January 2004

Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture Studies'

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

This article is based on a talk entitled "Rescuing Art from 'Visual Culture,'" given on April 7, 2003, at the annual meeting of the National Art Education Association in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has been reprinted in slightly revised form in Arts Education Policy Review (September/October 2004). A selected list of Images of Exemplary Works of Art corresponding to the slides shown during the talk is appended here.

A disturbing though little publicized movement is afoot in American education to transform the study of art into what is termed Visual Culture Studies. It seeks to broaden the proper sphere of art education--the visual arts--to include every kind of visible artifact. To quote the prospectus of a recently established academic program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Anything visible is a potential object of study for Visual Culture, and the worthiness of any visual object or practice, as an object of study depends not on its inherent qualities, as in the work of art, but on its place within the context of the whole of culture.

In other words, one can henceforth treat the Nike of Samothrace and Michelangelo's David, say, on a par with Mattel Toys' Barbie and Ken dolls.

Much like the now largely discredited developments in literary studies of recent decades--whose bankruptcy it apparently ignores--the Visual Culture movement is primarily social and political in its motivation, aiming quite explicitly at the "reconstruction" of American society. Its influence is not only likely to dull the next generation's esthetic sensibilities, and further debase the general level of culture, but may extend far beyond the arts themselves. I have previously argued ("Where's the Art in Today's Art Education?") that, in its aims as well as its methods, Visual Culture Studies has no place in art education. Much more needs to be said about the problematic aspects of this trend, however.

From the standpoint of art education, the overriding objection to this movement is its blatant disregard of essential differences between works of visual art and other types of cultural artifacts. By visual art, I mean what is broadly termed "painting" and "sculpture" (traditionally termed fine art): that is, two- and three-dimensional re-creations of reality whose purpose is to concretize ideas and values in an emotionally compelling form. In contrast with the decorative arts, the crafts, or the various fields of design, such works have no physical function, but instead serve a purely psychological or spiritual need.[1] This and other fundamental differences are ignored by the proponents of Visual Culture Studies.

A Dubious Approach to Interpretation

The Visual Culture movement's disregard of important distinctions is especially evident in how it treats the interpretation of images. Works of art convey meaning largely through the depictive and expressive qualities of their imagery. Rather than seeking meaning in such features, however, Visual Culture Studies emphasizes "decoding" (or "deconstructing") images in terms of information and associations which are symbolic or verbal, not pictorial. Moreover, the overwhelming focus is on artifacts other than art. In a recent article in the journal Art Education, for example, Terry Barrett--an influential professor of art education at Ohio State University--aims to show (in his words) "how teachers, college students, middle-school students, and preschoolers [!] have deconstructed a painting by [Michael Ray] Charles, a cover of Rolling Stone magazine [which features the words 'Booty Camp' and a photograph of three provocatively posed young women], printed tee-shirts, cereal boxes, and teddy bears."

The only work of purported art among the items considered by Barrett is the "painting" by Charles. Entitled Cut and Paste, it is a work so schematic in its rendering that it is not a painting in the full sense at all, however, but merely a diagrammatic line drawing in black and white acrylic, simulating a child's paper cutouts--a crude cartoon, in effect. Its significance is deliberately and wholly dependent on what one writer, quoted by Barrett, has referred to as "the ossified stereotypes still rumbling around the American subconscious." Conspicuously absent are the subtleties of observation, draftsmanship, and expression that principally contribute to the distinctive value of works of "fine" art. Any schematic representation of the objects depicted by Charles (from the running figure of an African-featured man in boxing shorts and gloves to the knife, banana, and other artifacts that are displayed around him) would do as well to convey the idea intended. And once one "gets" the point, there is no need or desire to dwell further on the image itself. It has nothing more to say.[2]

Further, the "decoding" undertaken in Visual Culture Studies emphasizes abstract social and political issues at the expense of more concrete personal experience. Lamenting that "the [personal] consequences of racial stereotyping are dreadful," Barrett claims that "the teachers [who] interpreted Cut and Paste . . . were in a position to intellectually and emotionally identify with the tragic meaning of the artwork." Yet the work itself fails to convey anything of the personal or emotional dimension of racial bias--whether of the anguished feelings of exclusion and debasement it often engenders, or of the dignity that may be maintained in spite of it, nor of the impassioned sense of outrage and rebellion it can inspire. The viewer must imagine such things for himself, lacking the stimulus that the sensitive concretization in a work of art might afford.

