You are on page 1of 45

Introduction

About This Book

Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn explores the
history, theoretical frameworks, methodology, and pedagogy of visual cul-
ture in the United States. Visual culture, also known as visual studies, is a
new field for the study of the cultural construction of the visual in arts,
media, and everyday life.1 It is a research area and a curricular initiative that
regards the visual image as the focal point in the processes through which
meaning is made in a cultural context.
An interdisciplinary field, visual studies came together in the late
1980s after the disciplines of art history, anthropology, film studies, lin-
guistics, and comparative literature encountered poststructuralist theory
and cultural studies. Deconstructionist criticism showed that the academic
humanities were as much artifacts of language as they were outcomes of
the pursuit of truth. The inclusive concept of culture as “a whole way of
life” (Raymond Williams) became the object of inquiry of cultural studies,
which encompassed the “high” arts and literature without giving them any
privileged status. As a result of the cultural turn, the status of culture has
been revised in the humanities: It is currently seen as a cause of—rather
than merely a reflection of or response to—social, political, and eco-
nomic processes. The importance of the concept of cultural context in the
humanities has added further momentum to the rise of visual studies.
Perception has come to be understood as a product of experience and ac-
culturation, and representations are now studied as one among the other
signifying systems that make up culture.
Although the new field of visual studies has enjoyed a proliferation
in the Anglo-American academy over the past decade, there is no consen-
sus among its adepts with regard to its scope and objectives, definitions, and
methods. Recent introductions to and readers of visual culture have spelled
out a variety of conceptual perspectives (Bryson, Holly, and Moxey 1994;
Jenks 1995; Burgin 1996; Walker and Chaplin 1997; Barnard 1998; Mir-
zoeff 1998a, 1999, 2002; Evans and Hall 1999; Heywood and Sandywell
1999; Sturken and Cartwright, 2001). Visual Culture: The Study of the Vi-
sual after the Cultural Turn endeavors to answer the fundamental question
of how to conciliate diverse theoretical positions in order to develop a
common ground for working in the field of the visual. This book focuses
on both the theoretical underpinnings of visual studies and the institu-
tional implications of establishing a new area of inquiry.
In the summer of 1999, Michael Ann Holly and Douglas Crimp
suggested to me the possibility of conducting a study of visual culture, a
study that might be described by the Foucaultian term “archaeology.” As
a result, I began an examination of the fracturing of the discipline of art
history and the subsequent emergence of visual studies—a new intellec-
tual formation that has distinct purposes and methodology. My project
provides a new perspective on the interdisciplinary nature of visual stud-
ies through its interrogation of how art history and cultural studies inter-
sect as they are practiced and taught in academic communities in the
United States.2
Lately, visual culture has become the center of various concerns. At
the May 2001 Clark Conference, “Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies,”
the question was posed as to whether this new field had reached a state of
inconsistency by subsuming everything related to the cultural and the vi-
sual. Matthew Rampley, participant in the fourth international Crossroads
in Cultural Studies conference, is of the opinion that visual culture has no
object of study since it commenced with a disapproval of the “traditional
histories of art, film, photography . . . [and] their positivist attachment to
their object as a discrete given” (2002, p. 3). I envision my task to be to
show how visual studies avoids these two ontological perils and negoti-

2 Introduction
ates between the Scylla—the lack of a specific object of study—and the
Charybdis—the expansion of the field to the point of incoherence. This
study takes on a comparative perspective from which it asks the following
questions: What is visual studies and what is its object? What is the rele-
vance of visual culture for art historians? What attitudes do art historians
adopt toward visual studies today? What is the relationship between the
study of the history of art and the study of the visual and the cultural? Does
visual culture require interpretative methodologies that are distinctive
from those employed by art history and cultural studies?
In order to understand the interplay between art history, cultural
studies, and visual studies, it is crucial to examine a range of theoretical
standpoints. In 2001, I approached and interviewed the academics who
had responded to the “Visual Culture Questionnaire” (October 77, 1996)
and faculty members from a number of American universities.3 Histori-
cally, the use of conversation—the basis of an interview—as a systematic
tool for the creation of knowledge can be traced to Thucydides and
Socrates. Today’s social research emphasizes local context and the linguis-
tic construction of a perspectival reality where knowledge is validated
through practice. In this framework, the interview is considered a con-
struction site of knowledge (Rubin and Rubin 1995; Kvale 1996). Ap-
proaching research questions from different angles and bringing together
a range of views has the potential to generate explanations that capture the
complexity of theories and debates better than other research procedures.
The depth, detail, and richness one seeks in interviews is what anthropol-
ogist Clifford Geertz (1973) called “thick description” in his path-breaking
arguments on anthropological method.
My aim in the interviews was both to solicit a reflection on issues
whose coverage in the existing literature seemed either insufficient or
vague and to reveal how the interviewees’ thoughts were related to other
statements in the field. I also strove to explore with “the subjects of visual
culture” their experiences in the changing academic environment. Three
clusters of scholars are represented: The first sees visual studies as an appro-
priate expansion of art history; the second group views the new focus as
independent of art history and more appropriately studied with technol-
ogies of vision related to the digital and virtual era; and, finally, the third
cluster considers visual studies a field that threatens and self-consciously
challenges the traditional discipline of art history.

