Seeing Through Culture

My first class today was the Global and Historical Context of Art and Design. The course will focus on Western art and design from the Industrial Revolution to the present. We will have multiple professors throughout the course, who will lead lectures as well as take us on fieldtrips to nearby museums, design stores, restaurants, and leisure spaces.

Today, we had class with Albert Fuster, who introduced the course with some general discussion and a couple short exercises. He wanted us to understand the idea of culture, which he defines as “the ideas people have that allow us to understand our relationship to the environment.” In the course, we will discuss both material culture and visual culture. The theory is that we create and perceive our physical and visual world through the lens of culture. We see with our mind, not with our eyes, Albert said.

We looked at some war photography to explore this concept. Albert showed us “The Terror of War,” the most iconic photo from the Vietnam War. The photograph portrays Vietnamese children screaming and running from American soldiers. The young girl in the center of the frame is naked and holding her arms out to the side like wings. This is a straightforward description of the photograph and is how someone would see it with their eyes. However, this isn’t why the “The Terror of War” resonated with people.

To someone from Western culture, which is predominantly Christian, the girl looks strikingly similar to Jesus on the cross. This allusion gives the photograph a whole other layer of meaning. It suggests her innocence and the cruelty of the Americans. There is nothing in the photograph that has to do with the Bible, but we still perceive it this way because we are seeing through the lens of culture—the collection of ideas that allow us to draw meaning from the world.

What I hope to gain from this course is a better understanding of Spanish and European history and culture, so I can start seeing with a wider perspective.