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The issue of visual culture has caught the attention of the world due to the force at which visuals are intruding into the society. Scholars have launched heated debates on whether visual culture should be an independent discipline in humanities or not. This brings into focus the issue of definition of terms such as 'culture', 'object', 'visual essentialism', among others, which must be analyzed before this favor is granted. This paper is going to critique an article by Bal in her article `Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture'
Bal commences her article, by introducing the reader to her topic the visual culture. She gives an analogy of religion in trying to justify that it would be wrong to absolutely denote visual culture as a field or treat it as such. She craftily concludes that to confuse religion studies and religious studies is more or less like classifying visual culture as discipline proper.
It will be difficult to try to study visual culture in the discourse of an existing discipline. Therefore visual culture may be elusive to be trapped in a basket as discipline. She proposes that visual culture largely requires drawing from alternative disciplines that have curved their niche well into the field of academics for example; anthropology, psychology, and sociology.
She continued to argue that there could be compliance that visual art is a discipline by the fact that it claims a specific object and raises questions about it the object. At last Bal leaves the question at issue as an open ended scheme. She prefers it as a movement that can fail to propel and harm no one or succeed at its own advantage. She presents visual culture as problematic if taken superficially.
The article also discusses at large the death of the object: Interdisciplinarity. Bal analyses that the basis of interdisciplinary study is its creation of a new object that belongs to no discipline that constitutes it.
In this, she argues that the practice of looking in any object constitute the object domain. This is so due to the objects historicity, social placement and its availability to the critique of its synaesthetics and therefore not all objects can be studied under visual culture without the possibility of the act of seeing but not the materiality of the seen object (Bal, 2003). This act is the one that determines whether to classify an object of art in line with visual culture studies.
She argues here that a fate awaits culture as no scholar has ever defined it exhaustively including Raymond Williams (1976). Bal sees culture as a dual entity which can be useful and misleading at the same time. In this conclusion it can be deduced that visual culture is not in line with the desired essentialism. The problem with the object she deduces is its attempt to explain what culture is. In this attempt, she utterly declares culture dead as she puts; in making the singular universal and making the plural homogenous culture loses its existence (Bal, 2003)
Culture therefore faces the same tragedy of visuality: it is very hard to conjure up its defination. Understanding culture, Bal argues, depends on the context on which it is used.
Bal is therefore reluctant to declare visual culture as a branch of cultural studies because the studies have been responsible for spearheading structure of humanities as a discipline. The author goes on to argue that visual culture is driven by a visuality focusing on questions. The argument is mostly the methods which has not changed but what you do it has changed (Bal, 2003)
Bal finally analyses what she thought to be the objects of visual culture studies. First, she postulates that visual culture can be better understood when it is detached from art history and its techniques. The discipline must start by exploring and explaining the bond between itself and naturalism as it exists in museum, schools and histories and discourses of imperialism and racism (Hobsbawn, 1990). Visual art must understand some motivations of giving art history a lead in anteriority narratives (Bal, 2001)
Visual culture has had an abrupt surge into the discourses of humanity and requires investigation. There is need therefore to reflect on what factors might enhance it or otherwise block it from becoming and this is what Bal undertook in her discourse (Bryson, 2003).
Bal undertook to curve the possible future of visual culture as an area of study, that she declines to come out clean whether it is a discipline, multidiscipline, non discipline or interdisciplinary. Presently, the field has become too common through new technologies like print media, electronic media among others. Images are not only socially inevitable but are part and parcel of economic mainstreams.
Today, without pictures (visual), whether canonical or your own, you are like one without sight. It is difficult to imagine a magazine without illustrations, books without images for that would portend life without meaning- an innocent life, blind life. There is a great proliferation of images elsewhere, everywhere and images are no longer escapable in life where all media be it electronic ( television, cinema, internet et cetera) or print ( newspapers, magazines and books) all pump images into the social stage (Bryson, 2003) oblivious of the where about of the targeted clientele.
Pictures have had intrusion as money minting machines as in movie industry with even futuristic animated technology like that of blockbusters as avatar all over the world. Magazines cannot sell without the allure of relevant images; commercial models are used to advertise for goods and services in commerce. Visual therefore have not only become relevant in museums but have had profound influence in all scores of life, political, social economic, aesthetics et cetera. It is no wonder that a picture is worth a million words (Bal, 2003)
Therefore when a new phenomena overwhelms the gates of social control and intrudes into the very table to dine with kings, with such impurity as visual culture, the best action to take is that proposed by Bal- to investigate how, why, where, and what next. This makes me to conclude that visual culture should be investigated thoroughly in order to give it a just destiny in our area of studies. The emergence of visual culture as a deserving area of enquiry is deeply rooted in real social processes that are here to stay whatever form it takes in future (Bryson, 2003). But according to Bal there may be no future for such a discipline leading to her fear of unburying her head from the sand of caution.
The proliferation of images in daily life today in both production and circulation off visuals is so common in a way that cannot be overlooked (Bryson, 2003).
The traditional art tactic is no longer useful as technology has made it easy to come up with visuals through designing not curving out or assembling natural objects. Software of advanced sophistication is all over that make it possible to design visuals, which never was, at a greater speed, efficiency and quality, rightly fitted to a theme.
