The incessant broadcast and print recycling of the April 2003 Reuters photograph of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad revealed the importance of art--specifically commemorative sculptural portraits--to the Iraqis. It also demonstrated importance of media images to people all over the world. What do such images mean? Why are they so important?

In a television-dominated society, each person must develop the ability to create his or her own context for the unavoidable flow of images. As viewer-consumers of the media, we must learn to “read” the language of visual images.

Much like the words in a spoken language, images never have a singular, fixed or transparent meaning. They change over time and according to context. Think of what the word “cool” meant in New York City 1900 and what it meant in to the Beatniks in 1960. Or what being “hot” meant in 1900 and what it means now.

We can approach understanding images, in all their complexity, by examining some of their intended, evolving, and received meanings. We must develop critical awareness of mass media images in order to be able to understand, interpret and evaluate their significance for our lives. When we do so, we become what cultural critic bell hooks calls “enlightened witnesses.” If we do not develop such awareness, we may be hypnotized by the constant, often numbing repetition of mass media images.

Learning to read a new language is very complex. Imagine you don’t know Hebrew, but want to learn to read Hebrew texts. First, you would have to learn the basic signifying units (the Hebrew alphabet). You would have to learn the words (vocabulary) and the grammar (the way sentences are put together). Then you would have to learn how this information is conveyed. (Informal handwriting, scrolls and printed books are examples of different ways of communicating linguistic messages in Hebrew.) Finally, you could begin to read in Hebrew. As you did so, you would have to learn about historic changes in Hebrew usage, for example, how written Hebrew from five centuries ago was quite different from spoken Hebrew today. Such historic change is also evident in other languages, like English--as you probably learned while studying Shakespeare.

To learn the language of visual images, we need to understand the basics of visual form color, line, shape, etc.) and composition (how forms are arranged in relation to each other). We also need to study the modes of delivery that is, the media with which these visual messages are presented to the viewer (whether via paintings, photographs or computer screens). As we do so, we can begin to learn the vocabulary or “styles” of various locations and historic periods and why it was important to make images about one part of human experience at a certain time in history, and about another aspect of human life in a different time. As Frederic Jameson has said, “[T]he only way to think the visual, to get a handle on increasing, tendential, all-pervasive visuality as such, is to grasp its historical coming into being.”

The Ongoing Relationship Between Art & Technology

In addition to their influences from other cultures, Western art and mass media have always been dependent on and involved in advances in technology. To separate the images of art (or of the mass media) from the histories of technological apparatuses is to see only part of intricately interwoven developments. As media theorist Barbara Maria Strafford asserts, “We need an analogical concept of technology, one that restores awareness of the long and tangled lineage of apparatuses. As tools for transformation and revelation, visual technologies expand human consciousness, allowing people to see their material connections to larger ideas, forces, and movements. Instead of an apotheosis paradigm—in which the disembodied user is abruptly joined to the superior intelligence of a machine—the substance-filled gap implicit in the word media (from medius, ‘middle’) has to be recaptured. This is the lesson of legacy instruments for futuristic devices.”

The images themselves and the instruments that deliver them, from paintings to computer screens, determine what we see and how we see it, in both the world of representations, and the world of nature.

Looking is Learned: How We Learn to See P-I-G

Human vision is intelligent; we think about what we see. As French painters Albert and Jean Metzinger wrote in 1912: “The visible world only becomes the real world by the operation of thought.”

Most of us consider seeing an essentially biological and “natural” process. We assume that we open our eyes and automatically see whatever is in front of them. In fact, looking is learned. We “see” as our culture teaches us to see. Let’s take for example how we learn to see a pig.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many US children who did not live on farms learned about pigs from children’s books read to them by their parents. On one page of the book, they saw the illustration of a chubby pink creature with pointed ears and corkscrew tail. On the opposite page they saw the word P-I-G. As their parents repeatedly said “pig” and pointed to the image, the children learned to associate the word with the drawn depiction.

