- Building Pictures: Hiroshi Sugimoto on Visual Culture
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One of the most useful points Nicholas Mirzoeff makes in An Introduction to Visual Culture is that visual culture has permeated and saturated our “everyday life.” He uses that very phrase over half-a-dozen times in his introduction to describe the most productive ways of conceiving of visual culture as a phenomenon and as a discipline. Unfortunately, Mirzoeff’s idea of everyday life leaves out most of what constitutes lived experience; his conviction that “modern life takes place onscreen” leads him to limit his understanding of modern life to those aspects of it which are the products of modern visual technologies: cameras, digital imaging, virtual reality, and the like.
If it is true that the visual “is not just a part of everyday life, it is everyday life,” then surely it extends well beyond mechanically orchestrated moments of seeing. Indeed, Mirzoeff allows that “visual culture directs our attention away from structured, formal viewing settings like the cinema and art gallery to the centrality of visual experience in everyday life.” Still, in his model, this diffuse visual experience is limited by other structures, those concerned with the technological production of images. Although “most of our visual experience takes place aside from . . . formally structured moments of looking,” Mirzoeff describes the generalized visual culture he envisions in surprisingly narrow terms:
A painting may be noticed on a book jacket or in an advert, television is consumed as a part of domestic life rather than as the sole activity of the viewer, and films are as likely to be seen on video, in an aeroplane or on cable as in a traditional cinema. . . . [V]isual culture prioritize[s] the everyday experience of the visual from the snapshot to the VCR and even the blockbuster art exhibition.
It becomes apparent that what Mirzoeff means by the “visual” is actually the representational, the virtual, or as W.J.T. Mitchell says, the “pictorial” (11). A film shown in many media is an illustration not of the saturation of modern life by the visual but of what Lisa Cartwright calls “media convergence,” a concept with real implications for visual culture but not a definition of it (7).
As Paul Jay has rightly pointed out, what Mirzoeff calls visual culture might more accurately be termed “screen culture,” since it has almost entirely to do with the machinery of image production and distribution, not with visual experience more broadly. For Jay, the most appropriate use of “visual culture” would include a host of “everyday, even banal objects and signs” that contribute to the visuality of experience. These would include anything from architecture and interior design to “landscaping, advertising . . . store fronts, monuments, and built spaces.” For Jay, to emerge from the dim subway and be struck by the stark light and sheer verticality of a downtown Chicago street would constitute an experience of visual culture. Likewise, one might participate in visual culture by meandering through Rome’s “maze of small, winding streets” while noting its “dizzying interplay of historical periods and vernacular styles.”
One does not need to be looking through or into a camera to be within visual culture. Certainly images of all kinds, particularly the mechanically reproduced, have complicated and enriched our notion of how culture is visual, but to limit the discussion of visual culture to a discussion of visual technology would be missing a great opportunity to glean even more meaning from what happens when we look. DVDs, films, snapshots, advertisements all have a necessary place in visual culture, but they do not contain it entirely. The need to develop a vigorous visual culture studies encourages us patiently to observe all the visual forms and surfaces of life and to ask how the perception of these is informed, not just by culture but also by visuality itself. Regardless of its status, or lack thereof, as the subject of an organized academic discipline, visual...