Visual culture is an area of study focused on practices of looking and the role of visual representations in the arts, popular and alternative media cultures, institutional and professional contexts, and everyday life. Art history, film and media studies, cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology are some of the fields in which visual culture study is conducted. Forms of visual representation studied include museum display, fine art, film and television, old and new media, computer and video games, digital culture, medical images such as X-rays and sonograms, and advertising.
The study of visual culture emphasizes the relationship of looking and visual representation to forms of knowledge, power, experience, and ideology in everyday life and culture in different historical periods. Emphasis is placed on looking as a social practice and the place of visual texts and artifacts in relationships of power, pleasure, and knowledge within and among social groups including nations, communities, workplaces, audiences, and members of institutions such as schools, churches, and cultural organizations. Research in visual culture tends toward qualitative and interdisciplinary methods informed by post structural critical theory and cultural studies.
The majority of work on visual culture considers the postwar period during which electronic and digital media became pervasive components of industrialized cultures. During this period previously distinct media forms such as painting, photography, the Internet, and video converged. Just as individual works of fine art were subject to more pervasive reproduction and circulation with the rise of digital imaging and the world wide web, changing the status of the original work of art, so mechanical forms of reproduction like photographic and motion picture film converged with digital media in production and exhibition processes. With this increased and enhanced presence of visual media forms in everyday life, the visual became a more crucial area of research among humanists and social scientists studying postwar culture. However, the field also includes significant research in the visual cultures of earlier historical periods and the place of the visual in cultures that have not known the same accelerated advances in electronic and digital media forms experienced by those with access to new technologies in the industrialized west (Baxandall 1972; Worth & Adair 1972).
The parallel and overlapping traditions of cultural studies, visual culture, and visual studies are reviewed and critiqued in Elkins (2003). The study of “visual culture” is usually distinguished from the study of “visual communication,” which is more often associated with popular and commercial forms of mass media and the efficient communication of information.
Visual culture became a formalized area of study in the early 1990s with the founding of PhD programs at institutions including the University of Rochester (New York) and the University of California at Irvine. These entities grew out of the efforts of individuals whose original training was in art history, film studies, sociology, and comparative literature. The field was strongly influenced by literary and film theorists who forged their methodology out of the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on the gaze; Ferdinand de Saussure on semiotics; and the Marxist theory of power elaborated by the French philosopher Louis Althusser.
A strong foundational influence was the writing on culture, myth, and photography by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Early work in visual culture study, before the term itself came into conventional use, was introduced by art historians such as Michael Baxandall. The British sociologist Stuart Hall was a leading author and teacher in visual culture study in the UK and globally by the 1970s. Literary and art historical writing on the semiotics of the gaze by Mieke Bal, Michael Ann Holly, and Norman Bryson; and British and North American feminist film studies scholars, art historians, and artists John Berger, Jacqueline Rose, Mary Kelley, Victor Bergin, Mary Ann Doane, Kaja Silverman, Constance Penley, D. N. Rodowick, Jackie Stacey, Douglas Crimp, and Griselda Pollack contributed an important theoretical foundation for the emergence of self-conscious programs of visual culture research. Other key influences included Laura Mulvey’s essay on the male gaze and visual pleasure in western art and film, Janet Wolff’s work on the social production of art, and Martin Jay and Jonathan Crary’s conceptions of scopic regimes.
Also movements to study the social use and role of pictures and visual artifacts in anthropology and social communication, largely in the US, provided important pioneering contributions to the rise of visual culture study (Worth 1981).
Since the early 2000s, visual culture study has solidified into a field of study in its own right, marked by the inauguration of the interdisciplinary and international Journal of Visual Culture in 2002. Rather than emerging merely as a field in its own right, visual culture has achieved recognition as a viable approach in many of the traditional disciplines including literature, history, art history, film and media studies, and communication studies. One of its major innovations in academic study has been the integration of visual practice and critical theory; and a sustained interest in feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies as strong components of the field’s work.
- Baxandall, M. (1972). Painting and experience in fifteenth-century Italy. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
- Dikovitskaya, M. (2005). Visual culture: The study of the visual after the cultural turn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Elkins, J. (2003). Visual studies: A skeptical introduction. New York and London: Routledge.
- Fuery, K., & Fuery, P. (2003). Visual culture and critical theory. London: Arnold.
- Jay, M. (ed.) (2005). The state of visual culture studies. Journal of Visual Culture (special issue), 4(2).
- Mirzoeff, N. (1999). An introduction to visual culture. London: Routledge.
- Morra, J., & Smith, M. (eds.) (2006). Visual culture: Critical concepts in media and cultural studies, 4 vols. London: Routledge.
- Sturken, M., & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Worth, S. (1981). Studying visual communication (ed. and intro. L. Gross). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Worth, S., & Adair, J. (1972). Through Navajo eyes: An exploration in film communication and anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.