objects. Here, in the context of education, level scales must not only include terms and descriptions related to artistic thought but must also refer to levels of general linguistic competency, i.e. they must combine the two. A high level in visual literacy is therefore dependent on a high level of linguistic competency. This also applies when the performance of that which is recognised visually is linked to language, such as when visual processes are reflected in the medium of language (e.g. naming, explaining, justifying).’

The employment of the word ‘literacy’ is cited by Raney as a particular focus of controversy. In her research:

‘Answers to the question: ‘‘do you use the term visual literacy?’’ ranged from ‘‘yes of course’’, to ‘’absolutely not!’’ Why is this the case? Coupling ‘’visual’’ with ‘‘literacy’’ does two things. First, it introduces the metaphor of language, provoking debates about the value of linguistic metaphors for getting to grips with visual things. These are in essence debates about the nature of words and images and how we understand them. Second, ‘literacy’ suggests entitlement or necessity, and the need to seek out deficiencies and remedy them.’ 5

Education policies and curricula inevitably reflect the broader political and economic context. The global recession since 2008 has led to a demand for conservative, knowledge and skills-focused curricula, with increased demand for formal testing and measureable outcomes. In describing the progressive art education of 1960s Britain, Kathryn Welford evokes a very different era, when the privations of the Second World War and its aftermath were making way for greater prosperity, more liberal attitudes and an optimistic interest in new ideas and opportunities. Welford writes from her position as Formal Learning Coordinator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), which houses the National Arts Education Archive (NAEA). The NAEA, which opened in 1985, traces developments in art, craft and design education in the United Kingdom and is a major resource for arts education research – and specifically for YSP learning and curatorial programming. A large part of the archive is from the personal collection of Alec Clegg, West Riding Chief Education Officer from 1945 to 1972. A hugely influential figure – in Britain and abroad – Clegg believed that the creative arts are fundamental to the moral and educational development of children, emphasising the whole person and the importance of developing all areas of personality, abilities and potential.

Clegg reacted against an education system in the middle of the last century that was similar to that promoted today. He philosophically reminded an audience in 1956 that:

‘When we over-emphasise the spirit and personality of the child, the cure is alleged to be more rote-learning, more distilled techniques, more obedience and more authority. When we eventually become too rigid the cure is more self-expression and more “finding out” – And so the pendulum swings and the swinging must be as old as education itself. It swings between mind and spirit, between intellect and personality, between the cognitive and affective, between obedience and self-realisation, between the “loaves and hyacinths.’ 6

There are many waiting for the pendulum to start to swing the other way, but in the meantime, as Welford argues, arts organisations – galleries and museums, and artists – do exploratory, reflective and nurturing work with children and young people. In working with schools they advocate by example what can be achieved, amongst all learners and not just the more academic, in art and across the curriculum.

Kate Noble, Education Officer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, carried out doctoral research into the development of visual literacy in young children, and has focused since in her work at the museum on how children learn through analysing and responding to images. Noble discusses different definitions of visual literacy, referencing Boughton’s7 three aspects; communicative visual literacy, aesthetic visual literacy and artistic visual literacy, and describes her research through case studies with children aged five, seven, and nine. These ages were chosen due to wide recognition that seven is a crucial year in the artistic development of children and the studies found a close link with meta-cognition, the means by which individuals learn to control and regulate their thinking.

Noble also describes the Fitzwilliam’s participation in the National Gallery’s Take One Picture Initial Teacher Education Cultural Placement Programme.8 She cites the positive responses from the trainees following a week-long cultural placement for primary Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) teachers, what they have learnt and the impact it will have on the way that they teach, in art and across the curriculum.

The ways galleries and museums support schools and can complement the work of teachers is also explored by Emma Carroll and Lynn McGrane. Carroll writes from Manchester Art Gallery, which hosted the Max Reinhardt Literacy Award in 2014- 15. The gallery applied for the award with the specific objective of developing its schools’ literacy programme for secondary schools and responding to the needs of teachers in teaching towards a new GSCE examination. McGrane describes Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as ‘an educational curriculum and teaching method which is designed to enable students to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills’. Having trained in VTS, she has put its methods into practice in Dublin, in partnership with Dublin City Arts Office, the Lab Gallery and Central Model Senior School and she reports on the project and its impact on students, as noted by their teachers.

