Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Visual Culture: Developments, Definitions, and Directions for Art Education

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Visual Culture: Developments, Definitions, and Directions for Art Education

Article excerpt

Within art education a shift is discernible from studying the art of the institutionalized artworld to studying the more inclusive category of visual culture. Increasing numbers of art educators, many of them among the most eminent in our field, are defining their topic not as art but as visual culture (e.g., Chalmers, in press; Freedman, 2000; Barnard, 1998). The shift from art to visual culture appears to represent as fundamental a change in the orientation of our field as the shift from self-expression to a discipline base in the 1980s. Arguably, the present shift is more fundamental because the previous shift involved a different approach to at least recognizably the same kind of artifacts. It was a shift of approach, not of subject matter. Previously, there were proposals to study popular arts (see Duncum, 1987 for a survey), and to be more inclusive generally (e.g., Chapman, 1978), but these appeals for a broader scope were always framed in additive terms. The fine arts always remained the dominant kind of artifact studied so that the approach to the breadth of imagery outside the artworld never threatened to fundamentally reconceptualize our field.

With the current shift, the artifacts have significantly changed, and, with even the name of the topic having changed, the question raised is: How long can we continue as a distinctive field? In this paper I have more modest aims than to consider the long-term future of our field. I concentrate, first, on understanding what developments in contemporary cultural life have given rise to the shift to visual culture. Secondly, because the shift is occurring with little debate and, arguably, even less clarity, it is important to attempt to define visual culture. Art educators are using the term-for example Smith-Shank and Schwiebert (2000) use it to cover visual memories-but, as Mirzoeff (1998) says, "visual culture is still an idea in the making" (p. 6). Furthermore, as Mitchell (1995) says, visual culture seems like an idea whose time has come, but it is not entirely clear how it should be studied. My third purpose, therefore, is to survey suggestions on curriculum for visual culture.

The Development of Visual Culture

The shift towards visual culture is occurring for many reasons, but principal among them is a recognition that, whether economically developed society is seen as "a society of the spectacle" (Debord, 1967/1977) or a society "of surveillance" (Foucault, 1977), there is little doubting that the "cultural turn" (Harvey, 1989) society has taken is also "a visual turn" Uay, 1989, p. 49) or a "pictorial turn" (Mitchell, 1994, p. 13). Never before in human history has imagery been so central to the creation of identity or the gathering and distribution of knowledge (Chaplin, 1994). Never before has the aesthetic styling of products been so intense (Lash & Urry, 1994), image production and distribution so obvious, and image technology so easily manipulable (Rochlin, 1997) or so immersive (Doheny-Farina, 1996). Never before have images been so self-referential, arguably so seductive (Baudrillard, 1988), or the manipulation of people through imagery been so important to authority (Postman, 1985). Now, more than ever, the economies of developed countries are founded on the production not of utilitarian goods and services, but the production of images and the styling of goods (Harvey, 1989). Today, this operates in highly competitive consumer markets that span the globe. Whether the triumph of the image is welcomed (Stephens, 1998) or feared (Guinness, 1994), whether it is seen as a modernist or a postmodern phenomenon, there can be no doubting its importance in developed contemporary societies. Heidegger (1977), for example, believed that "the world conceived and grasped as a picture ... is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age" (p. 130) while Mirzoeff (1998) insists that the modernist fascination with the visual and its effects has engendered "a postmodern culture that is at its most postmodern when it is visual" (p. …

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