Tuesday, July 10, 2012

More thoughts on Chapter 1 of Art as Culture

Ethiopian Icon: Christ in Glory with Symbols of the Four Evangelists
by Simachew Mesfin

Toward the end of my post on the Preface and Chapter 1 of Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art, I mentioned a few of Hatcher's points regarding the meanings found in art objects.  She writes that there are five levels of meaning in art: subject, symbolic/iconographic, interpretation/theoretical, metaphor and ambiguity.  I'd like to compare and contrast these five levels with ideas presented in a forthcoming missions manual called Researching and Creating Together: How Local Artists Can Help Communities Reach their Kingdom Goals, which was the basis for a one week module on visual arts that I taught last year for a course at GIAL.

The visual art section of the manual begins by describing visual communication in art with the terms signifier and signified.  A signifier is a visual representation that simply stands for something else.  This could be compared to Hatcher's subject, which is a portrayal of a form(s) from nature, regardless of its degree of realism.  The signified is the meaning that the signifier represents, such as a person, story, concept, etc.; this concept corresponds to Hatcher's symbolic level, where the portrayed image represents something beyond the immediate subject matter.

In visual art, signifiers can also be called signs.  There are three types of signs: index, icon and symbol. An index is a sign that emerges from some natural phenomenon rather than being an arbitrary convention of culture.  For example, a pulse means that someone is alive; a flapping flag means that there is wind.

An icon is a sign that is created and agreed upon by a group of people, and bears some resemblance to what it signifies.  An Orthodox Christian icon is a literal example, but so is a "Deer Crossing" sign with the silhouette of a leaping deer on it.

Lastly, a symbol is a sign that is created and agreed upon by a group of people, but bears NO resemblance to what it signifies. An example would be a road sign with the words "Deer Crossing' only, but no silhouette of a deer.

Another visual arts concept in the manual is that of underlying symbolic systems.  Underlying symbolic systems refer to "the grammatical and social rules and structures that guide participants’ actions in artistic activity" (Researching and Creating Together, p. 177).  This would compare to one of Hatcher's levels, interpretation/theoretical, where "meaning is interpreted in terms of a particular theoretical symbolic system" (11).

Researching and Creating Together goes on to explain that the "symbolic systems underlying a community’s visual communication contribute to its Visual Literacy: the understanding that people have of the various components and elements of visual messages, the learned ability to understand and create visual images to communicate messages” (177).  Wikipedia writes that "visual literacy is not limited to modern mass media and new technologies. The graphic novel Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud discusses the history of narrative in visual media. Also, animal drawings in ancient caves, such as the one in Lascaux, France, are early forms of visual literacy. Hence, even though the name visual literacy itself as a label dates to the 1960s, the concept of reading signs and symbols is prehistoric."

Diane Pamela Smith, author of "Visual Art and Orality," quotes Milton Munoz, who writes, "[Visual literacy] goes on autonomously in societies where pictures of all kinds are part of the individual’s visual environment from birth to death.  In environments where there are no or very few pictures, as in the remote village, the [automatic] process simply does not occur" (8).  Smith primarily concentrates on how western-style images are visually interpreted by those who may not be familiar with artistic principles such as depth, scale, etc.

I wonder if visual literacy couldn't also refer to how members of a society are able to read/interpret their own visual imagery.  Such visual imagery might be understood by various members of a society, reinforcing the worldview imbedded therein.  The extent of a society's awareness of their own values/stories/spiritual beliefs, and the level of acceptance of these ideas among the society, would need to be fully understood by foreign workers who might utilize a cultural art form for the purpose of communication.  Ideally, however, it would be best if a native artist and others from the culture who are both followers of Christ and who understand the symbolism of the artwork make the final decision about which forms and imagery would best communicate aspects of the Gospel to others in their society or within the family of faith.

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