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
      • fashion
      • 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 | (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)
    • Macro
      • Education / Academe / Schooling
      • The Family
      • Religion, Church
      • Governance, the State
      • Social class system
    • Micro
      • 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

Martin Irvine
© 2004-2011
All educational uses permitted with attribution and link to this page.