visual culture

missing_cat[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]

21 April 2014

I was delighted to run across Jane Chafin’s blog on the Huffington Post. It makes evident some of the problems with artist statements (the videos are amazing). I shared it with a friend, who’s a social scientist. He and I have a running joke about the unfortunate prevalence of pseudo-intellectualism of the art world, and as we corresponded about it he asked whether one got extra points for writing half of one’s statement in French. I joked that German was probably more in style today. And then, he asked how many Foucault quotes were required. I reflexively said that Foucault was out. And Marx is back. We both had a laugh about art’s quixotic intellectual fads.

However, all kidding aside, it got me thinking about how quickly art changes, how quickly both the discourse created by artists and the discourse about art is changing, how the foundational training that I received in 1980s art school is largely inadequate to engaging with contemporary practice; and, perhaps even more important, how fundamentally the relationship between the arts and other ways of knowing has transformed. Today, artists need to stay involved with contemporary thinking about media and culture—and perhaps other areas and disciplines—if they want their work to be relevant. While this raises specific questions within each form, there are some general matters of concern, especially to visual, performing, and literary artists, but also to musicians in slightly different ways. And, as a corollary to what I lay out in this letter, Performance Studies certainly has things to say about these matters. But because of my own background—and because we can’t easily choose to deny them—I’m going to start where my work lives and look at these questions through images.

We’re now producing more images than anyone in history imagined possible. The explosion has occurred within our lifetime. In 2012 alone, it’s believed that we created more photographs than had collectively been made before that year. And the growth is exponential. The explosion isn’t confined to visual art or photographs, either. It’s objects, design, performance, film, digital media, television, advertising, and the Internet. Our days are spent sorting and processing visual languages—and trying to discern, decipher, and translate their meanings at startling speeds. As someone who makes visual art, I’ve been thinking about this lately, thinking about what it means. And I’ve been considering it both in the sense of my environment’s visual saturation and Visual Culture Studies.

As a teacher of artists, I ask people about context and audience a fair amount, but I’m not always articulate in talking about the cultural shifts that make it necessary for artists to consider these matters. And I know my questions have their detractors. I understand that artists have long wanted to believe that their work is sui generis, and that some buy into the idea that the great visionaries of the past were detached from the thinking of their contemporaries. And I know that people believe they must work from a place of personal reflection, rather than explicit focus on audience. For example, when James Baldwin was asked, in an interview in the Paris Review, if he had a reader in mind as he wrote, his response was absolute: No, you can’t have that.

But we live in an age that Baldwin couldn’t have envisioned; that is, as Kenneth Gergen has suggested, an age that’s saturated. And we have to consider that as we continue to produce visual culture, the fate of our labor might rest with our consideration of this cultural change. In a context where the visual culture that we produce—maybe more to the point, the visual meaning we’re making—will be received in a fundamentally new way, perhaps scarcely considered, skimmed before a viewer moves onto the next thing, artist have to radically reconsider. It’s no longer a wonder that most museum goers scarcely spend moments in front of any object or image, scan its annotation and move to the next; this is the way our environment requires us to navigate days. It’s how we manage our culture’s visual abundance, and we have to consider the simple possibility that by noon each day we might be too visually exhausted to absorb any more—at least with any critical awareness.

I understand many will want to quarrel with my suppositions, and themselves suppose that the saturation of our culture—which might very quickly and nihilistically be translated into the disintegration of our culture—can be cured through more mindfulness. I’d hardly argue the need for greater mindfulness, or argue with the benefits of slow culture; however the visual genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t believe that the speed with which these images enter our landscapes will slow any time soon. So I suspect we need to learn to thrive amongst it. And as a maker of images, I’m hardly in a position to argue that others should stop putting visual culture into our common cultural spaces, or that we should somehow try to slow the proliferation of visual languages. It’s not enough to tell photographers, painters and illustrators not to make more object images, or to try to regulate the landscape; the problem extends to every area of life that relies on visual perception.

And, I wholly admit, I’m without answers to the issues I’m outlining. In a sense, given the speed at which culture is changing, getting a grip on the questions might be more vital than trying to find concrete answers—which in the end might simply be written in sand anyway. However, I’m sure that understanding the phenomenon is part of a process of understanding art’s changing role in culture, which is why I’m spending more time thinking about Visual Culture as a field of knowledge that’s critical to my work.

