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Visual culturelocked

  • Marita Sturken

Culture of images and visuality that creates meaning in our world today. This includes media forms such as photography, film, television, and digital media; art media such as painting, drawing, prints, and installations; architecture and design; comic books and graphic novels; fashion design, and other visual forms including the look of urban life itself. It also encompasses such social realms as art, news, popular culture, advertising and consumerism, politics, law, religion, and science and medicine. The term visual culture also refers to the interdisciplinary academic field of study that aims to study and understand the role that images and visuality play in our society; how images, gazes, and looks make meaning socially, culturally, and politically; how images are integrated with other media; and how visuality shapes power, meaning, and identity in contemporary global culture.

The emergence of the concept of visual culture as a means to think about the role of images in culture and as an academic field of study is a relatively recent phenomenon, emerging in the late 1980s and becoming established by the late 1990s. There were numerous factors that contributed to the idea that images should be understood and analysed across social arenas rather than as separate categories, including the impact of digital media on the circulation of images across social realms, the modern use of images from other social arenas (such as news and advertising) in art, and the cross-referencing of cultural forms displayed in popular culture and art. It was also influenced by the increasingly visible role played by images in political conflict and a general trend toward interdisciplinarity in academia.

Our cultures have traditionally tended to rank different areas of visual culture according to systems of supposed quality and importance. For many decades, colleges and universities offered courses on the fine arts but did not consider popular culture to be worthy of serious academic study. Today, in contrast, many art historians include photography, computer animation, mixed media, installation, and performance art among the practices they study. At the same time other fields, such as communication, cinema studies, television studies, and media studies, which have emerged since the mid-20th century, established the value of studying popular forms of visual media. In addition, the field of science and technology studies has encouraged the study of visual technologies and an examination of the role played by images in the production of meaning and fact in the sciences, law, and medicine.

Because as a field of study it aims to move beyond the traditional approaches of art history, the field of visual culture has been regarded by many art historians with suspicion, and seen as a threat to the discipline of art history. It has been seen as too vague, too political, and unrigorous by many scholars of aesthetics and the history of art. Art historian Thomas Crow famously called it a kind of ‘deskilling’ of art history in a now notorious issue of the art theory journal October in which a visual culture questionnaire was answered by a number of well-known scholars ( October 1996). While this hostility toward the field peaked in the late 1990s, there remains a clear division between scholars who define their work in relation to visual culture and those who identify with art history. Although art history has broadened in its methodologies, traditionally the discipline focuses on the work of art in relation to art traditions and styles, rather than comparatively and in its social context.

Insofar as visual culture can be seen as an integration of the fields of art history and art and media studies, it is notable that it is largely uncontroversial in the field of media studies, in which it is generally regarded as a particular approach to looking at media. The emergence of visual culture as a field of study also coincided with a general theoretical critique and reassessment of academic disciplines that began in the 1960s and 1970s and that opened up academic inquiry to new forms of interdisciplinarity. This underscores a key feature of visual culture studies, which is that it is interdisciplinary.

The concept of visual culture (and the field of scholarship that studies visual culture) draws on a definition of culture that emerged from British cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Scholars such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, who fostered the project of cultural studies in its beginnings, were interested in an expanded definition of culture that borrowed from anthropology (in its definition of culture as a ‘way of life’) and aimed to redefine culture away from its very class-based, traditional definition. Williams famously defined culture (in his book Keywords) as one of the most complex words in the English language. By the 19th century, culture was thought of as the ‘fine’ arts: classic works of painting, literature, music, and philosophy. This idea of culture was defined by philosophers of the era as a set of fine objects that are understood and valued only by an élite, educated, discerning class. Implicit in this definition of culture is the idea that culture should be separated into the categories of high (fine art, classical music, literature) and low (television, popular novels, comic books). In contrast, the rejection of the distinctions of high and low is a key aspect of contemporary visual culture scholarship that it derives from this legacy of British cultural studies.

Stuart Hall was a key figure in establishing a new definition of culture that emphasizes culture as a set of everyday and pervasive practices, rather than a set of élite objects. This opened the way to the study of popular culture, television, comic books, and other forms of culture once categorized as ‘low’. In addition it also created a strategy for thinking about how viewers–consumers engage with cultural forms, and how those practices are meaning–making practices. The study of visual culture continues this concept, sharing with it the key approach of Semiotics as a guiding interpretative method. In providing a method for reading the meaning of images within particular and changing contexts, semiotics is a key means for understanding the politics of images. Roland Barthes, whose work is foundational to the study of visual culture, defined semiotics as a political practice. For Barthes, understanding the meanings that are visible, hidden, and powerful in culture allows us to see how images and cultural forms change meaning in different contexts and produce the values that unify societies and create their cultural myths.

In the study of visual culture, the core concept that images generate meanings that can change in different contexts is aligned with the concept that the meaning of images is derived from their reading by viewers–consumers, rather than simply residing solely in the images themselves. Culture is thus produced in complex networks of exchange through which meanings are co-created by members of a society or group. Images come into play in this network of exchange as active agents that draw us to look and to feel or speak in particular ways. Stuart Hall states this directly, ‘It is the participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects, and events….It is by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them—how we represent them—that we give them a meaning’ (Hall, p. 3). In the study of visual culture, images are thus defined as having politics and agency.

