Blog Post

Group poll: Which way the "visual turn"?

I’m emerging from the intellectual fog of early parenthood as the twins hit three months, and thought I’d try to get back in the saddle by asking you good people a few questions that have been on my mind. I’ve been thinking over the so-called “visual turn” in the humanities and social sciences, by which I don’t mean the increasing ubiquity of visual images in the modern era (wherever or whenever one chooses to mark the start of that increase) but rather the increasing willingness of scholars in disciplines like history, anthropology, etc., to pay attention to images and other visual materials, and to consider them as subjects of inquiry on the same level as texts. I’m being as loose as possible about this definition since I think it works itself out differently in different disciplines, but basically I see it as something that’s been happening over the last decade or two, and which has given us disciplines like visual anthropology and visual culture studies.

We art historians are naturally concerned with this development, for reasons good and bad. We’d like to think of ourselves as the people who first treated images and visual materials as primary sources. To some extent this is true, although it’s become more true of our discipline over the last forty or fifty years, with the birth of the social history of art (which treats artworks both as a primary subject of inquiry, and also as clues to understanding larger social phenomena) and the relaxing of the boundaries around “fine art” which used to limit the kinds of visual materials art historians were allowed to take seriously. In any event, one of the core strengths of art history is a toolkit for the analysis of images on their own terms - and not through the lens of text or other medium - that has been developed over the last 250 years or so, and which we think is pretty durable. Here I’m talking about description, formal analysis, stylistic analysis, iconography, and so on.

One of the concerns we have when we see visually oriented work done by people in other disciplines is the feeling that some of them are reinventing the wheel, for lack of basic training in these techniques, and/or that they’re drawing conclusions that are shallow or weak for the same reason. When images are read as unproblematic representations of textual material, or when basic stylistic or iconographic connections are missed, we may feel that the work in question is more hopping on the visual bandwagon and less exploring new territory. At the same time, it must be conceded that some of this is probably disciplinary boundary-policing or just plain sour grapes, rather than legitimate complaint.

Anyway, my point is that sometimes when people in humanities disciplines other than art history work with images in the context of the “visual turn,” the work is stellar, and at other times it’s unimpressive, and that while this state of affairs is itself unsurprising, art historians may have a professional predisposition to be tetchy about the latter cases. Such tetchiness may also bleed into our reactions to the former cases, though one hopes not too often.  The flip side is that visually-oriented work in the other humanities speaks much more directly to some of our own particular interests and work, and may form intellectual debates that we are better able to participate in than before this phenomenon began.

What I wanted to ask you all is: what do you feel the “visual turn” has done for or to your discipline, if anything? Do you like the work you see being done under this rubric, and is it getting you (collectively) places you mightn’t have got otherwise?

Kate Lingley's picture
Kate Lingley is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She was educated at Harvard University, Peking University, and the University of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. in 2004. Dr. Lingley's research focuses on Buddhist votive sculpture of the Northern and Southern Dynasties period in early medieval China, with a particular interest in the social history of religious art. Her dissertation was a study of donor figures as representations of the self-image of art patrons in the sixth century. She is interested in issues of representation and identity, particularly ethnic identity, in a period in which non-Chinese peoples ruled much of North China. This has led to a broader interest in questions of self-presentation and self-representation in visual culture at large, including dress and personal adornment as well as representational art. Selected bibliography: “The Patron and the Community in Eastern Wei Shanxi: the Gaomiaoshan Cave Temple Yi-society.” Asia Major vol. 23, part I, 2010. “Naturalizing the Exotic: On the changing meanings of ethnic dress in medieval China.” Ars Orientalis vol. 38 (forthcoming). Excelling the Work of Heaven: Personal Adornment from China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, 2007. “Just Like the Qing Dynasty: Internet Addiction, MMOGs, and Moral Crisis in Contemporary China.” With Alex Golub. In Games and Culture, vol. 2 no. 4, December 2007. “Social Histories of Buddhist Art in Medieval China.” In Religious Studies Review, vol. 33, no. 1 (2006). “The Multivalent Donor: Zhang Yuanfei at Shuiyusi.” In Archives of Asian Art, v. 56, 2006.