Visual Culture, as a field of academic study, started to take shape in the 1970s—through the work of theorists like Laura Mulvey and John Berger—but it didn’t coalesce until later. As an art student in the mid-80s, I was required to take art history courses, which constitute one facet of Visual Culture, but I only got cursory introductions to the other overlapping fields that inform it. Today, this puts me at something of a disadvantage, because my formative introduction to the history of images was limited to one perspective and set of methods; and contemporary practice requires more. The art history courses I took tended to see the history of art as series of movements and big ideas, not as a series of relationships between maker and object and audience.

In her book, Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, Margaret Dikovitskaya describes the emergence of Visual Culture Studies concisely:

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. 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, linguistics, 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 the outcomes of the pursuit of truth. The inclusive concept of culture as “a whole way of life” 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 economic 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 acculturation, and representations are now studies as one thing among the other signifying systems that make up culture.

And as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes in the introduction to The Visual Culture Reader, “Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology. By visual technology, I mean any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the Internet. Such criticism takes account of the importance of image making, the formal components of a given image, and the crucial completion of that work by its cultural reception.”

And he goes on to say:

Western culture has consistently privileged the spoken word as the highest form of intellectual practice and seen visual representation as second-rate illustrations of ideas. Now, however, the emergence of visual culture as a subject has contested this hegemony, developing what WJT Mitchell has called ‘picture theory’. In this view, Western philosophy and science now use a pictorial, rather than a textual, model of the world, marking a significant challenge to the notion of the world as a written text that dominated so much intellectual discussion in the wake of such linguistic-based movements as structuralism and port-structuralism….” (p.5)

Perhaps because of our current obsession with the economic utility of language, we’ve established a hierarchy in which images follow (or illustrate) literature and ideas. But this isn’t accurate. An example of this comes from the introduction of James Hall’s new book, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History:

The is a tendency for some scholars to assume that the history of self-portraiture follows in the wake of literature, especially in relations to concepts such as ‘inwardness’ and ‘subjectivity’, which are often assumed to begin with Montaigne’s semi-autobiographical essays and Descartes’s ‘I think therefore I am’—only later cropping up in self-portraits of Rembrandt. Yet the influence works the other way: Montaigne and Descartes continually had recourse to metaphors taken from the visual arts to express ideas of the self and the development of consciousness. In the preface to the Essays, Montaigne tells us that he is ‘painting’ his own self…” (p. 11)

Visual Culture is multifaceted and certainly worthy of your attention, but rather than making this letter an introduction to the field, I want to finally focus on Mirzoeff’s point about cultural reception being the completion of the work. In my last letter, I suggested that I would continue to discuss ideas of beauty and aesthetics over the course of the semester, and at this point you might be wondering if I dropped that thread. Last time I focused on surfaces, and our experience of objects. But aesthetics is more than our subjective experience or feeling, our experience of encountering other’s acts of making, or engaging in our own processes of creation; it’s also concerned with structures and relationships. In this spirit, I want to return to the issues of audience and context, and perhaps recast them within Mirzoeff’s frame.

The cultural significance of what we make using images—via physical images, visualized data, dance, theater, and performance—is measured in the relationship between those images and the people who receive them. For our creative work to be complete, we need to consider where it will be seen, where we intend to place it. Even in James Baldwin’s rejection of the idea of writing for particular readers, he envisioned his work being situated in the published letters of his day. He was not making work merely expressively or as a diarist, he was writing with the intention of provoking thought within the public realm.

Too often visual artists—but probably those in other forms, too—think that work they develop in a vacuum (which too often is what studios become) will somehow be discovered. I’m not sure that the myths about this notion ever had a basis in fact, but surely with the tumult and abundance of creative work being made today it’s a myth that no longer serves us. Work that’s created in relation to site, ideas, and (geographic, relational and discursive) community is work that will get seen; and is work that will affect the direction of thinking. It’s the work that will matter.

This presents a challenge to makers. It requires us to be engaged with the world if we want our work to affect the world—pushing us toward lives that are more multifaceted and complicated than other vocations necessarily require. While this might seem overwhelming, I’d suggest that it’s more of a gift than a burden. And I’d encourage you to consider how this dialectic can be activated or further fueled in your work. Because engaging the dialectic I’ve described might be the central work of the twenty-first century maker: How do we want to be in the world? And how do we want to be received?


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