What are we trying to do in visual culture?

I’ve just spent the weekend at the Seeing Things – Irish Studies and Visual Culture conference in the University of Limerick. A strong line up of speakers considered a broad range of areas and despite the ‘end of term’ timing the response was good. Lucy Cotter and Mick Wilson, as the Plenary Panel, provided an useful overview of the issues relevant to the area (In the case of Mick Wilson perhaps it would be appropriate to add the words “extremely’ and ‘provocative’ to ‘useful’).

But while I hope to consider the conference in greater detail – and in particular the Plenary Panel – in a later post I think it is worth addressing a question that the conference implicitly raised, a question which is basic to the area of visual and material culture. And that is, just what are we trying to do in this area, particularly when we venture into Irish Studies or political or social history? Is there a clearly articulated single aim to such research or studies?

For example, many of the papers, including my own, sought through an examination of aspects of visual culture to illuminate aspects of Irish history or culture. But the key question is, which element is most important in this process? Is it the examples of visual culture which ranged from the work of Dorothy Cross to megalithic tombs, or is it the broader cultural processes which they represent. In other words are we more interested in the artifact that represents or the processes which we believe it is representative of?

Malcolm Barnard in his Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture has noted that the two approaches here are in part representative of the strong and weak senses of visual culture.

As he puts it:

Used in its strong sense it stresses the cultural side of the phrase. It refers to the values and identities that are constructed in and communicated by visual culture. Some books on visual culture, then, will be interested in studying and understanding it as one of the ways in which a cultural group produces and reproduces its particular character and individuality…the weak sense of ‘visual culture’ stresses the visual side of the phrase. It refers partly to the enormous varieety of visible two- and three-dimensional things that human beings produce and consume as part of their cultural and social lives. Visual culture in this sense is and inclusive conception. It makes possible the inclusion of all forms of art and design, as well as personal or body relative phenomenon under a single term…

And this isn’t simply a theoretical question somewhat adrift from the issues of practice and theory. Because another thing that has struck me since I started giving papers in the areas that constitute my research interests – and this touches upon the thoughts I post here – is that some of the material I consider when brought beyond the confines of those interested in material and visual culture and positioned, say within political or historical contexts (such as the Political Studies Association or various historical groups) is seen in an entirely different way.

There is a necessity to explain the concepts that underpin the research, terms which most working in art and design history, material or visual culture understand to a greater or lesser degree. I am thinking of terms such as ‘myth’ or ‘signification’ which simply do not have a currency in certain other academic disciplines. There is a certain bemusement on the part of those from those disciplines who see this sort of research. Quite often, and I’m thinking in particular of the area of political research, the visual is – despite its hegemonic presence in the political discourse – simply not analysed in any detail. A good example of this is the journal issued by the Political Studies Association of Ireland entitled Irish Political Studies which has eschewed visual imagery in every volume over the past eight or nine years.

At one conference at which I presented a paper I remember being approached by someone afterwards who enquired as to whether I had sought to have the work published because, and I quote, ‘…I don’t want to be insulting but it would make a great coffee table book’. So processes that I – and indeed many politicians I have talked to about this area – consider central to political activity are seen entirely differently dependent upon the audience one is presenting to.

A lecture I attended at the Peadar O’Donnell Summer School in Donegal some years back exemplifies this in a more concrete fashion. It was a fascinating paper which sought through the use of factual information to recreate some idea of life in Dungloe in County Donegal at the turn the 20th century when O’Donnell was in his youth.

Yet, during forty minutes of closely detailed information on the social make up of the town, the location it had as part of the hinterland of Derry and the cultural and political aspects of life there, not one contemporaneous drawing or photograph of the town was presented to the audience. Instead the powerpoint presentation concentrated on page after page of data.

Yet without some sort of positioning within visual media it is all but impossible to generate appropriate reference points for artistic, design, historical, social or cultural processes during such lectures.

This is not meant to be a plea, or worse still an apologia, for visual imagery to be a sort of ‘added extra’ to other already long-established academic disciplines (although that in itself would be a positive step forward). It is more an effort to establish a sense of location for the sort of research that I saw this weekend and I would be interested in what others have to say on this matter.

Ciarán Swan

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