Introducing Visual Culture:
Ways of Looking at All Things Visual
Emergence of a new paradigm for studying all forms of visual
culture as parts of a cross-media system
Some Key Points to Consider
- "Visual Culture" studies recognizes the predominance
of visual forms of media, communication, and information in the
- Has there been a social and cultural shift to the visual,
over against the verbal and textual, in the past 50 years,
and has it been accelerating in the past 10 or 20 years?
- Or are our written, textual, and visual systems continuing
an ongoing reconfiguration in a new (recognizable) phase?
- Study of visual culture merges popular and "low" cultural
forms, media and communications, and the study of "high"
cultural forms or fine art, design, and architecture.
- "Visual Studies" intersects with the notion of "mediasphere"
in mediology, the study of media systems and media as a system.
- Getting clear on terms: "visual" | "culture"
- The "visual culture" approach acknowledges the reality
of living in a world of cross-mediation--our experience
of culturally meaningful visual content appears in multiple forms,
and visual content and codes migrate from one form to another:
- print images and graphic design
- TV and cable TV
- film and video in all interfaces and playback/display technologies
- computer interfaces and software design
- Internet/Web as a visual platform
- digital multimedia
- advertising in all media (a true cross-media institution)
- fine art and photography
- architecture, design, and urban design
- We learn the codes for each form and code switch among the media
and the "high" and "low" culture forms.
- The experience of everyday life can be described as code-switching
or hacking the visual codes around us to navigate and negotiate
meaning (see William Gibson, Pattern Recognition).
- But: Important to deconstruct potential visual/textual binary
opposition: most of our experience of media is a hybrid of texts,
images, and sounds, rather than pure states of any one mode. [Barbara
Kruger's image/text art strategies: 1|2|3
Ruscha's word art | ]
- Challenge is studying visual culture as a system, but not
as a pure state of visuality (i.e. a system of visual meanings that are not purely imagistic--not formed only of images--but include texts and graphic design, design of functional object, architecture, logos.
- Cases studies: W
and Vogue | Rhizome.org
(examples of digital images, text, design)
Visual Culture and Institutions of Meaning
Visual Culture Produced by / Embedded in Social Institutions
- Social institutions are systems of order that perpetuate, preserve,
and legitimize complex forms of collective identity.
- Institutions are ways for mediating power, policing boundaries,
and creating identities.
- You can recognize a social institution at sites of competition
for power, spheres of control, and definition of identities.
- The Art History Disruption: Art History becomes histories of art
- "The History of Art," like the cultural category of art, is a development from Western European and American institutions and disciplines.
- While institutional construction of objects continues with Foucauldian inevitablity, the array of art object competing to get into the system have multiplied far beyond the earlier boundaries that contained them: works from all levels of high and low cultures, social class, formerly marginalized identity groups, can now be championed within the high art and popular art sectors internationally.
- How do these categories operate when applied to, or projected on, non-Western cultures and global cultures?
- The institutional control of Art History, nominally administered by the triumvirate of academic institutions (art history disciplinary professionals), art museum professionals, and an affiliated network of connoisseur patrons and collectors--began to fragment after the rise of Pop and now globalized art production and art markets.
- Globalization of markets and cultural categories for fine art followed Western paradigm, but greatly expanded what counts as Art History
- Now globalized patronage, direct funding, and purchase of art works by individuals, corporations, and public institutions.
- We live in many institutions, from a macro level (embracing
many people) to micro levels (smaller or elite groups that define
a special sphere and influence the rest of the social order)
- Education / Academe / Schooling
- The Family
- Religion, Church
- Governance, the State
- Social class system
- Media System and its differentiation of forms and technologies:
controls mediation and is distributed through the various
industries and consumer sectors
- System of Professions (Law, Medicine, Business, etc.):
maintains professional status and boundaries
- Art and the Artworld system: maintains the cultural
category of art
- Fashion: replicates codes for desire, fashion as a sign,
maintains the binary of fashion vs. clothing
- Institutions operate through actual organizations and legal
entities, which are themselves defined and legitimized by their
dependence on the larger institution. (Education / Georgetown;
Government / the Senate; Fashion / Dior )
- Visual culture is transinstitutional and works across media,
but is used to encode identities in several institutions--personal,
national, ethnic, sexual, subcultures.
- The transinstitutional and cross-media aspects of visual culture
make it a large site for contested views of identity, power, and
Culture(s) of Visualization: Strategies for Analysis
- Visual culture, to borrow Nicholas Mirzoeff's definition, is
perhaps best understood as a tactic for studying the functions
of a world addressed through pictures, images, and visualizations,
rather than through texts and words.
