Multiliteracy (page 2)
For decades, key authors of journal articles and textbooks on the arts (e.g., artistic development, arts education) have discussed multimodal processing and artistic forms of literacy (e.g., Abbs, 1987; Eisner, 1985; Gardner, 1973, 1980, 1982; Hausman, 1980). It is ironic that, only relatively recently, writers from the field of literacy (as traditionally defined as hearing sounds of speech and graphically representing sounds by letters on flat surfaces) have begun to acknowledge a broader definition of literacy as encompassing all forms of multimodal texts.
Perhaps a main reason for a shift of thinking toward a more liberal interpretation of text has resulted from the necessity to assist children to learn to conceptualize, think, and communicate in new ways, using newly emerging communications environments: technologies (e.g., computers, the internet, digital media) and cross-world contexts (e.g., hypertext, web pages, e-mail messages). Through these new forms of text, we participate in a kind of vernacular republic. In other words, the dialect or language used in these communication environments is universal and resides with all the people, kind of like an "Infobahn" (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). Children's views of the world are influenced by the new abilities offered through these technologies and cross-world modes of communication, and they can interact instantly with others from any part of the world or find information about different cultures, which is offered in many forms. For example, through the Internet, they can view the artworks of children from around the world.
Although we think of new technologies as being virtual—in other words, they are in essence and sort of "unreal"—older forms of virtual reality have been available for decades, such as photographs, telegraphs, newspapers, novels, telephones, radios, and televisions. Today's children accept all formats for communication as being commonplace, similar to the way they expect that, when they flick the light switch in their bedrooms, they will have instant electric lighting. Although adults refer to mass communication, such as teleconferences or videotelecasts, as taken-for-granted commodities in our modern society, these media possibilities can cause some confusion for children in relation to the ways in which such communication is transmitted.
A Preschool Child's Confusion About a Videotelecast Transmission
Our college teaching team was eager to expose our early childhood students to an excellent preschool on campus. However, because we had such a large group of students and didn't want to interrupt the program by having a number of seminar groups traipsing through the center or being cramming together in the observation booth, we decided to film the program and have it telecast to the lecture theater, where 150 students could all view the preschool program at the same time. That way, we could talk to the teacher live and get more information about what was happening in the program.
Sue, the preschool teacher, explained to the children what was about to happen and told them that, in a few minutes, her "voice would go to a lecture theater somewhere else on campus." About twenty minutes later, when the program was in full swing and children were involved in a variety of learning experiences, a four-year-old girl went up to Sue and asked, "When is your voice going?"
When the girl was inquiring about when the people at the other end would begin to hear the teacher, and how this would occur, is hard to know. Perhaps she thought Sue's voice would simply stop working or maybe even be "transported" away, into some other dimension. As in the case of the boy who bodily-kinesthetically described the hill as being heavy, this girl's comment provides another example of a child's multimodal perspective of thinking—she made an association between the aural aspect of the teacher's voice with that of the technical aspect of televised media, and imaged the teacher's voice as going somewhere else. Such cross-domain ways of thinking are part of knowing and understanding associated with artistic literacy
The concept of visual literacy originally referred to communication through film and the electronic media of television and computers (Curtiss, 1987). Today the term is adopted by educators and artists as well to refer to the ability to understand and use the fine arts (Rice, 1990). Literacy within the fine arts is now seen to encompass several domains—not only visual, but also aural, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and aesthetic domains (Gardner, 1983; Wright, 1994a, 1997b, 2001a).
In the broad sense, literacy means well educated. To be literate means being able to participate in rich personal experiences and to use written signs or symbols, such as music notation, as a way to encode a variety of events. But notating in the arts is not the same as sign recognition. Some aspects of the arts have no notation, such as painting. So, what would it mean for a person to be literate in the abstract, two-dimensional art form of painting? Because painting requires no intermediary signs, we get its experience directly from the art itself. Hence, literacy in painting is developed indirectly, with no need for a functional sign-decoding type of literacy (Reimer, 1989). This is true as well for other visual art forms such as sculpture, photography, and textile art.
However, other domains, such as architecture, theater, film, dance, and music all use some form of encoding system—architects' plans, theatrical and films scripts, choreographic notation, and musical scores are examples of such systems. Yet, in spite of the presence of these systems, we seldom need to draw upon them to appreciate architecture, theater, film, or dance. In other words, we do not need to study architectural renderings, film and theater scripts, various dance notations, or opera scores to be educated about those arts (although knowledge might be assisted by including some acquaintance with these special notational systems). Nonetheless, a comprehensive curriculum should include some attention to notations as a helpful way for children to explore the nature of these art forms, even if their personally generated notations may be rudimentary (e.g., squiggly lines to show the contour of a melody). However, having knowledge of artistic notations in and of themselves would be a restrictive and narrow interpretation of the term artistic literacy, as notation is only one component of knowing in the arts (Reimer, 1989).
