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Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture Essay (Critical Writing)


No other topic has recently attracted the world’s attention like Visual Culture and this is due to the force at which visuals or pictures are getting into the market (Bryson 2003).

Scholars have staged heated debates on whether visual culture should be an independent discipline in humanities or not. This paper provides a summary of Bal’s article `Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture’ and subsequently a critique on the chapter “visual culture”.

The paper concludes that time has come for visual culture to be accorded independence and be handled in lecture halls as a discipline. The analysis focuses on the author’s failure to take sides hence giving other scholars to come in and discuss the topic in discussion. It is the views of these other scholars that are used to support the paper’s thesis that visual culture should be a discipline.

The article kicks off by the author introducing the reader to her thought on the subject of visual culture as a discipline. The article goes on to argue that classifying visual culture as a distinct discipline is like to mix up religion with theology whereby religion is the ‘field’ while theology is its ‘dogmatic intellectual circumscription’(p.2)

The article continues to extract that it will be difficult to try to study visual culture using the methodology of an existing discipline because its object can not be studied under the paradigms of any other existing discipline. Before scholars undertook to investigating the fate of the discipline, Bal proposes that visual culture largely require drawing from alternative disciplines that have established themselves well into the field of academics for example; anthropology, psychology and sociology.

She continued to argue that there could be compliance that visual culture is a discipline by the fact that it claims a specific object and raises questions about it. Bal concludes her introduction by proposing that visual culture studies be initially treated as a ‘movement’ that can fail to propel and harm no one or succeed at its own advantage or failure. The article presents visual culture studies as a ‘polemical’ issue if taken at face value (p.3)

In the part ‘The Impact of Visuality against Objects’ the article discovers that Culture, like visuality faces the difficulty of definition. Here the author argues that understanding culture depends on the way the word culture is used.

This is because the word culture, like many other linguistic terms, derives its meaning from the context of use and this makes it hard to grasp its objective meaning at a particular time. In the part ‘The Death of Culture’ the article emphasizes that culture also is tied by ‘visuality’s many tentacles’ (p. 17). The author therefore declares culture as a dead thing as she puts; “in making the ‘singular universal’ and making the ‘plural homogenous’, culture loses its existence” (p. 18).

In the part ‘Visual Culture’ the article is for the idea that a fate awaits culture because no scholar has ever defined it completely including Raymond Williams (1976). It is clearly stated that the word culture can be useful and misleading at the same time. This part centers its argument in the fact that the problem with the object is its attempt to explain what culture is. The author goes on to argue that visual culture is driven by aim of focusing on questions.

The next part is duped ‘The Objectives of Visual Culture Studies’ which analyses the aims and goal of visual culture studies. First, the part highlights that visual culture can be understood better when it is separated from art history and its methods of analysis. In this regard Hobsbawn (1990) prescribes that, Visual culture must start by exploring and explaining the link between itself and naturalism as seen in museum, schools, histories and discourses of imperialism and racism.

The last part of the article, ‘The Question of Method’ sums it up that the goal of visual culture studies must be derived from ‘its object’ and the methods that suits performing the tasks must be clearly drawn. The author in this concluding part argues that methods must be separated from the objects and the goals.

From the article, it is clear that, Bal attempted to foretell the possible future of visual culture as an area of study, but she did not come out clearly whether visual culture should be a discipline but preferred leaving it open for other scholars to discuss.

At this point let us look keenly on the chapter headed ‘Visual Culture’ where my argument, like the views of many others, is that visual culture studies ought to be launched as a distinct discipline. Firstly visual culture has had an abrupt surge into the discourses of humanity and requires investigation. There is need therefore to reflect on what factors might enhance it or otherwise block it from becoming (Bryson 2003).

The chapter ‘visual culture’ starts with an authoritative prescription that goals and methods of visual culture studies must “seriously engage both terms in their negativity that is: ‘visual’ as impure, discursive and pragmatic while ‘culture’ as shifting, differential located between ‘zones of culture’ and performed in practices of power and resistance” (p. 19). Therefore it is clear from the author’s argument that the terms visual and culture must be analyzed separately before they are integrated into a discipline of study.

