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Illustrated Periodicals as a Means of Popular Education (1868)

The text below appeared in the Illustrirte Zeitung (Leipzig), Germany’s first illustrated newspaper. Published weekly from 1843 to 1944, it featured scenes from all corners of the globe. Edited by Johann Jacob Weber (1803-1880), the Illustrirte Zeitung achieved enormous success. Its popularity helps explain why illustrated periodicals, rather than daily newspapers, became the first form of mass media in Germany. When political news was made visible in the form of line drawings and woodcuts, it took on a new aura. The anonymous author of this article defends illustrated periodicals as a means of advancing the aesthetic education of the public.

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It is with no lack of emphasis that commentators have pointed out that illustrated periodicals are steering public taste toward graphic description to such an extent that intellectual education is suffering; that the striving for instruction is being pushed into the background by the shallow craving for the mere satisfaction of curiosity. People have talked about the text and its contents as being overrun by illustration, even dubbing the latter an enemy of any type of serious study.

[ . . . ]

Certainly, there are many readers – if they can still be called this – who pick up the Illustrirte Zeitung mainly because of the pictures; were it not for the pictures, however, these people would perhaps experience nothing at all of the newspaper’s remaining content, since they have absolutely no interest in intellectual pursuits. Indeed, one may well assume that it is only through the illustrations, which appeal to their perception, that their interest is sparked in the first place and their attention is directed toward the descriptive text.

But the mental lethargy of some stands in contrast to the fresh receptiveness of the overwhelming majority of readers, who draw from the illustrations, in conjunction with the explanatory text, the most enriching and versatile nourishment for their intellect – nourishment that has an even more vivid and lasting effect on their minds precisely because it is not offered solely to reason but also to aesthetic perception.

Let us leave aside these special associations, however, to contemplate the question posed above from a higher and more general perspective. The first priority here is the profoundly significant task that illustration is called on to fulfill: namely, to take the most comprehensive approach to popularizing – in the noblest sense of the word – that which science and art was capable of offering only to a minority of privileged minds in the past, i.e., to turn this into the common heritage of the nation. The approach should be comprehensive not only with respect to the subject matter presented, but also as regards the mass of people who receive and absorb this material.

Here, the genuine cultural-historical calling of illustration, particularly of illustrated newspapers, reveals itself – and in two directions at that: namely, in its value not only for aesthetic education, but also for the general instruction of the public.

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