What is Visual Culture?

Visual culture is concerned with everything we see, have seen, or may visualize-paintings, sculptures, movies, television, photographs, furniture, utensils, gardens, dance, buildings, artifacts, landscape, toys, advertising, jewelry, apparel, light, graphs, maps, websites, dreams-in short, all aspects of culture that communicate through visual means. We draw on methodologies from the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. We focus on production and on reception, on intention and on deployment. We consider institutional, economic, political, social, ideological, and market factors. We study the visual as a reflection of culture and as something that has cultural efficacy in its own right, contributing to the production, reproduction, and mutation of culture. Rather than locate the significance of visual objects in their inherent properties, most Visual Culture scholarship looks to the uses to which people put the visual-the practice of Visual Culture. Both real and hypothetical spectators and consumers have taken up important places in the analysis of visual meaning. In some cases this has meant empirical studies of consumption, rooted in the social sciences; in others, ethnographic participation has informed the study of visual materials.

Why Study Visuality?

Ours is a visual culture. Our workplaces are visually saturated environments and our dominant pastimes (films, television, video games, and the internet) are visual media. Moreover, we communicate visually when we are trying to cross over cultural boundaries; think, for example, of the graphics devised for international signage. Knowledge is often communicated visually: scientists chart brain activity, economists graph fiscal trends, geographers map territory and detectives photograph evidence. The growth of the web as an information distribution system has made an understanding of visual design factors indispensable in every field of study. The visual also our access to the past. The earliest recorded communications are pictorial and artifacts are central to the reconstruction of history. Visual Culture Studies teaches critical viewing to prepare citizens for life in the visually complex milieu of the 21st century. Analysis and criticism are significant outcomes of Visual Culture Studies but the field does have practical applications as well, including design recommendations for communicative and utilitarian use as well as implications for ethical and social policy and for scientific research.

New Academic Paradigms

In traditional humanistic scholarship, as well as traditional studio training, the study of visual material has been narrowly focused on mapping the visual within the boundary of "high culture." The concept of "high" or "fine" art has, however, come under critique in these fields, and there are other disciplines that have studied the visual in a less bounded fashion. Historians and practitioners of design (in industrial and interior design, architecture, furniture, and landscape architecture, for example) reach more into everyday life. For cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, culture is also broadly defined. The new paradigm of "Visual Culture" represents a more holistic and encompassing approach to the visible world. Anything visible is a potential object of study for Visual Culture, and the worthiness of any visual object or practice, as an object of study depends not on its inherent qualities, as in the work of art, but on its place within the context of the whole of culture. As we move beyond "western" models to study visuality across cultures, we realize that alternative models for approaching culture holistically exist in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and among indigenous and diasporic populations of North and South America.

Other "Studies"

Recent decades have seen the development of other "studies," notably gender studies, ethnic studies, and area studies. Many of these studies embrace the same conceptual elements claimed for Visual Culture Studies-an inter- or anti-disciplinary organization, a shift from "high" culture to an expanded range of objects of study, an emphasis on the spectator/participant-are central to these other studies as well. Visual Culture Studies engages with the developments in other studies to advance research with a specifically visual focus. "Material Culture" and "Performance Studies" are two relatively recent academic interdisciplines with which Visual Culture has strong affinities. Material culture involves the study of the tangible aspects of human behavior, studying them as evidence of larger cultural patterns. The study of material culture assumes that all parts of the human made world are cultural documents that provide us insight into the past and present. "Performance Studies" has radically altered and expanded the traditional disciplines of theatre, dance, music, etc., to include an enormous range of performative behaviors, both "artistic" and quotidian.

World Cultures

Visual Culture Studies looks at the production and consumption of images, objects, and events from diverse cultures, across national boundaries, and within a global context. This means that we are challenged to address many models of vision and perception, extending beyond ocularity to cognition and perception. Thinking across cultures requires that we allow for alternate temporal structures (such as theater in India lasting all night) and fundamentally different notions of representation (such as the use of abstraction in the Islamic world) and markedly unfamiliar understandings of visibility (such as African concepts of the seen as markers for the spirit world). Thinking interculturally includes radically revised conceptions of "high" and "low" culture and a substantial change in the ways practice history and anthropology. Because seeing is central to our understandings of cultural difference, much of the fundamental work in Visual Culture Studies is about the construction of identity through the interdependent elements of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

Visuality and Textuality

Visual Culture Studies presents a challenge to the textual model of the world that dominates so much thinking about culture. While analyzing cultural experiences, artistic practices, and even social interactions and history itself as so many texts to be read is an undeniably powerful approach, this textual bias ignores a vast realm of perception, experience and meaning in reducing culture to "reading." Visual Cultural Studies counters this bias by emphasizing the importance of the visual-even in textual objects, as when scholars consider the impact of design on the meaning of literature. In countering this earlier thinking, Visual Culture Studies does not set aside textuality, but draws it into dialogue with visuality, performativity, aurality, tactility, and so on. At the same time, Visual Culture scholars are beginning to question the broader dominance of visuality itself (what some have termed "ocularcentrism") and to look for ways to consider vision in the broadest cultural context without introducing new hierarchies of social practice.

- Copyright 2006 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
August 30, 2007

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