By focusing on abstract questions of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, moreover, the visual culture approach to interpretation lays stress on politicized issues that divide society, rather than on shared human values and concerns. As the National Standards for Arts Education emphasize, the arts "have served to connect our imaginations with the deepest questions of human existence." Such questions are far more universal than the current preoccupation with matters of racism, gender bias, or social status would suggest. The Visual Culture Studies approach tends to view the world in terms of competing interest groups, and wrongly assumes that all individuals within a given group necessarily share the same set of values and concerns, which sets them apart from other groups. This aspect of the movement is particularly insidious, for it belies both the principle of individualism that lies at the heart of American society and the fundamental conviction that, despite our great diversity, we share certain core values.

Though the values embodied in art often transcend politics, economics, and social status, viewers who follow the promptings of Visual Culture Studies to ferret out the purported subtexts contained in every image are, in effect, primed to ignore the artist's actual focus--and the entirely legitimate values it may imply. I am here reminded of the wall text in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of nineteenth-century art a few years ago. Referring to a painting of a small child grasping the sturdy hand of a nursemaid (who was pictured only from the neck down, as I recall [sometime after writing this, I was able to locate the painting--Ernesta, by Cecilia Beaux, in the museum's collection--in which the figure of the nursemaid is actually cut off below the waist]), the text expounded upon the marginalization of nannies in the culture of the period. The unwary viewer was thereby encouraged to view the painting in a rather negative light. As a result, he might have overlooked that the nursemaid's firm grasp (which was a focal point of the picture) betokened trust and security, implying that the child--the main focus of the painting--was well cared for, as befits a cherished offspring. Speculations about the marginalization of servants--which might have been appropriate in a sociology class--had very little, if any, relevance for this painting as a work of art.

Finally, since the attitude of suspicion fostered by the "decoding" approach in Visual Culture Studies impedes a sympathetic engagement with works of art, it is likely to deprive children of the deep emotional enrichment that painting and sculpture can afford. The main emotions inspired by the Visual Culture approach are all on the side of anger, resentment, and moral outrage, leaving little place for such feelings as love, pride, compassion, admiration, tenderness, courage, grief, hope, honor, reverence, or joy. In contrast to the negative emphasis of Visual Culture Studies, the national educational standards refer to the "joy of experiencing the arts"--though "joy" is not the best word here, it is too narrow. What is involved in the authentic experience of art is a deepened sense of life and oneself, a mental and emotional grounding that can include joy but is hardly restricted to it. It emerges from the profound psychological need to see our ideas and feelings about the world projected into sensory form, and it contributes in important ways to the well-being of the individual, as neurologist Oliver Sacks has eloquently testified in accounts of diverse patients he has observed. Such feelings can only be stifled by the detached, analytical approach adopted in Visual Culture Studies.

What Characteristics Distinguish Works of Visual Art?

In their rush to embrace Visual Culture Studies, art teachers who have been immersed in postmodern culture, and in the postmodernist work that now passes for art, have lost sight of the salient qualities of works of visual art. As a result, their interpretations are prone to error, blurring major differences not only between painting, sculpture, and other types of imagery but also between works of visual art and artifacts that are not images at all. In any discussion of this kind, it is of course important to recognize that, although the boundaries between categories of things in reality may not always be clear-cut, identifying prototypical characteristics for each category is nonetheless valid and useful. Despite any disagreement that might exist over whether a particular shade of aquamarine is more blue or more green, for example, we do not hesitate to teach children to recognize the colors blue and green.

In what follows, I consider how art works differ from two other major categories of imagery often emphasized in Visual Culture Studies: commercial art (advertising) and photography.[3] Needless to say, artifacts that are not images are even more dissimilar.

