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THE AGE OF THE IMAGE by Stephen Apkon


Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens

by Stephen Apkon

Pub Date: April 16th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-374-10243-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Debut author Apkon, executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center, makes a strong case for the moving image as today’s primary form of communication. Yet, like many true believers, he pays short shrift to the cultural downside.

With the new technologies has come the democratization of media, writes the author. Inexpensive access to the tools and techniques of video and filmmaking enables us to circumvent the “elitist” gatekeepers of production companies and TV networks. Now it is possible for anyone who is visually literate to conceive, shoot and disseminate his or her own videos, influencing the world overnight. Visual media may be redefining the sorts of literacy we need to comprehend the digital age. Visual literacy also might better engage and prepare students in our flailing school system. However, Apkon spends too much time considering how students will enter the global economy and not enough examining what they might do of value within it. What does it matter if 20 million viewers see a YouTube video if that video is vacuous? While the author cautions that we must be sophisticated consumers of visual media, he ignores a worrisome byproduct: When anyone can make “art,” everyone will. What about talent and professional standards? Apkon’s scholarly rigor and generally cogent analysis are offset by his preoccupation with trivial achievements, the occasional slippage into pop psychology and a dismissive tone. He drips scorn on anyone who resists this inexorable visual tide, but one need not be a Luddite to recognize that not every innovation is an advance. Though a devotee of independent cinema, the author’s cultural touchstones appear to be famous Hollywood storytellers whose work is dominated by technically impressive yet empty entertainments.

Apkon goes to great lengths to assay the obvious. Only in passing does he grant that the image does not exist in isolation, that word and image are inextricable. After all, he required this ancient technology—a book—to communicate his ideas.