Literacy Media and Meaning
Stankiewicz, Mary Ann, Art Education
LITERACY, broadly defined, is the ability to write and read. When the visual arts are metaphorically treated as a language, the concept of literacy is extended to art and we talk about visual literacy, aesthetic literacy, media or cultural literacy. Just as methods of teaching students to make and respond to visual art have changed over time, so have methods of teaching verbal literacy. Children in early American schools were taught the alphabet, two-letter syllables, then combinations of syllables that made words. The New England Primer was chiefly a spelling book because colonial educators assumed that knowing how to write and spell were the most important components of literacy (Tchudi, 1991).
A new kind of literacy arose between 1790 and 1853, a `technical literacy" that required master of four languages or systems of notation (Stevens, 1995, p. 2). Workers from earlier generations had to invent machine parts by trial and error, or physically disassemble and reassemble a machine to understand how it worked. Antebellum young men and women learned the vocabulary and grammar of alphabetic expression (traditional verbal literacy, as well as scientific notation, mathematical notation, and spatial-graphic representation in order to communicate information about the new world of industrial machines. Drawing gave them a means to represent and communicate technical understandings, contributing to the spread of technology and the invention of new and improved machines.
During the late 19th century, teachers of English adopted the belief "that knowledge of the rules of grammar led to improved performance in language" (Tchudi, 1991, p. 5). In the visual arts, a parallel trend can be found. Students were taught elements of art and principles of design, how to describe and analyze their relationships in works of art, and how to organize the elements according to the principles to produce `good"designs. In the visual arts, the "alphabet"has been defined as dot, line, shape, direction, value, hue and saturation of color, texture, scale, dimension and motion (What is visual literacy?, 1994). As Kerry Freedman and Sydney Walker point out in their respective articles, many works of contemporary art are not amenable to formal analysis. More often artists at the end of the 20th century seem to challenge viewers to interpret meanings from their work.
Almost two decades ago, Vincent Lanier advocated aesthetic literacy, an approach to art education in which students would examine "questions and problems of aesthetic theory" applied to a range of visual arts "both fine and vernacular" (1981, p. 162). He even suggested that "a dialogue curriculum in art would be something like a class in English and American literature" (Lanier, 1981, p. 163). Unlike earlier approaches to literacy in art that taught "spelling" and `grammar" through studio instruction in elements and principles of art, Lanier's proposals for aesthetic literacy focused attention on response to works of art. …