Visual Culture/Visual Studies: Inventory of Recent Definitions
Visual culture works towards a social theory
of visuality, focusing on questions of what is made visible, who sees
what, how seeing, knowing and power are interrelated. It examines the
act of seeing as a product of the tensions between external images or
objects, and internal thought processes.
I think it’s useful at the outset to distinguish
between visual studies and visual culture as, respectively, the field
of study and the object or target of study. Visual studies is the study
of visual culture.
Visual culture is the visual construction of
the social, not just the social construction of vision.
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.
It is not just that we see the way we do because we are social animals,
but also that our social arrangements take the forms they do because
we are seeing animals.
Vision has played the role of the sovereign sense
since God looked at his own creation and saw that it was good, or perhaps
even earlier when he began the act of creation with the division of
the light from the darkness.
In particular, it helps us to see that even something
as broad as the image does not exhaust the field of visuality; that
visual studies is not the same thing as image studies, and that the
study of the visual image is just one component of the larger field.
Is ‘visual culture’ a discipline?…It is certainly
not the province of art history. On the contrary, it has emerged primarily
because that discipline has largely failed to deal with both the visuality
of its objects – due to the dogmatic position of ‘history’ – and the
openness of the collection of those objects – due to the established
meaning of ‘art’. To take visual culture as art history with a cultural
studies perspective (Mirzoeff, 1999: 12) is to condemn it to repeating
the same failure.
Bal, Mieke, “Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture”, Journal Of Visual Culture, 2003, Vol 2(1), p. 5
Any attempt to articulate goals and methods for
visual culture studies must seriously engage both terms in their negativity:
‘visual’ as ‘impure’ – synaesthetic, discursive and pragmatic; and ‘culture’
as shifting, differential, located between ‘zones of culture’ and performed
in practices of power and resistance.
First, with a perspective that stands at a distance
from art history and its methods, visual culture studies should take
as its primary objects of critical analysis the master narratives that
are presented as natural, universal, true and inevitable, and dislodge
them so that alternative narratives can become visible… Another important
task of visual culture studies is to understand some of the motivations
of the prioritization of realism… This shows the real political interests
underlying the preference for realism. It promotes transparency: the
artistic quality mattered less than the faithful representation of the
achiever. The authenticity required has an additional investment in
indexicality… The third, and perhaps most important, task of visual
culture studies – the one where the previous ones join – is to understand
some of the motivations of visual essentialism, which promotes the look
of the knower (Foucault) while keeping it invisible.
The study of the structure and operations of
visual regimes, and their coercive and normalizing effects, is already
one of the defining features of ‘visual culture’ as distinct from traditional
art history; and to the extent that this is so, it is an area in which
sites and occasions for cultural analysis, resistance, and transformation
are bound to proliferate and multiply, in tandem with the regime’s own
Visual studies, visual culture, image studies,
Bild-Anthropologie, Bildwissenschaft: the unnamed field is expanding
very rapidly, and it is growing differently in different parts of the
world. German Bildwissenschaft, as that term is used by Horst Bredekamp
(forthcoming), refers to an outward expansion of art history’s resources
to encompass the full range of images. Bild-Anthropologie, the title
of a book by Hans Belting (2001), is an experimental blending of anthropological,
philosophic and art-historical concerns. In Mexico City, visual studies
is growing from semiotics and communication theory. In Copenhagen, visual
culture is a combination of American art history and English cultural
studies, with a nearabsence of French influences. Visual culture, postcolonial
studies, film studies, and cultural studies are blended in courses in
places as far-flung as Bergen, Taipei, Delhi, Buenos Aires and Bologna
(Elkins, forthcoming). Given the multiplicity of classes, courses, departments,
names and languages, it is effectively impossible to keep track of the
emerging genealogies of the discipline – if that is what visual studies,
as I will call it, turns out to be.
Studies of visual culture have been around long
enough that it is no longer sufficient to say that they can’t be defined
because they are new. On the other hand, it was never enough to claim
that visual culture is ill defined by nature because it is interdisciplinary.
Interdisciplinarity is not an obstacle to self-definition.
…Visual culture is therefore a particular slice
of the sum total of visual production, not the study of visual products
in general. It follows, for example, that visual culture has its distinctive
politics and institutional limitations.
…the struggle of trying to interpret Benjamin’s
arcades project leads to the development of a visual methodology. Even
we mere mortals who are no Benjamin-type geniuses can learn from him
a visual method of theorizing. That’s what method is, a set of tools
that can be used by other people. It is the strong part of Benjamin’s
work from a philosophical (as opposed to literary) point of view. If
it were purely a case of the genius Benjamin writing wonderful things,
then we wouldn’t be able to enact and re-enact the methodological possibilities
that his work makes available. Benjamin’s texts visualize ideas. He
is clearly fascinated with images. But the visual metaphors he creates,
that so impress us with his literary brilliance, are never simply metaphors.
They are also objects in his world.