- Visualizing Nineteenth-Century American Culture
[End Page 895]
Some years ago, as the recent recipient of an American civilization Ph.D. and a new faculty member with a joint appointment in American studies and art history, I was desperate for a way to describe my interests. Living in fear that my art history colleagues would hear someone call me an art historian and thus shun me in the slide library for the perceived presumption, needing a way to fend off criticism of my interest in what most dismissed as “bad art,” and believing that the useful term in many disciplines—Americanist—just wouldn’t do for someone with no discipline, I came up with what I thought was a clever and original term to describe my field: “visual culture.” Woe to the academic who thinks she’s original and clever, because, of course, she probably isn’t. I believe now that I first ran across the term in one of my favorite art historical texts, Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing: Dutch Art of the Seventeenth Century and had, until recently, forgotten its source. 1 These days, however, it’s difficult to open an art history journal, attend a scholarly meeting, or browse an academic bookshelf without encountering the term. Indeed, in less than a year, American Art, itself an important source of articles in the field, published two commentaries by prominent historians, Angela Miller and William Innes Homer, both of whom identified “visual culture” as a new paradigm for the study of images and objects. 2
For some, including Miller and Homer, “visual culture” emphasizes the act of interpreting particular artifacts. In order to interpret visual forms, Miller contends, the scholar must pay attention “both to the social experience of individual viewers and to the location of such forms within the larger universe of visual expression” (13). To others, notably W. J. T. Mitchell, perhaps the leading theorist in the field, the end is not so much to interpret specific images as to understand how images operate within culture, to “trace their linkages to issues of power, value, and human interest.” 3 Most polemically, in the work of art historian Barbara Stafford, the study of “visual culture” involves making a positive case for the importance of visual, as opposed to verbal, means of knowing and communicating. Indeed, in Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, Stafford argues that “imaging, ranging from high art to popular illusions, remains the richest, most fascinating modality for configuring and conveying ideas.” 4 Such a proliferation of approaches underscores what Homer judges in his commentary; that is, “visual culture” is a “youthful, amorphous medium that is still trying to find its own identity” (6). The six books [End Page 896] reviewed here also demonstrate the truth of Homer’s conclusion. As a field, “visual culture” offers “fresh new fields for discovery and insight” (9).
In A Measure of Perfection, for example, Charles Colbert resurrects phrenology—generally regarded today as, at best, a quaint pseudo-science practiced by a handful of eccentrics during the last century—and makes a convincing case, not only for its importance to American “fine” art, but also for its broader influence within American culture. 5...