One of the foundational concepts of visual culture as a field of study is that when we have an experience with a particular visual medium we draw on associations with other media and other areas of our lives informed by visual images. Our experience of watching film affects how we consume advertising images just as our understanding of news images is informed by our experience of popular culture. When we watch a television show, the meanings and pleasure we derive from it might be drawn, consciously or unconsciously, from associations with things we have seen in works of art or advertisements. The experience of viewing a medical ultrasound image might be informed by how we think of family photographs on photography websites. How we play video games is connected to our experience of watching films. Taking and circulating pictures taken on mobile phones is informed by our consuming of popular culture. Our visual experiences do not take place in isolation; they are enriched by practices, understandings, memories, and images from many different aspects of our lives. This means that the study of visual culture is comparative and contextual, focusing on global image flows and image circulation and looking at images in their contexts rather than as isolated and singular objects.

The study of visual culture posits that visual images play a crucial role in the meaning–making of culture, and that they do so increasingly in relation to how information is represented (i.e. non-visual information such as statistics is rendered visually in charts and graphs), how news is transmitted (the dominance of television news and the role images play in what is seen as newsworthy), how products are sold (through ads, branding, and visual packaging), and how memories are generated (the dominance of visual images in cultural memory). Yet the definition of visual culture is not intended to distinguish it absolutely from other media. Much visual culture is actually audiovisual culture since the interrelationship of images and sound is key to image meaning and most media are mixed media. Images are not simply about sight, but imply other senses, such as touch. Nevertheless, the emergence of visual culture as a field is the result of an understanding that the world is increasingly one in which cultural forms, information, evidence, and affect are visual and visualized. W. J. T. Mitchell defined this in the early 1990s as the ‘pictorial turn’, referring to how the question of the gaze, the look, practices of observation and surveillance, and visual experience were primary to understand contemporary society (1994). One of the key aspects of this formulation is how it helps us to see how the power to look is a key organizing factor in how cultures function and how power relations are established. The incorporation of the study of architecture, design, and urban studies into visual culture, for instance, is recognition that the very environments in which we live are organized spatially in relation to the visual, establishing particular kinds of visions and visibilities and different kinds of power relations.

Visual culture is thus not simply about images and sight but about how the world is organized, structured, and meaningfully made through visual means. Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of visuality is helpful in making this clear. Mirzoeff argues that visuality is not simply about the objects that are rendered visible. Rather, he states, visuality is ‘that which rendered the processes of History visible to power’ (2009, p. 5). Visuality defines the fields of vision through which power relations are enacted, including complex relations of what is rendered visible and what is invisible or hidden. The concept of visuality thus foregrounds the ways in which the gaze and the look are defining and organizing modes of being in contemporary society, that visual surveillance is a key mode through which repressive power is exercised, that spatial and visual relations are key to how power functions in society. This approach foregrounds, as W. J. T. Mitchell notes, not simply the social construction of vision but the ‘visual construction of the social’ (2002, p. 100). These formulations are important to understanding the field not simply as a convenient way of thinking about images today, but as a complex understanding of how the visual is crucial to how societies and culture work.

Within the field of visual culture, there are a broad range of approaches that engage with this question of visuality and power from different perspectives. As noted, semiotics is a key approach of visual culture studies in its emphasis on understanding images in relation to their social contexts and their political implications. Other approaches to the visual can be seen as focusing on modes of address, that is, how a particular visual text speaks to and in turn constructs particular kinds of viewers and spectators. Thus, drawing on traditions in cinema studies, the study of spectatorship defines particular psychological, emotional, and psychoanalytic responses that viewers might have, theorizing an idealized spectator. A third approach focuses on reception, meaning the actual responses that individuals have to particular images, often gathered through interviews and ethnography. In this approach, the emphasis shifts from images and their meanings to viewers’ practices of looking, and the various ways people use and interpret images. An additional approach considers how media images, texts, and programmes move from one social arena to another, and circulate in and across cultures, which is especially relevant in light of the escalation of globalization since the mid-20th century. This approach, which incorporates political economy, policy, global cultural flows, and the global circulation of genres (such as reality television), looks at the institutional frameworks that regulate and sometimes limit the circulation of images, as well as the ways that images change meaning in different cultural contexts.

The study of visual culture is also historical, and not simply focused on contemporary images and visuality. Important studies of visual culture of the 19th century have shown that the complex dynamics of looking, visual technologies, and image practices emerge in significant ways in the societies that define modernity (Schwartz and Przyblyski). Yet the term is also less useful when considering social contexts that are pre-modern, and specifically prior to the mechanical reproduction and distribution of images, the development of photography, and the concentration of significant populations into urban centres, with all the visual relationships they construct.

While visual culture can be seen as a particularly modern phenomenon, with modernity’s intersection of technology, urban life, and visuality, it is also the case that its emergence as a useful and resonant term is directly tied to several phenomena that began in the 1990s that have changed social relationships to the visual: the emergence of digital media and a networked society, including the internet, and the related rise of globalization in terms of the global circulation of information, capital, people, goods, politics, and culture. The changes wrought by these enormous social shifts have been crucial to the integration of previously more separate social realms, such as news, art, and consumerism, for instance. Images circulate today instantaneously. Media events are global. Contemporary political violence and conflict is often understood through iconic images and can sometimes be created by images. In the first decade of the 21st century, for instance, we have only to consider the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison and the controversial cartoons of Muhammad printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to understand how global political conflict is enacted through images and modes of visuality in global frameworks.

These kinds of social and technological shifts were parallel to and factors in the ways that image meanings no longer seemed to fit within traditional distinctions between academic disciplines, such as the distinction between art history and media studies. In this sense, we can say that while visual culture has existed for some time, its emergence as a concept and field of study is very specific to the world of the late 20th century and early 21st.


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