What is Visual Culture?

Visual Culture, The Indiscipline

14 January 2013

‘Interdisciplinarity’ has become an academic and intellectual trend evoking challenge and adventure.1 But that’s not what gives Visual Culture all the hype it has acquired. In Interdisciplinarity and Visual Culture, W.J.T. Mitchell suggests an ‘inside-out’ form of interdisciplinarity: the indiscipline, which refers to an anarchist moment producing forms of circumferential disciplinary chaos. An anarchy only caused by the fact that Visual Culture is still trying to come to terms with a clear pedagogy, and until it does, it will feed upon its complementarity to other fields and disciplines, from Art History and Cultural Studies to Anthropology and Philosophy.

“If a discipline is a way of ensuring the continuity of a set of collective practices (technical, social, professional. etc.), ‘indiscipline’ is a moment of breakage or rupture when the continuity is broken and the practice comes into question. To be sure, this moment of rupture can itself become routinized […] Nevertheless, there is that moment before the routine or ritual is reasserted. The moment of chaos or wonder when a discipline, a way of doing things, compulsively performs a revelation of its own inadequacy. This is the moment of interdisciplinarity that has always interested me. I think of it as the ‘anarchist’ moment, and associate it with both public and esoteric or professional forms of knowledge.”2

Visual Culture is indeed an interdisciplinary field of study and it borrows not only from Art History but also from Cultural and Media Studies, Anthropology, as well as other social sciences. Following this reasoning, I suggest that accepting Visual Culture as an indiscipline would repudiate the accusation of it being a dangerous supplement.3


Visual Culture and Art History

Art History has always been concerned with works of art across civilizations, as they unfold through time, canonizing artworks and artists, drawing distinct lines between high and low art. In the 20th century, however, things changed. A movement emerged that would forever reshape our definition and perception of art. The boundaries between art and life were blurred, and the artistic establishment was shaken. An intellectual awakening, spurred by avant-garde artists and followed through by post-war American artists, gave the green light for experimentation and to the emergence of new genres of artistic production. From Dada’s eclectic cabaret performances and Duchamp’s Readymades to Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, and Abramovic’s Body Art. All modes of production have been challenged to accommodate for the intellectual awareness and technological advancements of the 20th century – structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, on one hand, photography and cinema on the other – and they have impelled traditional and classical art to redefine and re-assert itself as art that is still relevant to modern society.

But as the definition of art has been challenged, so has the role of Art History as a discipline, especially with the rise of Visual Culture. All the turns of the century, from the linguistic and cultural to the pictorial turn, have been shaping our perception of, relation to, and interaction with the cultural environment, bringing to the fore a crucial point of investigation: how we express ourselves through culture and how it expresses itself through us. This visuality is the main subject of study of Visual Culture.

Feeling threatened by the possibility of Visual Culture to turn the history of art into a history of imagesshows that it is only the right of Art History to have exclusive claim over the history of visual representation. “That is a caricature, to suggest that visual studies ignores (sic) the distinction between something called art and other things called television, film, and advertising. Visual studies would not propose to treat them all as if they are equivalent because they are not.”5 Such an unjustifiable concern only bolsters the assumption that Art History is concerned with elite forms of art, with western standards of aesthetics.

On the contrary, Art History should embrace the emergence of Visual Culture as a critical tool of investigating the lines along which an object passes as art, acknowledging that “images do not belong exclusively to any single discipline – not semiotics, or art history, or media studies, or even cultural studies.”6 What Art History needs to do is to look at Visual Culture as an indiscipline, just as Mitchell has suggested. The strong presence of Visual Culture as an indiscipline, a potential discipline concerned with reading vernacular images which have often been neglected or considered as invisible or insignificant, should encourage Art History to develop new readings of works of art, while always posing the question ‘what is art?’.

However, Art History’s unwelcoming reception of Visual Culture strikes as odd and unjustifiable, not to mention unfair to the discipline itself. Any discipline that feels threatened by another admittedly professes the existence of blind spots or lacks in its areas, and that the source of threat has actually something substantial to offer.