Claire Gunningham writes from the perspective of an artist who was a gallery educator and is now a primary school teacher, and who uses visual literacy as a tool in her teaching. She identified that one of her pupils who struggled with learning and particularly found writing difficult, found it easier to understand and communicate by images. Gunningham consequently developed ways of using visual literacy to increase achievement in conventional literacy, using paintings as the starting point for creative writing, and reports on the mprovements to the children’s work and their enjoyment.

Pre-school children are the subject of Glenna Barlow, who has developed weekly sessions for them and their adults at Columbia Museum of Art in the US:

‘While many of our participants are not yet able to read words, we are teaching them first to read images, which is, after all, the first way we begin processing information as soon as we are born. In our discussions of art, both in and out of the galleries, the focus is always on learning to break down and digest visual imagery.’

The sessions also have the explicit aim of demonstrating strategies for engaging children in observation and conversation about works of art to the accompanying adults so that they might make use of them on other occasions.

Given the primacy of verbal and written language and the inherent tension in the use of the word ‘literacy’ it is fascinating to read about two projects that focus on movement in relation to visual imagery and objects. Gill Hart is Head of Education at the National Gallery in London, a partner in the European project Dancing Museums. The two-year research project between five dance organisations, five choreographers and eight museums and galleries explores how working across these disciplines might lead to ‘more powerful interpretations or experiences of art’. At the National Gallery ‘a desired outcome of Dancing Museums is to test and learn from the proposition that we need not be dependent upon sophisticated verbal language to create meaningful, in-depth learning experiences that enhance visual literacy’.

Artist Sam Metz works with movement and space in participatory workshops to develop alternative interactions with contemporary art, particularly for young people on the autistic spectrum. Metz documents in words and images Choreographic Objects, a project developed at Nottingham Contemporary involving two groups, a respite centre for young people and a collective of young people that engages with art and exhibitions at the gallery. Metz points to the processes that they and the young people work through to respond to work and how non-verbal methods can reduce pressure and anxiety, and enable relationships to gradually develop between the two groups.



Two articles look at how the visual arts can communicate complex and controversial issues and examples of visual literacy in developing reflection, sensitivity and critical thinking. Claire Collison speaks as an artist, whose work is deeply personal in reflecting her beliefs and her experience of breast cancer. Referencing her own work and that of other artists, she discusses the ways that art can address difficult subjects, open up debate and change perceptions.

The images she makes and cites in her article are direct and carry strong messages. Whilst editing this issue I was struck by two images that featured in the news and provoked heated responses, evidence of the power of the visual to communicate complex layered meaning – intentionally or not – and to deceive. The first is the Breaking Point poster produced by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) for the EU referendum in the UK.9

The impact is immediate, the implication being that hoards of immigrants are pouring into the UK. It was immediately pointed out in the media that the poster resembles a Nazi propaganda image.10 The photograph used by UKIP was originally taken by Jeff Mitchell, of refugees walking into Slovenia, who has said, ‘Photographers are there to record stories, as they happen and when they happen, in the best way we can. But what happens after that, how our images are used, can be out of our control, especially in the digital age – which is unfortunate, particularly in this case’. Mitchell continued, ‘It’s just unfortunate how it’s been picked up. It’s difficult for any agency – Getty, Reuters, AP – that circulates photographers’ images. They’re out there. And it’s not just UKIP. Newspapers also use shots in the wrong context. It depends on the political slant of any organisation’.11



The second was the statue by artist Martin Jennings of Jamaican born nurse Mary Seacole, who cared for soldiers in the Crimean War in the 1850s, unveiled opposite the Houses of Parliament in London in June. Hugely symbolic, it has been greeted with acclaim as the first memorial in the UK to a named black woman but apparently criticised by fans of Florence Nightingale and her biographer as misleading about her work and based on misinformation. To add insult to injury, the statue is taller than statues of Nightingale and Edith Cavell, also in central London – size matters!12

Earlier this year the UK emerged bruised from the EU referendum and many were been reminded of the necessity of decoding and critically engaging with images. This overlapped with the United States presidential election, which is always lengthy but rarely as dramatic as in 2016. Due to the interest of its Teen Council in political discussion, earlier this year Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas started a programme of gallery conversations entitled SmART Voter. Janelle Redlaczyk writes about the museum’s work with its growing young audience, its Teen Council and this particular project.

