- Filling in the Picture: Visual Culture
Distinctions between history and art blur in the work of Fred Wilson, who rearranges museum collections to bring together items that convention normally separates. In his installation Mining the Museum (1992) at the Maryland Historical Society, he intermingled slave shackles, manufactured in Baltimore, with fine silver vessels made during the same time period for well-to-do Baltimoreans. Wilson’s display reminded viewers that shackles visually identified the status of wearers as well as restraining them; silver vessels gave visual evidence of their owners’ prominence. Bringing the shackles and silver vessels together took, in addition to Wilson’s artistic vision, years of collective struggle to change a discriminatory racial order that sustained, and perhaps in some small measure was sustained by, the practice of keeping these objects apart. Wilson, who in performances has smashed ornamental pieces that caricatured blacks, does not revere all visual remnants of the past. He does take them seriously. Increasingly in the twenty-five years since the inaugural issue of Reviews in American History, historians also have taken seriously American visual culture.
Visual culture is what is seen. In her biography of Picasso, Gertrude Stein observes that what changes over time is what is seen and what is seen results from how everybody’s doing everything. What is seen depends on what there is to see and how we look at it. Historians of American visual culture have studied photographs, films, and videos; advertisements and other commercially produced visual materials; television and other electronic imagery; paintings, sculptures, and other works of visual art; illustrated magazines, comics and editorial cartoons; the visual appearance of buildings, cities, and the worked landscape; material objects that Americans have designed, manufactured or acquired; the human body as clothed, shaped, adorned, and depicted; and changes in modes of perception, including new ways of seeing made possible by innovations that changed the viewer’s vantage point or otherwise removed constraints.
The 1982 tenth anniversary edition of Reviews (a historiographical survey like this twenty-fifth anniversary edition) had no essay on any of the two dozen topics enumerated in the previous sentence. Only one contributor, Michael Kammen, discussed at any length specific visual images. 1 Why? [End Page 275] Perhaps what Neil Harris wrote of intellectual historians in 1979 can be generalized to describe the relation most American historians had to visual phenomena during Reviews’s first decade. Harris observed that historians avoided study of topics such as the late-nineteenth-century iconographical revolution brought on by the halftone engraving process because they considered pictures intellectually suspect, lacked training for dealing with visual images and processes involved in their creation, and considered most images commercially tainted or aesthetic products that belonged in the specialized realm of art history. 2 However, books published in the tenth anniversary year indicated that scholars were building on the pioneering studies of American visual culture by dozens of scholars including Harris, Kammen, Leo Marx, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Linda Nochlin, William H. Goetzmann, Thomas Schlereth, and Barbara Novak. 1982 publications included Daniel J. Czitrom’s Media and the American Mind From Morse to McLuhan, Michael Lesy’s Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860–1945, Karal Ann Marling’s Wall to Wall America: A Cultural History of Post Office Murals in the Great Depression, John Stilgoe’s Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845, and Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. 3
Much more was to come. In 1982 a typical age at which aspirants completed a doctorate in history was the mid-thirties. They were teenagers in the early 1960s, when visual evidence played a crucial role in the Cuban missile crisis, and networks doubled the length of their evening news broadcasts, partly to accommodate dramatic Civil Rights footage. Most submitted all consciousness to TV from November 22 to November 25, 1963, and attended college and graduate school amidst intense public attention to Vietnam and then Watergate. Some who had these experiences, along with older colleagues who had observed the mobilization of the visual environment during the Depression and World War II, or who simply became infatuated with...