Visual Culture and Film Studies

There is one particular example that shows how Visual Culture offered an unprecedented reading of the most conspicuous tool of the modern age: television. In Television: Not So Much a Visual Medium, More a Visible Object, David Morley looks at television not as a visual medium but rather as an aural one. He argues that there is a blind spot in film studies as a discipline, which focused on analyzing films, neglecting the context of their consumption.7 What Film Studies have missed out, and what Visual Culture has come to expose, is the physics of television. And so Morley is interested in treating television “as a material and as a symbolic, if not totemic, object,”8 that has become an omnipresent element in the modern house. We don’t necessarily have to watch TV, it could even be on all the time, as background noise, while the family members deal with their house chores. And yet it is there as a central figure around which the structure of the living room is organized. Morley’s most salient point is how consumerist society has turned TV into a symbol of status and modernity, and it is in this light that the modern family seeks to acquire one. “Thus, the presence, in my home, of this particular object, would signify both that I was a person who did not watch much TV, and that I was a ‘discriminating consumer,’ with ‘high standards’ in all things.”9 It is how Morley read the television – a signifier, a vehicle for meaning – that is most interesting. Treating television as a symbol gives us a sense of belonging to a particular social class, of adhering to an image of high-class living.


Visual Culture and Cultural Studies

It is in this light that I find it crucial to approach and understand individual and collective identity, how they are constructed, and how they are expressed and projected in opposition to other identities. Cultural Studies has a lot to offer when reading visual objects and images as modes of expression. “It focuses on the “who I am” or, as important, the “who we are” of culture, on individual and collective identities,”10 showing that subjectivities are constructed, not given. It presents culture as “neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but a site of social difference and struggles […] where social groups define and realize their needs.”11

Richard Johnson defines the role of Cultural studies as an abstraction and reconstitution of human intersubjectivity, “the social forms through which human beings live, become conscious, sustain themselves subjectively,” in concrete studies.12 Visual Culture takes this abstraction even further by examining the relationships among consciousness, subjectivity, and vision, to study the visual forms through which human beings live, become conscious, and sustain themselves subjectively.

It is not because now our society has become saturated with images that visual culture is needed. It is because images and visual objects hold so much power and are tied to our consciousness and subjectivity that they have proliferated in the modern world, aided by the technological revolutions, of course. It is from this perspective that we can examine the complementary relation between visual culture and cultural studies. Keeping in mind that visual culture cannot be reductively defined as the ‘visual front ‘ of cultural studies,13 we can look at it as one form of reading culture, especially that both hold popular culture on equal footing.

A case study in Visual Culture: religious symbols in the public space
There is one particular example that has always intrigued me, and I didn’t know then under which rubric to classify the problem I was dealing with. It is about the dubious and exorbitant use of religious symbols in a sectarian space – a space where one’s identity comes manifest only through their sect. I found myself referring to critical and theoretical tools to analyze and develop an adequate reading of the Lebanese visual culture, particularly how cars displaying religious symbols serve as a vehicle of meaning. Cars are always in the public space. They become an indirect, impersonal, and a blunt way of projecting one’s communal identity onto others, turning symbols into a site of exchange, not only regarding symbol-to-viewer but also symbol-to-symbol.

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Picture 1.a
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Picture 1.b
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Picture 1.c

The tools of Cultural Studies will help us develop a reading of this space to understand how Lebanese people construct and make sense of their identity national identity.

This case study was explored in depth in the dissertation paper ‘Voyage of A Symbol’, BFA Graphic Design, The American University of Beirut, January 2010.
Full Paper available on Academia.edu.

How to read an image?
Roland Barthes has offered one way of reading images, particularly advertising images where its signification is undoubtedly intentional.14 Mitchell, on the other hand, invited us to adopt a different reading when approaching images, one which investigates the desires, not powers, of images. I don’t think that one reading necessarily abrogates the other. I suggest that Visual Culture’s indisciplinarity will produce various ways of reading and that each image or object, due to its peculiarities, would require one way and not the other, or perhaps many. In the case of religious symbols, I cannot ask what this symbol wants, because the meaning is created at the level of interaction among symbols, which are deprived of any form of agency. It is not about one symbol or another; it’s about when and where they are all put together, regardless of how these symbols came into existence and what their initial meaning was. The context of

The context of display is crucial here to the production of meaning. And this is what we need to be attentive to. It is all about determining where meaning is being formed – Image-maker/image; image/viewer; image/context; image/means of dissemination. It is not necessarily in one place, but all places need to be examined depending on the nature and attributes of the investigated visual. Most of the attention has been geared towards images and their power and desire, marginalizing the producers of these images. Visual culture should not only be about the dissemination, reception, and interpretation of images but equally about the producers of images as social agents – an area that has not been highlighted or actually has often been neglected and marginalized. Most readings have given agency to the image and the reader, depriving the image-maker of any responsibility.