From the middle of the century on, television introduced pigs to most urban children. They may have learned about pigs from watching children’s cartoons that featured Porky Pig), who was all pink and chubby, wore a short jacket and silly hat, and spoke in a high falsetto. Or they may have seen their first pig on “Sesame Street” where Miss Piggy (also chubby and pink, also dressed in remarkably silly attire) epitomized the bossy female and tirelessly pursued her love interest, Kermit the Frog. Years before these children saw an actual pig, they formed a mental image associated with the word: a pink chubby creature that either said “Oink, oink” (if their parents were reading to them) or spoke in perfect English, albeit in a high squeaky voice (if their first porcine character was Porky Pig). Whether from children’s book illustrations or mass media icons, the mental concept of P-I-G that these young people developed was based on word and image, not on direct experience. Indeed, there is very little visual or behavioral correlation between Porky or Miss Piggy and their farmyard counterparts. The word and image point to a mental image developed in a culturally determined process--a mental image that has been learned—not to an actual pig. There is no natural relationship between the word PIG, the drawing of the cute well-dressed pink creature who stands on two feet, and an actual pig.

The relationship between words, which may be called signifiers, and the ideas or objects they refer to, which may be called the signified, is never “natural.” It is always arbitrary and always culturally determined. Images also function as signifiers; images frequently have culturally-determined but not “universal” or “natural” relationships to what they ostensibly portray. People outside the reach of “Sesame Street” programs may very well NOT recognize that the cute, well-dressed figure we can all identify as Miss Piggy is supposed to represent the dirty four-legged creature that ruts in farmyard refuse and ends up in a sandwich.

Furthermore, neither the mental concept (what is signified) nor its links to words and pictures (the signifiers) is ever fixed or static. The relationship between the concept and what it refers to shifts constantly. Toes represented pigs for children who learned a game played with their feet called “This Little Piggy Went to Market.” And the associations shifted and multiplied as the children aged.

Over time, the word pig took on additional meanings. Eventually, the children learned that the crisp, fatty meat they ate with their breakfast eggs came from pigs. These same children played football with a ball called a “pigskin.” They heard people calling police officers “pigs.” And, as they grew, they learned that particularly chauvinistic men referred to as “pigs.”

Let’s get back to that drawing of the pig, often the first representation of “pigness.” The children learned to equate the drawing with a mental concept. They learned to see that chubby pink creature as PIG, however much or little it resembled an actual pig. Their parents, their televisions, their cultures taught them how to see and understand “pigness.”

Indeed, looking is learned. We learn how to see the three letters P-I-G as pointing to a mental concept and the drawing as pointing to some aspect of the same mental concept, through complex social processes. In the same way, we learn to see dog, cat, mother, father, self and other.

Art participates in this social process. Art images help us initiate the construction of mental concepts (as when our mother points to a drawing in a book and says “Pig: oink, oink!”) They also confirm what we have already learned, as when our grade school teacher holds up an illustration of farm yard animals while he teaches us to sing “Old MacDonald had a Farm” and we memorize the verse “And on his farm there was a pig...with an oink, oink here and an oink, oink there...” Art images, in other words, embody the social processes inherent in learning to look. In doing so, they both construct and reflect their respective culture’s values. An easy way to see the relationship between images and cultural values is by examining historic advertisements.

Advertising Images: What We Desire to See, How We Desire to Be

Advertising images often tell us how things “ought” to look. Advertisers for Kodak have understood this since the early years of the twentieth century when snapshot photographs of families, family gatherings, and family vacations became the basis for Kodak advertising. Historians like Ellen Gartell have observed that this form of advertising imagery virtually taught America how to become photographers. William F. O’Barr adds, “Once people owned a camera, they needed to be told what their pictures ought to look like. This type of instruction became the predominant subject matter of camera advertisements during the first half of the twentieth century…”

The early Kodak images not only instructed on how snapshots “ought” to look: they also informed viewers about how families and family events “ought” to appear. They presented the ideal world to which Americans were “supposed” to aspire.

“Reading” Images

We can analyze art images from our contemporary culture, as well as from other cultures and other times, in order to explore how the process of depicting values in images works. In this book, we study art to examine the process of looking, to examine the visual components of learning to be ourselves, to think about ourselves and others. Our goal here might be called “visual literacy.” Most students learn to read written texts in early childhood. By their teen years, they can read, analyze, and respond critically to written texts, like articles in newspapers or magazines. But very few can “read” and think critically about the photographic images that accompany them. Most of the information we receive today, from printed media to television to the Internet, is at least partially visual. Such visuals, such pictorial “texts,” are powerful communicators. We need to learn to read and think critically about what they are “saying.” The tools of art history can be deployed to initiate the visual literacy process. They can teach us to “read” the images that surround us in our mass media society.