Introduction 3
Visual Culture is based on the findings of this study comprising in-
terviews, oral histories, and written responses to questionnaires. I have
read, analyzed, and interpreted these materials and have categorized them
according to content. The interviewees are quoted at considerable length
throughout the text.4 Hans Belting noted that our entire culture has
adopted the strategy of statement by quotation (1987 [1983], p. 51). The
purpose behind the use of quotations in this text, however, has not been
to disguise my position by recalling “another who has spoken with more
authority,” but rather to avoid missing points that the interview questions
were designed to capture in order to produce an analysis that adheres closely
to the subjects’ original presentation of their concepts. The quotations are
grouped to create a “polylogue,” in which thoughts are communicated,
positions are counterpoised, and meanings are created. I convened this
virtual panel hoping not only to make explicit the implicit differences in
the views on and approaches to visual studies of its advocates, but also to
illustrate how their ideas and arguments may complement each other—in
other words, to find points of convergence and productive disagreement.
Thus, rather than showing a consensus, such a design allows for a revela-
tion of the subtle aspects of the complex debate and fashions a space where
the exchange of opinions on the field’s agenda(s) unfolds.
This endeavor was indirectly inspired by the imagined debate be-
tween philosopher Martin Heidegger and art historian Meyer Schapiro
narrated by Jacques Derrida in “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing”
(1978), and by David Carrier’s pairing of art history texts written at differ-
ent times but dealing with the same art objects or problems in Principles of
Art History Writing (1991). Unlike these studies, however, the material for
this book was gathered through interviews with conversational partners
who are my contemporaries and who are and were aware of my goals.
They also knew about the other protagonists, so that they could foresee,
address, and actively engage with any likely criticism. Dialogical in its na-
ture, the interviewing process took place over a short period of time to
ensure a synchronism of responses.5
This book is a pioneering attempt to present a historiographic ac-
count of visual studies entwined with a current polemic of its possible di-
rections. An academic field is defined by three criteria: the object of study,
the basic assumptions that underpin the methods of approach to the ob-
ject, and the history of the discipline itself. Since there are two dimensions

4 Introduction
to this study—disciplinary and institutional—it is arranged in two chap-
ters. Chapter 1 offers a historical overview, discusses the object(s) of vi-
sual studies, its assumptions and methods, and evaluates the status of the
new field as seen by both faculty and students in American universities.
Through its diverse reflections, it brings together the spheres of theory—
the methodology of research area—and practice—the experiences of
working in the field of the visual.
Another innovation in this book is that it answers the need for a
discussion of pedagogic practices that has frequently been overlooked in
contemporary literature on visual and cultural studies (Striphas 1998).
Questions have been raised by the launching of new college and univer-
sity programs in visual culture and visual studies: Does the appearance of
such programs indicate a move from art to visual and from history to cul-
ture? Is it a trend that reflects what is going on outside of the ivory tower,
or is it internally motivated by the desire to rejuvenate the specialty by
linking academic studies with practice? What can one learn from the ex-
perience of these programs? While these questions are still being answered
through practice, a close examination of the four existing courses and pro-
grams in the institutions where they were first designed and implemented
in the United States may reveal the complexity of these issues.
Chapter 2 exposes and specifies the implications of related theoret-
ical challenges to current developments in higher educational policy and
practice through a discussion of the undergraduate courses and graduate
programs at the University of Rochester, New York; the University of
Chicago; the University of California at Irvine (UCI); and the State Uni-
versity of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. An analysis of the goals,
organization, and curricula of two graduate programs in visual studies,
enhanced by an examination and comparison of the objectives and con-
tents of two undergraduate courses, illuminates essential characteristics of
visual studies pedagogy that would otherwise remain obscure. This book
associates differences in the pedagogy of these programs with the differ-
ences in the theoretical positions professed by their founders and instruc-
tors, as well as with the institutional nature of these settings. My study
makes public a variety of theoretical standpoints and corresponding cur-
ricula initiatives, and embarks on a search for criteria by which an inter-
disciplinary visual culture program might be designed in the twenty-first
century.

Introduction 5
The Study of Visual Culture: A Bibliographic Essay

The term “visual culture” first appeared on the covers of books whose top-
ics were neither Western art nor—in the spirit of their time—art with a
capital “A”: Towards a Visual Culture: Educating through Television (1969), by
Caleb Gattegno; Comics and Visual Culture: Research Studies from Ten Coun-
tries (1986), edited by Alphons Silbermann and H.-D. Dyroff;and The Way
It Happened: A Visual Culture History of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of
Odawa (1991), by James McClurken. Before he acquired a black-and-
white television set in 1966, Gattegno had studied the imagery of chil-
dren’s drawings and worked on films for teachers’ education. Marveling at
the efficacy of knowing through sight, in his book he distinguished be-
tween “the clumsiness of speech” as a means of expression and “the pow-
ers of vision.” “With sight,” Gattegno states, “infinities are given at once;
wealth is its description. In contrast to the speed of light, we need time to
talk and express what we want to say. The inertia of photons is nil com-
pared to the inertia of our muscles and chains of bones” (1969, p. 4).
This position reflects a utopian spirit: Gattegno posits that television
would make the greatest contribution in the area of education by “casting
away our preconceptions, our prejudices made explicit by the shock of the
encounter of a true image and presumably true belief.” As such, it is obvi-
ously vulnerable to criticism from all quarters of contemporary scholar-
ship (we need time to see what we gaze upon, and this meaning-making
process is unthinkable without language, after all). But Gattegno’s text was
among the first that emphasized the formation of subjectivity: “To talk
of the medium of television is a way to talk of man the perceiver, the
responder, the expander, and the processor of messages” (1969, p. 15). Sil-
bermann and Dyroff, preoccupied with a comparative analysis of how
comics were functioning in the United States, the U.S.S.R., the U.K.,
Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, France, Kenya, and India in both the
pretelevision and television eras, advanced the thesis that their contempo-
raries, both adults and children, learned “more relevant things about
culture via comics and comic films than by pure seeing with their eyes”
(1986, p. 22).
James McClurken’s The Way It Happened used a wealth of visual ma-
terial—historical photographs, drawings, and paintings—preserved by
both individual families and institutions to restore to the written record

6 Introduction
Caleb Gattegno, Towards a Visual Culture: Educating through Television. New York: Outer-
bridge and Dienstfrey, 1969.

Introduction 7
James M. McClurken, The Way It Happened: A Visual Culture History of the Little Traverse
Bay Bands of Odawa. East Lansing: Michigan State University Museum, 1991.

