The New Visuality

The academic year has ended. My final task--a daunting one--was the commencement talk last Thursday evening to graduating BFAs & MFAs and their families at the College of Art ceremony at Washington University in St. Louis. That ceremony occurred the evening before the really big all-University shindig on Friday morning, May 15. Text below. 

[Introduction by Dean Ron Leax.]


Thank you Dean Leax. Students, Parents, Families, Colleagues, Friends. Welcome to all who’ve traveled here to attend this joyous event. Permit me to add my congratulations to the graduates and their families.

It’s customary in speeches like these to recite the career of a student, as if to refresh the story. You arrived as nervous, hesitant eighteen-year-olds; you labored your way through the necessary rigors of the Core Program; you embraced the challenges of the major; now here you are, popping out the other end of the chute, near-citizens of the adult world. A similar tale may be told of our MFA candidates. I am fairly certain that all our graduates recall these trials to the degree they wish to already; my retelling will be unnecessary or worse, unwelcome.

As for parents and family, allow me to summarize: these graduates have solved that Riddle of the Sphinx which is Art School. The satisfaction of the Sphinx requires an heroic mix of observation, interpretation, invention, manual labor, patience, and a serialized engagement with ambiguity.

Students who’ve taken my courses will testify that upon presentation of a new project, I have a habit of offering an ironic but heartfelt cheer. When all the questions have been answered–or rather, the anxious have been mollified, and those looking for recipes have been rebuffed–I ball my hands, raise my arms, and bark, “Go Team!”

I recognize that the introduction of a sports metaphor into an art studio may violate some rule somewhere. But I like the team concept. It has value in an increasingly collaborative and community-oriented professional world. And I see myself as a member of a group. I am deeply honored–truly, privileged–to represent my colleagues on the faculty here tonight. Thank you for the opportunity.

In this capacity I’m happy to note–extending the team metaphor–that from here on out we the faculty will no longer serve as your putative coaches. Grades are in. We’re putting up our whistles and shifting to a new role: your fans. And be assured that we’ll wave our pennants fervently. Wildly even.

But. Before you go, since it happens we’re all sitting here, I thought I’d offer a few observations. A little chalk talk. You can polish your cleats while you wait. But don’t worry. By noon tomorrow, you’ll be racing onto that fresh green field of play: adult life.


So. I have wonderful news for you: the world is becoming increasingly visual, and has been for some time. When the first issue of Harper’s Weekly was published in January of 1857, the entire cover, a broadsheet big, was blanketed in small, dense type. Nary a picture appeared. Within a few short years, Harper’s entire cover and much of its interior were given over to illustrations printed from wood-engraved blocks, the first industrial-scale image technology.

In every decade since, new image technologies have come on the scene: improved printing, motion pictures, television, computing, digital imaging in 2 and 3 dimensions. The advent and use of these technologies have produced a visual environment far richer and denser than anyone could have imagined. Today we move through a boldly remade landscape of printed surfaces, projected images, fashioned objects, and glowing monitors of all shapes and sizes.

The march of the visual has moved beyond Isaac Newton’s spectrum, the Roy G. Biv. of everyday sight, into wavelengths invisible to human eye. Gamma, X, UV, infrared rays can be “seen” through constructed visualities. We’re able to watch brains at work. We can see across deep time. By now, the colonization of the invisible by the seen is nearly complete.

Visual design methodologies have been used to help solve complicated human problems in other fields. Advanced design practice yields understanding that textual languages cannot unearth, and would struggle to convey.

Visual art practice has shown us the experiential and associative power of images. An encounter with an especially potent and well-formed object–to take a classic example, Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-Lined Teacup–produces an insight which cannot be posited, only experienced. Such works peel back the skin of everyday life. Their shocks and their pleasures are the province of the arts.

Taken together, these achievements have expanded the range of human knowledge, and helped to overturn ancient biases about ways of knowing. Modern vision need no longer serve as a handmaiden to that stubborn old tyrant, text.


So I’ve given you the good news: the world grows ever more visual.

Alas, I must also give you the bad: the world grows ever more visual.

The digital technology which enables instantaneous access to information has also made possible the creation of ever more spectacular experiences. Extraordinarily stimulating. Similarly profitable.

A new visual-industrial complex has emerged. It’s gotten very good at producing (among other things) simulated armies, ersatz battles, and performative make-believe slaughter. Meanwhile actual human beings in the employ of our nation’s armed forces are busy experiencing such things daily, in far-flung, deeply complicated places which are also populated by real human beings. None of whom–any of them–suffer digitally.

