Visual Culture & Theory

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Visual Culture & Theory

Visual Culture & Theory


While visual culture has certainly been around as long as culture itself, the phrase visual culture used to denote a specific component of culture in general, a set of visual practices, or an academic discipline is quite recent. Krauss (1996) mentions James Elkins, one of this emerging field's leading scholars, dates the term from 1972, saying that it "was used—perhaps for the first time …—in Michael Baxandall's Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy" (p. 2). The recent provenance of the term visual culture is important because it indexes a historical shift in the importance of vision itself that has led to an ongoing reconceptualization of the visual and what has been called, in another neologism, visuality (Krauss, 1996). Elkins locates the origins of visual culture as an emerging academic discipline in the cultural studies movement that started in England during the late 1950s, and sees visual culture as an American (U.S.) extension of that project (with an emphasis on the visual that did not really get off the ground until the 1990s). What is visible, how it appears, and how it affects nearly every other aspect of social life is suddenly of paramount concern.

Visual Culture & Theory: A Discussion

In words of Beller (2004) the emergence of an idea called visual culture surely implies the emergence of a set of urgent problems for which the idea should enable some kind of answers. At a certain moment in the late twentieth century, a new consideration of the role of the visual, of perception, of images, and of the technologies and subjectivities that are embroiled in these relations became an urgent matter for scholars (Beller, 2004). This moment, which may be identified with what has been called from various corners and with differing emphasis as poststructuralism, the information age, media society, postindustrial society, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and/or globalization, is marked above all else by a new degree of saturation of social space by visual technologies, and, one must assume, a related shift in their social function and significance.

The Visual Turn

While it is arguable that this visual turn is indeed the metaevent that might show the deep interrelationships and common logic of the other periodizing categories mentioned above, it is true that the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the idea of visual culture were a long time in the making. As noted, culture always and necessarily has had a visual component (Beller, 2004). However, the shift in emphasis toward an increasing importance of the visible (and its manipulation) is due principally to two related factors: the organization of economies and societies with and by images and the related hyper-development and intensification of visual technologies. Of course, this claim raises more questions than it answers. Image technologies from photography to cinema, television, and computerization are more and more deeply woven into the very fabric of reality (Malraux, 2004).

Such interweaving is imbricated to the point where the function of images has become inseparable from ...
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