Last week in my discussion sections, we took a look at the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, discovered in Pompeii and circa 1st Century BCE. Students had had to write a formal analysis of the work, practicing newly gained art historical tools learned in section 2 weeks prior. I provided them with support materials from the Toledo Museum of Art’s “Art of Seeing Art” visual literacy initiative and we talked through understanding and applying formal elements and analysis.
Together we practiced identifying and applying these concepts to works of art to better help us understand how a composition was constructed.
Students were required to perform a formal analysis of the mosaic but after reading through their submissions, it became clear that many were prone to simply describing the work and its subjects. Characteristic of their writing were statements pertaining to:
- Alexander the Great staring resolutely ahead at Darius III with confidence and an eye toward his inevitable victory
- Darius III reacting with fear and pleading with Alexander to show his armies compassion
- Panicked soldiers attempting to flee and Darius III attempting to turn around his chariot to retreat
Of course many of these “observations” were borrowed or inspired by discussions of the work by SmartHistory but have caused me to realize that even after long discussion and practice, today’s average undergraduate student is not equipped to formally engage with artwork, let alone think critically about its execution or presentation. Now, I think formal analysis has a time and place (of course probably not a very weighty one in terms of everyday life as practiced by most Americans). That being said, I think that visual literacy is imperative to students (and adults) having the ability to view this exceedingly visual world in which we live in a way that is informed by creative and critical thinking. Students are much more comfortable identifying subject matter (i.e. hashtags on Instagram) than thinking about the possible ramifications of images. What can they mean? How do they affect me/us/people? How are they constructed and why? How does their context shape viewers’ encounters with them or the messages they carry? This resistance to seeing images as carriers of meaning is dangerous and absolutely one of the greatest challenges for educators today to address.