Visual Culture and Graphic Design

It is essential to take into consideration both questions of power and desire when interpreting images, and examine how subjects become social agents and contribute to the production of meaning. We often talk about artwork and how artists cleverly and subtly subvert meaning. Walter Benjamin has pointed out this emphasis in his article Author as Producer highlighting the agency of the producer and his relation to the means of production.15 A thorough understanding of the politics of the image and meaning empower the artist to produce, direct and control meaning.

I am interested in agency performed by the author as producer, in relation to the image created and to the audience addressed. Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster designed for the 2008 presidential campaign is a pertinent case study.

Case study: Obama as image

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The poster has become an “empowering image that moves easily into media culture, in defiance of campaign management and market control […] Grass-roots in its generation, non-hierarchical in its dissemination, multi-semantic in its re-contextualizations, its surplus of meaning has democratic implications that break new political ground.”16 Susan Buck-Morss’s argument in Obama as Image is inspired by Mitchell’s treatment of images as animated and desiring subjects. She took on his advice to ask what this picture wants. But perhaps, in this case, this wasn’t an adequate question. Referencing Mitchell, she argues: “images … do not merely reflect the values consciously intended by their makers, but radiate new forms of values formed in the collective, political unconscious of their beholders.”17 Her reading of the Obama Hope poster fails to take into consideration the values intended by the image-maker and only focuses on how the “value added to the image by collective imagination has the power to destabilize classifications, disregard original intent, and disenable existing frames of meaning.”18 But was Fairey just a tool that produced such an image? What did he have in mind when creating such an image?

Shepard Fairey believed in change. “I made the poster because I care about the future for my kids, and I saw an opportunity within the only political system we’ve got to support someone unlike the people we usually get.”19 What differentiates him from others is his artistic perception and skills to produce an image that successfully embodied and communicated his and the people’s hopes and aspirations. It seems quite bizarre that he got lucky twice in creating such hype around his work. First with the famous Obey Giant, which started out as a sticker and soon evolved into a street art campaign, and later with the iconic image of Obama.

Fairey’s moto on his obeygiant website is “Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989.” In his Manifesto, written in 1990, Fairey refers to Heidegger’s definition of Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.”20 The Obey stickers were intended as a way of letting the environment surrounding the viewer to manifest itself by triggering the viewer’s curiosity to question his/her relation to the object itself and the surrounding. He explains that the sticker has no meaning, but its purpose is to let the viewer search for meaning in the sticker. He was playing along the lines of interpretation, at the level where meaning is constructed, de-stabilizing the viewer’s perceptions and reactions. “The paranoid or conservative viewer may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions.” Another strength of this image is how it exposes the viewer’s fetishizing tendencies. the sticker soon became a viral commodity, and soon everyone wants one because everyone else has one, “possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging […] Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer.”21

This is how Fairey works: he asks for what the audience expects and wants to see. And yet Buck-Morss exempts the image-maker from any responsibility for social agency: “Not the producer of an image, but the observer is key.”22 In this case, I have to disagree. The Obama Hope poster, in particular, is a joint effort between the insightful eye and mind of the image-maker, who created an image that fits to what the viewer wants, and the means and space of dissemination. The poster went viral, on the streets and on the Internet, before the original resided in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. But no institution can claim ownership of such image for it is in the minds of the people. Did this image affect the election results? I would say it played a role, as trivial as it might be.

