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The aim of this essay is to develop an analytical framework for understanding and mapping the development and the importance of the Visual Culture, evaluating its impact on today's society. I'll also introduce the thesis of two of the most influential theorists and the tools and methods they assumed to interpret this phenomenon. Finally I'll go through the development of the meaning of a visual artifact within a culture.
The term Visual Culture was used for the first time by Svetlana Alpers in 1972 to describe the approach towards pieces of art focused not only on their history and influence, but also to introduce the culture surrounding them as part of a more complete interpretation (Alpers, 1983, 1998). During her study in the Flamish painting her first suggestion was to consider those works as part of a more complex contemporary visual culture dated when those paintings were made, thus contextualizing them to their original "environment" . According to Alpers (1998) the attention of the viewer had to be moved towards the structure of the visual in a specific historical period, from the gears which rule the sight to the processes of production of images, up to the tools and techniques which that process relies on and/or it is favored.
The visual text, understood as texts that are created using still or moving images (Television, film, radio, advertising, billboards, the Internet, etcâ€¦) , had to be interpreted not only as a culture is visually represented, but also as it defines the surrounding environment. The painting cannot be fully understand by tracking its evolution only, but rather comprehending that it is part of a greater context, it is part of a map where different cultural sources and techniques are linked to its vision and representation (Demaria, 2002).
Bryson (1983) suggests that in the study of Visual Culture an object like a painting (visual artifact) becomes a product that circulates within an economy born from the articulation of systems of representation, real images, producers and consumers. A painting becomes a textual system; a cultural object ruled by the mechanisms of vision which pones itself as a means/activity that transforms the pictorial material into a meaning within an endless process.
The role of visual is to abandon the positive idea of the visual perception as a reliable sense in order to assume the sight as an interpreting task where the image (painting, photograph) is just one of the several components.
Even though the concept of Visual Culture was coined during the 70s, just recently it got particular attention, in fact just in the late XX Century arts as design, architecture and cinema, once considered minor arts, were included. Over the last years also low cultural arts like television, advertising and the internet became part of this controversial culture.
The Visual Culture becomes so an interdisciplinary matter of study amongst critique and analysis of the cultural processes of any image about where it was made and how it was interpreted, diffused and transformed. The images have not to be studied isolated, but rather contextualized as a group of components that change their use and meaning. An example is the case of photography, a medium of multiple and extraordinary functions that altered its functions and utility over the years; the meaning of a photography is linked to its functions and institutions, within which it consolidates and alters its role, such as the family, the press and magazines, the advertising, etc (Krauss 1989).
Nowadays Visual Culture is a means of such a great power, the force and the centrality it represents, cannot be simply ignored (Jay, 1992), what is really important is the impact it has on today's society, in fact since the born of mass media such as the television it generated a phenomenon of hyper reality typical of the postmodern era, where there is no longer a real world, where an image comes from, but only a simulated one (Baudrillard, 1981), a sort of alterworld where wearing the elusive Pirandello's masks.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard is one of the most influential theorists in the study of Visual Culture and with his thesis he made great contribution, especially regarding the phenomenon of the perceived altered reality, what he called : "The Simulacrum Society"(Baudrillard, 1981, p.1).
Baudrillard (1981) supported that the destiny and the condition of the advanced society is given by the fact that every event tend to degrade and become a spectacle or an object of consumption or both at the same time, don't mind whether true or fake. Information and interpretation, whether given or received does not make any difference because they are the same and mere simulacra of the reality.
Baudrillard (1981) attests that this deception of reality is due to the double human concentration typical of today's advanced society: the physical concentration in big cities or huge metropolitan areas and the parallel telematic connection of big communicative webs that potentially link the whole globe in a single "globalization". This double and intensive human interaction of the modern cities and the global "telepolis" or "cosmopolis", called the Internet, is the key point of the cotemporary human condition.
