«Visual Studies and Global Imagination Susan Buck-Morss Abstract Why is Visual Studies a hotspot of attention at this time? Whose interests are being ...»
© Susan Buck-Morss, 2004
Visual Studies and Global Imagination
Why is Visual Studies a hotspot of attention at this time? Whose interests are being served?
Is this inquiry merely a response to the new realities of global culture, or is it producing that
culture, and can it do so critically? Thinking globally, but from the particular, ‘local’ position of
the History of Art and through the medium of the visual image, a distinct aesthetics emerges,
a science of the sensible that in our time accepts the thin membrane of images as the way globalisation is unavoidably perceived. How can theory learn from contemporary art practices engaged in stretching that membrane, providing depth of field, slowing the tempo of perception, and allowing images to expose a space of common political action? What does ‘world opinion’ mean in the context of global images? What are the implications for a critical Visual Studies that resists inequities by rubbing the global imagination against the grain? Can Visual Studies enter a field of negotiation for the move away from European hegemony toward the construction of a globally democratic, public sphere?
1. Introduction Whatever the stated goals of Visual Studies, its effect is the production of new knowledge and its first challenge is to be aware of this. According to one well-established, critical tradition, this means questioning the conditions of its own production. Why is Visual Studies a hotspot of interest at this time? Whose interests are being served? In analyzing the technologies of cultural production and reproduction, can Visual Studies affect their use? Is this inquiry merely a response to the new realities of global culture, or is it producing that culture, and if the latter, can it do so critically? These questions are not academic. They are concerned unavoidably with the larger world, and with the inevitable connection between knowledge and power that shapes that world in general and fundamentally political ways.
I will be very bold. Visual Studies can provide the opportunity to engage in a transformation of thought on a general level. Indeed, the very elusiveness of Visual Studies gives this endeavour the epistemological resiliency necessary to confront a present transformation in existing structures of knowledge, one that is being played out in institutional venues throughout the globe.
Papers of Surrealism Issue 2 summer 2004 © Susan Buck-Morss, 2004 Western scientific and cultural hegemony was the intellectual reality of the first five hundred years of globalization, lasting from the beginning of European colonial expansion to the end of the Soviet modernizing project. It will not remain hegemonic in the next millennium.
Our era of globalisation, in which communication rather than coinage is the medium of exchange, presses technologically toward transforming the social relations of knowledge production and dissemination. We are at a cusp. Visual Studies exists within this transitional space as a promise and a possibility, capable of intervening decisively to promote the democratic nature of that transformation. Nothing less is at stake for knowledge. Transdisciplinary rather than a separate discipline, Visual Studies enters a field of negotiation for the move away from Western hegemony towards the construction of a globally democratic public sphere.
The global transformation of culture that catches us in its midst is not automatically progressive. The technological possibilities of the new media are embedded in global relations that are wildly unequal in regard to production capacities and distributive effects.
Their development is skewed by economic and military interests that have nothing to do with culture in a global, human sense. But there are forces now in play that point to the vulnerability of present structures of power. Images circle the globe today in de-centered patterns that allow unprecedented access, sliding almost without friction past language barriers and national frontiers. This basic fact, as self-evident as it is profound, guarantees the democratic potential of image-production and distribution – in contrast to the existing situation.
Globalisation has given birth to images of planetary peace, global justice, and sustainable economic development that its present configuration cannot deliver. These goals are furthered not by rejecting the processes of globalization, but by reorienting them.
Reorientation becomes the revolution of our time.
2. Reorientation: The History of Art I do not wish to overstate the role that critical intellectual practices can play on a global scale. We academics are participants in these global processes, nothing more, but also nothing less. Reorientation means precisely to be aware of this participatory status, which can mean in our case, not to narrow our vision to academic politics as if all that were at stake in the advent of Visual Studies were funding decisions and departmental hiring. And yet the debate over these very parochial concerns is where to begin, because reorientation occurs vis-à-vis particular positions, not some
universal. ‘Think global: act local,’ as the slogan has it, and in this context, the widely held view that Visual Studies is a recent offshoot of Art History deserves our scrutiny. What does reorientation entail in the local sense of one academic discipline, the History of Art, which has become central to discussions of Visual Studies? There is no facile or single answer to this question because this discipline, as a microcosm of the general situation, finds itself in a contradictory position: on the one hand, the History of Art as traditionally practiced is most vulnerable to the challenge of Visual Studies; on the other, as the most authoritative domain for the modern study of the visual, it can lay strong claim to be its legitimate home. How did the situation of this one academic locality arise?
The History of Art has in the past been content as a small discipline, approaching the development of, specifically, Western art (indeed, it has treated art and Western art as nearly synonymous). It adhered to an established canon of artists and works, only slowly allowing new names to enter sainthood. Within American universities, its greatest impact was the survey course that it traditionally offered undergraduates, who learned from large lectures and dual slide projectors what counts as art, and why. This is ‘art appreciation,’ and has been a staple of higher education, producing future generations of museum-goers. At the same time, and against all modest pretensions, Art History was unabashedly elitist in its presumptions of connoisseurship. With growing alarm, it defended the
boundary that separates culture, indeed, civilization itself, from the barbarous kitsch of an increasingly invasive culture industry.