Fairey used a language accessible to the people Obama was targeting; he used his street art techniques to transform Obama’s picture into an image in the collective imagination of a group yearning and hoping for social change; a group looking for their hero. And that’s just how Fairey presented Obama. The abstraction techniques used is reminiscent of the one used in Obey Giant and most street art images, signifying revolution. But here revolution dressed in a smart suit, implying responsibility, liability, and commitment, and in the colors of the American flag, referencing the American dream. Text is another technique Fairey relied on to control meaning. A tactic always used in advertising. The literal message, according to Barthes, is one technique to limit the polysemy of images and orient the reader.23 The word HOPE, which was initially PROGRESS, propels one reading of the image, controlling the meaning. Fairey explains that he changed it to HOPE to avoid unwanted connotations: “rightwingers associate progressives with socialists”24 which is another conscious decision to control meaning. And so the image of Obama in his pensive and hopeful gaze, wearing his smart suit, posing as the long-awaited hero, infiltrated the viewer’s psyche through a medium accessible to everyone, the Internet. “The instant reproducibility of the image is a productive force. It deterritorializes political control and democratizes its distribution, placing power in the hands of the global public.”25 And so an image was born. The challenge that was set upon the real Obama is whether he could actually inhabit this image.

A Barthian reading would point out the myths26 this image seeks to propagate, myths such as racism does not exist in America, all citizens are viewed as equal, color and ethnicity collapse in the face of democracy and civic engagement. These myths are what the people are actually looking for, and Fairey successfully embodied them in this poster. The myth that embodies the American dream, the myth that “only in America my story is possible.”27 “Obama can relate to the struggles of average Americans. Obama came from nothing and achieved the American Dream through hard work – he wasn’t born into American royalty like Mitt Romney.”28 Is this why there is no reference to Obama’s skin color in his iconic image? Has it become invisible, in a positive sense, and all racial and ethnic identities have fallen? Or is it because it has become a reference to Obama, the name, and the image, and hence becoming hypervisible?

Nevertheless, Fairey has proved that he is always aware of the technique he uses to produces his images, the message he is trying to disseminate, and the audience he is sending the message to. Referencing the Rolling Stone cover, the first image he’s created after Obama took office, Fairey explains:

“Much like my Hope image was intended to express his vision and his intellectual diligence, I also wanted this new image to convey his focus, but with the added weight and stress of responsibility […] In my illustration I make reference to Gilbert Stuart’s famous unfinished portrait of George Washington to capture the idea that, although we’re quick to judge, it’s too early to tell how Obama’s presidency will turn out. Hopefully, Obama and all of us who have stood behind him will do everything we can to fill in our incomplete future the way we’ve pictured it.”29

The iconic Obama image might have gone beyond Fairey’s intentions and expectations, but the status it has acclaimed had indeed been triggered by a great level of intentionality and keen perception and reading of what the viewer wants to see. In Benjaminian terms, Fairey is the intellectual of the working class who is aware of his conditions as a producer. An activist, a social agent, an author as producer whose skill is, as Bertolt Brecht said, “the art of thinking in other people’s heads.”30 Fairey knew how to use this means of production to his advantage, to voice out his opinion and his vision of Obama, a vision shared by thousands of Americans. “The place of the intellectual in the class struggle can be identified, or, better, chosen, only on the basis of his position in the process of production.”31

Even if sometimes the image might escape its maker’s intent, the latter can to an extent control its desired meaning. At least this is the tactic of advertising. “The signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the products and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible. If the image contains signs, we can be sure that in advertising these signs are full, formed with a view to the optimum reading: the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic.”32 So here the market has to have control over the image and the message it contains to control consumer behavior. Buck-Morss claims that while media is controlled, images are not. But in this case, advertising strives to control the image by anticipating its modes of reception and significations. This is why I find it essential and crucial for designers and image-makers to be exposed to the theories underlying visuality, about vision as language, because they have to be highly aware of the sort of messages they are communicating and to look for the most efficient tools and means of visual representation.

Meaning of images might escape its maker’s intention, because the viewers have power too, one that comes from how they relate to their environment and construct their identity. But intentionality is essential, and even if the message might escape our initial intention, at least one should be aware of the responsibility that lies on their part as producers of visual culture. If all designers and image-makers understood the tools they use to create and disseminate image, there would be a stronger link between their intention and meanings produced. This is why I propose Visual Culture’s crucial role as a theoretical complement and neighbor to Graphic Design, a discipline that has been neglected in most academic debates despite its contribution to the production of visual culture. The field of Graphic Design is a relatively young practice born with the industrial revolution and with the development of print and technology and is rapidly growing and expanding to visually dominate the modern world. Today, behind every poster, flyer, advertising, any printed or digital tool of communication, graphic design performs a sort of agency over the content and the form it takes. “The case for Visual Culture is strong for a number of reasons: graphic design is surprisingly complex and Visual Culture is an approach which can accommodate these complexities and serve the subject well. Graphic design plays a key part in the visual environment (i.e. what Visual Culture is referencing); it relies on cultural understanding and de-coding, audiences and viewing conditions (what visuality and the ethnographic turn seek to address). Contemporary graphic design crosses media of print and screen – all of which Visual Culture can handle as an inclusive interdisciplinary approach. Also is it not the case that graphic designers draw on their visual culture when designing?”33 And one mustn’t forget, images are not self-begotten.