‘Initially our teens wanted to know about artists whose work was specifically influenced by the politics of the day, or was created to directly express a political point of view. We broadened the scope of the discussion, and they began to realise that many different topics addressed by artists can be become important points of discussion during an election. We explored the permanent collection galleries as a group, considering a growing list of topics – racism, immigration, wealth, poverty, war, welfare, women’s rights, and environmental issues – and selected works to feature during the initial SmART Voter program.’

One of numerous changes to the world since the 1960s is the overwhelming prevalence of images, their increasingly sophisticated use, the advent of digital reproduction and manipulation of images, and digital devices that enable instant photography, filming, distribution and appropriation. It becomes increasingly difficult to trust our eyes, to understand provenance, authenticity and how we might be being manipulated.

Two articles discuss some of the complex issues associated with the digital. Miranda Baxter contributes an article about the role of the original artwork, proliferating reproductions and digitised versions in developing visual literacy. Tracing a history from the invention of photography, she argues that an understanding of the modes of reproduction are part of an interrogation of the work, and that digitising work enables the mobility and access that are so important now to the development of visual literacy.

1215.today is an online project that ‘brings digital and physical engagement strategies together to empower and provoke young people to explore themes associated with the Magna Carta – such as justice, power and conflict – through art’. In her article Sophia Kyprianou describes the project and discusses how it works in relation to digital initiatives by galleries, research into why young people use digital media and how they use it to access culture. Kyprianou extols the synergy of digital and physical encounters, and how 1215.today demonstrates impacts of digital experiences on the creative process, the opportunities for artists in terms of their practice, and direct discussion with audiences through online debate.

Sarah Campbell, Head of Schools, Families and Young People at the V&A, echoes issues raised by several of the contributors to this issue in her review of Agent of Change in art, design and environmental education by Eileen Adams. Adams brings to this new publication a lifetime of wide ranging experience and a passionate commitment to improving formal education, mixing personal narrative with historic insight and policy recommendations. As Campbell appraises this ‘timely and essential book’ she highlights how depressing it is that the same arguments come round over the years about the role of art and design in education and how governments often fail to learn from research and practice. But she urges readers to ‘take heart. Adams concludes her book with very useful policy recommendations, cannily drawing on research from the early 1990s onwards to suggest ten ways in which arts education can progress. In her words: ‘This chapter argues for policy that takes a strategic and long-term view. This requires us to re-think how we conceive of education for a changing world, how we create learning environments, what we deem to be relevant knowledge, how we view visual literacy in the school curriculum, how we manage relationships between learning and teaching, and how we shape educators’ roles in their training and professional development.’ 13


1. http://ivla.org/drupal2/content/what-visualliteracy-0

2. Raney, Karen, (1999) ‘Visual Literacy and the Art Curriculum’ http://www.readcube.com/ articles/10.1111/1468-5949.00152

3. Kickbusch, I.S. (2001) ‘Health literacy: addressing the health and education divide’ in Health Promotion International, 16 (3), p.292

4. Raney, Karen (1999) op.cit.

5. Ibid.

6. NAEA (Trust) publication (date unknown), Sir Alec Clegg and the Arts in Schools, A Research Project. p.21

7. Boughton, D. (1986) ‘Visual Literacy: implications for cultural understanding through art education’, iJADE, 5 (1 & 2).

8. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/initialteacher- education/

9. http://www.aljazeera.com/ indepth/features/2016/06/brexitanti- immigration-ukip-poster-raisesquestions- 160621112722799.html

10. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/ jun/16/nigel-farage-defends-ukip-breakingpoint- poster-queue-of-migrants

11. https://www.theguardian.com/ artanddesign/2016/jun/22/jeff-mitchellsbest- shot-the-column-of-marchingrefugees- used-in-ukips-brexit-campaign

12. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/ article-3649931/Florence-Nightingalesupporters- row-black-rival-s-new-statueclaiming- sold-alcohol-sandwiches-Crimeavenerated- based-false-achievements.html

13. Adams, E. (2016) Eileen Adams: Agent of Change. Loughborough Design Press p.22 http://www.ldpress.co.uk/book/visualliteracy- prompting-change-art-designenvironmental- education/


1. United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) EU Referendum poster, June 2016.

2. Jennings, Martin, Mary Seacole, 2016. Bronze. St Thomas’ Hospital, London.


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