The concept of visual culture therefore badly requires recognition as a discipline within humanities. Bal left it at a point where she did not declare her stand. As a fact of today's experience designing and stylization need to be taught in class and the art of interpretation be professionalized.
Although visual culture is denoted as new by some people, it is not. In order to consider visual culture as a discipline there is a greater need to re-examine the visual and culture to relate them well, Bal (2003) argues that both these must be removed from the essentialism that have plagued their traditional counterparts with the object thatcan be said to be new. She continues to argue that it would be futile to separate visual culture and its study.
Invisible objects can be visible when they are directed by knowledge (Foucault, 1975; 15). Visibility is also a practice of determining the visibility or invisibility of objects. To prove that visibility is purely subjective she analyzes that in a culture there are high profiled experts, visibility preserves its objects and challenges these experts. Visual culture depend on the modern tendency to picture but not the pictures themselves (Mirzoeff 1999: 5). It is this interest to visualize that gave western modernity its unique form rather than a universal truth.
Objects have to be created and there are some things considered objects as; images. She argues that regardless of the definition, such objects must be grouped and functions must be created. The object is made up of things that are visible and that have particular visual quality that takes into consideration the society influencing that visual quality (Bal, 2003)
Bal fears that if endorsed as a discipline, those who do so might suffer disillusionment should it cease to exist but according to today's experience, the visuals are so deeply entrenched into the lives of people that it would be hard for visual study to die off instead, there is thirsty grounds for the discipline that just require to be watered and the discipline will blossom and bear fruits never to be shaken off by seasonal tumults.
This means against Bal's supposition, that it be treated initially as a movement, visual art is a safe pocket and has matured enough that we can fearlessly and confidently delve into it and come up with successes. However with the innocence of the eye, Bal has all reasons as to why we should not just walk upright into that decision, we need to tip toe so as to take the foot off when we realize an imminent morass.
Bal took the object as the starting point in her attempt to avoid and trickle a movement she calls visual essentialism that tags what is visual and what is not. The movement utterly promotes the knower and ignores the known. It actually flirts with the observer and not the observed. Much to the chagrin of many, the object domain must precede the art of looking (Bal, 2003)
The answer to the object is what should be sought first in order for us to decide whether visual culture is discipline or cast it into its primordial station where it has suffered a Cinderella treatment. Bal proposes that if the object domain is made of visually categorized object's subject to certain assumptions approaches and techniques that are organized and can be analyzed, then visual culture is undoubtedly a discipline.
Object is defined as material thing or an aim, purpose. It is also a thing which feeling, action or thought are guided (Hooper-Greenhill, 2008; 104). Bal (2003) goes on to argue that visuality is impure because it is itself the act of looking directed to any object that inheres the object domain. Therefore there can be nothing like visuality proper without the object.
Mitchell, (2003) in her analysis of Bal's article analyses that an object is a person who is both an agent of sight and the effect of a series of categories of visual subjectivity. The object therefore has to be made first. Bal's phobia in defining an object rather than making it is oscillatory because even the making she proposes is just a process leading to the end definition. Every act of creativity is an act of definition, a process of coming up with a definite identity out of an array of alternatives ( Mitchell,2003).
Visual culture is therefore a combination of things brought together and thus visual culture studies must encapsulate such areas as popular culture and media which are as dynamic to capture at a particular time as fast moving jet. These areas in addition, includes non artistic, visual representation, scientific imaging, technical imaging and social acts of seeing and being active in the process, commercial media et cetera (Mitchell, 2003).
We are introduced to the term visual essentialism that either denotes purity or a need to stake onto the turf (Bal, 2003). In the article Bal argues for and against the visual culture study or studies and She attempts to draw from the topic of her paper.
However visual culture must first of all specify its object of research in outlining the objective of visual culture. Bal enlists the following objects among others: that visual culture studies must analyze critical points and the way to visual culture and bring down their long established persistence. This is where it must deal with the aim of where visual nature meets with the process and the practices that establishes a given culture.
This means further that visual culture must disentangle itself from art history and its inquiry methodology. Visual culture must also examine the driving force behind realism that entrenches its political interest through portrait display. In this cult artistic quality overshadows faithful representation of the achiever which should be the end (Barlow, 1994:518).
The third object should be to decipher some of the motivation of visual essentialism which mounts its interest on the knower and obscure visual culture (Foucault, 1957). Putting the object before everything else derails the goal where understanding should come first then ushers in perception that guides it. However whatever visual culture is, it is challenging to conjure up its definition without reference to visual nature (Mitchell, 2003). This is because visuality is made up of many things for example automatic and will reflexes and learnt ones, programmed and freely chosen (Mitchell, 2003).
Visual culture therefore asserts itself in a basket that may be referred to as visuality. For it to succeed in this I concur with Mitchell in her analysis of object of visual culture that we have deployed essentialist view to define or create it or to grasp some start for discussion from it (Mitchell, 2003). The development of images that probes for search of a specific niche, for them is proof enough that something has to be done. The response is the kind of influence visual culture has met in the daily life.
With all this analysis it is therefore inevitable to conclude that visual culture needs special coding and be taken as a discipline. With all the images I see around that require my attention and earning life for somebody but me, it is paramount to capture whatever skill that conjured them as a discipline. That way visual culture will be professionalized after centuries of chocking under other disciplines. If it hadn't then time has come and it has grown too much to fit in its usual outfit.