8 Introduction
the history of the Odawa people. This book shifted the positions of the
historical object and the historical agent in its expository discourse. It did
not so much tell a story of what happened to Native Americans as narrate,
in the First Nations’ voice, the actions taken by them in response to the
many social and political challenges they have faced since the arrival of the
Europeans in North America.
The concept of visual culture’s significance in transforming the dis-
cipline of art history originated in art historian Michael Baxandall’s Paint-
ing and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (1972), which introduced the
notion of a “period eye” and related the production of art to social history.
According to this text, the beholder brings to the painting a mass of in-
formation and assumptions drawn from general experience. Viewers’ inter-
preting skills vary from one generation to the next. Moreover, the work
of art is sensitive to the kinds of interpretative skills—patterns, categories,
inferences, analogies—the mind brings to it:

Some of the mental equipment a man orders his visual experience


with is variable, and much of this variable equipment is culturally
relative, in the sense of being determined by the society which has
influenced his experience. Among these variables are categories
with which he classifies his visual stimuli, the knowledge he will use
to supplement what his immediate vision gives him, and the attitude
he will adopt to the kind of artificial object seen. The beholder . . .
is likely to use those skills his society esteems highly. The painter re-
sponds to this; his public’s visual capacity must be his medium.
(Baxandall 1972, p. 40)

The concept of “period eye” formulated by Baxandall identifies habits of


vision and modes of cognitive perception as they are related to pictorial
styles. As Norman Bryson noted in Art in Context (1992), such a concept
stands for the unity of culture rather than revealing the difference in re-
ceptions of different groups—gender, social, religious—of historical
viewers, and, therefore, it has its own difficulties. Bryson claims that mem-
bers of various groups possess different codes for viewing the same work,
and the very access to the codes is uneven among them. Analysis of re-
ception should therefore account for these varying degrees of access in or-
der to avoid presenting the ideal case.6

Introduction 9
Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the
Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

10 Introduction
Svetlana Alpers—also an art historian by training—first used the
term “visual culture” in The Art of Describing (1983) while focusing on
notions of vision, image-making devices, and visual skills as cultural re-
sources related to the history of Dutch painting. The study dealt with a
culture in which images, as opposed to texts, emerge as central to the rep-
resentation of the world. Alpers has acknowledged that her use of the term
was different from Baxandall’s because of the nature of the cases they were
studying—she “was not only attending to those visual skills particular to
Dutch culture, but claiming that in that place and at that time these skills
were definitive” (1996, p. 26). On Alpers’s the difference between image
and text was basic, and visual culture, as distinguished from a textual one,
was a discriminating notion rather than an encompassing one.
More recently, two summer institutes on theory and interpretation
in the visual arts, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities
and held at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1987 and at the Uni-
versity of Rochester in 1989, aimed to locate art history within the con-
text of theoretical debates taking place in other fields. To this end, they
examined new interpretative strategies developed by semiotics, linguis-
tics, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer studies, and cultural theory. The par-
ticipants came from a variety of educational enterprises across the United
States. These institutes resulted in the publication of two books edited by
Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey: Visual Theory:
Painting and Interpretation (1991) and Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations
(1994). These anthologies gather texts written by the lecturers and brought
“theory” on board. In the introduction to Visual Culture, the editors sug-
gest that since the collected essays strive for “a broader understanding of
their [artworks’] cultural significance for the historical circumstances in
which they were produced, as well as their potential meaning within the
context of our own historical situation,” they could be understood as con-
tributions to a history of images rather than a history of art (Bryson, Holly,
and Moxey 1994, p. xvi).
Holly and Moxey are especially interested in importing poststruc-
turalist theory widely employed in other humanities into the emerging
field of visual studies. They see deconstruction not as an end in itself, but
rather as a flexible mode leading to a reorientation, as opposed to the de-
struction, of art historical perspectives. Holly asserts that visual culture
should study not objects, but “subjects caught in the congeries of cultural

Introduction 11
Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey (eds.), Visual Theory:
Painting and Interpretation. Cambridge: Polity in association with Blackwell, 1991.

12 Introduction
Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey (eds.), Visual Culture: Images and
Interpretations. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Introduction 13
meanings” (1996b, p. 40). She argues that whereas art history writing rec-
ognizes only linear time and aims at revealing the hidden “truth,” there is
an awareness in the new field that all historical narratives are invested with
the values of the present. Self-reflexive visual studies preoccupies itself
with the way in which the objects under scrutiny reveal the ethical and
political commitments of those who study them (Moxey 1994b, 1999b).
Visual studies makes it clear that interpretation should be distinguished
from the search for the meanings “concealed” within images; instead, this
new field breaks down established systems of interpretation in order to
find new meanings in the work of art.
Moxey charts two possibilities for the new research area: it could be-
come the study of all images “without making qualitative distinctions”
between them, or, preferably, it might concern itself with “all images for
which distinguished cultural value has been or is being proposed” (1996,
p. 57). The use of the past perfect tense along with the present tense in the
last statement is not accidental: It spells out Moxey’s idea that aesthetic cri-
teria do not exist outside a specific historical context, and what was worth
studying yesterday might not be considered so today. This consciousness
helped to undermine the theory of universal response that has animated
art history; indeed, it is the absence of this universal epistemological basis
for art historical activity that makes the new academic field of visual stud-
ies possible.7 Yet, although Moxey rejects the concept of immanent aes-
thetic value, he does not deny its existence as a social construct: aesthetic
value had been ascribed to the work of art by the culture of the European
Enlightenment and has been modified with the times. Far from support-
ing the canon, Moxey argues that visual studies should reenact a contesta-
tion between different forms, genres, and mediums of visual production
as the embodiments of different cultural values. Hence, this new field will
have a selective focus, which will change over time.
There has been no unanimity among scholars about either the rela-
tion of art history to the study of image or the role of the image. For in-
stance, Moxey suggests that visual studies has revived the discipline of art
history through the study and “the recognition of [images’] heterogene-
ity, the different circumstances of their production, and the variety of cul-
tural and social functions they serve” (2001, p. 109). On the other hand,
art historian Thomas Crow does not welcome visual culture, claiming that
“a panicky, hastily considered substitution of image history for art history

