If I were to utter aloud the term “art history” in idle chatter, or you glanced it off an earmarked textbook page, some general stirrings of recognition would be set aglow in your brain regardless of the amount of formal education it’s absorbed. Pablo Picasso! A naked chick on the half shell, lots of gold-haloed angels. Baby Jesus everywhere. That O’Keefe lady’s big emasculating flowers, some fancy pants ceiling painted by some dead Italian guy who always reminds you of the Ninja Turtles. Lilly-bellied, debt-saddled college graduates who maybe should have given business school a go, jowly balding professors in glasses whining over the world’s many –isms.
While not entirely comprehensive, such flashes of association are not overly inaccurate. As a discipline, art history is more expansive than ever, yet does continue to keep its roots embedded most deeply in the soils and stories of traditional Occidental domains, and hovers expectantly just above the rowdy sphere of popular culture.
Contrarily, “visual culture” is something of a trickier phrase. Perhaps just another pet topic of those red-faced, wobbly-cheeked academics? I had never encountered a mention of such a subject before undertaking masters-level studies, and unless a smug Average Joe spotted the phrase on a shiny museum plaque, mentally shuffling it away for use in future informed conversation, he more than likely would appear vacant-faced when prompted to provide a reasonable definition.
So where did visual culture arise from, if it does not share art history’s easy, mythic reputation for white marble shaped like nude men? Who are its participants? And what, by the way, is visual culture?
To indulge in a brief Once Upon a Time sort of tale, the primal origins of what I define as the limitless minutia— not unbending doctrine—of visual culture can be traced to the University of Birmingham and the not so far gone year 1964. In an inaugural address entitled “Schools of English and Contemporary Society”, Richard Hoggart, the first director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the university, attacked the narrowness of the way English literature was being taught in Great Britain and outlined a refreshing approach which he claimed had “something in common with several existing approaches, but was not exactly any one of them.”
From the very beginning, cultural studies was conceived of as an interdisciplinary endeavor. Trained in literary criticism, and not particularly hesitant about extolling its virtues as a mode of analysis, Hoggart envisioned the cultural studies project as consisting of three parts: the philosophical, the sociological, and, crucially, the literary critical. Other areas of study, like history and anthropology, would also dance in and out of Hoggart’s new combination of methodologies, which was all together more democratic than many rusty and stifled academic fields with long, exclusive histories. Concern for social and cultural plights of the working class was insinuated, and ideas about elitism in education were re-examined. Appreciation was also expressed for “common cultures” expansive enough to include mass-mediated experiences.
And so Visual Culture comprises a distinctive arena within the cultural studies that budded from the University of Birmingham during the free-thinking 1960s. Focusing more on the booming development of technologies for disseminating popular media and culture, as well as contemporary audiences’ ever-deepening relationship with smarter mobile phones, touchscreen everything, and diversifying content channels, visual culture makes inquires into the multi-faceted functions of art and every entity our eyes graze in this impressive, odd age. In the opinion of Nicholas Mirzoeff:
…the gap between the wealth of visual experience in contemporary culture and the ability to analyze that observation marks both the opportunity and the need for visual culture as a field of study. Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology…any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the internet.
Like its fair cousin art history, visual culture ladles importance thickly onto the gift of sight, individual points-of-view, what our eyes tell our brains, and indeed, all things visual. While art history tends to fuss over and cling to its three high-brow darlings—painting, sculpture, and architecture—visual culture is less discriminatory in its choice of company. It includes the fine arts within its burgeoning remit; but the upper echelons of taste and culture find a seat alongside more obscure, less dignified, and downright unscholarly forms of creative output.
Don’t freak out, but it’s everywhere. Printed on your t-shirt and sprinkled atop that shrimp scampi you’re about to post a sweet pic of on Instagram. It’s Botticelli and graffiti. Lady Gaga’s weird cloven-hoof shoes. Pinterest and Pissarro. Scribbles on Post-its, rainbow-dyed poodles, roadside billboards, renaissance fairs, bootlegged movies, political bumper stickers, ancient mosaics, 3D printing, Game of Thrones, gang signs, the Duchess of Cambridge’s hair, CCTV, interior design, Netflix, hashtags, illuminated manuscripts, photojournalism, Grumpy Cat, Gauguin, celebrity backsides breaking the internet, Cubism, street fashion, scathing memes, mom’s growing colony of fairy gardens, fast-food wrappers, man buns, Minecraft, skinny models, the skeletal fragments of MTV’s line-up, medallions of saints, red party cups, cereal box characters, Polaroids rotting in grandma’s attic, white cube spaces. Opera, adult video, stand-up comedy, film noir and the shadow lands crossed during late-night YouTube binges. Items, artworks, events and trends seen or watched on a micro or macro scale, whether imposed or sought out, whether naturally occurring or brought to fruition by human whims, provoke thought in those looking on. What we see affects us daily; it keeps us alive, shocks us, makes us laugh, weep, want to fit in or rebel, forces us to seek answers and second opinions. Consequently, it’s all rather fit for critical analysis.
Despite a short history so far, the study of visual culture is growing exponentially. Societies across the globe intertwine more speedily than ever, information abounds, advanced kinds of media are manufactured in rapid-fire and less costly ways, and handheld technology has made many of us into home-spun producers of content. Let the guy who makes conspiracy videos about the moon being fake bear witness to that. There’s a lot to see, a lot to learn. During these image-flooded and unsettled times, the flexible interrogations and open-ended manifesto of visual culture can show us much about the earthlings we are.
Sources: Norma Schulman, Conditions of their Own Making: An Intellectual History of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham//Nicholas Mirzoeff, What is Visual Culture?