The 4th ‘R’? Visual literacy in contemporary Britain

The Election Project/ Hamira Khan, Conservative. Glasgow, 20 April 2010 (Glasgow East constituency) © Simon Roberts

I recently had the pleasure of a conversation with Stephen Bayley who, according to his own website, might be the second most intelligent man in Britain: he is certainly an insightful cultural commentator, and his long-standing area of particular expertise is design (and architecture and art). He explained to me, in an admittedly rather sweeping manner, that ‘Politicians Don’t See.’ By this I think he meant that, as an institution, they are not programmed to appreciate the world in aesthetic terms.

Bayley naturally, as I hope I also would, argues that aesthetic literacy is critically important. It matters that we think and care about the world around us being functional, well-made – and beautiful.

His biting observation comes not least from the frustration of wrangling with certain politicos over the Millenium Dome project, a sinking ship from which I believe he jumped, and thus from a quite personal aggravation. But it resonated with some other pronouncements I have recently heard.

Richard Simmons, Chief Executive of the imperilled Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (whose job is to drive upwards the design quality of contemporary building), remarked on the common and fatal problem of decision-makers, good with words and numbers and elected on the basis of that particular skillset, believing themselves qualified to take what are essentially aesthetic decisions: something for which they have no apparent training.

And I frequently hear, in the course of my work, the accusation that British people, designers aside, ‘Don’t Understand Design’. This is a rather strange phrase. What can it mean? Perhaps simply that most people don’t know what designers do for a job?

Coming at the problem from a slightly different angle, in a lecture recently I encountered the concept of the ‘period eye’: how the members of a particular culture, at a particular time and place, see. This is particularly with reference to images. The meaning of most if not all images is contingent on cultural and contextual knowledge: most of us have no idea what symbols to look for in a Renaissance painting to work out who all the Saints are, for example. Our biological understanding of sight has changed over time: we no longer tend to conceive of sight as a two-way thing, external objects ‘entering us by our eyes’, as it were. And we now live in a world where images are cheap and abundant, rather than rare and precious, which of course would change our attitude towards them. To understand how a group sees provides an interesting cross-sectional view of how it interprets, navigates and responds to the world.

The lecturer, however, was unable to tell me who is writing on the ‘period eye’ of contemporary Britain? How do we see? I don’t know the answer to this but I feel like it might be important.

A concern for visual literacy is relevant at many levels. To not be critical of the images that are peddled to us on a daily basis is to be a sucker for mass consumerism. And at the level of design, the stuff as well as the images, to be able to see that the things around you have been designed, to intuitively understand the link between material, human creativity and finished object, is to fundamentally have a sense of your own power to change things (as well as more truly appreciate the value of things). A closer connection to ‘craft’ would be literally empowering. I have thought before about design being a tool of democracy. In Britain we seem to equate design with luxury – therefore not something for everyone. Making everything well-designed for everyone is a strong democratic statement.

At the moment there is in Portcullis House an exhibition of photographs taken during the election, all over Britain, of candidates canvassing voters. Without wishing to sound like an architectural snob (and they are great photos), the glaring fact that shouts from most of these is the utterly grim quality of environment in which most Brits dwell, the absolute aesthetic impoverishment of their surroundings. Why are we so resigned to ignoring it? Might we be more likely to object to this commonplace ‘ugliness’ if we felt it wasn’t all quite so predetermined?

We have lost our relationship with the manufactured and constructed world, and primarily through the processes of industrialisation and mass production. Which is exactly the state of affairs that William Morris was (unsuccessfully) trying to ward off with his Arts and Crafts initiative. He spoke, more simply, about the dignity of the craftsman, and being able to see the human hand in the texture of the built environment, but it is basically the same thing.

I’m not arguing for a reversal of industrialisation, and I hope Education Minister John Hayes had something more progressive in mind (I am sure he did) when he recently called for a ‘new Arts and Crafts movement’. Was he responding to the charge that our current schooling system stamps out creative thought? Allaying fears about Gove’s ‘austerity curriculum’? Because the recent suggestion that it could be stripped back to core, ‘traditional’ subjects is worrying and short-sighted. And the removal of HE funding to ‘Arts and Humanities’ subjects even more so.

This is one of the implications of ‘not understanding design’: in education, in focusing so closely on words and numbers, with second-rate status awarded to images and forms, we are robbing ourselves of the tools necessary to navigate the complex physical actuality of the modern world.

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