14 Introduction
can only have the effect of ironing out differences” (quoted in Heller
1996, p. A8). For Crow, the study of art acknowledges that art is a social
category, but asks that it cannot be equated with visual culture as a whole.
Another question of scholars was, “Where to look for the location of art
in this new lunapark of visual culture?” (Sauerländer 1995, p. 391).8
W. J. T. Mitchell attempts to answer these difficult questions, and in
the early 1990s he developed a syllabus for the first academic course on
visual culture in the United States. The syllabus, for the University of Chi-
cago, was published in Art Bulletin (Mitchell 1995a). In earlier works—
Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (1986) and Picture Theory (1994)—Mitchell
questions the difference between images and words, while also question-
ing the systems of power and canons of value that underwrite the possible
answers to these questions. Picture Theory was provoked by a report of
the National Endowment for the Humanities, Humanities in America, which
expressed anxieties about the “neglected” values and texts of the Western
tradition and feared that the American culture was becoming “a product
of what we watch rather than what we read” (Cheney 1988, p. 17).
Mitchell begins his book by pointing out some contradictions: the report
criticizes the devotion of the humanities to issues of race, class, and gen-
der over “beauty and truth,” and at the same time, charges academia for its
isolationist stance in society. He also points out the report’s oversimplifi-
cation of the subject matter, and stresses that all media must be considered
mixed media.
Mitchell is interested in showing how the conventional answers to
the questions of what pictures are and how they relate to words work in
practice. He describes the difference between word and images as being
“linked to things like the difference between the (speaking) self and the
(seen) other . . . between words (heard, quoted, inscribed) and objects or
actions (seen, depicted, described); between sensory channels, traditions
of representation, and modes of experience” (Mitchell 1994, p. 5). He calls
a purist’s desire to separate the two “an ideology, a complex of desire and
fear, power and interest” linked to particular institutions, histories, and dis-
courses (ibid., p. 96). As a public intellectual, Mitchell wants to address in
Picture Theory the tension between visual and verbal representations, sug-
gesting this tension to be inseparable from struggles in cultural politics;and
he also desires to build a curriculum that would emphasize the importance
of visual culture and literacy in its relation to language and literature.

Introduction 15
We can see how Mitchell’s interests are similar to issues in cultural
studies. Cultural studies assumes that capitalist industrial societies are di-
vided unequally along ethnic, gender, and class lines. It treats culture as
neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but rather as
a site of social differences and struggles: “not an organic expression of a
community . . . but a contested and conflictual set of practices of repre-
sentation bound up with the processes of formation and re-formation of
social groups” (Frow and Morris 1996, p. 356). Engaged cultural studies
is academic work on contemporary culture from nonelite or counter-
hegemonic perspectives. It is preoccupied not with the texts per se but
with what discursive practices do in the world—with the ways in which
these practices construct and participate in people’s lives.9
Mitchell’s understanding of the image stems from the general no-
tion that the world is held together with figures of knowledge. In Iconol-
ogy he suggests that an image is not just a particular kind of sign, but a
parent concept—image as such. He treats textuality as a foil to imagery, a
significant other or rival mode of representation. Within this framework,
the history of culture is the story of the struggle between pictorial and lin-
guistic signs, a history that reflects

the relations we posit between symbols and the world, signs and
their meanings. The image is the sign that pretends not to be a sign,
masquerading as (or, for the believer, actually achieving) natural im-
mediacy and presence. The word is its “other,” the artificial, arbi-
trary production of human will that disrupts natural presence by
introducing unnatural elements into the world—time, conscious-
ness, history, and the alienating intervention of symbolic mediation.
(Mitchell 1986, p. 43)

According to Mitchell, the word–image difference can be likened to the


relation between two languages that have been interacting for a long time:
an ongoing dialogue between verbal and pictorial representations.
In “What Is Visual Culture?” (1995a), Mitchell condemns the cur-
rent separation of the academic humanities into verbal and visual factions.
He posits that “from the standpoint of a general field of visual culture, art
history can no longer rely on received notions of beauty or aesthetic sig-
nificance to define its proper object of study,” and he makes the case for

16 Introduction
popular imagery (p. 209). Again, this is reminiscent of cultural studies,
which began as a reaction against the analysis of high cultural forms already
taking place in the universities and whose meaning is based on difference.
“Visual Culture:Signs, Bodies, Worlds,” a course at the University of Chi-
cago, generalizes the institutional and technological conditions of the vis-
ible, including both the arts and the vernacular understanding of ordinary
visual experience.
In Mitchell’s mind, visual studies is an inside-out phenomenon in its
relation to art history because it is “opening out the larger field of ver-
nacular images, media, and everyday visual practices in which a ‘visual art’
tradition is situated, and raising the question of the differences between
high and low culture, visual art versus visual culture. On the other hand,
visual culture may look like a deep ‘inside’ to art history’s traditional focus
on the sensuous and semiotic peculiarity of the visual” (1995b, pp. 542–
543). In this light, visual representations are seen as part of an interlock-
ing set of practices and discourses. I find that the relation of visual studies
to art history, as seen by both Moxey and Mitchell, parallels the relation of
cultural studies to literary studies. The implications of this latter relation-
ship, summed up by Cary Nelson, include “giving up” the hierarchizing
cultural memory that has dominated the field throughout the century:
“The search for masterworks has to be replaced with an effort to under-
stand . . . [them] as part of wider discursive formations. That entails de-
riving their meaning primarily from an analysis of those relations rather
than from an ahistorical and largely immanent formalism of thematics”
(Nelson 1996b, p. 65).
The “Questionnaire on Visual Culture” was an important milestone
in the history of visual studies. It was sent out to a number of art and ar-
chitecture historians, film theorists, literary critics, and artists, and then
appeared, along with their responses, in the summer 1996 issue of the
magazine October. This influential journal was concerned with the role of
cultural production within the public sphere and focused on the intersec-
tions of cultural practices with institutional structures. The questionnaire
comprises four open-ended questions. In a manner openly unsympa-
thetic to visual studies, the anonymous author (or authors) suggests that
visual culture was organized on the model of anthropology with the re-
sult that visual culture has positioned itself as antagonistic to art history.
Arguing that the precondition for visual culture is a “conception of the

