Visual Literacy

Humanities and the Fine Arts Curriculum

by Alison Armstrong

The difference between incorporating selected humanities courses into a visual arts curriculum (whether at art schools, colleges or universities) and a truly interdisciplinary curriculum is an issue that is coming to the fore. Are the humanities to remain a minor adjunct to a major in fine art? Is art education essential to a well-rounded major in the humanities? Rudolf Arnheim, writing in 1969, observed the traditional thinking that caused a separation in education between visual and verbal skills and argues for art education as essential to the humanities:

The arts are neglected because they are based on perception,
and perception is disdained because it is not assumed to involve
thought…. Educators and administrators cannot justify giving
the arts an important position in the curriculum unless they
understand that the arts are the most powerful means of
strengthening the perceptual component without which productive
thinking is impossible in every field of academic study.
What is most needed is not more aesthetics or more esoteric
manuals of art education but a convincing case made for visual
thinking quite in general. Once we understand in theory, we might
try to heal in practice the unwholesome split which cripples the
training of reasoning power.1 (emphasis mine)

Likewise, what do humanities courses contribute to students majoring in the visual arts? Certainly literature, philosophy, history of science and art history contribute motifs and imagery for narrative representational painting. The visual and the verbal are sometimes referred to as “languages.” But while architecture, sculpture and painting deal in formal properties (e.g., the balancing of cubes, triangles, spheres) and color relations, or motifs (e.g., egg-and-dart, acanthus leaves, dentils, etc., in classical architecture), these properties and motifs are not linguistic in syntax, nor are they composed of unmotivated signs which make up the words of Western languages. George Orwell, in an essay entitled “New Words,” has written about making thought visible.2 This is accomplished in film as well as in all visual art forms. Making thought visible is achieved by the mental eye of a skillful reader of poetry and poetic prose that utilizes metaphor. A common saying in China is that writing and painting have different names but a common body.3 In calligraphy (“beautiful writing”) the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese use the same fundamental strokes for both written text and pictorial images; they write their paintings and paint their literature.
In the West, too, the visual and the verbal are complementary modes of experience and of expression, but not interchangeable; our methods of writing rely on a system of signs that do not pictographically relate to meaning. There is a disparity between how ideas are related in writing and in visual art, and therefore one cannot replace the functions of the other. There is a vibrating point between the two experiences, a wordless perception of a visual object in space and a linguistically structured expression of that perception, which is temporal. Out of this ambivalent place comes our antithetical thinking as well as, paradoxically, potential creativity. This is a necessary translation between literal and abstract, between what is shown to the eye and what is communicated to the intellectualizing mind.

The word interdisciplinary suggests an approach to healing Arheim’s perceived “unwholesome split,” and yet by definition implies separate disciplines—the verbal and the visual, the conceptual and the perceptual. Why is poetry taught separately from sculpture or painting or dance? Why do many art critics and art historians have no experience of making art? Education is an ongoing life process, if grounded in the awareness that life is not naturally compartmentalized or cut up into disciplines. The visual artist and the writer live at the threshold where the verbal and the visual intermingle. The so-called left brain and right brain ideally support one another in the complexity of a humanist education that embraces both verbal and visual literacy, that is, knowing how to “read.” Why not combine the ambiguities and condensations of poetic language and of color interactions? To treat linguistic sound and spectral colors as comparable artistic mediums might make for a very interesting course. Josef Albers developed his Homage to the Square series over many years to demonstrate how colors interact to create illusions. Likewise, poets from Homer to the present demonstrate through metaphor and other poetic devices that the richness of linguistic expression is derived from the imperfections and poverty of language(s). Unless there is an interaction of literal and implied meaning, of sound and sense, and ambiguities which ultimately result in an appeal to one or more of the bodily senses, we have only flat factual accounting, not artistic literature. In any excellent work of art there is never a single content. There is never a definitive final reading.
I live in a different culture from my students at the School of Visual Arts. They range in age between eighteen and early twenties, born long after most of the important twentieth-century historical and political events that formed my sensibilities. Even more importantly, perhaps, they were born after high school and college curricula had dropped certain requirements: the study of Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Comparative Religion. They do not know the works of Goethe, the Arthurian legends, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Jung. They did not listen to stories on the radio as children. They did not read Treasure Island or Gulliver’s Travels as children; for the most part, they were never read to as children. I tell them about Grimm’s fairy tales, the psychological importance of myth. As for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, their faces are blank (now in 2007) if I bring it up as a still fresh memory of my own. They were only twelve or thirteen then.
We live in a country of over-specialization, not only in the field of medical care but in a culture that seems grounded in a Cartesian mind/body dichotomy. Either/or thinking permeates our political as well as our aesthetic and educational lives. Those students who want merely to gain vocational skills are practical-minded, eager to begin earning wages with their craft. There are always a few each semester who are widely read and concerned with how contemporary culture is developing in light of what they are reading in the literature courses. Yet, as painter and children’s book author Beverly Brodsky pointed out, regarding her students at Parsons School of Design, despite their enthusiasm for their art studies, many students today seem willfully to blind themselves to diversity. They compartmentalize and call it “specialization.”
Where are students to experience the contemplative pleasures when they are driven to compete for a place in the market? Emotional consciousness can be fostered by studies of all the humanities in conjunction with the history of arts and crafts. The concern of John Ruskin and William Morris in the nineteenth century with quality handcrafted items was a reaction to the perceived threat of banal objects mass-produced in the Industrial Revolution. Their efforts influenced the Dun Emer Industries in Ireland, the Omega Workshops in London, the Weiner Werkstätte in Vienna and the Bauhaus in Germany. All were founded on the notion that aesthetics should apply to everyday articles as a means of giving value to daily life. True, some of these designs, as at the Bauhaus, a vocational school rather than a full-blown college, were meant to be produced industrially from handcrafted prototypes. But the quality of their teachers was such that students could benefit from broad cultural influences even under the duress of economic and political restrictions. What the students learned and the objects they produced were meant to enhance their culture.

