Category Archives: Vision

Looking At: The Art of Calligraphy

My parents run the second-hand shops at their retirement community and are often passing along interesting items. For Easter, they gave us a tackle box (for my husband) and I got all the calligraphy pens that they found in the box. A big pile. And tonight I decided to try out some of the pens. I have beautiful bottles of a dozen different colors of ink. So, while I listen to all the tracks in iTunes that are named “Track 1” etc, I am going to fool around with calligraphy.

This would normally not really be the stuff of blogging for me except that I had the big revelation when I googled “calligraphy.” I found a terrific article by Julian Waters at the Calligrapher’s Guild: Calligraphy, Lettering and Typefaces. He quotes Chinese calligrapher Wang Hsi-chih: “Writing needs meaning, whereas calligraphy expresses itself above all through forms and gestures. It elevates the soul and illuminates the feelings.” Calligraphy is really a forerunner of electronic text that invites us to look at it rather than through it to the meaning. It enhances the meaning but also appeals to the viewer in its own right. It’s funny to stumble upon rhetoric in this way. There’s the toggle that boggles the mind, being able to look at and through. A little theoretical twist to my artist’s date!

Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci in Milan near La Scala Opera House, June 2004

Read Sherwin B. Nuland’s biography of da Vinci.  It is part of the Penguin Lives series, which are short bios (< 200 pages) written by non-biographers.  Nuland is a surgeon who teaches at Yale.  While his biography focuses on da Vinci’s anatomical work, there are also some interesting comments about art and vision that relate to media.

Leonardo was one of the first to do drawings of actual cadavers.  According to Nuland, most physicians of the time “regarded drawings as distractions from the text, using them only to support theoretical constructs about which the student was meant to learn by reading.” (p. 121).  This bias continued for many centuries.  Nuland quotes a review of the famous Gray’s Anatomy by Oliver Wendell Holmes that criticizes the text for its numerous drawings: “[L]et a student have good illustrations, and just so surely will he use them at the expense of the text” (p. 121).  And this from 1859!

John Zuern’s contemporary answer to Holmes is found in his essay, Diagram, Dialogue, Dialectic: Visual Explanations and Visual Rhetoric in the Teaching of Literary Theory.   According to Zuern, images are not just window dressing, something to accompany the more important text.  Instead, “at their best, images that seek to help students understand ideas are able to perform two tasks: providing a clear representation of the concepts and offering a way of testing, challenging, critiquing that concept” (p. 70).  He laments that most images in popular books about philosophy and literary theory “almost never exploit the capacity of the image to question the concept it is supposed to convey” (p. 70).  Da Vinci understood, as his contemporaries did not, the importance of seeing as a way of supporting thinking and understanding:

“It is direct vision that differentiaties Leonardo’s studies from all that fell under the heading of Galenic.  In order to answer his perennial question of why, he had first to understand how, which demanded a meticulous attention to accurate anatomic detail such as had never before seen so much as considered by any predecessor.  To see clearly, to interpret objectively–these were the keys to solving nature’s riddles.  His was the artist’s eye, but his also was the scientist’s curiosity and the scientist’s apperception that only by reducing a phenomenon to its component elements can it be fully understood.  And only by knowing that minute particulars of structure can function even begin to be elucidated.” (p. 128).  Nuland goes on for several pages singing the praises of Leonardo’s drawings an dillustrations.

Finally, Nuland describes Leonardo’s work with the eye.  While the thought at the time was “that vision was perceived within the lens,  he was able to satisfy himself that seeing is in fact the result of light being focused on the retina.” (p. 134).   He did not, however, solve the riddle of upright images.

What’s the lesson here?  There are at least two.  First, as long as we continue to rely on printed textbooks as our primary texts, we must be thoughtful about the images we select and include as many as possible.  In addition, we must recognize the power of the image to expand understanding rather than simply mimic the text.  Second, we must seek out images to share with our students and discuss them openly with them, digging into the image to pull out is meaning.  And, as one of my professors at WM does, we need to have them construct their own images and models that help them better understand their learning.

Seeing and Thinking

Vision/eyes/the gaze are a large part of the literature on media.  So, I thought the BBC World News story on smart cars that can steer themselves because they have sensors that allow them to “see” cones.  In addition, the cars learn the best path and then are able to take it at higher speeds.  The inventors admitted that the eyesight of the cars was not good enough to tackle real driving with other vehicles and stoplights.