Introduction 17
visual as disembodied image,” the questionnaire warns that visual studies
is helping “to produce subjects for the next stage of globalized capital”
(“Questionnaire on Visual Culture,” October 1996, p. 25). This final asser-
tion reveals that the author is working within the assumption of a univer-
sal principle of the historical development of capitalism—or imperialism.
From this perspective, culture is a maidservant (as Marx called it) of the
economic condition. The author, writing anonymously, relies on a Marx-
ist metanarrative and avoids analysis of his or her own status and assump-
tions in the current context—whether of capitalism or of “art.”
The response of academics varied greatly—from the condemnation
of visual culture as being “anamorphic, junk-tech aesthetics of cyber-
visuality,” through a moderate resistance considering it to be a “levelling
of all cultural values,” to the acceptance of visual culture as “an updated
way of talking about postmodernism” (ibid., pp. 26–70).10 Perhaps, this
baptism of fire was necessary: conceived as an attack on the new research
area, the questionnaire did not eliminate the increasing interest among its
students, but rather helped proponents of visual culture to articulate their
positions and thus contributed to the theoretical growth of the new field.
The experience also demonstrated that, since the issue of visual culture’s
relation to anthropology, history, and postmodern theory has very mate-
rial effects on the perceived place of scholars of the visual in the univer-
sity and publishing spheres, there was increasing pressure within visual
studies to define itself as valuable, relevant, and distinct from other fields.
Diverse opinions, as well as their roots, demanded further reflection, and
I conceived of this book project as a follow-up to the debate: in particu-
lar, its provisual stand.
In the three years that followed the October publication, several com-
pilations of readings emerged: Routledge’s The Block Reader in Visual Cul-
ture (1996), edited by Jon Bird et al.; The Visual Culture Reader (1998),
edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff; and Sage’s Visual Culture: The Reader (1999),
edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. The Block Reader brought together
writings that initially appeared in the influential British journal Block be-
tween 1979 and 1989—the essays in which a conventional understanding
of art history was challenged by addressing the problems of the social and
ideological dimensions of the arts in society. In a key essay entitled “Vi-
sual Representation and Cultural Politics,” Nicolas Green and Frank Mort
criticize art history: “[it] is not only discreetly organised around a set of

18 Introduction
Jon Bird et al. (eds.), The Block Reader in Visual Culture. London and New York: Routledge,
1996.

Introduction 19
aesthetically defined objects, but also operates within an internal, object-
based focus which serves to reproduce categories of aesthetic pleasure,
spiritual value and a particular notion of sensuous enjoyment” (1996,
p. 227; first published in 1982). What the authors offer instead is a con-
cept of visual culture—or a “materialist analysis” of art—that could ac-
count for particular societal practices in relation to specific forms of
production and reception within different historical circumstances and
regimes of power.11
Green and Mort wish in this essay to go beyond the notion of the
object as art and are concerned about the continued practice of text-based
disciplines that focus on single texts of visual arts, film, literature, and so
on. These scholars want to return the text to the context that gave it birth.
As Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux put it, the idea of context “may
not be equated with that in the older literary history, in which social life
was taken principally as ‘background’ but the work itself retained its priv-
ileged position as a nonreducible artifact whose intrinsic meaning was ex-
emplified by its mythic or symbolic signifiers” (Aronowitz and Giroux
1991, p. 141). It is interesting, however, that major themes in The Block
Reader are announced as “Art History,” “Design History,” and “Cultural
History,” thus contributing to the old disciplinary protocols by maintain-
ing a distinction between art, design, and culture. Categorizing something
as part of “art history” implies that it has the distinct and privileged status
of an art object, thus imbuing it with aesthetic quality and the authority of
the canon. Such distinctions could simply be the editors’ way of sorting out
essays and distinguishing groups according to subject matter, but the cat-
egories nevertheless undermine the very premise of visual culture itself.
In the end, The Block Reader, through its selection of articles, pro-
vided a retrospective of new art history’s exposure of conservative ideolo-
gies that had structured discourses of art. New art historians in both the
U.K. and the United States paid close attention to three issues related to
representation and centered around the relationship between individual
subject (the artist, the art historian) and social and power relations: (1) ide-
ology; (2) subjectivity; and (3) the relationship between subjectivity and
interpretation, specifically in reexaminating the notions of artistic au-
thority, uniqueness of the individual work, and priority of painting.12
The Visual Culture Reader (1998a), edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff and
accompanied by his Visual Culture: An Introduction (1999),13 aims to trace