The attack came from within, however, from the artists themselves, who brought the Trojan horse of commodity culture into the hallowed grounds of the museum. Andy Warhol’s 1962 Brillo Boxes were a defining moment, an invasion of the museum by commercial design causing, as Arthur Danto famously expressed it, nothing less lethal than the ‘end of art.’ Yet since that pronouncement (two decades ago) the production of art has not only increased, it has exploded, establishing its own global orbit as the ‘artworld.’ Although we now accept it as commonplace, the artworld is in fact a historically unique phenomenon. Its precondition was the transformation of art patronage and art purchases that occurred with the new global economy. The world trade in art intensified in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a general financial revolution, along with hedgefunds, international mortgages, and secondary financial instruments of all kinds. The explosion of the art market caused a reconfiguration of the History of Art: the Western canon (which now included the art of a modernism-grown-obsolete) became only one of the founding traditions of contemporary art that for its part, with the aid of corporate patronage, expanded globally along an ever-increasing circuit of biennials and international exhibitions.
Whereas in Warhol’s art and Pop Art generally, corporate images provided the content for art-interventions, now corporations are art’s entrepreneurial promoters. Their logos appear as the sponsors of art events, the enablers of art and, indeed, high culture generally.
Within the confines of the artworld, everything is allowed, but with the message: THIS FREEDOM IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE CORPORATIONS. Corporate executives have become a new generation of art collectors (advertising and PR giant Charles Saatchi, for example), connecting the business class directly to the class of art connoisseurs. But unlike their predecessors (William S. Paley of CBS-TV, for example, whose beautiful collection of
small oil paintings was intensely personal), the taste of the new art moguls is special, particularly in regard to size. Corporate patronage encourages BIG ART – art that precisely cannot be privately housed and exhibited. Note that size is a formal characteristic that has nothing to do with art’s content. With Big Art, the authenticity of the original assumes its aura on the basis of sublime proportions.
There is something remarkable about this shift in the position of big business from being the visible content of Pop Art to being the invisible producer of global exhibitions, from being the scene to being behind the scenes. The profits that result from the advertising and packaging of products (value added to commodities produced by cheap labour globally) now gives financial support to the high culture of a new, global economic class.
But before concluding that globalization is the problem, we need to recognize the global artworld as itself a contradictory space – suggesting again that reorientation rather than rejection is the best political strategy. On the one hand globalization transforms art patronage into corporate financing of blockbuster shows and turns the art market into a financial instrument for currency hedging. On the other, its cavernous size allows ample opportunities for alternative art, a myriad of forms of cultural resistance. Moreover, the global artworld’s inclusion of the vibrant, new work of non-Western artists is quickly overwhelming the traditional story of art as a Western narrative. Non-Western artists are denied the luxury of imagining art as an isolated and protected realm. Reflection on the larger visual culture, the collective representations of which frame their art, is difficult, if not impossible to avoid. Even if the artworld’s financial motives for the inclusion of these new artists have been less than laudable – the establishment of market niches for culture produced by the exotic ‘other’ – the results have been so transformative that the History of Art as an inner-historical phenomenon can no longer contain it.
Western Art History, once deeply implicated in the history of Western colonialism, has in turn become threatened, in danger of colonization by the global power that visual culture has become.
3. The Crisis of Art History It is noteworthy that while departments of literature have also felt the onslaught of the new, global visual culture, they appear to be less threatened. Film studies, for example, can be absorbed within traditional literary categories of narrative, plot and authorial style. Movie genres replicate the narrative forms of written fiction: comedy, mystery, science fiction, melodrama, historical drama, and the like. Shakespeare as playwright and Shakespeare’s plays as cinema can be fruitfully compared. The critical methods of literature when applied to films not only work, they tend to reaffirm literature’s superiority. The techniques of filmmaking tend to get less attention than cinema’s narrative and textual qualities, which are culled as virgin territory for theories designed in other university venues: psychoanalysis, semiotics, queer theory, feminism, post-colonialism – with the unfortunate consequence that the visual is often repressed in the process of its analysis, blanketed over by thick, opaque layers of theoretical text so that, visually, only a few film-stills or video clips remain.
If the discipline of the History of Art is more profoundly affected, it is because unlike literary studies, it cannot avoid direct discussion of the visual. Visuality is the point of crisis at which the History of Art and the study of visual culture necessarily collide. To be sure, imagery (symbol, allegory, metaphor, and the like) plays a dominant role in literature.
Language is full of images, and there is no way within literary studies that an analytical distinction between image and word can be sustained. But the image that is visibly perceptible is distinct. In it, the word participates as itself an image, as calligraphy or as printmaterial (in collage, for example), the meaning of which is tied to its visibility, and cannot be reduced to semantic content.
It was the advent of photography that allowed an experience of the image in its pure form, separate from both literary texts and works of art. Of utmost significance is the fact that the visual experience provided by the photograph is of an image collectively perceived. Unlike
the inner experiences of a mental image, dream image or hallucination, this image is not the product of individual consciousness.
Photographs were first conceived as a ‘film’ off the surface of objects. (Painting retreated from mimetic realism and moved into visual modalities where the camera could not follow.) Now, the History of Art as a discipline became indebted to the new technology of photography in ways largely unrecognized within the discipline’s own foundational stories, and without parallel in literary studies’ relationship to cinema.
In Europe’s early modern era, art appreciation depended on visiting the sites; the grand tour of the ancient art and architecture of Italy and Greece was the classic example.
Later the national museums brought the masterpieces to urban capitals and lent to them accessibility beyond the aristocratic class, while art classes of national academies took place in the galleries themselves.