# 168: Visual Understanding and Doing

García, Santiago, translated by Bruce Campbell (2010). On the Graphic Novel, 2010.

Story behind the Passage

We all see but we all see differently, right? Our own history frames how we see the world, how we look at individual paintings and photographs. I am getting deeper and deeper into the arts these days and I am just starting to realize the full power of visual information. I do not know how much of that information actually comes from the visual representation of something and how much from your brain that is filling the visual information gaps. But it does not really matter. Images can attack you, they can comfort you, they can amuse you. Almost like smells that get stuck in your brain, visuals hardly ever go away. They shape your vision ever after.

The thing is, if you get stuck in academia, you are trained to look at stuff all the time to then analyze it in whichever way. I do not want to get into the different ways in which you can analyze and how that shapes your scholarly path. I want to talk about something that I had not realized that clearly before: the “difference” between theory and practice when processing visual information — visual art. Actually, I do not think there is a real difference for artists. An artist always has theory in mind when creating something, even unconsciously. But the theorist, that is for sure, is driven by theory. What I did not quite get before is that this mere theoretical focus can make you forget the practice of artistic creation altogether.

What I am just slowly becoming aware of is that I never actually took theory seriously, even though I am a highly theoretical thinker. Still, I liked the inspiration of whatever I analyzed. Except for some very rare examples, I did not look at visual art in my scholarship, only at text. But I guess, I never really looked at books through a theoretical lens only. Rather, I always found stuff that inspired me to write in a certain way, to experiment. This is not really possible in academic writing, of course. Still, the academic work got me in touch with this art. And it is quite intriguing to read how someone who is into graphic novels — into writing and studying them — describes this “obsession” with definitions as part of the scholarly quest.

Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My Learnings

“Like Sisyphus, comics scholars feel they have to personally do it over again every time they approach the field.” You know, the obsession with defining is, of course, immanent in scholarly work because — unlike on my blog — you always have to make sure that people know exactly what you are talking about. That is necessary because you have to limit the scope ofwhat you are talking about in order to not generalize. As far as I see it, however, all this really makes you lose the vision, the clear and unbiased view, of the thing itself — the art work. In the case of the graphic novel, this thing has power not because of the printed words but mostly because of the visuals.

The reason why I have chosen this sentence is because of the Sisyphus “image” that jumps at you. Even for people who have never seen the Sisyphus painting before dealt with the metaphor somehow, people usually, if they have some idea about the word, associate it with something tiresome. What is causing my negative feelings in relation to the metaphor is the repetitive nature of Sysiphus work. García here is talking about the act of defining and analyzing on the part of scholars. For me, however, the whole nature of scholarship is in a way repetitive. I mean the doing. Yes, you write a new paper every time but really, you do the same thing again and again and many people write about the same things over and over again and they use the same analytical tools.

So, where is the surprising stuff? Where is the novelty? And where are the images that are being created for the readers of scholarly work? Why do scholars not write comics to get their message across?

Of course, all this is very weird to imagine for some people, I guess. Scholars “writing” art to express their insights. What I am trying to get at is that research is so obsessed with looking at art that researchers as potential creators unlearn to look at the world through the eyes of art; to take the position of the artist. But maybe scholarship never intended to do any of this. Maybe this separation between artists and scholars is needed. Maybe most scholars are not artists simply because this blending of the different views is hardly possible. What I do hope, however, is that the future of scholarship will produce scholars who create powerful images in the minds of their readers — even in visual formats that are not texts.

Reflection Questions

1) Which piece of (visual) art has impressed you most?

2) Did you read comics when you were a child/teenager? Do you still do so?

3) Are there any good sides to the Sisyphus myth?

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