Monday, November 7, 2011

Artist's Frame in Visual Arts

While waiting for approval on a couple of posts I've already written, I thought I would briefly discuss a topic from the class module I taught in September at GIAL: in visual arts, the concept known as frame.

Frame is the purpose or intention of the artist in communicating a message in a visual artwork.  When using visual arts to communicate a message, frame becomes very important.  In order to interpret the message in a visual artwork correctly, the audience needs to understand the intention of the artist.  Otherwise, the message is likely to be misinterpreted or ignored completely by the audience.

There are three kinds of frames:

  • Background Knowledge Frame
  • Story Frame
  • Time-Travel / Interpretive Frame

The background knowledge frame is an illustration which is supposed to help explain a reference in a biblical text.  A common Horace Knowles Bible illustration, for example, shows a bit in the mouth of a horse, designed to clarify James 3:3, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.” This illustration provides background information for cultures unfamiliar with bits and horses. The audience will interpret the illustration’s meaning wrongly if they interpret the artist’s intention as telling a story; most people who flip through a book are looking for a story frame rather than a background knowledge frame, and so they may wonder what this story is about a horse’s head shown without a body. The audience needs to know that the frame is background knowledge.

Navaho Christ by
Fr. John Giuliani

The story frame is the most versatile, but the most controversial, frame.  A depiction of Jesus as a Native American or the Jesus Mafa Association’s pictures of Jesus drawn in an African context have a story frame. They are not meant to tell the audience that Jesus was Native American or African, because the frame is not to provide background knowledge, but rather to communicate that Jesus came for Indians and African people, too.  This frame is sometimes controversial because some believers feel that depictions of Jesus or anyone from the Bible need to be historically accurate...

... which leads us to the third frame, the "time-travel" interpretive frame.  In this frame, artists conduct historical research and try to make their drawings resemble as closely as possible how historical events might have actually looked.  It seems to have originated at about the same time as films that used huge budgets to recreate events with historical accuracy.  However, we do not know how tall or short Jesus was or if He had a particular hairstyle, let alone what his exact skin color was.

As noted above, some people say that the story frame is an inappropriate approach to biblical art because the first priority should be to make it as historically accurate as possible. But for many cultures, their first question is not whether this is actually what these people looked like, but rather, “Is this story for us, or for some other culture? If it is for some other culture, we may look at it to learn about you, but we won’t think it has anything to do with us. Stories for us must be drawn from our world just as they must be told in our language.”

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