The chapter continues to enlist that the differentiation between the high and mass culture should be subjected to test and finally dismissed as merely political. However the author is quick to warn that this abandoning could lead to losing a fundamental tool of analysis.

It goes on to defend that this differentiation is what should be the primary object of visual culture studies (p.19). Further the author provides an insight that cultural studies have been responsible for opening up the disciplinary structure of the humanities. It has however, as an interdiscipline, suffered difficulties with all of its enquiries and as a result it always defies the boundaries of humanities leading to the heated intellectual debate about its position.

There is however one major drawback of visual culture that the author identifies in this chapter; that its object (what you study) has changed but the method (how you do the study) has remained static (p.20). This lack of methodology is the only limitation that visual culture has to contend with because it completely denies it persuasive analysis.

However visual culture today has an uncontrollable upsurge and if we put bottlenecks before it development, we may end up losing in the game. Presently, the field has become too common through new technologies like print media, electronic media among others. Images are not only socially unavoidable but are also part and parcel of economic mainstreams (Hobsbawn 1990).

Today, without pictures (visual), whether canonical or your own, you are like one without sight. It is difficult to imagine a magazine without illustrations, books without images for that would portend life without meaning-an innocent life, blind life.

There is a great proliferation of images elsewhere, everywhere and images are no longer escapable in life where all media be it electronic ( television, cinema, internet et cetera) or print ( newspapers, magazines and books) all pump images into the social stage (Bryson 2003) oblivious of the where about of the targeted clientele.

And the article reinforces this clearly thus, “because seeing is an act of interpreting, interpretation can influence ways of seeing, hence, of imagining possibilities of change” (p. 21); visual culture has few steps to becoming an independent discipline.

It is in this understanding that the paper analyses that pictures today are all over and people earn money from the technologies involved, for example in movie industry with even futuristic animated technology like that of blockbusters as avatar all over the world. Magazines cannot sell without the relevant images; commercial models are used to advertise for goods and services in commerce. Visuals therefore have not only become relevant in museums but have had huge influence in all scores of life, political, social economic, aesthetics et cetera.

Therefore my view is that, when a phenomena overwhelms the social control with such impunity as visual culture, the best action is to investigate how, why, where, and what next. In this sense the author is right to advise that visual culture should be investigated thoroughly in order to give it a just destiny in our area of studies. The emergence of visual culture as a deserving area of enquiry is deeply rooted in real social processes that are here to stay whatever form it takes in future (Bryson 2003).

The proliferation of images today in both production and circulation of visuals is so common in a way that cannot be overlooked (Bryson 2003). Although visual culture is denoted as new by some people, it is not considering that visual culture studies have been there under other disciplines.

The traditional art tactic is no longer useful as technology has made it easy to come up with visuals through designing not curving out or assembling natural objects. Software of advanced sophistication is all over and that makes it possible to design visuals, which never was, at a greater speed, efficiency and quality, rightly fitted to a theme.

The concept of visual culture therefore badly requires recognition as a discipline within humanities. The chapter also lists that visual culture “It examines the act of seeing as a product of the tensions between external images or objects, and internal thought processes” (p.19) Bal left it at a point where she did not declare her stand and she is categorical that, “This is why I am reluctant to declare visual culture a branch of cultural studies (p.20).

The author here defends her stand by stating that visual culture definition is controversial and each side in the dissenting views has a worthy point to defend. However as a fact of today’s experience designing and stylization need to be taught in class and the art of interpretation professionalized.

In the chapter Bal fears that if visual culture is endorsed as a discipline, those who do so might suffer disillusionment should it cease to exist but our experience has it that the visuals are so deeply entrenched into the lives of people that it would be hard for visual study to die off instead, there is thirsty grounds for the discipline that just require to be watered and the discipline will blossom and bear fruits never to be shaken off by seasons.

The object of visual culture should be sought first in order for us to decide whether visual culture is a discipline or cast it into its former position where it has suffered a Cinderella treatment.