The nature of the image. In works of art, the manner of representation is of prime importance, contributing significantly to the ultimate import of what is depicted. Imagery in art is highly selective, tending toward subtlety of detail, nuance of expression, and intensity of focus. It invites close, lingering attention on the part of the viewer. Postmodernism in the visual arts has deliberately flouted such qualities, of course (as the example of Cut and Paste, cited above, illustrates)--instead relying heavily on ordinary found objects, mechanical techniques of image-making, stereotypes, and appropriated images rendered stale by repetition. For those and related reasons, Louis Torres and I have argued that postmodernist genres such as "Pop art," "installation art," and "video art" have nothing essential in common with the traditional visual arts and therefore should not be classified or studied with them as "art."[4]

Like the spurious art of postmodernism, advertising images tend to employ visual stereotypes or exaggerations and rely heavily on accompanying verbal captions or text to convey their intended meaning. Under normal circumstances, they rarely elicit protracted attention. Photographic images differ in yet other ways, which I detail below.

The creative process. As one might expect, such differences in visual characteristics derive from fundamental disparities in the creative process. A work of art is the product of an artist's personal engagement with the subject matter at hand, and the process of making it is painstakingly selective and searching, as well as relatively fluid. By "fluid" I mean that, while the artist starts with an idea of some kind, its embodiment is achieved gradually over time, and the idea may be clarified as the work takes shape (historical evidence of this process lies in the pentimenti--forms subsequently painted over--that are at times revealed even in the works of the great masters, indicating a change of mind). Further, an art work is long-term and metaphysical in its focus. It reflects what the artist regards as important in human life or in his conception of the divine or supernatural realm. In some measure, every artist is engaged, albeit most often subconsciously, with such questions as, What aspects of human experience do I regard as important? What is worth remembering? What do I value--or abhor? Finally, during the creative process, an artist is concerned first and foremost with getting the work right in his own judgment. Though he may refer to such things as aiming to please God--or the gods--the work is nonetheless governed by his own conception of what will best achieve that end. At every stage of the work, the implicit question is, Does this "say" what I think it should?

In contrast, a commercial artist typically focuses on the client's needs. Since the primary purpose of commercial art is the selling of a product or an idea or to a third party, the main concern is with how others will view the image. The artist is therefore more detached, less emotionally engaged. He aims to get the job done to others' satisfaction. The point of the image is immediate, short-term, particular--such as Buy this car, or Say no to drugs. In this connection some are inclined to ask, What about religious art--isn't it like advertising? doesn't it aim to "sell" something? Such questions miss an important distinction, however. Unlike commercial art, religious art deals with profound metaphysical values--values which engage the artist in a way that creating an advertisement for Coca-Cola or Cheerios would not.

Photographic images differ from both "fine" and commercial art (in which every detail is determined by choice) in being largely dependent on the impersonal spontaneous process by which light creates an image on a photo-sensitive surface. (This is initially true of digitalized images as well, though the original image can then be infinitely manipulated. For the sake of clarity, I limit my remarks here to traditional photographic techniques.) The very term photography means "drawing by light." Though the photographer exercises some selectivity and control, the image is ultimately formed by an automatic photochemical process, which is not under volitional control in every detail. Finally, unlike a work of fine" art, even of commercial art, photographs are an actual record of some aspect of reality--a record mediated mainly by an automatic inanimate process, albeit one initiated by a human being. They are a mechanical record of reality, not a selective re-creation of it.

The viewer's perspective. On some level, if only subliminally, the viewer is likely to be aware of the differences I have outlined regarding the creative process and intent. In the case of art, one knows that a painting or drawing, even when done directly from life, is filtered through the imagination and sensibility of the artist, and one senses that the image is meant to imply something about human life--values, a view of the world--beyond the particulars that are represented. In contrast, because one is aware that an advertisement is aimed at selling a specific product, one dismisses any deeper significance.