The huge human concentration in teeming metropolis and in a unique web has not always facilitated the comprehension of as the single as the group, but rather masked the truth with an empathic vision of the world around. The telematic, economic, technologic, touristic globalization apparently take all of us far from the "truth" rather than closer. Baudrillard (1981) defined this constant interference of any hint of "truth" as the key point of the advanced societies. The faster the information travel the more contrasting the interpretations and conscious manipulation will be, the distinction amongst truth and fake disappears, there are opinions against other opinions, images against other images, different information, but not the truth just like what happens into the Plato's cave.
Baudrillard (1981) in his personal point of view explains that both the city and the Internet become inevitably consumption and spectacle; the culture is lived as a spectacular event or something to consume, with its myths, modalities and instants of glory as quick as falling into oblivion.
Today's production and consumption's systems are regulated primarily by the mechanisms of culture and knowledge that in their fullness represent the entire offer and request. Today we are aware that this manufacturing machine of dreams and fictions is escorted and regulated by means such as the television, means able to convert everything in universal consumption, on the contrary this medium represents just the top of the iceberg, in fact today sources of simulacrum born and grow exponentially: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, ecc.
The Baudrillard's nihilist attitude can be summed as a critique towards the individual who is constantly seduced by the making of his/her self an illusion (Gonçal Mayos Solsona, 2010, pp.36-40).
Since the 60s cultural studies were dedicated to analyze the visual representation of the mass culture, an example is the semiotic analysis Barthes (1964) did, but more recently some studies focused more on the acts of fruition given by means such as the television, and consequently the concept of the viewer and the class of the audience which comes from it. This behaves like an empirical and more sophisticated research into a matter of study where the images are not directly interpreted as significant text as happen into painting or photography.
Today the expression "Society of Spectacle" (Debord, 1967, p.1) is become of common use to indicate and justify a great range of media phenomenon. Guy Debord (1967) detects in this kind of society the means of mass communication as the "â€¦most stultifying superficial manifestation" (Debord , 1967, p.24), however these do not represent the fundamental structure of this society.
Debord based his thesis on Karl Marx's current of thought who heavily used to criticize the Capitalism saying: "The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation"( Debord , 1967, p.1).
In response he modeled the thesis that the "society of spectacle" is not a more or less vile product given by the technological development of the mass media, but rather it is identified as part of the economic system of the advanced capitalism.
"The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image" (Debord , 1967, p. 34).
Debord with this expression wanted to say how the superabundance of productivity of the capitalism leads to the absolute dematerialization of the goods, the objects are deprived of the minimal value of use -typical of the Marxist thought- and reduced to the appearance. This degree of alienation does not interest the
economic-productive dimension only, but also every aspect of the existence of the individual, he/she is declassed to the role of simple and harmless passive spectator (Spectatorship).
Beyond the complete alienation of the spectator and the estrangement from his/her concrete needs, there is also the loss of the unitary aspect of the society, the individual is isolated by the community and sunk into a fragmentation e pulverization of the relations. The society, if can't be still called this way, is recomposed into the spectacle where "â€¦whose very manner of being concrete is, precisely, abstraction" (Debord , 1967, p.29).
In this solitary society the more diffused goods are those who permit the individual to isolate from "The
lonely crowds" (Debord , 1967, p.28): the car, the television, the internet, etcâ€¦
Debord (1967)alludes to the phenomenon as the multitude of ways which the "reality" gives way to the "depicted". Nowadays, even though the phenomenon is as tangible and concrete as it has ever been it is still not fully considered important, usually collocated in the dimension of the game, the amusement, instead as relevant turning in the alteration of a social paradigm, as well as economic-politic, cultural and psychic.
Because of its ubiquity it is considered a minor phenomenon, however it is not harmless. Means like photography, media, advertising, television, cinema, the Internet and those people (real and virtual) who keep them alive and functioning, offer unlimited accesses to substitutive experiences in contrast of the real ones; the increment of spectacle has produced a marked dissociation amongst "reality" and "representation". In addition this goes into creating a deeper classes disparity, while a part of the world is represented as the centre of the "spectacle", the other part (the audience) is attracted by the individuals of the first one: the stars.