The chapter also analyses that if the object domain is visually categorized subject to certain assumptions, approaches and techniques and if it is organized and can be analyzed, then visual culture is undoubtedly a discipline. It es true that visual culture should concentrate some effort on discovering the forces that makes visual essentialism zero its interest in visual culture.

This way the subject will qualify to be an independent discipline. In the attempt to understand the ‘object’ Hooper-Greenhill (1989, p.104) says an object is a thing which guides feeling, action and thought. Bal (2003) goes on to argue that visuality is impure because it is itself the act of looking directed to any object that inheres the object domain. Therefore here Hooper-Greenhill agrees with Bal that there can be nothing like visuality without the object.

In the same argument the object has to be made first according to Mitchell (2003), who analyses Bal’s article. Mitchell argues that Bal’s phobia in defining an object rather than making it is oscillatory because even the making she proposes is just a process leading to the end definition. Every act of creativity is an act of definition, a process of coming up with a definite identity out of an array of alternatives (Mitchell 2003).

Mitchell supports the idea that visual culture is a combination of things brought together and thus visual culture studies must encapsulate such areas as popular culture and media which are as dynamic to capture at a particular time as fast moving jet. These areas, in addition, include non artistic, visual representation, scientific imaging, technical imaging and social acts of seeing and being active in the process, commercial media et cetera (Mitchell 2003).

Generally the idea that visual culture must first of all specify its object of research in outlining the objective of visual culture require some consideration. The following objects among others are listed to support this point: that visual culture studies must analyze critical points and the way to visual culture and bring down their long established persistence. This is where it must deal with the aim of where visual nature meets with the process and the practices that establishes a given culture (Mirzoeff 1999).

This means further that visual culture must separate itself from art history and its method of inquiry. Visual culture therefore must examine the driving force behind realism that inspires its political interest through portrait display. In this ‘cult’ artistic ‘quality’ overshadows faithful representation of the achiever which should be the end (Barlow 1994, p.518).

Putting the object before everything else misleads the goal where understanding should come first followed by perception that guides it. However whatever visual culture is, it is challenging to come up with its definition without referring to visual nature (Mitchell 2003). This is because visuality is made up of many things for example automatic and will reflexes and learnt ones, programmed and freely chosen (Mitchell 2003).

Against the author’s proposition of treating visual culture initially as a movement, the above analysis proves that visual culture is a safe ground and we can fearlessly and confidently put our hands into it and come up with successes. However with the innocence of the eye, we should not just walk upright into that decision, we need to tip toe so as to take the foot off when we foresee a soft ground.

Visual culture therefore asserts itself in a basket that may be referred to as visuality. The development of images that probes for search of a specific placement, for them is proof enough that something has to be done. The response is the kind of influence visual culture has in the daily life. The article treats this discussion with such delicate arms to avoid being left with blame marks should the idea proposed sells, succeeds and fail later.

With all this analysis, it is therefore worthy to conclude that visual culture requires special consideration and ought to be taken as a discipline. With all the images I see around that require my attention and earning life for somebody but me, it makes sense to capture whatever skill that produced them as a discipline. That way visual culture will be professionalized after centuries of suffering under other disciplines. If it hadn’t then time has come and it has grown too much to fit in its usual outfit.

List of References

Bal, M. (2003) Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture, London: Thousand oaks.

Barlow, P. (1994) ‘The Imagined Hero as Incarnate Sign: Thomas Carlyle and the Mythology of the “National Portrait” in Victorian Britain’, Art History, vol.17, no.4, pp.517-45.

Bryson, N. (2003) Visual culture and the dearth of images, London: Macmillan.

Hobsbawm, E.J. (1990) Nations and Nationalism since 1870: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1989) ‘The Museum in the Disciplinary Society’, in: S. Pearce, ed. Museum Studies in Material Culture, London: Leicester University Press, pp.61-72.

Mirzoeff, N. (1999) Introduction to Visual Culture, London: Routledge.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2003) ‘Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture’, Journal of visual culture, vol.1, no. 3, pp.165-83.

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, New York: Oxford University Press.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture." March 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/visual-essentialism-and-the-object-of-visual-culture/.

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