The Art of Visual Listening 6: Visual Elements—An Introduction

Welcome in diverse languages

The Visual Language

The great thing about visual communication is it has the potential to transcend both cultural and time barriers.  It can do this because it doesn’t depend on arbitrary memorized symbols like written language does. Visual communication depends on the universal language of the observable world around us.  The visual alphabet is fundamentally the same no matter where or when you live.

But if this language is so universal, why is art sometimes difficult to understand?  The problem is most of us have never viewed the visual world as a language. And even though at least 75% of human sensory perception is visual and about 60% of our thinking activities are linked with vision, we’re not taught “seeing.”

This lack of emphasis on such an important mental component has left many of us visually illiterate.  The complex process of seeing, then, is left to the artist. No wonder we have trouble understanding art, only the artists know the language.  For them the whole world is a multi-layered picture book, a visual dictionary of objects and metaphors, signs and symbols.  For the rest of us, though, it’s simply our environment and seeing is limited mostly to looking—object identification for practical needs.

Picasso addressed this idea to his dealer when he came to the artist’s studio to see PIcasso’s radically new cubist work. After careful examination, the dealer complained the paintings were “Greek” to him.  Picasso cheerfully explained the solution to the problem was simple, “Just learn Greek.”

Visual communication may be based on a universal language, but to understand it, we still need to learn it, just like Greek.

So for the rest of this blog series, our goal will be to translate the language of our visual world. And we’re going to start with the rules first.

The Rules of the Game

Remember learning to read and write?  We had to learn the alphabet (the specific functions of consonants and vowels, except for “y” which can’t make up its mind), the rules of spelling (“i” before “e” except after “c,” of course), when to use capitals (capitalize the months of the year but, for some quirky reason, not the seasons) and punctuation (always use the Oxford comma before the last item in a list of three or more . . . or don’t). We also had to learn how to correctly organize words into sentences and paragraphs.

Well, in a way, art is similar. Making art is like writing and understanding art is like reading. Both artist and viewer need to know the visual vocabulary and its organizational rules in order for communication to happen.

But take heart. The rules of visual communication aren’t quite as convoluted as written communication. Because no matter what, we can always fall back on what we see around us. Mother Nature’s the key to the whole thing.

But as many people are fond of saying, “rules are meant to be broken.” I mean look at all those examples of rules for writing above. Every one of them has an exception. So why learn the rules at all?  Well,  imagine playing a game without knowing the rules. There’d be no point in playing. We’d be lost. It’s the same thing with art. Knowing the “rules” of art gives us a starting point, a common ground from which to build communication between the artwork and us.  And, if we know the rules, when they’re broken, that too will communicate something. It’s all about knowing how to play the game.

So with that, let the games begin!


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