Visual Power, Abstraction, News
A Lesson in Visual Literacy
This illustration by Bob Staake appeared in the “Letter from Washington” article in the New Yorker Magazine February 2017 digital issue. I find it to be an excellent example of abstraction in art. Why?
Most readers would immediately recognize this image as “clearly” a representation of Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor to President Trump who was asked to resign after keeping Vice President Pence in the dark about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador prior to the election. Staake captures the “essence” of Flynn’s image as portrayed in many news clips. With very few simple shapes; brilliant, primary colors; subtle textures, and stark lines and sharp edges, Staake depicts the dark side of a man involved in espionage and political engineering that many believe turned the election for Trump.
Why not use a photograph? Staake did not intend to simply identify the person. He exaggerated the facial features of Flynn’s particular countenance to create a more iconic graphic image. He sought to emphasize the suspected threat to our democracy through the essence of Flynn’s perceived character, at least by many. The flat shapes and lines also related to the spacing and type that accompanied the article, which I did not include here. To reinforce the message of the visual design, the New Yorker article included a caption under the abstracted portrait quoting Flynn: ” ‘I like to think that I helped get Donald Trump elected president,’ Flynn said. ‘Maybe I helped a little, maybe a lot.’ ” These words lend an authenticity to Staake’s concern expressed by his illustration, showing a motive for his dark deeds in Flynn’s own words.
Creating abstract art is a reductive process that involves finding the essence of a subject. Abstraction thus can powerfully intensify what is present in concrete, physical subject matter. It can also express visually concepts that are impalpable like freedom, and nameless emotions and states of being. Abstract work that does not offer that essence is empty.
In this country some people still write off abstract art as frivolous or decadent and disregard it. However the freedom artists and collectors have to make and acquire such work is not questioned. This is not a freedom to be taken for granted. It is well-documented that under authoritarian regimes artists have risked arrest, imprisonment and death for work deemed decadent or hostile to the government. A timely example would be the persecution of Ai Weiwei for his work expressing protest against Chinese Communist government policies.
In this country, the news media and the arts can be part of the cultural conversation, another layer in the system of checks and balances for our democracy. But knowing that the news media and the arts can also be tools for propaganda, we must become more visually literate. As citizens we must be able to recognize what our media, now so predominately dependent on visual impact, is communicating through visual tools.
We need to thoughtfully address the issues of freedom of expression, which must be preserved as essential part of our democracy. Responsible in the creation of art, design and news must be demanded, insisted upon and respected.