Elkins, James — Visual Studies

Visual Studies:  A Skeptical Introduction                                    James Elkins (art historian-School of Art                                                                                                                                      Institute of Chicago)


In Visual Studies:  A Skeptical Introduction, Elkins introduces readers to the emerging field of visual studies, interrogates the discipline’s current paradigm, and suggests ten ways in which the field could become more ambitious and rigorous.  Elkins is an art historian; he claims that that methodologically speaking, art history of all the disciplines plays the most productive role in visual studies.  However, he also challenges visual studies instructors to contemplate what it means to be visually literate and develop visual studies introductory courses that prepare students across the disciplines with general competencies.  Elkins strongly advocates for broadening studies of visual practices to include non-art images, including visual artifacts typically constrained by each of the disciplines including science, material studies, film, etc. 


Elkins begins by surveying the history of the field’s name, the academic locations in which it is taught , and the main publications in the field.  He distinguishes, for instance, between cultural studies, visual culture, and visual studies.  As he explains, visual culture studies is less Marxist and social justice oriented than cultural studies.  Visual culture studies also heavily draws on Barthes and Benjamin far more than traditional cultural studies.  Visual studies, on the other hand, at least as defined by Mitchell, conjoins art history, cultural studies, and literary theory to explore the “pictorial turn” in the academy.  NOTE, NO RHETORIC.  Elkins, however, see visual studies as denoting the “study of visual practices across all boundaries” (7).  Dikosvitskaya and others advocate and perpetuate culturally constructed notions of vision as the focus of visual studies (visual culture studies); Elkins, however, advocates for an “unconstricted, unanthropological” study of vision (7).  He describes how visual studies courses are offered in different departments across the globe, ranging from art, history, film studies to semiotics, visual communication, and philosophy and encourages a cross disciplinary approach to visual studies. 


Elkins also advocates for interrogating the foundational theories of visual studies such as the theory of the gaze and discusses the potentials of the “de-disciplinarity,” which like social history, studies the “everyday seeing” typically “‘bracketed out’ by the disciplines that conventionally address visuality” (29).  At the same time, however, he also discusses the interdisciplinary nature of the field and argues for a university wide competence in visual literacy, which encompasses a “knowledge of the relevant histories of images and their interpretation and a knowledge of particular parts of the full range of images and image-making practices” (30). 


In exploring the typical subjects of visual studies, Elkins identifies the most popular theorists and names in visual studies as well as the specific set of disciplinary interests (33).  The Canon, Elkins claim, can be articulated in the following formula:  “visual culture studies the sum of popular visual practices since the mid-twentieth century, with an admixture of contemporary fine art” (36).  Elkins suggests teaching students general methodologies that “allow visuality itself to be questioned and permits new kinds of questions to be asked that can’t be easily raised in conventional classes of art history, anthropology, or sociology” (39).  He wants to incorporate visual artifacts and methodologies from across the disciplines and various cultures.  He rejects the high and low visual art debate and advocates again for a general study of images, “capable of considering production, interpretation, and dissemination of images of all sorts” (61). 


Elkins also feels very strongly that the field of visual studies must become more ambitious and rigoruous.  He offers 10 ways in which if adopted visual studies could become more “difficult” and balanced between innovative subject matter and innovative theories and ideologies (63).  Essentially, he wants:  denser theories and strategies; more reflexivity about field’s own history; interrogation of existing visual theories; more attention to other related discipline’s theories and methodologies; more vigilance about its sense of visuality; less predictable politics, and less routine subject matters (65). 

Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult:


  1. Make Marxist analysis, if you are going to do this work, more rigorous and revolutionary.  Self-interrogation about how visual studies is inculcated in technologized knowledge/power structures.
  2.  Be more particular about what kinds of “hidden meanings” or “preconcious meanings” in visual artifacts need to be uncovered and to emphasize the “kinds of awareness” that characterizes the “hidden meaning” in any given visual artifact. (73)
  3. Be more particular about what portions of visual world are appropriate and amenable to the field’s concerns (81).  
  4. Begin to explore non-western and non-art artifacts and visual practices. Move beyond social and political analysis.  Study full domain of images.
  5. Study visuality and vision from scientific and historical perspective rather than social-constructivist perspective, which offer alternative ways of seeing and thinking about seeing (89). 
  6. Move beyond Foucault, Benjamin to draw on other theories.  Yet also conduct more careful scholarship—if draw on Foucault and Benjamin, make sure only to use theories in same vein as originally intended or used.  Broaden understanding of these theoriesists theories.  Avoid applying them to broadly and using them when our scholarship diverges from ideas of original sources.  Don’t completely abandon, for that would unmoor discipline from its own history, but depend more on own voice and less on footnotes.
  7. Explore deeper history of the discipline.  Study antiquated collections, archives, theories, materials, artifacts, especially those outside the canon.
  8. Downplay visuality; make room for other senses.  Make sure object of study is particular to visual studies.
  9. Study non-western methodologies, practices, theories, and artifacts.  Here he asks important question:  “If the aim is to be increasingly vigilant about colonialism, Westerness, and multiculturalism, then how can it not be an ideal to write texts that employ Western and non-Western methodologies alternately or in concert, and texts whose sense of scholarly apparatus, narrative forms, and organization might be alternately Western or non-Western?” (111).  Also, let non-Western theories as well as writing forms serves as models.  Move beyond western tendency to  look at images from psychoanalytical lens.  Decolonize our methodologies!  Move beyond western theories of perception. 
  10.  Write ambitiously—know entire field; think and respond to existing literature—challenge it; write as well as you can—hah!


Defining Visual Literacy:


Wants us to think more deeply about what it means to be “visually litearate.”  We need to offer undergraduates with specific visual competencies and particular sets of visual knowledge that will help them succeed in whatever major they find themselves (127). 


Elkins demystifies notion that we are living in most visually prolific era in history.  He agrees with what Martin Jay calls “Cartesian perspectivalism”—capable of assimilating unprecendented amounts of information” (130) but questions whether the 20th century was as focused on visuality as we think it was and whether we have lost ability to conduct deep analysis of images that requires long, focused study.  He also wonders even though we live in information age that we really haven’t studied the connection between the information age and the visual as much as we should. 


He asks what is meant by visual literacy?


Ability to recognize image as image?

Abiltity to understand pictorical content, significance, and use of image?

Capacity to identify image and classify according to ways they refer to world?

Capacity to remember images?  Or comprehend connection between image and memory?

Recognize “culturally significant” visual artifacts that act as cultural capital?

Toolbox of interpretations?

Critical understanding of social functions and effects of visual artifacts and role on their complicity in hegemonic power structures?

Ability to deduce intentional operations of artifact?


He really doesn’t offer an answer but instead explores what images and image-making practices a visually literate undergraduate should encounter and be able to understand as well as what kinds of interpretation and understanding they should know?


Elkins makes an important point that every field has its own “particular competence, which it sometimes takes as a general orientation, applicable to all image-making practices” (147).  He says students should be exposed to wide variety of competences from across the disciplines, especially science and material studies, as well as images and ways of seeing.  In addition, students should have opportunities to make images and study digital imagery and their special effects as well as graphics and design and a wide range of architectural spaces.  He really advocates for a wide range of essential image-making practices and interpretations (189).  At the same time, he thinks we need to establish a “common pool of images that university wide program of visual studies might want to share,” yet not “construe such a collection as an emblem of some general visual literacy” (195).


Visual studies needs to be generative as well as reactive! (200).  Expand the repertoire of images and theories!


Interesting questions from the image descriptions:


p. 14—Is there a kind of visuality to simple, too informal, to be studied?


Questions to Think about:

What does it mean to teach visual rhetoric?  What is visual rhetoric?  Visual rhetoric is subset of visual studies and rhetoric.  How do we define visual literacy in our field? 


The Rhetoric of Vision—-is that what visual rhetorics means?


How does Western perspective shape visuality—the rhetoric of vision! 


The effect must be to subvert but not the cause……


I need to quit talking and do…..


Visual historiography…..  


Joseph Cornell….





Material historiography…..Dissertation Topic….I have a career!!!!


James Burke—innovation leads to other innovations….











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