Karenina.it Express - Theories: Visual Culture and Words



By Matiss Kulis.
Latvian Academy of Arts, department of Visual Communication.

Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science of University of Latvia, LATNET.

Visual Images and Words: their Clash in the Graphic Design
(or pulling the cat’s non-existent whiskers)


    Nowadays the new media have been acknowledged to create a new type of visual culture that is a combination of technologies (computer techniques, internet, etc.) with the possibility of spreading, multiplying and enabling it to be used by an undefined, unknown user (spectator), possibly one belonging to a different culture.

    A number of problems can be discerned in this new computer-created visual culture:

    A clash between the type of perception operating in response to the textual schemes of normative culture and that of the computer-created image schemes. Western culture of the previous centuries has consistently regarded the textual form to be the highest form of intellectual practice while visual images were held to be of secondary importance, idea attendant illustrations. Today, under the influence of the culture of postmodernism, that derives its strength in the technological might, the visual image begins to supersede the word. In its turn, the visual image of an unprofessional and inartistic graphic design obscures and darkens the word (text, thought, conception). The world-as-an image is challenging the world-as-a text. It is not a meeting of the two, but rather a controversy, a clash and insubordination.

    That brings us to the following problem: the problem of the degradation of contemporary art. It is very difficult to draw the borderline starting from where we can speak of professional art of high artistic value. The definition of art since the work of A. Danto has become very controversial. The mass media of the world (TV, the Internet, the press, etc.) is dominated by a huge amount of ever-growing visual substitute that is degrading the textual sense used therein. It is an evolution of amateurishness, the best specimen imitation, advertisement siftings. The process is fostered by the general standpoints of the postmodern culture. Nicholas Mirzoeff is of the opinion (and I agree with him) that it is the crisis of visual and not textual culture that has created postmodernism with its consequences[1].

    Many branches of applied arts, and especially graphic design, suffer. Works in whose creation computer technologies are used more often than not are not highly valued because they are not considered to be works of art. However, the attitude is inadequate. The art branches of the new media also boast of outstanding works, though they are not numerous. In my opinion, the main condition for the work to be able to meet the high demands is to meet the specific features of visual culture without belittling and subordinating the word (the text), but recreating it in a new paradigm of perception. Digital visual poetry can serve as an example of these strivings, the strivings to combine the word and the image in ideal balance. The difficulty lies in the fact that the “visual experience” or “visual literacy” defies understanding when using the model of textuality.”

      The deterioration of the quality of graphic design stems from the contemporary situation of globalization and technological developments enabling any computer user to make an attempt at a graphic work. The Internet, in its turn, can be used to duplicate one’s work in unlimited quantities. Normative indicators of quality have been lost. The subjective perception of liking or disliking has become the only quality indicator. That refers not only to graphic design, but also to installations, performances and many other art possibilities the new media can offer. An erroneous idea is in vogue that art creation has become much simpler and more available.

    The factor of egalitarianism is a direct result of the mass media cultivated stereotypes and globalization. According to this factor anyone can take part in art creation, can be a creator, anything. Computer programs “that will make you into an artist” are offered. The trouble is that people have forgotten that technique does not create art! Computer graphics is only a means making it possible to create art.

    This phenomenon endangers one of the classical art values, namely skill. Skill must be rooted not only in the formal mastery of technique, but in the intuitive ability to perceive and create within the framework of the existent perception paradigm. In our day originality in contemporary art is given prevalence over workmanship. The demand for originality – in the meaning of singularity – has come into conflict with the endless possibility of multiplying, modifying and interpreting it. The idea of originality is connected with the strivings to alienate art from reality, to divest it of the mimesis function and offer the transformed, impossible reality (the cat with nonexistent whiskers, which can still be pulled…). The reason for it is one of the primary possibilities the computer can offer, namely to transform something in a way reality cannot offer. Besides, the methods of doing it are much smarter than those available to surrealist painters, thus in a way it is a revival of surrealism in a new attire.

    There is a view that the use of computer graphics in graphic design introduces the second Renaissance characterized by a radical change in art values and visual expressions. The synthesis of art and technique helps to realize the Leonardo da Vinci ideal artist type. In the meaning that man’s spiritually aesthetic abilities merge with his scientific, technical, rationally intellectual abilities.  

    A good work of graphic design demands a perfect technically artistic and aesthetic taste besides the skills of manipulating the computer offered possibilities. To combine the word and the image one must be an artist of both.

    In art evaluation the mass media take into account mainly one dimension, the visual one. The conception is lost, lots of interpretations are allowed of. The quality of the execution, the ability to create a good work of art is not taken into account. The technical means of doing the work gain prevalence, not the end result. The name of the artist has no significance either. The artists often make use of assumed names not to be recognized. The style and semiotic aspects are disregarded. Those are typically postmodern phenomena in this age of globalization that does not stimulate perfection of graphic design, but on the contrary, confines it to simplicity and exaggerated originality.

    The prominent art historian E. H. Gombrich begins his book with the words: “In fact, there is no art. There are only artists.”[2] Maybe, so it is. At least in the present-day globalization induced situation for graphic design when anyone can presume to say: “it is not art”. The only thing you can do is to believe those who live and create in the world of art.


[1] The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed., New York: Routledge, 1998.

[2] E.H. Gombrich. The Story of Art, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.