Visual Culture Cloud notes

Topic 1: Theoretical Perspectives: Symbols, interpretation and contexts

Topic 2: Practices of seeing: Looking and the gaze

Topic 3: The art of persuasion: Propaganda, advertising and art

Topic 4: Commodity and the culture of possession

Topic 5: Identity and the body

Topic 6: Art and Technology

Introducing Visual Culture

What is Visual Culture?

“Contemporary theorists maintain that visual culture is concerned with everything we see, have seen, or may visualize, fine and popular art forms, 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 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.”

Jenny Grenfell, EEA 212 Cloud topic

Overview of topics

  • Art meaning is derived from reference it makes to outside things – which are temporarily and culturally specific. It is easier to glean the artist’s intent when the viewer is of the same time and culture as the artist. As one is removed – e.g. into an alien culture or by time, the meaning can be clouded, changed or lost completely.
  • On the gaze – Berger’s premise is that man act and women are passive – men don’t need other’s gaze for their own identity, women view themselves in how others view them – I dispute this as a blatant generalisation
  • Art and advertising are both in the business of propaganda – whether to sell a message or to sell the art object itself.
  • Images elicit very strong and immediate emotional responses – therefore are a major tool used to manipulate – for advertising, politics, and to educate (whether positive or manipulative aims)
  • In European art the female has been depicted as passive, and available.
  • The women are all young, rich, beautiful, with gaze almost always directed at the viewer (or someone beside the viewer)
  • The vast majority, if not all, the artists are male.
  • The avatar as a reflection or depiction of the self – use of Second Life online community for this
  • Technology and art – artists have always used the technologies available to enhance their work (e.g. the uptake of oils in painting became universal within about 100 years).

Reference artists cited on Cloud

Diane Fenster:

The Robert Maplethorpe Foundation

Bill Henson :

Lauren Mulvey: Visual Pleasure and narrative Cinema

Original 19th century Japanese image.
Photographer Jeff Wall’s 20th Century appropriation

This appropriation by Jeff Wall shows the sophistication with which artists and photographers construct new images based on previous images.  When the context of an image changer, so does the meaning.  Visually literate viewers, with a background in art, are more likely to view the image from an awareness of the appropriated image.  While this is not essential to understand the Jeff Wall image, it adds another layer of meaning.

Some issues:

  • Visual images are not just pictures – visual representations of statistical information (e.g. graphs), symbols, patterns and abstract designs, are all ways in which information can be presented visually.
  • Images with similar subjects can have very different meanings (e.g. depictions of mother and baby – the Madonna and child, a mother rushing her child from a bomb explosion, a mother wondering at a new baby)  For example, there are hundreds of images of mothers and children on Marco Regali’s I am a child blog
  • Questions to consider:  What is art? What is art history? How does visual culture relate to art? Is art history merely a starting point or birthplace for the future discipline of visual culture? Or, is Visual Culture a practice or idea that should remain interdisciplinary? Should the study of art history and visual culture incorporate theories and alternative ideas or should they stick to names, dates and periods?
  • When one is visually literate, and aware of the cultural significance of images, one can select and use more powerful imagery whatever the purpose.  For example, when teaching, an image of cultural significance to the group of students may be more powerful than one depicting a historical scene or by an old master artist.  Astute selection leads better communication.
  • Street art – video of Melbourne laneways (backed by Beethoven symphony)

Exploring Ideas: Comparing concepts of Art History and Visual Culture

  • Two ways to look at art works
    • The formal way – exploring e.g. composition, subject, colour etc. – gaining what one can from the work itself.
    • The cultural background way (visual culture) – exploring the context of the work withing its cultural framework for another course with ideas.