- Studying visual culture isolates or brackets "visual mediation"
or "visual representation" for analysis.
- However, most of our experience of media is a hybrid of texts,
images, and sounds, rather than pure states of any one mode.
- The visual is always "contaminated" by the non-visual:
ideologies, texts, discourses, beliefs, intertextual presuppositions,
prior experience and "visual competence" (cf. Eco
- Shouldn't it be "visual cultures" (plural)?
Image-Saturated world: visual culture and everyday life
- Experience of images today mainly through photographic means,
or images encoded as photographs.
- Digital images now dominate production of images in every medium.
- The era of "post-photography" photography: images
and film that imitate photography and camera-based images, but
are entirely digital in composition and viewable output.
- What is the role of the visual arts in a mass-mediated visual
- Many elements of our visual mediasphere are consumer-culture
- Viewer in the subject position of consumer: advertising
constructs its viewer.
serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption
as a way of life." (Christopher
Theory and disciplinary resources for thinking about visual
Culture Theory Map
- Disciplinary construction of objects of knowledge: approaches
meet at the intersection of epistemology and institutional disciplinary
- "Visual Culture Studies:" can it be defined as an
- How are its objects constituted and subject matter formed? Is
there a subject for this field?s
- Necessity of theory. Legacy of party-line academic orthodoxies
in humanities and social sciences, professionalization of disciplines,
- Already a debate about the professional legitimization of the
field as intellectually and institutionally viable.
- Mitchell, Elkins, Mirzoeff, Krauss and October debate
"Visual Cultures": Are Our Modes of Visuality like
- Social and cultural, not natural
- Rule-governed: use of images form systems of meaning based on
a grammar of learned rules
- Extend levels of function and analysis from linguistics and
- Minimal signifying units in meaningful strings (syntax,
grammar) to connected discourse.
- Both theory and production rules have already described
the visual grammars of advertising, fashion, design, visual
art, film, television genres.
Is There a Language of Visual Culture & Visual Media?
- We can now talk about intervisuality, intermediality: cross-image
interpretation, visual literacy
- Viewing images and media as a process of socialization in culture:
who gets to produce images, who gets to consume them, who can
- The codes of the photographic image: index, icon
of images and visual culture: signs and interpretive communities
- Codes of realism and index of the real
- Problem of reference, referentiality, representation
- Language of images is now the language of media
- Is there a visual language analogous to spoke/written language?
- Syntax, syntagmatics, pragmatics of "visual language"?
- Images in "syntagmatic"structures (linear sequences
following a code or pattern like narrative or designed composition)
and "paradigmatic" (the vertical relations among
levels or types of signs, like linguistic levels, a network
protocol "stack," items within menu categories)
"High art" or "fine art," as part of visual
culture, competes with popular visual culture for attention
- The "high art" world is both a source and destination
for the whole of visual culture.
- Popular forms get rechannelled through artworld validated art
genres and venues.
- Visual culture and mediological mix, the always already hybridization
of visual media.
- Case Study: W magazine and appropriation of "high
art" styles and content.
- Fashion and design appropriating, and converging with, the
codes for high art.
- Appropriating the "celebrity" code for artists:
artists inserted in the glamour scene with models, fashionistas,
rock stars, movie stars, the wealthy.
- Case study: nudity
codes in popular culture and fine art
- The power of context and institutions: the significance
of images of the nude body.
- When is a nude human body received as encoded as art?
Rhetoric of the Image
- Positioning the viewer-spectator: media and visual works construct
certain kinds of spectators, carry information about the "implied
viewer" (cf. the implied reader of literary theory).
- Styles and subcultures: every visual sign has a style ("we're
never out of uniform"), and subcultures identify with visual
Range of materials and physical media used in creating/constructing
visual artifacts and images today
- Artworld embrace of wide range of materials unknown to "serious"
art before the 1960s.
- Post-1980s expansion of art media and image technologies.
- Centrality of photography and lens-based art
Artists who have taught us to see visual culture:
Warhol, Rauschenberg, Sherman, Kruger, Prince, Wall, Viola,
Crewdson, and street artists
- Deconstructed and re-presented back in a high-art or artworld
- Multiple cross-overs between art techniques and design, advertising
and fashion, and popular media images
- A dialogic interplay of high and low cultural forms, cross-media
- Disclosure of visual and photographic codes