20 Introduction
Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.), The Visual Culture Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Introduction 21
how a critical examination of vision and the gaze over the preceding fif-
teen years has led to the development of visual studies. Mirzoeff groups
extracts from key studies into thematic sections addressing “Visual Cul-
ture and Everyday Life,” “Virtuality,” “Race and Identity in Colonial and
Postcolonial Culture,” “Gender and Sexuality,” and “Pornography.” As Irit
Rogoff points out in “Studying Visual Culture” (chapter 2 of the reader),
what is being analyzed by the reader is a “field of vision version of Der-
rida’s concept of differance” organized around the following sets of queries:
“Whom we see and whom we do not see, who is privileged within the
regime of specularity, which aspects of the historical past actually have cir-
culating visual representations and which do not, whose fantasies of what
are fed by which visual images?” (Rogoff 1999, p. 15; see also Rogoff
2000, p. 29).
Mirzoeff, as editor, criticizes those art historians for whom “visual
culture is simply ‘the history of images’ handled with a semiotic notion of
representation (Bryson et al. 1994: xvi)” as well as those for whom it is “a
means of creating sociology of visual culture that will establish a ‘social
theory of visuality’ ( Jenks 1995: 1)” (Mirzoeff 1999, p. 4). To Mirzoeff,
visual culture is both an approach to the study of contemporary living from
the standpoint of the consumer rather than producer and a means of un-
derstanding the consumer’s response to visual media. Accordingly, visual
culture should concern itself with “events in which information, mean-
ing, or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual tech-
nology,” embracing all apparatuses designed either to be looked at or to
enhance natural vision, from fine arts to cinema and the Internet. Mir-
zoeff further suggests that although heightened visualizing is an attribute
of our era, visual culture does not depend on pictures themselves, but on
the modern tendency to picture or visualize existence. He supports his
claim by giving an example of drivers on North American highways who
are able to maneuver their cars and read numerous visual signs (both traffic
signs and advertisements) and even turn on a radio or a CD player—in
order to avoid boredom—all at the same time. While Mirzoeff calls this
“new remarkable ability to absorb and interpret visual information” the
basis of industrial society (1999, p. 5), I tend to think that this example says
more about the drivers’ ease with informational flow, or the ability to
function while being distracted, than about a new, learned skill of visual-
izing in all circumstances.

22 Introduction
Chris Jenks (ed.), Visual Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Introduction 23
Mirzoeff is convinced that “the disjunctured and fragmented culture
that we call postmodernism is best imagined and understood visually, just as
the nineteenth century was classically represented in the newspaper and
the novel” (1999, pp. 3–4, italics added). He is of the opinion that the new
academic field should address the gap between the wealth of visual expe-
rience in postmodern culture and our inability adequately to analyze ob-
servations, and should also concentrate on the determining role of the
visual in our present condition. The field is new because of its focus on
the visual as a place where meanings are created as opposed to the written
word, an idea that prevailed in nineteenth-century culture. In order not
to overestimate such a broad claim, however, one should refer to Mitchell’s
earlier words:“Books have incorporated images into their pages since time
immemorial, and television, far from being a purely ‘visual’ or ‘imagistic’
medium, is more aptly described as a medium in which images, sounds,
and words ‘flow’ into one another. . . . The interaction of pictures and
texts is constitutive of representation as such . . . the impulse to purify
media is one of the central utopian gestures of modernism” (Mitchell 1994,
pp. 3–5, italics added).
Visual Culture: The Reader (1999), prepared by Jessica Evans and Stu-
art Hall, provides a set of readings for a sixteen-week course entitled “The
Image and Visual Culture,” presented by the Open University Master’s of
Art in the Cultural and Media Studies Program. Having realized that visual
culture was overlooked in the rapid expansion of cultural studies in the
1990s, the editors came up with a collection composed of three parts:“Cul-
tures of the Visual,” “Regulating Photographic Meanings,” and “Looking
and Subjectivity.” In the introduction, they pointed to the reasons visual
culture had been neglected:Mainly, “the privileging of the linguistic model
in the study of representation led to the assumption that visual artefacts are
fundamentally the same, and function in just the same way, as any other
cultural text” (Evans and Hall 1999, p. 2). It is doubtful, however, that the
introduction and prevalence of a linguistic model and the textualization
across the humanities and social sciences took as much of a toll on the
study of visual imagery as Evans and Hall would have us believe.
In fact, far from being lost in the endless chain of signification, artwork
has come to be seen as a “thing” (to use philosophical jargon) in its own
right. I argue that this is a result of the semiotic approach:For the first time
in art studies, the work of art is talked about as having its own specificity;

24 Introduction
Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (eds.), Visual Culture: The Reader. London, Thousand Oaks,
and New Delhi: Sage, 1999.

Introduction 25
that is, as being neither an autonomous entity nor a mere reflection of so-
cial and political processes but a maker of culture. As Keith Moxey puts it:

The adoption of a socially and historically specific notion of the sign


implies that the study of visual representations will approach visual
signs as if they were contiguous to and continuous with the signify-
ing systems that structure all other aspects of the historical hori-
zon. . . . There is no attempt to look through the network of signs
in order to reify or fetishize the intentions of the artists involved in
their production. . . . A semiotic approach would attempt to define
the ways in which works of art actively worked to generate meaning
and thus to define the values of the society. (1991, pp. 991–995)

Indeed, the semiotic approach provides an analysis of the artwork’s speci-


ficity based not on some questionable inherent qualities but on its perfor-
mance, distinct from any other text’s, in a social setting. Even more
ambiguous is Evans and Hall’s suggestion that visual culture has been over-
looked because of “matters of a substantive kind . . . connected with the
nature of the objects of study. . . . It is quite clear, for example, that ‘pho-
tography’ is not a unified practice, but a medium utterly diverse in its
functions” (1999, p. 2). It seems that these authors consider art practices
within the framework of the productionist model and, at the same time,
go further to recognize the challenge presented by the attempt to analyze
the tremendous variety of such practices with this single model. If this
is the case, then rather than reject a semiotic approach we should take an
approach to art “which integrates textual analysis with the sociological
investigation of institutions of cultural production” (Wolff 1992, p. 713).
Evans and Hall also express a concern about losing the specific rhet-
oric, genres, and uses of visual imagery in the “more global identification
of cultural trends and their epic narratives of transformations of con-
sciousness in the rubric of ‘postmodern culture’” (Evans and Hall 1999,
p. 2). This concern seems particularly dubious, especially when consid-
ered in light of Mirzoeff’s highly acclaimed book published in the same
year—a text in which visual culture is equated with postmodernism.
Although I agree in general with Evans and Hall that visual culture
has not received proper attention within cultural studies, I disagree with

