- Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, Concept, Contexts
I review this new introductory text in light of its competition as a textbook for undergraduates and as an introduction for graduate students. Other such texts include Barnard, Elkins, Mirzeoff, Walker and Chaplin, and Sturken and Cartwright,1 which appears to be the most widely used. Rampley's anthology stands up well among these competitors, especially for those who wish to transition from art to contemporary popular visual culture rather more gently than other texts that, for many students, might come as too abrupt a disjuncture from mainstream practice in schools of art and design. As Matthew Rampley states in his excellent introduction, if the book has an original contribution to make, it is to situate an acknowledgment of traditional practices and issues into the makeup of visual culture studies. Unlike other texts, mentioned above, which tend to stress screen and print media, Rampley's agenda is to remind readers of the historical origins of many recent developments as well as the contribution of cultural forms other than two-dimensional ones. Thus, chapters are included that trace the history and continuing contribution of traditional media; art, design, craft, and architecture each receive individual chapters. MacDonald, for example, describes the complex meanings of craft and its relationship to fine art and design from classical times to today, as well as summarizes the characteristics and politics of craft today. Furthermore, the influence of technology is charted principally through conventional art, and the chapters on photography, film, and fashion are likewise cast largely in terms of historical accounts of whether these forms should be considered to be art.
The historical bias is equally evident in the pictures used to illustrate the text. While, for example, there are contemporary popular images, such [End Page 118] as a cover of the Sun newspaper and a photograph of Punks, there are as many crossover images—postcards of famous art portraits and a Michelangelo on a T shirt—as well as many conventional artworks. Delacroix, Corbert, Rauschenberg, David, Fuseli, and Van Goyen are each featured. Some of the popular images are also historical, such as George Mêlées 1902 classic film Voyage to Moon and advertisements from the1930s.
Sometimes the historical material takes up much of the space, with recent developments given only cursory treatment, and sometimes the material is dealt with in ways that seem rather old-fashioned to this reader. For example, Glyn Davis's chapter on photography and film is primarily a potted historical account of the relationships between these two cultural forms and art. Further, Davis does not just describe the arguments for and against their inclusion as art but is clearly engaged with these issues himself, an engagement that many proponents of visual culture would find rather quaint—that is, rather less interesting than the particular contribution that these forms make to contemporary life and for whom the question, "Is it art?" is no longer of any particular interest. This art orientation also colors Davis's view of Hollywood films. Clearly preferring "art" films, he completely ignores the role of popular film in exploring the fears, anxieties, beliefs, and so on of the wider public. By contrast, Richard Williams argues against architecture as a form of art, with its limited concerns with aesthetics, style, and canonical buildings, in favor of architecture as discourse and spatial experience. He is more interested in the reception of architecture than its production—first with architecture as signs, as meanings that are mutable, contingent, and arbitrary; and, secondly, as ordinary urban lived experience, with how architecture is but one element within the experience of urban environments.
Typical of the avoidance of technical terms in the book as a whole, Williams beautifully describes the difference between structuralism and poststructuralism without once mentioning either of these terms, and in a chapter on architecture he manages to use the term "postmodern" only once. Similarly, in Neil Mulholland's chapter on representation and realism, cultural border crossing and indigenization are both described, albeit briefly, though without recourse to these terms...