Surfing the Web: Our Contemporary Visual (il)Literacy

At a recent Society for the Study of Theology conference in Manchester, Society President and Professor David Brown stated plainly the kind of grim diagnosis of contemporary culture that would ordinarily raise eyebrows if it wasn’t for the tacit agreement felt amongst its audience members. To paraphrase the Professor’s remarks, ‘people nowadays are visually illiterate.’

Unable to interpret the symbolic depth of art, the modern viewer seeks only a sort of didactic simplism from art works and so eschews any deeper engagement. The complaint of visual illiteracy is one echoed by those trained in art history, theology and hermeneutics, and while perhaps true of the majority of people who do not regularly engage with the visual depth of classical art, to declaim illiteracy within one field and have it stand for all seems to exhibit a related blindness.

A potential corrective to what seems to be an entrenched cultural critique would be to inquire further into where the majority of people encounter images today. For the majority, the answer is clear: the internet. A vast web of divergent and intersecting visual fields which the majority of people are able to navigate fluently, the internet seems to give lie to this notion of visual illiteracy. While the majesty of Rembrandt’s oeuvre was once something confined to those wealthy enough to visit the galleries of Holland today a Google search will unlock the glories of the Rijksmuseum in high definition.

To be sure, this grasps only half of the problem – art has its own rich symbolic and visual tradition, codified and formed over centuries of interpretation. While fostering a certain stability of visual meaning, the discourse of art history is too often closed to the majority those who have not been privileged enough to take part in its determination.

The modern shift away from this idea of a final or fixed meaning has given rise to a politics of the image, a tendency which has at once opened more possibilities for discourse and interpretation while subjecting the images under question to a riot of potential meanings. The speed at which images break into media today has had an additional effect upon interpretation that more established critical bodies of work incorporate into their very forms. Whereas the canon of art criticism fights to frame the artistic experience in a certain light – including adding the occasional shadow of lamentation for the loss of visual literacy itself — the speed at which the image is circulated today makes this structural “pre-framing” impossible. The outcome is an image which has broken free from the stasis of framed interpretation to become a site of multiple intersecting ideological positions.

The interpretation of the image online thus becomes something infinitely more participatory, for what unfolds is no longer just an understanding of one particular narrative but the determination of a plurality of disparate narratives. Iconic images, often in the news, break online without the anchoring of pre-determined discourses and the immediate response is one where the accepted meanings and interpretations of an event have yet to be decided.

What this allows for is a certain democratization of the discourses shaping our images. This is well documented within the art world. Contemporary street art, popularised by figures like Banksy, deliberately violates the formal barriers of “art” to inspire something new in the midst of urban geography. What the internet offers is the potential for counter narratives and even a synthesis of disparate views.

To see this in action one only needs to turn to that most modern of phenomena, the ‘selfie’ – particularly Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s selfie capturing his own arrest in 2009. It is a resonant image, composed with speed by an artist with a classical eye for imagery, yet thoroughly modern in its visual style – a reflective flash of political radicalism and the authoritarianism of modern governments captured on an elevator. A diversity of perspectives combine within the image to form a type of synthesis by using the ideological struggles of Chinese history and the technology of today to express something new.

The visual field that David Brown (and no doubt many others) read so well has indeed shifted. However, the internet is a rich and complex site of visual imagery that offers a melange of interpretive possibilities useful to those open to idea of an always evolving tradition. Thus the challenge for the theologian today is not to simply settle into a rearguard attempt to fix a meaning upon images and symbols, but to collaborate in the ongoing act of creation and interpretation already present and through that participation point the way to the source and site of all Creation. In this light it might be useful to turn back to some of David Brown’s earlier words in order to understand our approach to the image and its meaning(s) today:

“We too need to acknowledge how much religion flourishes…by the reader in each generation being set free to appropriate what the imagination can discover in the interstices of the ‘moving’ texts that are a religion’s story” [1]

The internet is perhaps the greatest exercise in moving texts, the place where memes, symbols and signs are created, disseminated and read at unforeseen speeds. Despite the fleeting nature of these signs, meaning seems to persist and communities arise and connections are formed. In short, through the skilful navigation of moving signs and images we form a new kind of visual literacy, open and accessible to all – regardless of location, education or status. Here then, we might collapse that old certainty, and raise the potentially radical possibility that on, and in, and through the palimpsest of the internet in all of its semiotic and visual fluidity there might be a new flourishing of artistic and religious imagination.


[1] David Brown, Tradition and Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 376.



Article by Jon Greenaway. 


  • Jon Greenaway is a PhD student at the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Before commencing his PhD he gained his BA in English studies and a Masters degree in ‘The Gothic Imagination’ from Stirling University. He has published papers on a range of topics including Trauma in the 19th century novel and the works of Jacques Derrida in relation to modern American TV. His research interests include critical theory, the Gothic, monster theory and the intersection between systematic theology and wider culture.

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