Looking at All Things Visual. (video – Why look at visual art?) from website

Common terms used to explore and characterise artworks

Ways to look at and describe art:

Content includes: (copied from Cloud

  • history: important incidents like famous battles, political triumphs, social movements, etc.
  • megalography: the portrayal of historically important people or things in an absurdly glorifying manner, as if they weren’t really human or ordinary at all
  • mythology: stories of gods, goddesses, nymphs and heroes, usually (but not exclusively) Greek or Roman in origin
  • religion: the portrayal of sacred narratives and legends from the world’s holy texts
  • portraiture: likenesses of real people, usually (but not exclusively) of at least moderate social standing
  • landscape: representations of places, urban and rural, whether real or imagined
  • genre: not to be confused with “genres” (the categories in general), the portrayal of scenes of everyday life, including people but not specifically for the purposes of portraiture
  • still-life: objects, furniture, settings, utensils, flowers, foods, etc., without obvious stories or important people

Context: means the varied circumstances in which a work of art is (or was) produced and/or interpreted. As in the case of content, there are three levels of complexity.

  • Primary context is that pertaining to the artist,: attitudes, beliefs, interests, and values; education and training; and biography (including psychology). Special mention must be made of the artist’s intentions and purposes, because it is very easy to fall into a trap called the intentional fallacy.
    This happens when a writer derives an artist’s intention only from the work he or she produced. This is not logically valid: in the absence of documentary evidence, a work which seems to mean “X” can either imply that the artist’s intention was “X” and that he or she was successful, or that the work is not successful and that the artist’s intention was actually “Y.”We have no way of knowing which of these is the correct answer, although the common practice has been to treat artists as if they were inspired beings, with no obligation to carry the burden of proof. If, on the other hand, we have a letter or a diary in which the artist wrote “my intentions are such and such,” the information thus gathered can often be validly employed.
  • Secondary context is that which addresses the milieu in which the work was produced: the apparent function of the work at hand; religious and philosophical convictions; sociopolitical and economic structures; and even climate and geography, where relevant.
  • The tertiary context is the field of the work’s reception and interpretation: the tradition(s) it is intended to serve; the mind-set it adheres to, ritualistic [conceptual, stylized, hieratic, primitive], perceptual [naturalistic], rational [classical, idealizing, and/or scientific]; and emotive [affective or expressive]); and, perhaps most importantly, the colour of the lenses through which the work is being scrutinised — i.e., the interpretive mode (artistic biography; psychological approaches; political criticism; feminism; cultural history ; formalism; semiotics ; reception theory [including contemporary judgements, later judgements, and revisionist approaches]; concepts of periodicity [stylistic pendulum swinging]; and other chronological and contextual considerations. It should be clear, then, that context is more than the matter of the artist’s circumstances alone.In simple terms, context is “what” the work is about, form is “how” the work is, and context is “in what circumstances” the work is (and was).

There are a variety of ways to push what you see into what you understand. One is to explore figurative meanings like those afforded by conventional signs and symbols:
These include:

1. Allegories: stories in which people, things, and events represent abstract ideas, values and messages, as when a blindfolded woman chases a thug away from a mugging victim in an allegory of Justice Pursuing Crime.
2. Attributes: conventional devices identifying the person holding it, as the bow and arrow of a small child indicate he is Cupid.
3. Personifications: individuals representing abstract ideas or values, as in the Statue of Liberty
4. Traditional signs: anything which is understood in a given context to mean something other than what it literally is, as in two upright fingers in a “v” meaning peace, a red octagon meaning stop, or a skull meaning a reminder of death (a memento mori)

Metaphor: a comparison, as in “My love is a rose” — i.e., sweet and beautiful, but thorny and short-lived

Metonymy: signifying another item typically associated with it, i.e., as in the crowns of Europe (meaning the royalty who wear such crowns)

Parody: an image but with a twist for comic effect or critical comment, i.e., political satires.

Synecdoche: signifying a literally absent whole via one of its parts (and sometimes vice versa), i.e., “he roamed the range with forty head” (meaning forty animals), or “all hands on deck”

  • Irony: a twist or complete reversal in meaning, for example, Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of African-Americans standing in a food line directly below a billboard showing happy whites under the words “America: Highest Standard of Living in the World”

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