If a picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t art class more valuable than reading?

A few weeks ago, some friends and I visited Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. I did there what I do each place I’m asked to view contemporary art. I looked at each piece for a few seconds, read the accompanying artist’s or curator’s statement thoroughly, and then looked back to the art thinking, “Oh, that’s what they meant to say. Of course!”

This is my way with contemporary art.

It is not, in any way, how I encounter printed words.

In middle school, reading a textbook, I skipped the graphs, the charts, and the tables. I read the words. I’m not sure why I thought those other pieces were there. Filler, maybe?

It’s worked out pretty well so far. Being able to read and manipulate text is the lingua franca of school and the wider world.

Yesterday, I found myself arguing for the opposite. In my Digital Humanities course, I tried to push and pick at people’s thinking around the necessity or sanctity of text.

My thesis is this: Information is equally imperfectly served through transmission via text as through transmission via graphics.
Images, though, don’t have equal footing when we think about reading and literacy. The two terms ellicit images of words, phrases, sentences – verbage.

But they don’t need to, and I’m starting to wonder if we’re not doing ourselves and our students a disservice by putting the premium on the ability to read text.

We lose not only the ability to create and read images, but the comfort and habits of mind that accompany this way of seeing the world as well.

Though the gallery was utterly silent on my trip to the ICA, each image was screaming with the artists’ ideas and commentary. I just had no tools for how to read and understand their language.

10 thoughts on “If a picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t art class more valuable than reading?

  1. Great post Zac. I have been thinking about this reliance on text as well. I am happily currently (Can you use to adverbs like that?) embroiled in a viewing text and photo unit where we are learning to “read” images as we  would text. Some of the conversations and understandings about intent and purpose are much deeper than any text could ever be.

    We are all learning that intent and expression can be just as powerful through images. There is not need to pick one or the other, after all text is a magical world of syntax and poetry, but we must balance out the two literacies- especially in an ever growing media rich world.

    • Adverb away!
      One of the things that occurred to me in class was the question of how many people in the room started by viewing data visualizations from the top left. How much do we miss because we are taught to read?

      I’d also argue there’s a definite syntax at work in images, music and other forms of text creations.

      Maybe one literacy and many texts?

      • As an engineer, I’m enjoying this discussion.  The very word “text” derives from the onomatopoeic “tek” and its many variants (tick, tock, tax . . . ).  “Text” is the past tense of “to tek” and is the result of an early relative of ours chipping a permanent icon or “logo” into stone.  The action of tekking is one of our earliest and most permanent works of art.  We began tekking with pictures of animals, for example, and later with logos representing sounds and ideas.  The first logo of import was “X” graphically representing the position of two arms tekking two stones together to form a tool.  The logos CH or K or X or T are derivative and represent the sound we artisans make when tekking tools.
           A successful tool is acknowledged by the ancient Greek “nai” for “yes; it is approved” and becomes “teknai” — a good technique.  Logging the technique for use in future generations calls for logging the process using – yes – drawings, as well as logos (A, B, C, D & words) so that the technique will stand for all time (as in a patent) and be available for teachers and practitioners to improve as better ideas arise and as further ingenuity (engineering) progresses.
          We engineers could not ever fully describe our inventions without a combination of pictures and words, and the way words change in a “living” language renders them less and less permanent than the drawings.
          Imagine, for example, how horrible it feels when an engineer reads in the newspaper about “Technology’s Danger to Children” when technology literally and simply means tekking, approving and recording – tek-nai-logos. Does the newsman think that logged instructions for making a thermostatically-controlled furnace are somehow dangerous to children?  No.  He thinks “technology” means a tool like a computer connected to telephone wires might allow them to see a picture of a naked woman, or worse.
          Text is in the mind of the beholder, just as the “meaning” of modern art (naked women or otherwise) can be interpreted by the beholder as good or bad or ugly or beautiful.
          Text is an artform.

  2. And I can’t help but wonder how students will record the conversations that took place in this class.  Might sketch-noting be an apt response? http://bavatuesdays.com/guilia-forsythe-talks-sketchnoting/

  3. I think you could easily turn this into a useful professional development activity.

    Give teachers either some incredibly complex and verbose description (or use nonsensical language) without a diagram. Ask them to decipher what is being presented.Now, use a diagram, and ask teachers to decipher what is going on.

    Ask the teachers, what exactly are you measuring when you construct problems for students to do that they can’t understand? Are you finding out about their ability to decode text? Or are you finding out about whether they can solve the problem posed in the picture? How useful is a mixed media format for presenting information? How often is text a barrier for students?

  4. I suspect there are massive differences between different education systems regarding breadth of what ‘reading’ is. In the curriculum I know (the state-mandated Board of Studies curriculum for New South Wales, Australia) reading images has been a part of ‘literacy’ for at least 15 years now. Further, in the field of mathematics this idea of being able to read data as presented in different (visual/graphic) formats is seen as central to ‘numeracy’.

    The word ‘text’, in fact, commonly refers to anything that can be ‘read’, and therefore includes maps, charts, diagrams, photographs, cartoons, illustrations… 

    But literacy is more than being skilled at understanding and communicating through these forms – it’s about being able to read texts in combination with each other: the words you read at an art gallery are a frame that works to focus what you do and do not see in the art work; the pie chart that accompanies a newspaper article seeks to frame (and be framed by) the headline plus any accompanying photograph as well as the content of the article itself.

    And in an age where people communicate via YouTube and emoticons an insistence on ‘text’ and ‘literacy’ being confined to sentences and paragraphs seems anachronistic, to say the least…

    • Elissa, your point about intertextual literacy is well taken. What, if any, movement do you see around images as stand-alone texts.
      I can’t think of a time where image creation or reading images were taught as independent of sentences and paragraphs when I was in school. I know I moved toward it when I was teaching, but never ventured that far.
      Visualizations were always tied to more traditional texts. I wonder how we peel the two apart. Of course, this supposes a value in such peeling.

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