Visual Imagery Lecture from Goldsmiths

May 24, 2017

Farlington School was delighted to welcome Dr Jorella Andrews, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, to deliver a Vive Lecture and her talk really did not disappoint.

Dr Andrews very graciously accepted Farlington’s Head of Art History Penny Huntsman’s invitation. With an audience drawn from other Sixth Forms, the event attracted many Farlington arts students, but also parents and staff.

Dr Andrews began with some very topical images from the recent media, familiar to many. These involved snapshots of people, linked by some tenuous thread to the dreadful events on Westminster Bridge last month. She demonstrated the difference that a couple of seconds can make to a captured expression and the subsequent narrative that is formed and sometimes, justly or not, goes viral. Whilst we read expressions and situations visually, all the time, we can easily be misled if we fail to bring our intellect to bear in their interpretations.

Dr Andrews challenged our notions of contemporary art. She talked about how homo sapiens – the wise man – is replaced by homo imago: since the 1960s there has been a radical shift in how humans should be understood as images of self. In an age where we are surrounded by digital culture, there are definite challenges in existing with endless visual data to process.

Our eyes can receive immeasurably more than our brains can deal with. Learning to understand and appreciate the visual culture of our times will bring us to a better understanding of inter-relationships – cultures, genders, politics and much more.

We were encouraged to look back at some of Andy Warhol’s work: namely ‘The screen tests’. Made in his Manhattan studio, he filmed a whole series of sitters who had no props, no script and no encouragement. The unease evident was greater for those viewing the screen tests later: referencing the whole notion of the distressed image. Often, when we watch otherwise silent excerpts on YouTube, music has to be added to make viewing more palatable.

We know that historical paintings give us a viewpoint chosen by the artist or their patron and yet, somehow, when it comes to digital imagery we can unwittingly fall into the trap that seeing is believing. Surrounded by images that misrepresent, one frieze-frame out of context may completely skew what we think is going on. We are immersed in an image war. Art history helps us learn better how to think about images. As a school, Farlington definitely values the importance of acquiring strong visual literacy.

By studying past works of art, we recognise gestures, compositions and gazes that help us to interpret the here and now. Advertisers certainly understand the power of the image.

Dr Andrews reminded us that, of course, image is not all that we are, yet we cannot escape it.

By becoming more intelligently and actively engaged in the visual we may find ways to make the world a more diverse and accepting place.

Feeling both intellectually challenged and stimulated, the talk left me pondering whether digital media will persist, in galleries or elsewhere, or just be lost when its relevance has passed. Will galleries be required if images can be streamed into our lives as and when we require them? So many canonical works have survived centuries and these still resonate with us, but will the same be said of more contemporary pieces?

Dr Andrews reminded us that contemporary images are certainly not as ephemeral as we may think: with information sharing so prolific and frequent, we see the truth of this when we try to ‘lose’ a digital image from some platform or other!  

Ending with invaluable advice proffered to A Level students about applying for Arts degrees, it was certainly a helpful and thought-provoking talk and we are all indebted to Dr Andrews, as well as to Mrs Huntsman and Ms Salt for its organisation.

Penny Huntsman, Head of Art History, said, “Dr Jorella Andrews from Goldsmiths provided us with a really insightful lecture in to the seemingly infinite breadth of our visual culture, and the necessity to improve the visual literacy of our young in an increasingly media saturated world.

“It has been an honour to build a relationship with Goldsmiths because they are such a dynamic and forward-looking institution.  I recommend all young people aged 16-19 check Goldsmiths for free summer school places too: www.gold.ac.uk/schools-and-colleges/summerschools/.”