The cultural turn brought forth the tradition of ‘critique’ and the formulation of the critical theories as analytical tools that examine society, culture, and identity, affecting existing disciplines and giving rise to new ones. If we take street art as an example, it is a form of art that started in the streets and moved to the galleries. Banksy is the most famous example, and of course, Shepard Fairey is another one.

  1. Mitchell, W.J.T. (1995) Interdisciplinarity and Visual Culture. Art Bulletin LXXVII (4), p. 540
  2. Ibid, p. 540
  3. For more information refer back to Mitchell’s Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture
  4. Mitchell, W.J.T. (2002) Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture. Journal of Visual Culture. 1, p. 169
  5. Moxey, K. (1999) What Does Visual Studies Do (Interview). Handwerker Gallery Newsletter. Web Available from: http://www.visual-studies.com/interviews/moxey.html [Accessed 4th January 2013]
  6. Mitchell, W.J.T. (2006) What Do Pictures Want (Interview). online magazine Image & Narrative. Available from: http://www.visual-studies.com/interviews/mitchell.html [Accessed 4th January 2013]
  7. Morley, D. (1995) Television: Not So Much a Visual Medium, More a Visible Object in Visual Culture ed. Chris Jenks. Routledge: London, p. 170
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Johnson, R. (1986-1987) What is Cultural Studies Anyway. Social Text (16), p. 44
  11. Ibid, p. 39
  12. Ibid, p. 45
  13. Mitchell. Interdisciplinarity and Visual Culture, p. 542
  14. Barthes, R. (2001) Rhetoric of the Image in Visual Culture: The Reader, ed. Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. Sage: London
  15. Benjamin, W. (1934) Author as Producer in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Schocken Books: New York
  16. Buck-Morss, S. (2010) Obama as Image in The Pictorial Turn, ed. Neal Curtis. Routledge: London, p. 54
  17. Ibid, p. 58
  18. Ibid
  19. Fairey, S. (2012) I’m Voting for Barack Obama Because I Believe Progress Is Possible. Huffington Post. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shepard-fairey/im-voting-for-barack-obam_b_2045171.html [Accessed 6th January 2013]
  20. Fairey, S. (1990) Manifesto. Available from: http://www.obeygiant.com/about [Accessed 7th January 2013]
  21. Ibid.
  22. Buck-Morss, p. 51
  23. Barthes, p. 37
  24. Fairey, S. (2012) Beyond Obama’s Hope: the work of Shepard Fairey – Interview with Patrick Kingsley. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/oct/17/obamas-hope-the-work-of-shepard-fairey [Accessed 8th January 2013]
  25. Buck-Morss, p. 51
  26. Refer to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies
  27. Buck-Morss, p. 64
  28. Fairey, S. (2012) I’m Voting for Barack Obama Because I Believe Progress Is Possible. Huffington Post. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shepard-fairey/im-voting-for-barack-obam_b_2045171.html [Accessed 6th January 2013]
  29. Fairey, S. (2009) Helping Obama Write the Unwritten Future. The Huffington Post. Available from:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shepard-fairey/helping-obama-write-the-u_b_253004.html [Accessed 7th January]
  30. Benjamin, quoting Brecht, p. 227
  31. Ibid, p. 231
  32. Barthes, p. 33-34
  33. Dauppe, M. (2011) Critical Frameworks for Graphic Design: Graphic Design and Visual Culture. Design Principles and Practices: an International Journal (5), p. 6

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Dauppe, M. (2011) Critical Frameworks for Graphic Design: Graphic Design and Visual Culture. Design Principles and Practices: an International Journal (5), p. 1-12
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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shepard-fairey/helping-obama-write-the-u_b_253004.html
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