The viewer's perspective also tends to differ with regard to photographs. Photographs have been traditionally valued as visual documents of real things that were in the camera's field (a value that has been lamentably undermined by digitalization). Their significance tends to be specific to a time and place. The power of Dorothea Lange's famous Depression-era photograph Migrant Mother, for example, is inextricably linked to the history of that period and the feelings it has inspired--to a far greater degree than is true of period paintings. One is always aware that a photograph is a document of real particulars, made in large measure by a mechanical process.

Further, while one assumes that everything about a painting is the result of choices made by the artist, one can never be sure, in looking at a photograph, which aspects were selected as important or meaningful by the photographer, and which were accidental or incidental. Chance always plays a part in photography, and it often plays a very great part, even in photographs that are highly valued. The historic photograph [more] of the American flag-raising at Iwo Jima, for example, was shot under such chaotic conditions of battle that when the photographer snapped the picture he was exercising virtually no control, unable even to compose the scene through the viewfinder, as he later recounted. Many fine photographs are largely lucky accidents of this kind, whereas no true work of art ever is. No thoughtful viewer should ignore this distinction.

An Artist's Engagement with the Subject

As I noted above, a distinctive characteristic of art is that the maker feels a personal connection to the subject. What I mean by such personal engagement can be illustrated through this drawing by a child I know--my grandniece Sophie, who was then eight years old. In making it, she was attempting to create a visual recollection of a particularly memorable day she had spent at the seashore. Her fascination with birds and other wild creatures is evident in the care with which she rendered them--from the Great Blue Heron with his gracefully curving neck and the distinctive tuft of feathers on his crown to the little sandpipers scurrying along the water's edge and the seal poking his head through the waves being whipped up by the wind. In drawing each of these elements from memory, she had to think about them intently, in order to recall and re-create their distinctive features and expressive characteristics. In so doing she took possession of them, and of the experience she had had that day, in a far deeper way than simply snapping a photograph would have done. So, too, one can sense when looking at her drawing that it was important to her, that the care which went into its making reflects more than casual or perfunctory interest on her part.

This principle informs every work of art, by mature artists as well. It is perhaps most evident in the art of the portrait. Portrait painting cannot rise to the level of art when the painter feels no affinity for or keen interest in the sitter. Velazquez's most compelling portraits, for example, are those of the court dwarves, jesters, and common people he painted on his own initiative--not the formal royal portraits required of him in his capacity as court painter--as one can readily judge from a comparison of his Don Diego de Acedo, say, with one of his portraits of Philip IV. Nor is it any accident that Rembrandt's most moving portraits are of himself, his son, and the women he loved. Finally, the American painter Thomas Eakins rarely accepted portrait commissions, limiting his subjects to individuals whom he knew intimately or greatly admired--such as his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, or his student and fellow painter Henry Ossawa Tanner.

"Natural" vs. Symbolic Meaning

I briefly alluded above to the principle that works of visual art convey meaning primarily through depictive and expressive means, rather than through symbols. The eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky clearly articulated the distinction between these sources of meaning more than six decades ago in an essay that should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the visual arts.[5]

As Panofsky noted, the primary source of meaning in a work of painting or sculpture is what he termed its natural subject matter--that is, forms which are intelligible simply by virtue of our shared human experience, without any specialized cultural knowledge. Natural subject matter, he further explained, can be both factual and expressive (his term was "expressional"). "Factual" subject matter consists of recognizable--though not necessarily realistic--representations of such things as human beings, animals, plants, and everyday objects, while expressive subject matter has more to do with the manner in which they are represented--that is, with emotionally evocative qualities of pose, gesture, facial expression, atmosphere, and so on. The secondary source of meaning in visual art is what Panofsky termed the conventional subject matter of a work. Understanding the meaning of conventional subject matter--including, most notably, symbols of all kinds--requires culture-specific knowledge, which is extrapictorial rather than intrinsic. Panofsky's concern in that essay lay with interpreting images (in particular, the iconographically complex images of Renaissance art), rather than with evaluating them. Nevertheless, I think that he would have agreed with my point here, which is that the emotional power of works of visual art depends far more heavily on their "natural" subject matter than it does on their symbolic content.