26 Introduction
their reasons and suggest a simpler alternative. Over a long period of time,
the study of images has been monopolized by art history departments,
which have assumed authority over both the methods of study and the
training of specialists. Those working outside of these departments have
rarely engaged in this exclusive discourse, for a number of reasons. The
early 1990s was a time of ambiguity. On the one hand, in the wake of cul-
tural studies, the approaches deployed by traditional art history were seen
to be inadequate. But on the other hand, cultural studies scholars felt
(wrongly, in my opinion) that they did not have a mandate (or sufficient
expertise) and could not compete in the analysis of the arts with graduates
of, for example, the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and
other such universities. Some art historians and scholars of the visual (in
particular, of the new genre of television) chose to work in the territory
of cultural studies—Irit Rogoff, Victor Burgin, John Tagg, and Peter
Wollen, to name just a few. Moreover, a handful of “the outsiders,” such
as Norman Bryson, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Kaja Silverman, brought fresh
insights into art history.14 However, almost no conversation existed be-
tween art historians and cultural studies researchers in the professional
magazines or at the disciplinary conventions, even between those under
the roof of the same institution of higher learning.15 With an increased in-
terest in the visual came the need for something more sustainable than an
unstable ensemble of interactions—namely, a new academic field and ad-
equate training for it.
In Interpreting Visual Culture, editors Ian Heywood and Barry Sandy-
well (1999) set out to explore the hermeneutics of the visual and discern
four orders of visual phenomena:

the levels of meaningful practices in the life-worlds of everyday life


. . . the emergence of recent interpretative problematics (theoretical
narratives which advocate different “ways of seeing”) . . . the histor-
ical formation of the theoretical sciences and the role of critical
thought in reflecting upon the social construction of their practices
. . . and the emergence of critical discourses concerned to question
and deconstruct the history and implications of visually organized
paradigms . . . these have legitimated. (Heywood and Sandywell
1999, p. x)

Introduction 27
Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell (eds.), Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the
Hermeneutics of the Visual. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

28 Introduction
The essays in this collection are divided into three groups and discuss ac-
cordingly the status of the visual in modern theory, the impact of recent
theorizing on the significance of the visual dimensions of visual art, and
connections between the visual and the ethical. Sandywell, whose article
“Specular Grammar: The Visual Rhetoric of Modernity” forms the core
of the first section, conceives of the project’s task as being to answer
Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century
French Thought (1993). He intends to bring to light those aspects of mod-
ern European philosophy that might have relevance to the new field (from
Descartes via Hegel to Gadamer and Heidegger).
The second, more eclectic section includes essays on Bonnard, fem-
inist art, and contemporary art criticism. The final section is grouped
around Heywood’s “‘Ever More Specific’: Practices and Perception in Art
and Ethics,” which, true to its title, interrogates the specific subject of the
ethical value of successful artwork. The editors place text of the original
project—what they call “the map” of the hermeneutics of visual culture,
which had been circulated to contributors—in the appendix, giving read-
ers the opportunity to see how far the final product diverged from and
outgrew the embryo. I find this indicative of the current situation in the
field of the visual: in an attempt to expand boundaries by bringing to-
gether heterogeneous and diverse subjects, the result is often a lack of
focus or agenda. At the same time, Heywood and Sandywell’s book is a
genuine effort to move away from what had become a staple feature of the
literature presenting visual culture: a series of negations of traditional art
history, sociology, anthropology, and so on.16 Interpreting Visual Culture is
a success because it makes an attempt to “ground” the new field by show-
ing the persistent philosophical interest in the visual throughout history,
and as such it is a viable response to those who contend that it is only a
twentieth-century phenomenon.
In addition to these collective efforts, there have been several at-
tempts by individual authors to define the new field. In/Different Spaces:
Place and Memory in Visual Culture (1996) is a book of essays written by Vic-
tor Burgin between 1987 and 1994. The essays presented share a common
object, which is the space and time of visual representations, and a com-
mon methodology, which is psychoanalytic theory. Burgin is convinced
that the space and time of visual representations, or the shifting coordi-
nates in which imaginary identities are fixed, should become the object of

Introduction 29
Victor Burgin, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture. Berkeley, Los Ange-
les, and London: University of California Press, 1996.

30 Introduction
contemporary studies of the image. The subject of his investigation is not
singular forms of visual representation such as photography, television, or
cinema, but the “‘teletopological puzzle’ of these together —‘together’ not
as a totality but as a constantly shifting constellation of fragments” (p. 22).
Burgin puts forward the thesis that it is no longer plausible to sepa-
rate culture into such distinct realms as mass culture, popular art, and high
art because

at the levels of production and distribution, all cultural workers to-


day actually or potentially rely on much the same technologies and
institutions, and all cultural products are equally subject to com-
modification. . . . At the level of reception, the meanings of all
products of contemporary culture tend to be cut from much the
same cloth: woven from intertextually interrelated but institution-
ally heterogeneous strands of sense, originating in disparate times
and spaces. As there are no longer any definitely separate realms of
cultural production, it follows that there can be no islands of
counter-hegemonic purity. (Burgin 1996, p. 20)

Working against the grain of cultural studies, which celebrates the resis-
tance of popular culture to mass culture while sometimes neglecting their
interrelationship, Burgin suggests that, far from suppressing popular aspi-
rations and desires, mass visual culture is involved in the production and
articulation of such aspirations in the time following the emergence of
mass media. In the contemporary situation, culture can no longer be di-
vided into and studied as three antagonistic sectors, as a majority of cul-
tural studies scholars would like to think.17 Mass culture acquired its mass
character precisely because it appealed to the taste of the widest public
possible by imitating features of popular culture. Burgin’s book is a signif-
icant breakthrough in modern visual cultural studies because he was one
of the few scholars who grasped the complexity of the relationship be-
tween popular culture and mass culture.
Burgin’s method conflicts with the ideas professed by Malcolm
Barnard, the author of Art, Design and Visual Culture (1998). In his book,
Barnard discerns three cultures: (1) the dominant European groups corre-
sponding to an elitist, unilinear conception of culture; (2) dominant mas-
culine mass culture; and (3) multilinear popular subculture produced by

Introduction 31
Malcolm Barnard, Art, Design, and Visual Culture: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 1998.