Images, Representation & Content

Images are never merely “natural” or neutral. They are always constructed representations. And they always convey the values and beliefs of the people who constructed them. The Kodak ads discussed above presented American families in a singular way, as white middle-class groups including mother, father, and a few children. They did not represent racial diversity. They did not represent any alternative family structures. Repeated again and again such images “told” viewers what a “normal” family was supposed to be. Whether conscious or not, viewers who lived in different family groups were alienated and discomforted by such images.

In a similar way, women are almost always portrayed in today’s advertisements as young, slender and able bodied. Many studies have confirmed that such images make older women, women with disabilities, and overweight women feel inadequate, unattractive, and unfeminine. Like the historic Kodak images of families, many of today’s fashion and cosmetic ads tell women what they “should” look like. They tell women what kinds of females are valued in our culture.

Art as Icon: Images that Reflect Basic Cultural Values

The term icon traditionally has referred specifically to a culture’s religious images. But since our culture today is not primarily represented by such religious images, popular art and fine art images can be considered as icons insofar as their appearance in the mass media shapes and reflect our culture’s basic values.

As icons, for instance, there is a direct connection between Hans Memling’s marvelous oil portrait done over four hundred years ago (Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove, 1487) and the photograph of President George W. Bush printed on a cover of Newsweek (Newsweek, March 10, 2003).

The oil painting strongly expresses two enduring values of Western culture: a love of technology and a love of individualism. Technology as a value is expressed by the printed book below the man’s prayerfully folded hands and by the Memling’s use of the newly discovered technique of linear perspective (the technique of creating the illusion of three-dimensional spatial recession on a two-dimensional surface). The value of individualism is expressed by the historic focus on realistic portraits of ordinary people.

The image of President Bush on the Newsweek cover shows a continuing stress on the same two values: Technological advances have mechanized perspective into photography. The love of individualism has increased to the point that the president—unlike the kings and rulers of Memling’s day—must look as much as possible like the ordinary citizen pictured in the Memling portrait. It is now an essential part of any American president’s image.

Art as Icon: Creating, Affirming & Sustaining Culture

Culture can be defined as the shared pattern of customs, ideas, beliefs, images, and languages that unite a group. Every culture can be seen as a kind of giant model of what it means to be a human being. Every human being within a given culture conforms in varying degrees to this model. Thus, even though culture is made by human beings, it also makes each individual— to some extent—in its own image. This is just as true of so-called advanced cultures as it is of native cultures like the Aztecs.

In our everyday usage the word myth tends to mean a lie or a fable—something that is not true, something unscientific. In relation to culture, however, myth does not mean a lie. A culture’s myths inevitably give explanations of how the cosmos (sun, stars, earth) was born. They also tell who men and women are—in their own relationships and in their relationships with the gods, with the sprits of the ancestors, with nature, and with death. Just as every culture embodies a particular model of human nature, so every culture—including our own has its own myths, its own stories of origin and destiny. Every person within a culture lives out a personal version and variation of the culture’s myths.

The direct connection between culture and myth means that an icon is more than an image that reflects a culture’s basic values. The meaning of the term icon must include the crucial role art plays in forming the culture’s basic picture of what matters. More specifically, art has an icon function insofar as it helps people within a culture experience their basic myth system in a meaningful way. Without this experience of myth, a culture can literally lose its meaning. It then either dies or undergoes radical change based on some new basic myth.

When Spanish conquerors effectively eradicated the Aztec religious system in the sixteenth century, the Aztecs were emotionally and physically disempowered. In order to compel the Aztecs to conform to European cultural conventions, the Spaniards destroyed Aztec sculptures, books, and buildings. They forbade the indigenous ritual practices that gave structure and meaning to the Aztecs’ lives, and forcibly converted them to Christianity. Only by undermining the Aztec mythic system could the Spaniards begin to incorporate the conquered people into their colonial empire. The Spaniards’ actions reflected their Eurocentric beliefs: their culture was to be valued, the Aztec culture devalued.

