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Visual Literacy 101: A Critical Eye to the Situation - Visual Literacy


Visual Literacy 101 articles serve as one of the academic courses in this precise field. The main aim of this research is to focus attention on the analysis of the topic of “mass culture”, its visual representations, and the ways it takes action through imagery and its components. The theoretical framework will be covered from a “counter hegemonic” stance and, essentially, the project involves the attempt to create a diagonal discourse that promotes visual literacy through the idea of art as a pedagogical and revolutionary act, since it moves collective subjectivities.

Visual Literacy 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

A Critical Eye to the Situation: Visual Literacy

According to the line of research that has been followed so far, it has been already established that, firstly, mass culture provides visual information that the individual receives as stimuli that shape their brain development. Secondly, that the hegemonic powers intervene in the informational processes and carry out manipulative actions through the collective imaginary, establishing fictitious truths, that is, lies, that end up being assimilated by the spectators. Finally, that perception constitutes an intentional learning process, which is given either by the visual communicator or by the receiver and that this process can be conditioned through the manipulation of visual stimuli. Therefore, an analysis will be undertaken now on the reading skills that the subject can apply to the visual object, in search of its correct - or at least, favorable - interpretation and consequently, of apprehensive autonomy.

Figure 1: Digital retouching

In the era of digital retouching, any situation becomes visually representable thanks to the new technological means that make possible the almost inexhaustible adjustment of the elements that make up the visual object. Certainly, this digital condition of contemporary images inevitably gives rise to their manipulative character of the real, the sensible, and, therefore, to their presumably adulterated presence in the politics of the seduction maneuvers of the mass media. In this same sense, the pedagogue and Professor of the University of La Laguna, Manuel Area-Moreira, points out that digital images, unlike text, do not require prior training for their interpretation (Area-Moreira, 2012). And it is because of this precise quality that there is an isomorphism between signifier and signified, image and represented object, making the human eye believe that the digital image is a copy of reality. This is the masterful deception of the audiovisual language of the CMM: "as long as there is a symbol, there is the possibility of lying" (Domínguez Toscano, 1996: 123).

It is here where the current need to learn to read images is born, in order to be able to adequately interpret the information transmitted through them and thus control their "modeling power" (Domínguez Toscano, 1996: 123). Pilar Mª Domínguez Toscano, professor at the University of Huelva, reflects on the issue of the imperative need to promote critical behaviour among the population in the face of the visual content distributed by mass culture. For this purpose, she uses the term "visual literacy", which was coined in the 1970s by the designer and professor at the School of Public Communication of Boston University, Donis A. Dondis, in her A Primer of Visual Literacy (Dondis, 1973). Thus, Domínguez Toscano starts from the premise that as long as there is no norm that fixes the correct interpretation of the audiovisual content, any reading is authorized, whether or not it is good, correct, or even moral. And she reaches the conclusion that the authentic sense of the experimentation of the audiovisual goes through its interpretation, by voluntarily enjoying the effects that the content provokes or, on the contrary, preserving oneself from them (or both) (Domínguez Toscano, 1996). This means that visual literacy, far from representing only critical awareness of the images that are perceived, embodies the total capacity to read the visual, because if the eye is not educated in its work, the conceptualization of the image will not occur and, consequently, neither will its abstract interpretation. Therefore, both Domínguez Toscano and Justo Villafañe ratify in their studies the need for visual literacy, with the ultimate aim of broadening the understanding of the external world and, specifically, of the sensible.

Figure 2: A primer of Visual Literacy, Donis A. Dondis

Therefore, due to the image's capacity to represent the unreal through the real, it is considered a more persuasive medium than language, since the impression of the visual idea on the retina is enough for the subject to assimilate the information directly, without subjecting it to the filter of interpretation, to which language, as a decoding process, is inevitably adjusted. Thus, recognizing the manipulative qualities that can be granted to the image is how Dondis emphasizes the importance and urgency of visual literacy, of carrying out a review of the knowledge apprehended about the visual and its possibilities, of educating to develop the interpretative capacities for the information that is received, emitted or experienced.

The term of visual literacy must be understood then as a "democratic necessity", given its implications for the intellectual and apprehensive autonomy of individuals. In the same sense, the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire emphasized the role of visual literacy as a social tool to remedy inequalities in a stratified society, defending education as a practice of freedom that becomes "conscientization": the awareness of reality (Aparici et al., 2009). Following these arguments, Andrea de Pascual, founder and general coordinator of the group Invisible Pedagogies, and David Lanau, coordinator of the Education group of Matadero Madrid, establish a connection between the teacher and the "delinquent artist". They defend that education - and, hence, visual literacy as a pedagogical fact - must be given in an imperative way as a liberating act since its ultimate goal is to "give tools to be able to look at the world for ourselves, make our own decisions, ask ourselves questions and know how to live with them" (De Pascual and Lanau, 2018: 60). They end up concluding that the development of intellectual protection systems, together with that of the inquiring capacity -collective or not-, are goals that both the teacher and the libertarian, vindictive or "delinquent" artist should pursue.

Figure 3: Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the MET Museum?, Guerrilla Girls (1989)

This interest in proclaiming the pictorial work as something close to pedagogical stems from the idea that, actually, since every act possesses a structure that makes it intelligible (as visual objects have been defined throughout this research), it is therefore assumed that the action embodies a discourse that is susceptible of being disseminated, interpreted and apprehended. It has been already agreed that the subject confronts the visual individually, but not without first passing through the filters of mediation established by the apparatuses of power of mass culture. Therefore, the fact of changing the classification of imaginaries, the action of displacing the discourse to other places, becomes a pedagogical fact insofar as it is a revolutionary act and, therefore, "conscientizing", as Paulo Freire already established (Aparici et al., 2009).