"The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness"( Debord , 1967, p.29).
The most important consequence of this schism is the hierarchization of the senses. The sight takes over the other senses, but this sense is not as reliable as the others, it is "the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to presentday society's generalized abstraction" (Debord , 1967, p.18).
The susceptibility of the human sight and its perception is still matter of study, is inferred (Müller-Lyer, 1981) how different cultures would be differentially susceptible to geometric illusion because of their learning processes:
The illusion employed in this study involved to indicate which of the two lines was longer. The empirical data collected by 1878 persons in 14 non-European locations and in the US over a period of six years came out with results that while the American samples are more susceptible to geometrical illusion than the non-Western samples.
Perception is an aspect of human behavior, and it is subject to influences that are responsible for other aspects of the human behavior itself. The response to a given stimulus may occur in some cultures rather than others, differences in behavior and perceptual tendencies (Toch, Smith, 1968 ).
Today the spectacle is not longer assumed as amusement only but it also become goods to sell, the desire of the viewer to look like the stars gets materialized into items, and objects once prestigious, becomes vulgar as soon as they arrived into the viewer/consumer's house.
Initially the interpretation of Visual Artifacts was reduced to a naive idea of the meaning, the image was reduced to the visible content. In order to develop a method to read the visual language the study of the Visual Culture starts from models and tools that belong to the analysis of the spoken language. But, we wonder to what extent an image can be conceived as a language? Can the tools and methods of the literature's analysis be exported and adapted to pictorial, cinematographic, photographic texts?
In the understanding of Visual Culture the acts of fruition and consumption of the viewer of visual texts plays a crucial role; important signalers to understand this practice are given by the mechanisms of the sight, the practices of observation and the several forms of visual effectiveness of a text as the cognitive effects such as the pleasure, the disgust in front of an image. However these notions are not exhaustive or fully understandable because if translated using the spoken language the message will be flatten to the model and rules of the means (Evans, Hall 1999). Which is the specificity of a Visual Culture, how can particular structures of the vision and the sight be described in their fullness?
As Alpers(1972) suggests, because the starting point of interpreting images is the culture that surrounds them, the viewer has to individuate the various components and elements that characterize that specific culture in order to define and place the visual artifacts into a specific visual context. In addition Mitchell (1994) says that in Visual Culture the image is a product where the visual, the degree of "visuality" and "figurality", the institutions and the body get mixed together.
In a nutshell, Visual Culture is the result of different practices collocated at different levels, both of the textual production and the interpretation, from those inherent the object and his degree of representation of the truth to those regarding the consumers and the context, this last one made by the media and institutions that represent organized and globalized social relations (Mitchell, 1994).
Stuart Hall(1980) goes further the concept of Visual Culture introducing the notion of Visual Discourse. In this field is not important only the significance the images analyzed assumes but also their use, the meaning they acquired when contextualized: where they were produced and fruited. More important is the discourse offered to the viewer (Evans, Hall, 1999), the meaning of a visual sign doesn't belong exclusively neither to the image nor to the audience's social identity, but rather to the relationship amongst viewer and viewed, between the power of an image to say something and the ability of the viewer to interpret the message. This link is what determines the comprehension of the meaning and the grow of the individual, this will be inevitably influenced by his/her gender, ethnicity, visual stereotypes and cultural marginality. However the articulation between the viewer and the viewed is not something that it is directly influenced by the outside, but rather it is given by the ability of interpretation of the individual: what he/she sees, how he/she sees, what he/she perceives. What the one sees depends by the position he/she assumes in relation to the viewed and the interpreting schemes hired, this means that the subject is an incomplete entity fed by endless social, psychic, symbolic formation processes and in a constant form of alteration given by the context the individual is consciously or unconsciously exposed (Demaria, 2002).