Aristotle’s Poetics, a vastly influential work of criticism twenty-four centuries old, proposes that tragedy consists of six elements. These elements include plot and character, among others. But last on Aristotle’s list comes spectacle, or visual display. That spectacle brings up the rear provides evidence of an abiding anxiety in the West about the power of images. Moses came back down Mt. Sinai with instructions to steer clear of graven images. The Second Commandment has complicated Jewish, Christian and Islamic art ever since.

Plato, another thinker of some significance, excluded artists from his Ideal Republic, in large part because their images are based on tricks and superficialities:

“[An] object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water. . . the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion. . . to which the sight is liable. This is [a] weakness of the human mind. . . the art of deceiving by light and shadow [has] an effect upon us like magic.” 

Think what he’d make of Adobe Photoshop!

Words and images can be used to stir popular passions. Plato worried that emotions, once roused, would be difficult to contain or redirect. No kidding. Pictures sting. Reflect for a moment on the terrible power of that infamous photograph: of a wired-up, hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Consider the dehumanizing effects of Jim Crow-era blackface depictions of African-Americans.

Pictures also sell. We are all aware that modern governments, political movements, and corporations work hard to present themselves sympathetically through the manipulation of words and images. Non-profit groups do the same.

Indeed, I hasten to add: there’s nothing wrong or even inherently problemmatic about efforts at self-presentation. Humans work to show themselves in a good light, and have from the beginning. But the emotional science of modern messaging would have given Plato pause. And the Late-Roman excesses of contemporary media would have driven him to drink. Hemlock.

I have begun to think that despite several centuries of expanding literacy, we may be headed for a post-reading age. The collapse of the daily newspaper will lead to more abbreviated factual writing. Texts of many sorts are departing the page for the screen. Even more material will be encountered as audio, and won’t be read at all. In some contexts, the new visuality has completely obviated the need for words–helpful when looking for a bathroom while traveling abroad, admittedly. But tradeoffs are coming. Sacrifices to complexity and nuance will be made. We’ll give up repose in exchange for immersion. The upshot will be an increasing reliance on rhetoric over logic and ever more sophisticated propaganda. The breathtaking opening ceremonies at last year’s Beijing Olympics point in this direction.

If I am correct, and we are transitioning to a new kind of oral culture, be assured that the authority invested in written texts will not disappear. Rather such texts are likely to become the domain of elites, who will use them to safeguard their interests. Others may end up clicking their way into an empty but stimulating perpetual present.


Now, as for you.

I believe that you have been ideally trained for the coming culture. You are visually fluent. You know what is to make a thing, to conceive it clearly and to fashion it well. You subject form to analysis. You sniff out hidden content in the apparently innocuous. You are able to marshall facts in support of a position, and to review that position when confronted by new facts.

Moreoever, you think structurally. I mean this both academically and creatively: you see wholes, not parts.

Your peers without visual training will be less able to think formally, and may struggle to look past visual surfaces to visual arguments, or lack of same. Your visually-trained peers who lack liberal grounding may not perceive the dangers in a world dominated by surfaces, and happily decorate our demise.

I am quite serious when I say that you make up a crucial new corps of professionals but no lesscitizens for a new era.

In a world facing diminishing resources and rising temperatures, ruled by political cultures slow to adapt to new realities, wracked by the irregular march of modernity, I’m glad to know that you will soon be in the game. We look forward to your vital visions, to the light you will shed across and beyond the spectrum of that which can be conceived today.

So tighten those shoelaces, and buckle your straps. For the last time, I am truly honored to offer my silly cheer, “Go Team.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find my seat and the watch the game.

Photo credit unavailable, Photograph from inside the "Bird's Nest," opening ceremonies, Beijing Olympics, China, August 8, 2008

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and Sphinx, 1864

Winslow Homer, Rebel Soldiers on Night Patrol, Harper's Weekly, May 17, 1862

Reflectivity scan showing thunderhead volume, York County, Pennsylvania, June 2, 2006, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 Meret Oppenheim, Fur-lined Teacup, 1936

Ken Levine, game designer, Screen Shot from BioShock, a first-person shooter game developed by Irrational Games (now known as 2K Boston/2K Australia), 2008

Ben Shahn,Hebrew Alphabet, date unavailable

Photo credit uncertain (Charles Graner?); Prisoner at Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq, 2004

Illustrator uncredited, Actors Card, Old Gypsy Fortune-Telling game, Whitman Publishing, Racine Wisconsin, 1936

U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, Chinese Dancers Emerging from "Moveable Type Blocks," opening ceremonies Beijing Olympics

finally, for the record, to establish that I'm not a couch potato who brandishes sports metaphors cheaply, that's me swimming the 100 butterfly (if not especially fast) at the Ozark Zone SCY Masters Swimming Meet in March of this year; Photograph by Andrew Dowd (my son, whose photoblog may be seen here.)