Teachers who emphasize the need to help students "decode" images place an undue emphasis on symbolic content. A painting often cited in this regard is Jan van Eyck's justly famed wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his young bride, Jeanne Cenami. True, van Eyck included many details having symbolic as well as natural meaning--from the figure of a little dog, as a sign of fidelity, to the burning of a solitary candle, signifying the all-seeing Christ--all indicating the sacramental character of the image as bearing witness to the Catholic union of this couple. Knowledge of these symbols can indeed enrich one's understanding of the painting. The primary power of the work derives not from such symbolic content, however, but rather from its "natural" subject matter, its depictive and expressive qualities--such as the sober, intensely serious facial expressions of the young couple, their gesture of joining hands, and the aura of tranquil solemnity in the elegant bedchamber. Those are the qualities that make it a great work of art, a deeply moving image which transcends the particular historic moment being represented and conveys something about the gravity and importance of marriage in general. Unlike the symbolic elements, these qualities require no "decoding": they are immediately and naturally accessible to attentive viewers. And it is such qualities, in my view, that art teachers should be most concerned with encouraging their students to be aware of and respond to.

Modernist and postmodernist work has so dominated thinking about art in recent years that many teachers have lost sight of the expressive qualities of true art--qualities that are absent both from abstract painting and sculpture, on one hand, and from postmodernist genres such as "Pop art," installations, and photography-based work, on the other. A useful corrective, therefore, would be to spend some time simply looking at a broad range of images that exhibit these qualities. An appropriate goal of the National Standards for Arts Education is that students gain "an informed acquaintance with exemplary works of art from a variety of cultures and historical periods." As indicated by the selected list of works I have chosen (see below), the subjects and themes that have most inspired painters and sculptors across the ages have remained remarkably similar, however different they may be in their treatment. They pertain to certain universals of our human condition--universals that transcend the currently politicized issues of race, gender, and social class that have increasingly but mistakenly become the focus of art education.

Q & A

Not surprisingly, the talk on which this article is based was challenged by questions and comments from school teachers and college and museum art educators in the audience, most of whom have adopted at least some of the assumptions and methods of Visual Culture Studies. Their objections (in italics), and my responses, follow, in a somewhat revised form.

Can't a craft object such as a beautifully shaped piece of pottery be spiritually uplifting and convey human values through the expressive power of form in itself? Any object of human use that is made with great care and is lovingly shaped into a sensuously pleasing form can indeed be uplifting and can imply certain values. For that reason, well-made craft objects are very important enhancements to human life. But abstract form alone is incapable of conveying the range or depth of themes and values that can be embodied in works of representational art (like those in my selected list, below)--ideas such as the love of a mother for a child, or the horrors of war, or the gravity of marriage vows. That is why it's crucial to maintain a distinction between craft and art. The flouting of that distinction in recent years, by craftspeople aspiring to be artists and by the curators and dealers who promote their work, has resulted in a plethora of worthless objects serving no practical utility and conveying no meaning. Among the more notorious examples of this trend in the crafts is the work of "furniture artist" Wendell Castle, which is said by some to have moved into the sphere of art by "becoming sculpture." Castle's arbitrary concoctions no longer function as furniture, yet they fail equally as sculpture, for they are utterly meaningless.

You said that students can't derive joy from decoding images. I would argue that if you are a gay person or a person of color you can derive joy from such an activity. The lesbian and gay students that I have, for example, enjoy uncovering the homophobic attitudes embodied in some work--it's very important to them. One may indeed derive some satisfaction from such "decoding," though I would hesitate to characterize it as joy. My point is that, as long as students are focused on detecting alleged racist, sexist, or elitist assumptions, they are likely to miss the sorts of broader human values and concerns that have been central to the visual arts since prehistory (in addition, there is the danger of fostering false readings, of "detecting" biases where they don't, in fact, exist). In any case, I don't think that every work should be expected to speak to every individual in the same way. Each student should be encouraged to seek out and understand what it is that he or she responds to, whether positively or negatively, in a variety of works. Students shouldn't be primed to look only for the purportedly problematic subtexts.