The European domination of the “primitive” Other exemplified in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was based on bipolar opposition thinking. As discussed in the Preface, the term bipolar opposition is used to refer to two concepts that have been traditionally linked. They have been conceived as absolutes, like black and white, with no “gray” territory between them. One member of the pair has been valued over the other. And they have been seen as in conflict. Sometimes bipolar oppositions have been related. The male/female pairing has been linked to other oppositions. Nature has been linked with the female: we say “Mother Nature.” Culture has been linked with the male: historically, the cultural productions of men have been valued over those of women.

Deconstructing Bipolar Oppositions

Examination of the male/female bipolar opposition in Western culture illuminates how the structure has functioned historically. In general, men have been characterized as big, strong, aggressive, virile, intelligent, brave, outspoken, and stoical. They have been raised to seek power in competing public ventures. Women have been valued for being the opposite: smaller, less muscular, chaste, obedient, agreeable, nurturing and intensely emotional. They have been taught to develop their relational, specifically nurturing skills, usually exercised in the domestic setting.

In other words, human characteristics, characteristics we all share, have been divided in two. One half of them has historically been coded as male. The other half has been coded as female. And the male characteristics have often been valued over the female ones.

Intent on keeping men as “real men” and women as “real women,” society uses hurtful language to penalize those who violate cultural expectations. If a woman steps outside her designated gender category by competing with men in the public sphere and by taking on the supposedly male characteristics of aggression and strength, if she also becomes competitive and outspoken, she may be demonized as a “bitch.” Calling an “unwomanly” woman a bitch or female dog is like using a psychic tazer to compel her to behave as she “should.” Bitch capitalizes on the culture/nature bipolar opposition by moving a woman out of the human-culture category and demoting her to the nature-animal category. Similarly, a man who steps outside his gender category by embracing what are considered female characteristics and activities, may be called a “girly man” or other demeaning labels, again in attempt to force him to conform. [SIDEBAR: The ongoing power of the term bitch is pictorialized in the logo for “Bitch” skateboards. A small image of a woman, stylized in the manner of public signage, stands on the left side of the logo. To her right is a larger male image. He points a gun at her head. A puff of smoke coming out of the gun’s barrel indicates that he has just shot her, presumably because she is a ‘bitch.” See]

Especially since the 1960s, during what is called the Postmodern period, bipolar oppositions have been increasingly exposed and challenged. By now, many adults realize bipolar thinking is limited and stereotyping. But children may not have such a critical perspective. They may not be able to resist the strong social programming into oppositional gender roles.

Socializing Bipolar Opposition

Children are often taught to conform to the bipolar oppositions of gender. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes reinforce what little boys and little girls should be. Active, handsome princes rescue passive Sleeping Beautys and Snow Whites. The childhood chant reiterates: “Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of. Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.”

Examination of children’s television commercials from the early 1990s indicates that young people were still being socialized into bipolar oppositions of gender. The commercials aimed at selling toys to little boys were active, if not violent. There was a preponderance of war toys. With “play” weapons, vehicles, and robots, little boys were taught to value aggressive competition and control through force. The boy games led them to strive to win over others, usually in outdoor settings, where they developed athletic skills so they could become strong and quick. Little boy toys involved technology and conflictual strategies. Visually, there was emphasis on black, military camouflage and primary colors. Most of the music was loud “hard rock.” Popular boy toys in the late twentieth century include G.I. Joe “action figures,” Nerf foam rockets, and Z-bot plastic robots, all well equipped with guns.

In marked contrast, commercials designed to sell toys to little girls were often pastel in tonality (most often pink) and used softer music and more soothing voices. Girl toys encouraged the domestic skills needed for motherhood: nurturing baby dolls, cleaning the house, and cooking. One little girl game involved several preteens trying to guess which boy liked them. In the end, the winner listened to a clue on a mock telephone, then giggled, “Dan! Dan! You’re my man!” It is unthinkable that little boys would sit around playing a board game aimed at guessing, the boys’ side of the store was dominated by red, blue, yellow, black and camouflage coloring. All of the computer and video games were on the boy side. There were numerous weapons and war toys, as well as male dolls called “action figures.” The other side of the store, the girls’ side, was pink and pretty. The stuffed animals, baby dolls and kitchen toys were all in the girls’ section. Barbie Dolls were, of course, on the girls’ side of the store.