The importance of teaching humanities in a fine arts curriculum is recognized by all colleges but to varying degrees. Despite the artificial distinctions made between the literary and the visual fields of endeavor, history provides us with many examples of visual artists who wrote and of composers and writers making visual art. Wassily Kandinsky (musician, painter, writer and teacher), Arnold Schoenberg (composer, teacher, painter), Paul Klee (musician, painter, teacher) and Robert Motherwell (one of the most articulate writers among Abstract Expressionist painters) come to mind. Richard Serra was an English major before becoming a renowned sculptor. Marjorie Welish, who teaches at Pratt, is also art critic, poet and painter. Photographer and writer Richard Nonas was an anthropologist studying with Margaret Mead before becoming a sculptor over forty years ago. Meredith Bergmann is both a sculptor of figurative bronzes and a poet. It is a natural phenomenon that artists who are skilled in one discipline are often also practitioners of another.
Painter Alan Feltus, who taught for years at the American University as well as Maryland Institute College of Art, recently expressed his opinion that all art students should be required to study English and world literature, essay writing and art history surveys, including at least one on modern and contemporary art, particularly in view of the fact that many practicing artists will go on to teach. He also mentioned the importance of travel abroad and proximity to good museums as a necessary part of education. Realist painter James McElhinney, who teaches drawing at Pratt and the Art Students League, warns that many of the different curricular models under consideration—by schools that include Pratt as well as Boston University, Louisiana State University, the Art Center at Pasadena and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor—are responding to anticipated changes in art field career paths. “Stovepipe” or “silo” models of organization create specialized foundation programs with discrete curricula already in place; one example is the fashion program at Pratt. However, he says that, while they look to New York City for galleries and fashion, we must not assume that most art programs in the United States look to New York for management models. Should students be trained to go straight into studying and then practicing only their area of interest? “My own view,” says McElhinney, “is that visual literacy and a well-rounded understanding of design make for a better artist, regardless of specialty. This may seem a bit Ruskinian, but some things never go out of fashion…. I think that where there is an emphasis on critical theory in fine arts, it is driven by faculty practice—and it coincides with the common misconception that craft and traditional drawing skills have become obsolete. Historically, the collapse of the NEA drove a lot of 1990s avant-gardists into academia….”4
Dr. Tom Huhn, Chair of the Art History Department at the School of Visual Arts, has designed a new degree program approved by the New York State Education Department, a BFA in Visual and Critical Studies. This first academic undergraduate program at SVA, beginning Fall semester 2007, will combine in nearly equal parts liberal arts and studio coursework. For example, requirements for the foundation year include photography, drawing, literature and writing and “History of the Image.” Subsequent years include workshops in sculpture, printmaking, graphic design, poetry and visual sciences, along with generous electives in art history and studio courses. Dr. Huhn’s degree program is concerned with cultural literacy. To excerpt from the brochure: “Cultural literacy…involves the ability to ‘read’—to understand and interpret the art, philosophy, and visual thinking of past and present—and to ‘write’—that is, to make, art. Visual and Critical Studies thereby activates a life in culture…attracts students who want strong connections between their undergraduate studies and studio work…what they gain is a guided, thought-provoking tour of the visual life of the mind.”
Is a foundation in the basics of Western culture necessary to a visual artist? Skills in thinking and writing are as essential as learning to see by drawing. The study of literature teaches students how to write and speak persuasively, to comprehend nuances of meaning, allusion and moral implications, to appreciate the crafting of memory/time with literary devices such as beginning in medias res and the tension-enhancing flashback. Readers learn to become conscious of subjective time, as exemplified in the texts of various authors from Homer (eighth century b.c.) to Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the latter influenced by philosopher Henri Bergson’s “two ways of coming to know.” Crafting ideas and experiences in language is akin to crafting materials in art. For instance, in painting one device for indicating memory is a deliberate use of pentimento; in photography, double exposures. Seeing how techniques work in visual art can enhance mental visualization of metaphor in literature; experiencing literary techniques can enhance one’s appreciation of visual art.
