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visual culture

Post #226 • March 2, 2004, 11:18 PM • 5 Comments

Michelle Marder Kamhi on Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies' at Aristos. Link via ArtsJournal.

A disturbing though little publicized movement is afoot in American education to transform the study of art into what is termed Visual Culture Studies. It seeks to broaden the proper sphere of art education--the visual arts--to include every kind of visible artifact. To quote the prospectus of a recently established academic program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Anything visible is a potential object of study for Visual Culture, and the worthiness of any visual object or practice, as an object of study depends not on its inherent qualities, as in the work of art, but on its place within the context of the whole of culture.
In other words, one can henceforth treat the Nike of Samothrace and Michelangelo's David, say, on a par with Mattel Toys' Barbie and Ken dolls.

Much like the now largely discredited developments in literary studies of recent decades--whose bankruptcy it apparently ignores--the Visual Culture movement is primarily social and political in its motivation, aiming quite explicitly at the "reconstruction" of American society. Its influence is not only likely to dull the next generation's esthetic sensibilities, and further debase the general level of culture, but may extend far beyond the arts themselves. ...

From the standpoint of art education, the overriding objection to this movement is its blatant disregard of essential differences between works of visual art and other types of cultural artifacts. By visual art, I mean what is broadly termed "painting" and "sculpture" (traditionally termed fine art): that is, two- and three-dimensional re-creations of reality whose purpose is to concretize ideas and values in an emotionally compelling form. In contrast with the decorative arts, the crafts, or the various fields of design, such works have no physical function, but instead serve a purely psychological or spiritual need. This and other fundamental differences are ignored by the proponents of Visual Culture Studies.

I agree with the gist, but later on she does a huge disservice to photography and the role of chance in art making. I think readers ought to take a stab at this.




March 3, 2004, 9:05 PM



March 3, 2004, 9:07 PM

Alright, you baited me. Lets dissect this, just for fun:

She discounts photography based on its documentary qualities (as well as other reasons). She explains that the only power in Dorothea Langes famous Migrant Mother photograph is its link to history. Not true. I have heard this piece, in particular, talked about by John Szarkowski (former curator of photography MoMA). He spoke about the migrant mother as any mother; that the descriptive qualities of facial expression of concern for her children relay a universal meaning of motherhood that transcends the Great Depression. She goes on later in the essay to write about Jan van Eycks Wedding Portrait
The primary power of the work derives not from such symbolic content, however, but rather from its "natural" subject matter, its depictive and expressive qualities--such as the sober, intensely serious facial expressions of the young couple, their gesture of joining hands, and the aura of tranquil solemnity in the elegant bedchamber. Those are the qualities that make it a great work of art, a deeply moving image which transcends the particular historic moment being represented and conveys something about the gravity and importance of marriage in general.
She has a very narrow (and I mean very narrow) view of what constitutes meaning in art. If you read her essay closely there are lot of holes in it.



March 4, 2004, 1:33 AM

I'd say something, but, at least at the moment, I'm too fed up with the whole debased and more than dubious art-related establishment. I'm tired of all the fatuous nonsense, the posturing, the hypocrisy, the cluelessness (be it genuine or simply expedient) and, of course, the greed and/or ambition.



March 9, 2004, 6:05 PM

This is very much a reactionary, conservative view of contemporary art masquerading as criticism of art history. So long as your personal viewpoint coincides with the writers, you agree with her. This is a result of being part of the choir she is preaching to--but if you disagree, there is so much that denies the last century of art history that it is really quite stunning. I can tell why it was posted here--the views it promulgates can be summarized as follows:

(1) That there is an Eternal Greatness that is Art.
" In contrast with the decorative arts, the crafts, or the various fields of design, such works have no physical function, but instead serve a purely psychological or spiritual need" [This is derived from the Aesthetics of Ayn Rand, a reactionary conservative Anti-Modernist who makes Greenberg look like the radical avant-garde by comparison.]

(2) Only Painting and other Art that matches the form and technique of the Past can achieve Greatness.
"The only work of purported art among the items considered by Barrett is the "painting" by Charles. " or "Like the spurious art of postmodernism"

There isn't really very much else to say, but note that this writer is part of the same hegemonic machineries that are now attempting to grind the US back into the fantasy of "white america" seen on 1950s TV and being promoted by the current president and his supporters. The suggestion that any values which are not "aesthetic" in the narrowed sense proposed by this writer have no bearing on anything leaves me so disgusted with her and the fact that she is being supposted on blogs like this one that I have to wonder why I'm reading it at all.....



March 10, 2004, 5:06 AM

Believe it or not, AS, I find Kamhi's tastes to be unacceptably narrow. I agree with her, however, that an art education that conflates visual art and "anything visible" is a bad thing. I've said it before: I'm interested in a wide, vague definition of art, but not so wide and vague that it becomes synonymous with "stuff." This has been the postmodernist project - relativism. It is not preferable to the absolutism of Kamhi. I am interested in negotiating a road into the future between the two.

Knowledge in every field is characterized by the ability to make ever more finely nuanced distinctions. Postmodernism opposes the whole distinction-making process, which tends to make me feel at more home among aesthetic conservatives. But somebody like Kamhi, who isn't convinced that photography is art, is too way out for me. That leads me to ask, where are all the good old secular humanist liberals out there in the art world, and how can we advance their platform?

Here's something else: Do schools teach music, or sound culture? Do they teach writing, or word culture? Cooking, or food culture? Shop, or wood culture? Yet somehow in the art world this isn't recognized as a patent absurdity. The way into the future is to accept that some standards are worth keeping. The trick will be to figure out which ones without falling into the relativist ditch on one side of the road and the absolutist ditch on the other.

(Something that occurs to me with increasing frequency is that there's no idea out there that's so good that it can't be applied in a bad way.)

My putting high value on knowledge, as I describe it above, is prompting me to vote against our current president come November. Bush is incapable of nuanced thinking for absolutist reasons instead of relativistic ones, but the result is just as offensive. I think he's driving at something much worse than the Leave It to Beaver scenario you mention. He represents power inherited by bloodline, and the establishment of loose morality for the ruling class and stringent morality for the ruled. He represents monarchy. I am against it.



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