According to Hall (1980) culture does not simply represent the rules and traditions of a culture; culture is "Threading through all social practice, and the sum of their interrelationships" (Hall, 1980, p.58). Based on this concept du Gay(1997) formulated the circuit of culture model, which purpose was to outline how culture is manipulated and managed in order to arise meaning from it.
The circuit of culture is made by 5 specific moments, but it has no starting point or end; each moment represents an essential part of the whole system.
The moment of regulation consists in the control of the cultural activities, it is the moment when a meaning arises defining what it is acceptable and what is not. Usually is defined by the law, institutionalized systems or simply by dictated customs and tradition like religion does.
The moment of production, also called process of encoding (Hall, 1993) is when creators of cultural products translate an abstract meaning into a concrete object. This moment is heavily influenced by the degree of technology presents on the territory, in fact it rules the nature of the product itself.
The representation is the aesthetical form an object takes and the way a meaning is encoded in. A cultural artifact has to be contextualized to the final consumer, its meaning is a social value belonging to a specific culture. The duty of the creator in this moment is being able conveying a social belief, meaning or tradition into a content, format and method of distribution designed for a category of people.
An encoded meaning, of course has to be decoded, this process can be translated as consumption, this moment can also be seen as a phase of feedback, revision. The consumers bring their semantic networks of meaning in response of a cultural artifact in a communicative exchange.
The consumption is not the end of the line but one of the points of the culture, it becomes itself a form of production as from it derives new meanings as a consequence of the use.
Identities are visible encoded meanings, usually the texts which the practitioners embody in the appearance are dominant identity; the identity of an artifact represents the starting point to structure a subsequent discourse, the identity of an artifact determines its social dimension.
The five moments briefly described create an interconnected scheme with no beginning or end; at any point (moment) the circuit branches in articulations, this is due to the degree of cultural relativism of the meaning , each point taken singularly does not determine meaning but it indicates how it will arise and its possible branches. Even though meanings may be socially constructed, they are limited within the range given by the institutions, influenced and based on past meanings, this concept is an additional moment known as historicity (Hall, 1997b), the meanings are decoded in the way consumers use artifacts in their social situations.
However plausible and widespread its acceptance, the study cannot be demonstrated by empirical data. It is hard to define a method of investigation or a common lexicon in this particular area of research. This is especially due to the level of abstraction which Visual Culture pones its bases.
References and further readings:
Barthes, R., 1964, Eléments de sémiologie, <<Communication>>, n. 4, pp. 91-135 ; trad. it. 1966, Elementi di semiologia, Torino, Einaudi.
Baudrillard, J., 1981, Simulacres et Simulation, Paris, Galilée.
Debord, G., 1967, La société du spectacle, Paris, Buchet-Chastel; trad. it. 1968, La società dello spettacolo, Bari, De Donato.
Demaria C. (2002) Cultura Visuale.
Available at: http://www.culturalstudies.it/dizionario/lemmi/cultura_visuale.html (Accessed: 28/04/2013)
du Gay et al. (1997) Doing Cultural Studies: The story of the Sony Walkman Milton Keynes: Open University; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Evans, J., Hall, S., a cura, 1999, Visual Culture. The Reader, London, Sage.
Gonçal Mayos Solsona (2010) Baudrillard e la società simulacro. Barcelona METROPOLIS Revista 'informació i pensament urbans, Núm. 78, Primavera 2010, pp. 36-40.
Hall, S. (1980). "Cultural Studies: two paradigms". Media, Culture and Society.
Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Jay, M., 1988, "Scopic Regimes of Modernity", in H. Foster, a cura, Vision and Visuality, Seattle, Bay Press, pp. 3-28.
Krauss, R., 1989, "Photography's Discoursive Spaces", in R. Boston, a cura, The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, pp. 287-301.
Mitchell, W. J., 1994, Picture Theory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.