Let me illustrate how a person can be literate in a non-notational domain. While there are no notational equivalents for a painting, a person would be considered literate about painting who understood a great deal about the art of painting—how to respond to it appropriately and sensitively; how to make discerning judgments about it; how to understand the history, techniques, and many styles of painting; its major practitioners; and where to go to see good examples of paintings. Such a person would be literate, educated, perceptive, and knowledgeable about painting. While his or her literacy would be enhanced through personal experiences with the act of painting, many serious painting lovers—and even professional curators and dealers—do not paint themselves.
Complete artistic literacy, therefore, is not just a set of isolated analytical and verbal-based skills associated with describing the formal elements of the arts. Purely descriptive forms of analysis do not adequately provide a sense of artworks. We cannot simply see paintings, sculptures, and other art works, or view theater or dance, or hear musical performances and describe these through words alone. In making sense of performances or art exhibitions, people can only fully understand and appreciate the importance of artworks if they have the necessary schema or knowledge not only to see, view, and hear, but also interpret artworks—interpret the diverse subject matter and the abstracted function of the work (Rice, 1990).
For people with little background or previous exposure to art, associative experiences play a key role in the aesthetic interpretation of a work of art (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochbert-Halton, 1985; Parsons, 1987). Through association, people are reminded of pleasant events, such as a special social experience, or of special places, such as a beautiful lake. Thus, those who have only minimal exposure to art often appreciate paintings if they "tell a story," such as Breugel's Children's Games, where the viewer can identify a number of outdoor activities that children are playing. Paintings that tell an easily recognizable story do not seem as abstract, because they appear to have a specific use. They are similar to illustrations in a book or magazine. Similar associative responses can occur in music, dance, and drama.
Yet artistic literacy involves more than just associating a work with personal experiences or stories. Full appreciation involves an awareness that comes from direct viewing and listening. This helps us to think critically or evaluatively about the arts, to communicate subtle aesthetic impressions and feelings, and to expand our vocabulary so we can talk about the formal elements of the arts. In addition, the process of artistic appreciation requires an understanding of the cultural framework in which an artwork was created. Hence, it is closely connected to cultural literacy (Rice, 1990). Someone who can make sense of artworks—such as plays, musicals, films, or contemporary dance—can do this by knowing how these works fit into a historical context, having the skills to analyze them, and having sufficient understanding of the relevant culture from which they originated. But, while an artistically literate person is by definition also culturally literate, a culturally literate person is not necessarily artistically literate. It is possible for a person to have a great deal of cultural knowledge, for example, about literature or history, but still not know how to understand the arts (although this is likely to be a rare occurrence).
Children's cultural and artistic literacy develops from a very early age, and can be enhanced in a number of ways:
- By providing opportunities for them to create and present artworks
- By viewing, listening, and speaking, and in the case of older children, reading and writing in the artistic domains
Through describing, analyzing, interpreting, and judging artworks, children acquire an artistic vocabulary that enables them not only to take part in artistic practice, but also to participate in the discourse of arts criticism, arts history, and aesthetic judgment. It is through competency in nonverbal arts forms, and through discussing them verbally, that young children engage in potent forms of communication and expression. Regular exposure to the arts is critical in children's education, because aesthetic delight in the arts comes more naturally to children who already have a great deal of comfort and familiarity with artworks. This familiarity is generally achieved through repeated exposure to artistic objects and performances, which often involves "just looking" or "just listening."
Yet passive looking and listening is difficult for young children, because touching is a way of making contact with the physical world, and is as—or more—basic than looking. It is understandable but perhaps disappointing that art museums have to post signs asking people not to touch the exhibits. Therefore, children need to understand why they should not touch works of art, in the same way that they generally are discouraged from calling out responses to actors during live professional performances, or singing along with the music, or emulating the movements of dancers. Of course, many children's programs encourage them to interact with the actors or musicians, but in formal, adult-oriented performance, children are encouraged to listen quietly and watch live music, dance, and drama.
Sensitive viewing and listening is one of a number of literacy skills that can and should be taught to children. Young children are capable of learning the type of analytical looking and listening involved in appreciating the arts, as they begin to use their visual, aural, and kinesthetic senses contemplatively and analytically. However, the less active form of analytical looking and listening need not be a dreary experience. Indeed, understanding through seeing and hearing can be positively encouraged in young children with enjoyable results. Of course, a balance needs to be achieved between listening and looking, and doing. It is predominantly through the tangible, hands-on aspect of doing that children come to appreciate and become literate in the arts. Let us turn our attention now to ways in which children interact with the arts and processes that can help them become artistically literate.
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