Professor Anna Balakian, late chair of the Comparative Literature department at New York University, believed the study of comparative literature was necessary for global understanding and world peace, a belief informed by her expertise in the international movements of Surrealism, Dada and Symbolism, as well as by her necessarily related appreciation for the visual art of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe. That her special interests in early modernism naturally combined poetry with the visual arts was a given.
A balance of attitudes is called for between the demands of the marketplace and the values of a truly educated student. Expedience often sacrifices the best that cultures have to offer. Students who do not experience a discipline outside their immediate fields of study may not understand that other arts are akin to creativity in all fields and are essential to their developing as social beings as well as individual professionals—as fine artists, designers, cartoonists or fashion mavens.
In her book The Crossing Point the late Mary Caroline Richards—poet, potter, painter, educator—writes about her post-academic quest for reuniting the verbal and non-verbal. Toward the end of a career as professor of English and translator of French literature, including Antonin Artaud’s influential The Theatre and Its Double (1958), she had become interested in potting at Black Mountain College in 1952. For the last fifteen years of her life she retired to Kimberton, a Rudolf Steiner Camphill Village in Pennsylvania, to teach her course on Word, Color and Clay to young adults with special needs. In The Fire within Us, a film about her life, she is quoted as saying, “of course you wouldn’t want to leave your art in the studio.” She meant to relate all creative endeavor with living. She taught that life is the big art: “for our social practices are embodiments of inner pictures and of inner feeling. Like art, life projects an inner world….Let us get to know the elements in ourselves that govern our choices.”5 She encouraged her students at Kimberton to ask: “Am I going to be an earthy practical person, or a dreamer and visionary? We are going to be both. We shouldn’t be talked out of it, we don’t have to choose. I am both. I live in the crossing point.” In her earlier influential interdisciplinary book, Centering, Richards uses the metaphor of centering the clay on the potter’s wheel for centering the self, so that transformation, metamorphosis can occur. She wanted to spiritualize matter, her impetus to making art, whether poetry, pottery or painting. “Freedom is presence, not absence. Centering is an act of bringing in, not of leaving out.”6 She advocated combining the verbal and the visual in dynamic ways, transcending false dichotomies and finding how sensory pleasure is a guide to what becomes meaningful. At the age of eighty-two, she states in the film: “We need to be guided by what pleases us deeply.”


1 Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 3.
2 See Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Artist Within (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), in which she devotes much of chapter 5, “Drawing on a Parallel Language,” to Orwell’s essay and the duality of words and images in terms of L-mode and R-mode. Her use of the term language is very loose and would not please the father of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure.
3 Quoted by Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, The Written Image: Japanese Calligraphy and Painting (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2002), p. 26.
4 Excerpted from e-mail interview, March 27, 2007.
5 Mary Caroline Richards, The Crossing Point (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1966/1973), p. 138. Her later book on Rudolf Steiner education in America, Toward Wholeness (Wesleyan University Press, 1980) further develops her emphasis upon the importance of the power of creativity as fundamental to the health of the individual and society. The film M.C. Richards: The Fire Within Us (February 2003) has a rough-cut running time of 62 minutes. Contact: Richard Kane, (207) 359–2320.
6 Centering (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1962/1964), p. 35.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2007, Volume 24, Number 3