Deconstructing Bipolar Oppositions in Western Cultural Icons: David’s Oath of the Horatii

Bipolar oppositions are also evident in examples from the fine arts tradition of Western culture. French academic painter Jacques Louis David painted his large historical canvas, The Oath of the Horatii (1784,), in Rome, soon after archaeologists discovered the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The two cities had been covered by volcanic ash so rapidly after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that people were instantly preserved while walking down the street. Not only were human remains preserved; so were the buildings and many of the material goods in those buildings. Europeans suddenly saw what people actually wore and did during Roman times; it instantly became fashionable to dress like Ancient Romans. David had traveled from Paris to Rome to study art. He was inspired by the archaeological discoveries to use a Roman story and archaeologically correct details of architecture and attire in his monumental painting.

David’s canvas depicts the moment when three brothers swear to their father that they will fight to the death for their rights. On the right side of the painting are wives, sisters, and children responding tearfully to the imminent departure of their sons, brothers, and husbands.

The painting, when exhibited in Paris, was embraced as a call to fight for one’s liberty. It has often been interpreted as an incitement to revolution, inspiring the French people to rise up against monarchical abuse and establish a nation of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” the clarion call of the French Revolution. Today, we can “read” David’s painting from many viewpoints.

A feminist perspective allows us to see that the image reinforces traditional gender roles. David’s monumental painting pictorializes what men should be like and what women should be like. Men are active, women passive. Men are depicted as physically strong warriors. Fierce but controlled, they are going out into the world to compete and conquer. In contrast, the weak and emotional women are staying at home to care for the children.

The visual elements employed in the depiction of the two genders contribute to the binary messages as well. All of the human actors appear on a shallow stage of action, which is situated parallel to picture plane. The men are larger, and positioned to be the focus of attention. Indeed, the entire composition rotates around the central patriarchal figure of the father. The women are smaller and secondary.

We learn to “read” flat images much as we learn to read pages of text: from left to right, top to bottom. In David’s Oath of the Horatii, light enters the composition from the upper left and moves to the lower right. Our gaze is directed to the three brothers first, then to the patriarch whose central position is reinforced by the three windows in the architectural backdrop. Men are in bright colors--red and blue. Women are in pale pastels. Men are all drawn with straight lines and sharp angles. Women are depicted with soft, curving lines.

As we have said, images carry cultural values. From an image like Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, viewers “learn” that what matters are the heroic actions of men, and that women are to serve a secondary, support function.

The visual messages in David’s painting can be compared to Hollywood film images. Inthe 1990s, many Academy Awards for best film went to movies that focused on the heroic actions of men, especially Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Braveheart (1995), and Gladiator (1999). Australian-born actor Russell Crowe won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as the noble Roman rebel in Gladiator, and went on to star as a heroic British captain in Academy Award-nominated Master and Commander (2003).

There has been a long tradition of film images of powerful men and comparatively passive women. Superman always had to rescue Lois Lane, just as John Wayne protected innumerable frail women in the mythic Wild West. Bruce Willis had to save his wife in the first two Die Hard movies (1988 & 1990, US, John McTiernan and Renny Harlin.)

Our “Mass-Mediated” Culture

The range of connections between fine art and mass media popular art reveal that our society itself is, in Michael Real’s phrase, an increasingly “mass-mediated” culture. It is a culture in which the average American watches over four hours of television each day. It is a culture in which presidential candidates spend tens of millions of dollars on commercials using the same packaging and marketing techniques as those used to sell cars.

In our “mass-mediated” culture, advertising and other popular culture images have strong connections with fine art. Advertising images are made by artists who are trained at the same art schools as aspiring painters. Courses in advertising teach that a good ad follows the same principles of line, color, and shape as a good painting. Advertising artists study and apply the entire fine art tradition of painting, photography, and film to create images calculated to transform the viewer into a consumer.

A sense of visual literacy today requires a knowledge not only of fine art but also of how our fine art tradition has influenced and helped to produce our entire mass media environment, including advertising.

As art critic Douglas Crimp writes, “To an even greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures first hand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality, it now seems that they have usurped it. It therefore becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not in order to recover a lost reality, but to determine how a picture becomes a signifying structure of its own accord.”

California State University, Northridge

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