Visual Literacy

November 16, 2007

Aata_conf__07 I am currently attending the annual conference of the American Art Therapy Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and am moved to write about a presentation I attended yesterday on the subject of visual literacy. If I have it right, the idea is that we are so flooded with images in our society from the various media that most of us have lost the knowledge and ability to discriminate between images that are healthy and those that are not.

The presenters, Linda Chapman and Michael Franklin, both art therapists showed many images drawn from popular culture including print, television, and video games that illustrated how we have come to accept without discrimination images of violence, sex, and poverty to sell products- even to the extent that we become blind to the negative aspects of the image and its effects on us. They also suggested that this may be a reflection as well as a contribution to an acceptance or expectation of a higher level of violence or poverty and suffering in our lives. This ability to overlook and accept such extremes was described as a disconnection from the present moment and from aesthetic awareness. They cited several sources including Rudolph Arnheim, Janie Rhyne, Laura Sewall, James Hillman, and Vittorio Gallese.

At the end of the presentation my reaction was that I felt disturbed by the dour and provocative notion that we may be collectively slipping into some sort of hellish dystopia. However, my tendency to seek an optimistic outcome led me to the following- it may be a bit of a stretch but I don’t think what I am about to write is impossible.

Technology has developed so quickly over the last 20 years that human/social development has not been able to keep up. In the case of video games, for example, the result of technological development has given us, in general, games that are quite violent, rewarding bloodshed and killing. It is possible that these games are designed for the lower levels of human development at this point but, as game designers continue to develop games that are more sophisticated, they may find ways to appeal to higher aspects of humanity. (See Spiral Dynamics, a description of levels of human development that is applicable for this discussion.) There are examples of this happening already, although there appear to be many fewer of them than are the violent games. Can games and other use of images in popular culture that reflect, appeal, and foster higher values become popular and profitable enough?

One good example of this better kind of computer game is Journey to the Wild Divine , software that shows great promise in this regard since it fosters the integration of self-awareness into the process and outcome of the game by using biofeedback to influence the game. Following the example of Journey to the Wild Divine, I wonder if maybe the new technologies might eventually be developed to address and encourage the development of higher states of consciousness and interconnectedness. (Watch Robert Thurman at TED.com talk about technology, buddhism, and interconnectedness.)

The concerns of the presenters concerning visual literacy need to be widely considered and discussed. What do you think?

December 4, 2007

Michael Franklin adds: " The bottom line is to
create consciousness around larger processes that reinforce unconscious
perception. So many uses of images are visual constructions that target
consumerist behavior – they do not appeal to an awakened state. As you
suggest and we did in the presentation there are products on the market that are
inspiring and worthy of additional development. And I do think that it is worth
considering why the diet for violent imagery is so pervasive in our culture. I
also think it crucial for AT's to help the larger culture develop more visual
literacy around being able to see what we are not being shown as with media and
the 2 wars we a currently engaged in. We are manipulated by forms of censorship
that many of us are not inclined to pay attention to or to even question. Those
of us that grew up in the Vietnam era we shocked into visual awareness by the
nightly footage coming to our homes. "

Linda Chapman adds: "I really like that you move
into solutions and generate ideas for alternatives.  This is what must
occur as you are right, you cannot stop it."

January 27, 2008

Yesterday, I attended a conference organized by the Delaware Valley Art Therapy Association in Philadelphia, PA, where a presentation by Sondra Rosenberg gave an overview of how art therapy can be used in the treatment of eating disorders. During the presentation she mentioned the influence of images in the media on the self image of many women and men. It occurred to me that this, too, should be considered in a discussion of visual literacy.

Update September 21, 2009:

From the Times of India, an interview by Rashmee Roshan Lall with the Karmapa Lama, Trinley Dorje, the only senior Buddhist leader recognized by Beijing, the Tibetans and India, picks his way through the diplomatic minefield. On a visit to Delhi from Dharamsala, the 24-year-old leader of one of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism talks politics, hip-hop and video games. Relevant excerpt below-

Moving to other issues, I believe you like to listen to hip-hop on your ipod. Who are your favourite artistes? 


I can't think of any specific artistes right now, I basically listen to what ever comes my way, whatever sounds appealing. It's important for me to stick to my traditional forms of art because I am a Tibetan Buddhist teacher wearing these robes. It's important for me to maintain my cultural affiliations. 


But from time to time I do enjoy listening to hip-hop because it has a very modern sound to it and even though I'm a Tibetan teacher representing these ancient teachings, I'm also a global citizen in the 21st century. Hip-hop perhaps is one way of me being a 21st-century person. 


Is that why you play war games on your play station because many might say it's inappropriate for a Buddhist monk dedicated to peace to play war games? 


Well, I view video games as something of an emotional therapy, a mundane level of emotional therapy for me. We all have emotions whether we're Buddhist practitioners or not, all of us have emotions, happy emotions, sad emotions, displeased emotions and we need to figure out a way to deal with them when they arise. 


So, for me sometimes it can be a relief, a kind of decompression to just play some video games. If I'm having some negative thoughts or negative feelings, video games are one way in which I can release that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better afterwards. 


The aggression that comes out in the video game satiates whatever desire I might have to express that feeling. For me, that's very skilful because when I do that I don't have to go and hit anyone over the head. 


But shouldn't meditation take care of that? 


No, video games are just a skilful method.


What are your thoughts and feeling about this subject?

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