Topic 12 What is Visual Studies?

This study guide includes all the weeks classes that discuss Topic 12.

Note: this material was originally posted on www.jameselkins.com, under “Syllabi.” Send all comments to jelkins@artic.edu 1

Objectives of this lecture:
—To decide how visual studies was presented in this class, and in the Visual and Critical Studies Program as a whole —To discuss how visual studies is presented in my book, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction —To decide how you would like to present visual studies, if you were teaching it, or as you go on to research it.

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Contents of this lecture:
1. Visual Studies, A Skeptical Introduction, in three parts: (a) Chapter 1 (b) Chapters 2, 3 (c) Chapters 4, 5 2. Margarita Dikovitskaya’s dissertation, “From Art History to Visual Culture,” chapters 2 and 4 3. Douglas Crimp, “Getting the Warhol We Deserve” 4. Tom Mitchell, “Interdisciplinarity and Visual Culture” and “Showing Seeing”
(This study guide doesn’t follow that order; it follows a thematic order.)

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1. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, chapter 1
Note: because the book is a required text, this document doesn’t repeat or summarize anything in the book.

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It’s important to know that visual studies began, in part, from cultural studies (pp. 1-2); be able to give some dates for cultural studies, recognize some names on pp. 1-4, and distinguish cultural studies from visual culture/visual studies. (See also Dikovitskaya’s dissertation, starting on p. 30.) You should be able to name some visual studies departments in different parts of the world (pp. 7-14), and name some publications that are in and around visual studies (pp. 14-17). Be able to name some of the charges laid against visual studies (Appadurai’s list, p. 23) and some of the complaints that people in visual studies have had about art history (p. 23, bottom of ¶2). It’s also important to know some of the arguments about whether or not visual studies is interdisciplinary. Memorize one or two names from pp. 25-30 for that purpose.

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2. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, chapter 2
Be able to name five authors in visual studies other than the ones we have spent whole classes on, such as Foucault or Benjamin (pp. 32-33). Choose ones you know something about, so you can say, on a quiz, “Jean Baudrillard wrote about the simulacrum.” Be able to argue for and against the idea that visual studies should be taught by a general, methodological approach to images instead of by taking many classes from specialists (pp. 37-43). You should also memorize a few names from the high/low debate, in order to be able to state your own position in regard to it (pp. 45-62)— for example Adorno, Bernstein, Jameson, Burgin (the last two are on pp. 50-51). (Also in Dikovitskaya’s dissertation, p. 56.)

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3. Dikovitskaya’s dissertation, chapter 2
Do you agree with Hans Belting, The End of Art History? that the discipline of art history is effectively ended because art is no longer a succession of styles that progresses through history (pp. 18-20)? Do you agree with Arthur Danto, After The End of Art, that art history ended with Warhol, when all styles became possible (pp. 20-21)? What do you think of the older art historical idea, exemplified by Panofsky, that art objects have intrinsic meaning and quality, as opposed to the newer notion that all quality is historically constructed (Moxey’s argument; pp. 24, 26)? What do you think of Culler’s idea that visual studies is divided by the choice between (a) studying popular culture images, and (b) revealing how they manipulate consumers (p. 32)? (Also in my book, p. 58.)

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4. Crimp’s essay “Getting the Warhol We Deserve”
What does Crimp argue about the Dia Foundation symposium on Warhol? (Note, in the list of participants, Charlies Stuckey: he teaches here at SAIC.) What do you think of Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster’s critique of visual studies (pp. 52-53; also in my book, p. 71)? What is “the Warhol we deserve?”

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5. Mitchell’s essay “Interdisciplinarity and Visual Culture”
The themes of this essay are also discussed in my book, pp. 25-30. What does Mitchell mean by “indiscipline”? What does he mean by “top-down” and “bottom-up” interdisciplinarity?

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6. Mitchell’s essay “Showing Seeing”
What does Mitchell mean by “fear of the visual image” (p. 69)? What are examples of texts and authors who address it? Be able to name two of Mitchell’s eight “Counter-Theses on Visual Culture”:
1. Visual culture encourages reflection on the differences between art and non-art, visual and verbal signs, and the ratios between different sensory and semiotic modes. 2. Visual culture entails a meditation on blindness, the invisible, the unseen, the unseeable, and the overlooked; also on deafness and the visible language of gesture; it also compels attention to the tactile, the auditory, the haptic, and the phenomenon of synesthesia. 3. Visual culture is not limited to the study of images or media, but extends to everyday practices of seeing and showing, especially those that we take to be immediate or unmediated. It is less concerned with the meaning of images than with their lives and loves. 4. There are no visual media. All media are mixed media, with varying ratios of senses and sign-types. 5. The disembodied image and the embodied artifact are permanent elements in the dialectics of visual culture. Images are to pictures and works of art as species are to specimens in biology. 6. We do not live in a uniquely visual era. The visual or pictorial turn is a recurrent trope that displaces moral and political panic onto images and so-called visual media. Images are convenient scapegoats, and the offensive eye is ritually plucked out by ruthless critique. 7. Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision. The question of visual nature is therefore a central and unavoidable issue, along with the role of animals as images and spectators. 8. The political task of visual culture is to perform critique without the comforts of iconoclasm.

And one of Mitchell’s defenses (starting on p. 172).
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(continued) What does Mitchell mean by this: “In short, a dialectical concept of visual culture cannot rest content with a definition of its object as the social construction of the visual field, but must insist on exploring the chiastic reversal of this proposition, the visual construction of the social field” (p. 171)?

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7. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, chapter 3
In this chapter, pick two of the ten, memorize a name or two from each, and be able to write a bit on where you stand in relation to the issues that are raised. (That will be a question on the final.)

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8. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, chapter 4
Here you should be able to name the four theories about visual literacy (pp. 129-36), and be able to write something on where you stand in relation to the question: What is the relation between art history and visual studies? (pp. 140-56—also in Dikovitskaya’s, Mitchell’s, and Crimp’s texts), and be able to say, roughly, what you would want every Freshman to know, if visual studies were to be required in colleges (and art schools) for every student, in every discipline (pp. 157 ff.).

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