The New Literacy and Art

brushes iconMr. Warlick has had some wonderful commentary about the new literacy in his blog and in his podcasts. Long story short: old literacy = reading & writing, but new literacy = reading, writing, instant messaging, blogging, wikis, and any other way modern technology uses language nowadays. It’s important to stress the new literacy because it involves skills used in the “real world” but not skills that are traditionally taught in the classroom. Does this catch your interest? Great! While you let David Warlick’s pages load in other windows allow me to entertain you some more.This whole idea of new literacy is interesting to me partially because of the parallels you can and can’t draw to the world of Art. You see, there was a time when the only art that would be taught in a serious school was the kind that would show up in a museum. This was placed into three categories: sculpture (usually stone or metal), drawing (“real” drawings, not those childish cartoon doodles!), & painting. This triad of genres is often referred to as “high art.”

Naturally, everything else fits into the realm of “low art,” although it’s also referred to by that wonderful word: “Kitsch.” Crafts, cartoons, photography, printmaking, advertising, anything that reflected pop culture, etc. – any person that did these things and called themselves artists was setting themselves up for ridicule.

But time moved on, as anyone who’s taken an “Art Since 1950” course can attest to. Many photographers learned the rules of composition from established painters. Andy Warhol did things with silkscreening that made the world question the boundaries of art. Roy Lichtenstein elevated cheap cartoons to the level of high art by hand painting things to look like they were mass-produced. “High” and “Low” are terms still used today, but the two circles in that Venn diagram have been overlapping more and more every year.

Then came computers, the GIF and JPG files, scanning, digital photography, computer generated images (CGI), and much more. Most of this high-tech stuff has come late enough in the game to simply ride it’s way into the art mainstream on the coattails of the postmodern art movements.

So you see, most artists have already won their battle for the new literacy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those of a more verbal and less visual nature. What, I ask, is the difference between moving from a textbook to a wiki and moving from a museum to a flikr account? True, the textbook and the museum both still have elevated status in our society, but online ways of sharing information are increasing in popularity and slowly eating away at the market share of the older media.

And through all of this, I still see a comparison to high art vs. low art. Over time it became high art and low art, and today there are many (including myself) who would tell you that high art is low art.

I can’t wait for the written word to catch up to us.

As always, your comments are very much welcome.