32 Introduction
marginalized or subordinate cultural groups. He postulates that various
cultural and social groups have different conceptions of the visual and the
cultural, differences that are themselves used to constitute distinctions be-
tween these groups. Consequently, concludes Barnard, there are different
visual cultures. But W. J. T. Mitchell cautions against the easy pluralism of
the view that “there are only different and diverse visual cultures, no such
thing as ‘visual culture.’ This is very like insisting that there is no such thing
as language, only languages” (1995b, p. 543).
Moreover, holds Mitchell, one should not graft an established con-
cept of culture (from cultural studies) on an established concept of the vi-
sual in order to understand visual culture, which is what Barnard does by
dividing visual culture into two halves. Barnard uncritically adapts a defi-
nition of the cultural form from Raymond Williams (1958), that is, “‘the
everyday objects and practices of a group of people, or of an entire way of
life,’ or ‘anything that is meaningful to more than one person” (Barnard
1998, p. 19). As John Frow points out in Cultural Studies and Cultural Val-
ues (1995), “something curious happens in these two sentences: culture
both is the ‘way of life’ and is the ‘meanings and values’ in that way of life;
the ‘way of life’ and the ‘culture’ are at once identical and in an expressive
relation based on some ontological distinction between them. . . . The
problem that arises . . . is that it then becomes so inclusive as to lose any
structure of its own” (pp. 8–11).
Barnard also oversimplifies the issue when he refers to the visual as
the visual object, or “anything visual produced, interpreted or created by
humans, which has, or is given, functional, communicative and/or aes-
thetic intent” (1998, p. 18). The question arises, does he actually mean vis-
ible instead of visual? In his most recent book, Approaches to Understanding
Visual Culture (2001), Barnard goes on to distinguish between a strong
sense and a weak sense of visual culture. The former “stresses the cultural
side of the phrase” and is concerned with institutions of production and
consumption, whereas the latter concentrates on the different approaches
to understanding “a wide variety of images and artefacts” (pp. 1–2). Such
an account seems to me even more mechanistic than his earlier one
(1998). Instead of contending with the specificity of visual culture (which
might be compared with a centripetal force), it disperses our attention
along the imagined axes of the visual and the cultural, and the disciplines
that made these two their objects (a centrifugal force).

Introduction 33
Malcolm Barnard, Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

34 Introduction
Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Introduction 35
Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.), The Visual Culture Reader, second edition. London and New York:
Routledge, 2002.

36 Introduction
Barbie Zelizer (ed.), Visual Culture and the Holocaust. New Brunswick: Rutgers University
Press, 2001.

Introduction 37
Jane Kromm,The Art of Frenzy: Public Madness in the Visual Culture of Europe, 1500–1850.
London and New York: Continuum, 2002.

38 Introduction
Amelia Jones (ed.), The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.

Introduction 39
Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey (eds.), Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies.
Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, 2002.

40 Introduction
Fiona Carson and Claire Pajaczkowska (eds.), Feminist Visual Culture. New York: Routledge,
2001.

Introduction 41
Gen Doy, Black Visual Culture: Modernity and Postmodernity. London and New York: I. B.
Tauris, 2000.

42 Introduction
Karen Jacobs, The Eye’s Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture. Ithaca: Cornell Uni-
versity Press, 2001.

Introduction 43
David Crouch and Nina Lübbren (eds.), Visual Culture and Tourism. New York: Berg, 2003.

44 Introduction
In an analysis of art and design, Barnard (1998) employs such opaque
categories as external signs and internal signs. According to him, external
preparatory signs indicate the presence or existence of art or design in
some specific time and place, and the nature of experiences that viewers
are expected to undergo (for example, the art gallery is a sign that what is
to be found inside is art as opposed to non-art). On the other hand, in-
ternal conventional signs indicate a relationship between form (the shape,
color of an object) and social structure (gender, class, race). In this way,
Barnard’s argument proceeds, the conventions—what different cultures
see as their visual culture—are linked to social structures, which are pro-
duced and reproduced through this interaction between artistic form and
the social structure itself. In my opinion, this division is arbitrary. I find it
particularly odd that an author who seems to adhere to the materialist
view of culture speaks of form as if it were transcendental and quickly re-
verts to nondialectical connections between form and social structure.
The most recent introduction to visual culture, Marita Sturken and
Lisa Cartwright’s Practices of Looking (2001), gives an overview of various
theories of visuality while exploring diverse genres of visual culture, rang-
ing from fine arts to advertising. The book’s aim is to reveal the emergence
of a shared understanding among these forms of the connection between
image, power, and politics in contemporary society. The authors are the
first to employ such a synthetic approach, focusing on the intersection of
the visual with the aural and tactile media.
There are several indications that the field of visual studies has ma-
tured: two electronic forums (one was initiated by Nicholas Mirzoeff, and
the other by the American Studies Association); a visual culture caucus at
the College Art Association annual meetings; the Journal of Visual Culture
from Sage Publications (launched in April 2002); the Visual Studies jour-
nal from Routledge (retitled in 2002);18 the second edition of The Visual
Culture Reader (December 2002); and a constellation of publications in
2001–2003 of books related to visual culture, on topics as diverse as drap-
ery, romanticism, the Holocaust, American religions, urbanism in 1920s
Germany, the English novel, Arab culture in the diaspora, literary mod-
ernism, and Renaissance England. Visual culture is in the making. There-
fore, an exploration of its theoretical frameworks, as well as related
pedagogical issues, seems appropriate toward an understanding of this
field’s potential for future research.

Introduction 45