The term visual culture is no easy feat to define in a sentence or two, and perhaps has only become recently critical to even try to define in the last few decades, due to the surge in visual media, and its accompaniment in our every waking hour in contemporary society. Visual culture has technically existed since the beginning of humankind, and the birth of art, dating back to ancient times. Despite its place throughout history, visual culture has become increasingly challenging to try to contain or define, with every passing century, decade, and year, largely because of the lightning speed technological advancements that are occurring as we creep forward into the future. What came out of our understanding of art, art which is painted on canvases, worked into sculptures, or the work of architects designing buildings, evolved into a range of new mediums following the birth of photography and film, before the emergence of advertising, graffiti, and continues into the digital age that we found ourselves in today.
Today the variety of media platforms and new technologies and inventions that are pushing the boundaries of art, seem to push forward on an almost daily basis through the creation of new apps, interactive experiences and software for design and content creation. Visual culture now consists of all of these aforementioned forms of art, media and communication, which are in a revolving wheel influencing one another, and constantly rebirthing as something new. By looking at what some of the great scholars of today have said in regards to the attempt to define the idea of visual culture and explain what it all means, one can start to piece together the many pieces that have been scattered throughout the landscape we exist in today.
According to historian and art critic, Hal Foster (2002), when faced with the question whether Art History has been able to differentiate itself from other fields of study through the field’s newfound independence within academia, “It’s not simple: some avant-gardes claimed autonomy, some attacked it, some did both at the same time. Closer to the present, the question of autonomy returned in the debates about Visual Culture and Visual Studies. For me, those terms signify an expanded field of art and Art History, respectively, in some aspects expanded beyond them as well. And I wonder if, for all the gain here, there might not also be some loss” (Smith 5). Also according to Hal Foster, “art is what we do, and culture is what is done to us”. (Smith M., 2008).
Perhaps based on this suggestion from Foster, it might be fair to suggest that visual culture could be best described as the reflection of what we do within art, our understanding of the art that is created, how it is then interpreted and reproduced by others, and what this in turn says about the society we have created for ourselves. It appears as though from scholars such as Foster, that there is some apprehension surrounding Art History separating itself from other elements of the Visual Studies field, because they are so closely related and influenced by one another. Hal Foster also states that Art History and visual culture are intertwined, with many of the best Modernist works in art being connected to innovative or overlooked mediums of visual culture (Smith 9).
Also according to researcher and scientist, James Cutting, (2007), “Indeed, five of the seven museums with the largest, most diverse Impressionist collections are in the United States — the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The works within their galleries — along with those in the Musee d’Orsay and the National Gallery of Art in London — are icons of modernism and are deeply embedded in Western visual culture. They even appear on towels, scarves, coasters, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and textbook covers” (Cutting 81). By considering visual culture in the words of James Cutting, the most influential artforms have forever seeped into the world outside of the galleries and museums that they are housed in, and become integral to the everyday commercial world of the visual culture we have all consumed, passively or in a participatory manner, (Cutting, J., 2007).
According to James Clifford, “Indeed, prevailing definitions of what is “beautiful” or “interesting” sometimes change quite rapidly”, (Clifford 99). This could mean that there is the possibility that much of what we currently do not consider to be aesthetically pleasing, although it may even fit into “The Art-Culture System, A Machine for Making Authenticity” model (Clifford 100), there is a high likelihood that we are ignoring objects today that will be considered to be art and worthy of being exhibited and displayed in galleries and museums in either the near, or far off future. James Clifford also mentions that, “Things of cultural or historical value may be promoted to the status of fine art”, (Clifford 100), and so with the passing of time, many objects will gain the ability to be renowned as pieces of art that we completely take for granted today. This could include almost any of our household objects, of which could be considered art pieces and in turn could be curated in museums for many future generations to marvel at and appreciate.
