Image Studies

Image Studies

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Towards a Visual Critical Theory


It is significant and indeed surprising that despite its professed interdisciplinary make-up and direct critique of textual analysis, visual culture has to date prompted little actual innovation in terms of its form(s) of writing, production and dissemination. The art theorist James Elkins makes the argument that visual culture studies, as it currently stands, has proved to be too easy. Hence, he urges it to become ‘more ambitious about its purview, more demanding in its analyses, and above all more difficult’. As a part of which, he poses a challenge for those engaged in visual culture studies to write more ‘ambitiously’ – to write authoritatively and insightfully about the field, but also simply to ‘write as well as you can’. The ‘problem’ of good writing he suggests is well highlighted by considering the work of John Berger, who emerges as one of the most widely cited inspirations to the field. What makes this fact particularly strange is that ‘no art historian or specialist in visual culture writes anything like Berger.’ Indeed, no one seems willing to experiment in the same way with the form and style of writing and production. Art historians and other specialists of visual culture seldom work closely with an image-maker (such as in Berger’s case, the photographer Jean Mohr) and would never, for example, interrupt their prose with poetry, permit themselves long parenthetic remarks or personal reminiscences. Yet, ‘why not,’ Elkins asks, ‘when those signs of the engaged writer are part and parcel of the philosophy of the engaged viewer that Berger himself helped bring into art history?’

Elkins offers an analogy with that of the music historian who generally is expected to have some competence in playing and reading music. This same kind of competence, he argues, is rare in art history and visual culture, suggesting as the subject of visual studies develops, ‘it should consider ways of bringing image-making into the classroom – not just in theory but in actual practice’. In fact, he suggests the making of images (from drawing and painting to video editing) ought to be practiced in the same seminar rooms where historical and interpretative work also takes place, arguing that only then ‘will it become apparent just how difficult it is to knit the two kinds of experience together and how tremendously important it is to try’. The critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell provides a revealing ‘illustration’ of what is at stake when theory and practice meet (in the same room) when recounting a classroom session in which he asks students to conduct a practical exercise to show ‘seeing itself’. One presentation he singles out is of a woman whose prop is her nine month old baby, who begins to show off to the audience, so disrupting the mother’s presentation. The overall effect Mitchell suggests is ‘a contrapuntal, mixed media performance’ that underlines ‘the dissonance or lack of suturing between vision and voice, showing and telling’. On the one hand, this performance highlights the particular problem of reconciling the visual (as irreducibly visual) with a satisfactory critical framework, or mode of critique. However, the more ambitious aim of the ‘Showing Seeing’ exercise, he argues, is ‘its potential as a reflection on theory and method in themselves […] to picture theory and perform theory as a visible, embodied, communal practice, not as the solitary introspection of a disembodied intelligence’. Again, Mitchell seeks to make sense of this exercise in terms of his de-disciplinary concerns. So, whilst he does at least allow this ‘contrapuntal, mixed media performance’ to become something of an object of thought in his writing, in the end it is perhaps rather of only limited effect; we really only have Mitchell’s word on the performance. The problem is, with respect to the norms of academic writing, we just can not quite get over the unassailable quality of this exercise, of its contrapuntal, mixed media nature. Indeed, short of having a 3-dimensional pen and paper, it is not possible to (studiously) harness its true import.

So, how might this relate to the kind of visual critical theory that, for example, Susan Buck-Morss advocates? Not unlike the mother’s presentation of Mitchell’s Showing Seeing, perhaps, Buck-Morss  makes the case for a form of critical theory to be in itself visual, to ‘show rather than argue’. In which case, we need to believe ‘[a]esthetic experience (sensory experience) is not reducible to information’. Interestingly, she wonders whether this is too old-fashioned an idea to suggest, and goes on to remind us that visual culture is in fact in the hands of its ‘producers’ of tomorrow; these being, she notes: ‘the camera-women, video/film editors, city planners, set designers for rock stars, tourism packagers, marketing consultants, political consultants, television producers, commodity designers, layout persons, and cosmetic surgeons’. Of course, whilst the democratic potential for ‘thinking in images’ is perhaps a genuinely new circumstance, the problems of writing and theorising the visual object are far from new. Hans Sedlmayr, for example, a member of the formalist Vienna School writing in the 1930s, posed searching questions about the relation of object to its interpretation, advocating an alternative perspective for picturing (or indeed performing) theory. In his view, art history was to make imaginative, creative interpretations and aesthetic constructions akin to the work of artists themselves. It is an idea later echoed provocatively by the critic Susan Sontag in her famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’, where she argues that in ‘place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’. Arguably, then, in lieu of framing an exercise in Showing Seeing as de-disciplinary there is a need simply to show seeing itself – to let such a ‘picture theory’ stand for itself as ‘a visible, embodied, communal practice.’ Ultimately, the critic, or ‘imagologist’, might then join with the ranks of tomorrow’s producers of the image.

Yet, we are brought back to the question as to why so few seem willing or able to engage in the kinds of writing that Sontag might propose with an erotics of art, or as has been canonised following the idiosyncratic writings of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and John Berger.  Perhaps the contemporary scholarly community have too much invested in the subject matter to enable them to break free of its constraints.  Ironically, perhaps, the texts of those wandering thinkers and ur-imagologists, of the likes of Benjamin, Barthes, and Berger, are the very texts we continue to dwell upon precisely because these thinkers were not specifically scholars of the visual, but rather writers interested in what interested them. Indeed, perhaps it is more often those outside (or at least on the fringes) of academia who provide a richer engagement with visual culture and visuality.

Extract, adapted from Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall [Kindle Edition]. Also available in iBookstore (USA).

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