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Visual Culture Understanding in Modern Society Essay

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Updated: Aug 3rd, 2022


The world is constantly changing, and culture reflects the tendencies that are prevalent in the given period of the world’s development. In recent decades, the world has changed dramatically with the emergence of digital technologies, and so did visual culture. Marketing reports show that in 2013, people spent five hours online and watched TV for four and a half hours per day on average (Mirzoeff, 2016). These data, combined with the increased use of smartphones and tablets, imply that people are exposed to visual media more than ever before. In this infinite flow of visual information, it is crucial for people to have an understanding of visual culture. It will help individuals to infer meaning from various types of visual media, including both traditional and emerging ones, and contribute to visual culture by creating worthwhile visual content.

Visual Media is More than Visual

Perhaps, the first thing that one needs to understand regarding visual culture is that visual media extend beyond the boundaries of vision. According to Mitchell (2005), even such a purely optical type of art as a painting has non-visual elements. An essential component of a painting, apart from the visual form and the medium used, is the story behind it or the context in which it was created (Mitchell, 2005). For example, purely visually, da Vinci’s The Last Supper (see Figure 1) is a depiction of thirteen men having supper and discussing some matters. The audience can see the room in which the men are sitting, the clothes they wear, and the food they eat, as well as their facial expressions. However, in order to truly appreciate this dry-wall painting, one should be familiar with the Bible, namely, with the episode when Jesus Christ predicts during a supper that one of his disciples will betray him. Knowing the story behind the artwork allows the audience to take a fresh look at it and reveal who is who on the painting and why they look so concerned.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Figure 1. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (Da Vinci, 1495-1498)

The ability to understand and interpret visual media instead of seeing a superficial picture is especially important in a modern digital world. The first reason for this is that, nowadays, “media no longer prize form so much as content” (Mirzoeff, 2016, p. 157). For example, in the past, a painting could be seen only in a museum or in one’s personal collection, and the audience paid attention to such little details of form as the painter’s brush strokes. Today, the same painting can be available in many formats, including a digital copy or a reprint copy on paper. In this way, the audience puts much emphasis on the content of the artwork in addition to its form, so one should be able to extract meaning from visual media.

Another reason for the importance of understanding and being familiar with various artworks is that visual art is recurrent, meaning that some modern works can refer to past ones, using similar motifs, techniques, layouts, etc. According to Berger (2008), many publicity images either directly refer to part artworks or use the same methods of conveying a message. For example, in both traditional art and publicity images, nature landscapes can be used to mean pureness and innocence, leather and fur may be chosen to denote luxury and wealth, and women can be depicted as sexual objects (Berger, 2008). Thus, the knowledge of famous artworks and the meanings of various motifs and symbols helps one make more accurate interpretations of visual media, both past and present.

Finally, understanding visual culture allows one to draw parallels between one’s own society and that of others and develop cultural awareness. For instance, Berger (2008) analyzed oil paintings from the past in comparison with modern publicity images and identified crucial differences in people’s worldviews and priorities. Berger (2008) found that modern images were highly influenced by capitalism, which encouraged consumerism and envy. Traditional paintings depicted what their owners already had and inspired them to be satisfied with their lives (Berger, 2008). In contrast, contemporary pictures show what people do not have yet and make them discontented and willing to possess more things (Berger, 2008). Analyzing visual media from this perspective helps one view one’s society in general and get a better understanding of the surrounding culture.

New Types of Visual Media

Nowadays, visual culture is not limited to media and traditional art due to the emergence of new digital technologies. It means that people have to familiarize themselves with the latest technological advances to increase their visual literacy. Mirzoeff (2016) mentions that modern audiences have to learn how to respond to such emergent visual media as simulations, video games, and a 3D effect. Indeed, in various simulations, such as those designed for training pilots or surgeons, individuals have to find a balance between the perception of the reality of the simulated situation and its simultaneous detachment from the real world. In video games, the audience has to be able to be mindful of any slight changes in the virtual environment and read much information in a short period of time. Finally, a 3D effect requires some preparedness from the audience so that they can realize that, despite the seeming reality of what is happening on the screen, the image cannot hurt them or affect them in any other tangible way. Overall, visual culture includes a large variety of different visual media, and a visually literate person should be familiar with them to be able to interpret them and respond to them appropriately.

Spectators as Creators

With the increased use of smartphones, people assumed the role of content creators in addition to the traditional role of spectators. For example, once rare self-portraits, available only to a few skillful artists, have become widespread recently thanks to smartphone cameras (Mirzoeff, 2016). This type of visual content is so popular that in 2013, people published about 184 million selfies on Instagram alone (Mirzoeff, 2016). With the wide availability of taking photos and videos, individuals have gained the opportunity to convey messages that have much more information than simple text. Therefore, it is crucial for everyone involved in the process of content creation to understand the visual culture to create worthwhile content. In addition, when assuming the role of the spectator in this age of content abundance, one may also benefit from understanding visual culture to be able to distinguish masterpieces from mediocrity.

On My Process

Before writing this final paper, I reviewed the sources from the syllabus and selected ideas, which I would like to expand in my work. After that, I created an outline, which made it clear how I would integrate the chosen ideas into the paper and what each paragraph would be about. The outline helped me to make the structure of the future paper clear, and I started writing. Upon finishing this process, I read the paper thoroughly, noting and correcting any mistakes, typos, and other issues.


Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. Penguin Books Limited.

Da Vinci, L. (1495-1498). The last supper. Cenacolo Vinciano. Web.

Mirzoeff, N. (2016). How to see the world: An introduction to images, from self-portraits to selfies, maps to movies, and more. Basic Books.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2005). There are no visual media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4(2), 257-266. Web.

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