This also could also mean that the latest technologies we have manufactured and designed, as nothing more than commodities, could eventually evolve into forms of art once they gain significant cultural or historical value, which typically only involves the advancement of time to reach. Within the realm of visual culture, the documentation of our current modern world in the form of visual media, has been performed by many artists throughout history, within every medium ranging from painting, sculptures, caricatures, filmmaking and advertising. Given just enough time, with just enough for dust to form on these creations and the technology that they were produced with, these will all soon be precious historical art forms and artifacts that will help explain the world it once lived in. What does that mean for the mind bogglingly vast amount of visual content our society churns out on a daily basis today? If it’s anything like the increasingly historically appreciated aesthetic style of visual content, specifically on television, from the decade of the 1980’s, it could become culturally and historically relevant. Television advertising in the 1980’s, an era of relatively modern history within visual culture that continues to influence contemporary creators today, means that in thirty to forty years time, there is some potential that today’s visual content could be viewed through a new lens by historians.
The example of visual culture of advertising from the years 1980 to 1989 for all types of products, companies, services and multinational franchises and fast food chains, immediately runs into the “not art” categorization within “The Art-Culture System, A Machine for Making Authenticity” model, (Clifford 100) , due to the obvious commercial purposes of this medium. However, Clifford’s same idea being that once something gains historical or cultural significance, it may graduate into the art domain, is a very intriguing notion. The question would be then, how long before the television commercials of the 1980’s reach that point of becoming historically or culturally remarkable? Although these advertisements are increasingly aestheticized and repurposed and influential within contemporary advertising, film, music videos, photography, graphic design, and many other mediums of visual culture, it doesn’t appear that nearly enough time has passed for these time capsules within the ad world to be projected in any galleries or museums, any time soon, at least not in their actuality.
There is the possibility that the heavily negative connotations associated with mass consumerism and mainstream commercial media and advertising will still keep this era of increasingly beloved television content, despite coming from a nostalgia drenched decade, from being considered by any critic or scholar as a form of “art”. This likely has a lot to do with the ramifications of the political and economic actions from this period in the western world, and the effect and memory it still has on society today. Large multinational corporations and their commercials and advertisements are more likely to be viewed with some level of resentment and reviled by many academics within the visual culture and art world, due to the nature of late stage neoliberalism in the late 20th century. Kenneth Frampton reflects this sentiment by stating, “Everywhere throughout the world, one finds the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminum atrocities, the same twisting of language by propaganda, etc. It seems as if mankind, by approaching en masse a basic consumer culture, were also stopped en masse at a subcultural level” (Frampton 148). Mass consumerism and commercialism could be largely attributed to being a factor in the loss of culture on an international level, thanks to cultural imperialism, the Americanization of the world, and many other factors that came out of the neoliberal era that the 1980’s and previous decades exemplified (Frampton, K., 1983).
While it is true that there is compelling evidence from scholars and arguments made that commercial content cannot be included or considered to be “art” in its purest form, the fact that 30–40 year old television advertisements are a visual medium, rely on some level of aesthetics, and are increasingly fetishized and aestheticized by artists today, makes this a compelling case and placement within the field of visual culture. It could also mean that perhaps with enough time and universal recognition of its cultural and historical significance, TV ads could someday graduate into the status of art. Television advertising and commercials are increasingly cinematic in our contemporary world, as well, and are more frequently directed by some of the most critically acclaimed film directors, cinematographers, visual effects coordinators, writers and editors. Bringing in highly creative art directors onto its sets and including a wide range of visual artists in the production, signals that today’s commercial and advertising industries will most likely find an even easier time of finding their way into “high art” status among scholars and critics than its predecessors.
Clifford, J. “On Collecting Art and Culture”, 1998, pp. 99–100, Clifford-OnCollectingArtandCulture(1).pdf (mymru.ca), Retrieved on November 24, 2020.
Cutting, J.E. “Mere Exposure, Reproduction, and the Impressionist Canon”, September, 2007, pp. 80–81, (PDF) Mere Exposure, Reproduction, and the Impressionist Canon (researchgate.net), Retrieved on November 24, 2020.
Frampton, K. “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism”, 1983, pp. 147–162, frampton.pdf (mymru.ca), Retrieved on November 24, 2020.
Smith, M. “Polemics, Postmodernism, Immersion, Militarized Space1”, 2008, pp. 5–9, SAGE Books — Visual Culture Studies (mtroyal.ca), Retrieved on November 24, 2020.