Visual Literacy 101 — Where the Necessity Begins: Examples and Contextualisation


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:

  1. Where the necessity begins: examples and contextualisation.

  2. A background to mass culture.

  3. Cultural Industry and what it implies.

  4. Manipulation through images.

  5. How is this manoeuvre orchestrated?

  6. Learning to identify manipulation: conditioning factors.

  7. A critical eye to the situation: Visual Literacy.

  8. Art as a powerful response and defence mechanism.

Where the necessity begins: examples and contextualisation

It seems that the evolution of machinery created by human beings is something that has exceeded the race. From the 1800s until the middle of the last century, we have been talking of enlightened reason. Numerous intellectuals established the human being as a superior entity, as the undeniable centre of knowledge and learning, ideas that were based on the rationalism put forward by the French philosopher René Descartes back in the 17th century (Descartes, 1998). But what has actually happened is that we have not evolved as much as we think we have; in fact, we are still at the same point on the evolutionary tree as we were some 100,000 years ago (Watson, 2005). Indeed, it is thought that it was 140,000 years ago that the cognitive skills that led to man's landing on the moon emerged, as Peter Watson himself points out in his book Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2005), intellectual historian, ex-journalist and editor of the New Society. The postmodernists (philosophers such as Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida or Gilles Deleuze) warned us of this: they advocated the impossibility of an absolute truth and, therefore, the delegitimisation of the modern discourse of man’ supremacy over all things (Lyotard, 1979).

However, what has evolved, and by far, is technology. Since the industrial revolution, the development of technological advances has followed a frenetic path, leading to machines that can operate in a very human-like manner. Take, for example, the Edmond de Belamy (Christie's, 2018), an oil painting entirely at the hands of an artificial intelligence-based device; or the robot Tay (Malvar, 2017), which wrote comments on Twitter on its own, just like a person: it translated information, compared concepts and made speeches, even adopting fascist ideologies.

Going back to the beginnings of this advance, the first image that was published on the web, in 1992, was a photograph of Les Horribles Cernettes, a music band made up of the wives of several of the CERN’s employees (European Organization for Nuclear Research). In his book El ver y las imágenes en el tiempo de Internet (2018), Juan Martín Prada, professor at the University of Cadiz and art critic, states that since then, technology and specifically the visual, the digital image, has not stopped evolving. It has come to constitute an essential part of the functioning of society and the vital experience of individuals. Such is the case that, nowadays, the visual is one of the most widespread manifestations of culture: we are educated, work and live through images. Given this fact, the question arises as to whether society needs to learn to read images, because although reading used to be a dynamic specific to language, it now also extends to audiovisual representations, given their predominance.

Figure 1 — Les Horribles Cernettes

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno said, referring to television: "in theory, what is modern in the media is, above all, the technique of transmission, insofar as the content of what is shown there is modern or not if it corresponds or not to an advanced consciousness" (Adorno, 1970: 39). A statement that can be transposed to all the media existing today to affirm that, depending on the issuer, we will find ourselves faced with more or less reliable content, since the information is transmitted according to the ideology defended by each media. Hence, this author already warned us when he also stated: "I believe that this media contributes, at least in many of its concrete materialisations, to spreading ideologies and to orienting the conscience of the people who contemplate it in a false way" (Adorno, 1970: 39). Therefore, in accordance with the philosopher's hypotheses, it can be deduced that given the hasty technological progress described above, together with the intrinsic subjective transmission characteristics of the media, if individuals are not educated, they may not recognise, appreciate or understand the information presented to them, nor act, share or create content in a wise or consistent manner.

As an example of this fact we can mention what was a well-known anecdote in popular culture: the Halloween night of 1938. There, Orson Welles presented on his radio programme "The War of the Worlds" a session in which he authentically described the invasion of the Earth by inhabitants of the planet Mars. Despite having warned his listeners for just a few seconds at the beginning of the story that it would be a fictional tale, after and during the broadcast, panic spread among the public. They took the information as if it were a world catastrophe. It was then that people began to think that it was possible to move - or manipulate - the masses of the population through different informational content (Bretones, 1997). Based on this event, the American public opinion researcher Hadley Cantril carried out a research several years later, in which he presented the idea that what was important was not the message, but the capacity of the mass audience to interpret this information, their "critical ability" (Gili, 1986).

Figure 2 — Orson Wells during The War of the Worlds retransmission

It is between these two dimensions regarding the use and intention of information where takes place the paradox of Is the image the owner of its time or vice versa? (Martín Prada, 2018). Therefore, as consumers and creators, we have the responsibility to promote experience and knowledge, since everything is mutable in the vortex of technological advance. That way, at some point the concept of the production, emission and reception of information can be contextualised, along with us, in this cybernetic world that we experience, and thus we would be able to resolve the paradox, this time, with the human being as the owner of the image.

This is something very close to the conceptions established by the Polish-British sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (2021) on the concept of "liquid modernity", in which the versatility, constant movement and mutability of society are placed before the past and more outdated realities and values, typical of stoic, predictable and permanent communities. Therefore, the constant state of change to which the contemporary individual is subjected makes him a variable entity, destined to evolve and develop with - and in - the media.

Certainly, and given these manipulative intentions that condition the behaviour of individuals towards the interests of others, it is here where the need for independence and emancipation of the subjects begins to emerge in the face of the oppressions that the system exerts on them. It is therefore necessary to develop new ways of acting that promote critical thinking among the population, so that collective imaginaries receive interpretations that are strictly diagonal to those imposed, and so that the authentic meaning of visual experimentation can be sought, which must be voluntary and not determined by the state. That is how this 101 series of Visual Literacy articles is born, seeking to promote collective awareness and establishing a theoretical basis of content from which to start in its analysis.

Bibliographic references

  • Adorno, Theodor W. (1970). Erziehung zur Mündigkeit: Vorträge und Gespräche mit Hellmut Becker 1959-1969 [Education for Maturity and Responsibility: Lectures and Conversations with Hellmut Becker 1959-1969], ed. Gerd Kadelbach . Available on:

  • Bauman, Zygmunt (2021). On Education in Liquid Modernity. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.[1st ed. 2019]

  • Bretones, María Trinidad (1997). Funciones y efectos de los medios de comunicación de masas: los modelos de análisis. Barcelona, Spain: University of Barcelona.

  • Christie’s (2018). Is artificial intelligence set to become art’s next medium? London, England: art and luxury business Christie’s. Available on:

  • Descartes, René (1998). Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Hackett Publishing Company. [1ª 1641] [trans. Donald A. Cress].

  • Gili, Gustavo (1986). H. Cantril, “An invasion from Mars” Sociology of mass communication, vol. II, pp. 91—110. Barcelona, Spain: M. de Moragas.

  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). The Postmodern Condition. Manchester, United Kingdom: University Press.

  • Malvar, Aníbal (2017). ¿Qué fue de Tay, la robot de Microsoft que se volvió nazi y machista? [web article]. Spain: Público. Available on:

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

  • Watson, Peter (2005). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. New York, United States: HarperCollins Publishers.

Image references

Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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