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 postmodern world.
- 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" | "system"
- 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 | Ed 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 control.
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 and Bourdieu).
- 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 world?
- Many elements of our visual mediasphere are consumer-culture driven: advertising
- Viewer in the subject position of consumer: advertising constructs its viewer.
- "Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life." (Christopher Lasch)
Theory and disciplinary resources for thinking about visual culture
- Visual Culture Theory Map
- Disciplinary construction of objects of knowledge: approaches meet at the intersection of epistemology and institutional disciplinary professionalization
- "Visual Culture Studies:" can it be defined as an interdisciplinary field?
- 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, boundaries, turf.
- 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 a Language?
- 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 semiotics
- 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 do both.
- The codes of the photographic image: index, icon
- Semiotics 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 styles.
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 context
- 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 interventions
- Disclosure of visual and photographic codes
All educational uses permitted with attribution and link to this page.
Use the pre-writing questions below to help you analyze your images and start writing notes that will help you develop your paper ideas.
1. Claims: What claims does the image make? What type of claim is it?
- Fact Claim: Is it real?
- Definition Claim: What does it mean?
- Cause Claim: What is the Cause? What are the effects? How are these related?
- Value Claim: How important is this? How should we evaluate it?
- Policy Claim: What is the solution? What should we do about it?
2. Visual Composition: How is the image arranged or composed? Which of the following aspects of composition help makes the claim? Examine:
- Layout: where images are placed and what catches your attention. How visual lines draw your attention to or away from the focal point.
- Balance: size of images and how they compare with one another. Is the focal point centered or offset?
- Color: how color (or lack of color) draws your attention or creates a mood
- Key figures: what is the main focus? How does this contribute to meaning?
- Symbols: are there cultural symbols in the image? What do these mean?
- Stereotypes : how does image support stereotypes or challenge them?
- Exclusions: is there anything left out of the image that you expect to be there?
3. Genre: What is the genre of this image? (examples: fine art, movie, advertisement, poster, pamphlet, news photograph, graphic art etc.). How does it follow the rules of that genre or break away from them? How does that affect the meaning of the image for the audience?
4. Text: How does any text or caption work to provide meaning to the visual?
5. Appeals: How does it appeal to the audience to believe the claims? Are appeals to logic? Emotion? Character? Authority? Are any of these appeals false or deceiving?
6. Selling: Does the claim move into a sales pitch? Does it use a cultural value or common cultural symbol in a way that exploits that image?
7. Story: What story does this image convey? How does this story help the claim or appeal to the audience?