Is an artist's expression personal? or communal and cultural? It is both, in the sense that every artist, though an autonomous individual, lives and functions in a cultural context. That context--its assumptions and values, language and manners--inevitably exerts an influence. But the degree and result of that influence varies widely from individual to individual. No one need simply be a creature of the Zeitgeist, doomed to reflect only the dominant assumptions of his culture. As an individual, an artist is always free to reject, question, or challenge what he sees around him. And some (though surely not all) of the world's great art has been created by individuals who did just that. Goya--whose Third of May and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters are included in my list of exemplary works--surely comes to mind here.

Didn't abstract artists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky attempt to convey important spiritual values through their work? As I've argued at length in What Art Is and elsewhere, the pioneers of "abstract art" certainly intended to embody deep metaphysical meanings in their work. But they failed, because no one can discern such intended meanings from their paintings alone. While their intentions were both serious and sincere, they were operating under a profoundly mistaken view of the nature of reality--including the interrelationship between perception, cognition, and emotion. Their intended meanings simply could not be conveyed through abstract forms and color alone.

As an artist, I feel that my abstract work is a more direct form of expression for me than my figurative work. What is your view on this? You may indeed feel that you are expressing yourself more directly through an abstract painting and you may derive personal satisfaction from the process. But my question would be, Is what you were expressing accessible to anyone else? If you show to the work to others, can they sense what you felt you were expressing? When teachers and curators present abstract work in the public context of a classroom or a museum, the implication is that the work is of value to others, not merely to the person who made it.

Students often say "I don't get it" when they are first introduced to the quadratic formula in mathematics, but that doesn't stop teachers from explaining it to them. Why should we treat their failure to understand abstract painting and sculpture any differently? Unlike mathematics, the arts should not require specialized technical knowledge to be understood. Since they have their origin in fundamental aspects of human nature that we all share, their comprehension should not depend on technical expertise. True, the creation of art requires a degree of technical mastery. But we all have it in our power to understand and appreciate genuine works of art, simply by virtue of being human. Work that makes no sense at all without a purported explanation is, in my view, either bogus or failed art.

Isn't it possible to enhance the understanding and appreciation of art through education? Of course, understanding and appreciation of authentic works of art can be enhanced by informed discussion of its features, its cultural context, the life and goals of the artist, and so on. What I'm arguing against is explanations purporting to justify work that is utterly incomprehensible on its own terms. More and more these days, viewers enter a museum or gallery of "contemporary art" and say: "What is the point of all of this? What am I doing here?" Often, without the wall texts, they can't even be sure whether what they are looking at is meant to be part of the exhibition or is simply an everyday object, piece of equipment, or bit of trash left behind.

Images of Exemplary Works of Art (a selected list)


1. For an analysis of the nature of art (in the sense of the so-called fine arts), and why both "abstract" (nonobjective) painting and sculpture and the "decorative arts" should be excluded from this category, see What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, esp. ch. 8, "The Myth of 'Abstract Art.'" Though K-12 art education has traditionally concerned itself as much with the crafts and design as with painting and sculpture, teachers should not blur the important distinctions between these categories and their respective functions.

2. In this respect, Cut and Paste falls entirely within the dubious postmodernist category of "conceptual art." Not surprisingly, Charles began as a student of advertising design and illustration, the features of which remain prominent in his work.

3. Unlike the vast majority of today's art historians and critics, I do not regard photography as an art form, though it shares certain features with painting. See "Photography: An Invented 'Art,'" What Art Is, pp. 180-88, as well as "Ansel Adams--a Great Modern 'Artist'?" and "Yousuf Karsh--Portrait Photographer par Excellence."

4. On postmodernism in the visual arts, see What Art Is Online, also What Art Is, pp. 262-82.

5. Erwin Panofsky, "Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art" (1939), reprinted in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1955), pp. 26-54.