It is known that every social system is in turn composed of a system of signs with which the interaction between its parts takes place. Thus, the place occupied today by the image has turned it into the main medium through which communicative relations take place in societies. The art that concerns us, predominantly visual, is therefore consolidated as an imagistic instrument capable of promoting new organizations that resist the logical assumptions established in societies. According to this statement, César Rendueles, Spanish psychiatrist and essayist, alludes to art as a "counter-hegemonic" instrument -in Walter Benjamin read by César Rendueles, 2015-. This means that, according to the author's proposal, the artistic fact must always be understood in relation to social restructuring, with what it must produce, disseminate and promote critical behaviours that give rise to the development of other discursive lines -which, a priori, did not have a place reserved in the system governed by mass culture (Rendueles, 2015: 22). For his part, Antonio Gramsci, Italian philosopher, politician and thinker, defends the construction of "alternative hegemonies" that advocate social reform from the "subaltern and marginal classes", and thus fight through culture -this time not of masses-, disseminating new dialogues and directing an ideological struggle that destroys the organization of the dominant structures (Gramsci, 1975: 122). In line with these arguments, Juan Martín Prada speaks of the production of "counter-images" that move away from the traditional imagery and, with which, the mere instantaneity of its experimentation is rejected, contrarily seeking a "more prolonged optical digestion" that ends up giving new discourses and ways of understanding the contemporary (Martín Prada, 2018: 25). Art is then understood as a counter-hegemonic instrument or, what amounts to the same thing, as an alternative hegemony, an object of change.

Figure 4: Dirty Corner, Anish Kapoor (2011)

This being so, the subjectivity of the creative then becomes a transversal concept, that is, it positions itself against causalities of linear and univocal origin to adopt an attitude that enhances possibilities, which reminds again of the rhizomatic concept proposed by Deleuze and Guattari (Armstrong in Brea, 2005). In other words, they believed that it is through creation - art and culture - that inequality can be eradicated and, consequently, the epistemological terms of the oppressive and deterministic society can be undone. As an example of the delinquent artist could be cited the controversial Anish Kapoor and his work Dirty Corner (2011). Although he is usually supported by the established regimes and is part of what could be called the "artistic elite", nevertheless, the work mentioned was so decontextualized in its location that it came to be considered offensive, and even the press came to call it "The Queen's Vagina".

Therefore, the symbolic enunciation of a visual discourse, the act of telling a transgressive story through the artistic object, turns the creative artist into an agent of social change, who puts into operation the pedagogical practice through critical attitudes. It could be said, then, that the artist ceases to be a mere producer of isolated meanings, to inaugurate himself as a "teacher" (docent) in his/her incessant struggle to awaken the moral and political restlessness of the spectator. It is then about expanding the inventive possibilities and considering the artistic fact as a resistance. It must be undertaken through "modest, pedagogical and creative" initiatives (Armstrong in Brea, 2005: 128) that question the individual, in a constant search to establish renewed meanings that come to create new critical configurations of judgment and reasoning, parallel -or directly perpendicular, incisive- to the mass culture, which is imposed on the individual, chewed. Thus, the importance of the artistic act as a pedagogical fact lies in its realization: its consummation as a relational space in which the symbolic enunciation of the visual discourse is exchanged and interpreted; this is when the work truly fulfils its emancipatory function.

Image references

Bibliographic references

  • Aparici, Roberto; García Matilla, Agustín; Fernández Baena, Jenaro and Osuna Acedo, Sara (2009). La imagen: análisis y representación de la realidad. Barcelona, Spain: Gedisa.

  • Área-Moreira, M. (2012). “Visual Literacy in the Digital Era”. In Área Moreira, M., Gutiérrez Martín, A. and Vidal Fernández, F. (Ed.), Alfabetización digital y competencias informacionales (pp. 18-39). Madrid, Spain: Fundación Telefónica. Available on:

  • Brea, José Luis (Ed.) (2005). Visual Studies: The Epistemology of Visuality in the Age of globalization. Madrid, Spain: AKAL.

  • De Pascual, Andrea and Lanau, David (2018). Art is a way of doing (not something to do). Madrid, Spain: La Catarata.

  • Domínguez Toscano, Pilar Mª (1996). Towards a visual literacy: The background of the image. Comunicar, Revista Científica Iberoamericana de Educación y Comunicación, nº6, pp. 123 a 128.

  • Dondis, Donis A. (1973). A primer of Visual Literacy. United States: The MIT Press

  • Gramsci, A. (1975). The Notebooks of the Prison. Critical edition of the Gramsci Institute. By Valentino Gerratana. Volume I. Notebooks 1 (XVI) 1929-1930. 2 (XXIV) 1929-1933. Mexico City, Mexico: Ediciones Era.

  • Martín Prada, Juan (2018). El ver y las imágenes en el tiempo de Internet (Estudios visuales). Spain: AKAL.

  • Rendueles, C. (2015). Walter Benjamin leído por César Rendueles in the course Open Library. Available on:


Patricia Estenoso
Patricia Estenoso
Jan 17, 2022

The last article to a visually-enticing series. 😞 Congratulations on writing a 101 series that is very interesting and well-written, Alicia!


Nora Schmel
Nora Schmel
Jan 11, 2022

I enjoyed reading this article very much! Well-rounded thoughts highlight very relevant issues and topics on sociology and art 🔥

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Alicia Macías Recio

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