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  • Writer's pictureOlivier Blanc

Visual Culture: Definitions, Parameters, and Characteristics (Part one)

In our series on Visual Culture, our latest guest writer is Dr. Woollock.

A tenured Associate Professor in the Department of International Culture at Daito Bunka Daigaku, Saitama, Japon, Dr. Woollock's research interests include: photography, film, visual culture, and contemporary Japanese studies.

Visual Culture: Definitions, Parameters, and Characteristics (Part one)

By Dr. A.R. Woollock

aerial black and white photograph of New York City and its famous Chrysler Building
Fig. 1: The Chrysler Building

Abstract The parameters of ‘Visual Culture,’ as an ‘essentially contested concept’ proves elusive to hone in on and define in absolute terms for it means a myriad of things to a vast array of people, across time and cultures. That established, however, it seems that with the phrase becoming increasingly prevalent in the collective parlance of contemporary global societies, that the time is upon is to take stock of its meaning and start the process of transitioning towards a universally accepted descriptor. If, as the author intends, a suitable descriptor can be found, then it may furnish both the academic and lay community alike with a common leaping off point from which to examine what is undoubtedly becoming one of the most potent disciplines in the world today.

For if we observe the field closely we shall find that, with the exception of the written word, Visual Culture is an all-encompassing nomenclature which includes almost everything contained within our urban existences. Whilst the second paper in this series will provide a more robust literature review and closer examination of the actualities of documented usage within scholarship, this first part, however, starts the debate with a more philosophical approach designed to critically examine, question, and deconstruct the idea of visual culture for a predominantly non-academic community of interested parties and practitioners. It does this by first examining definitions of Visual Culture, and then culture itself, following this having refined the definition, this is then held up to various artistic disciplines as a veritable litmus test to establish whether or not they meet the criteria for the definition and inclusion onto the newly established parameters and definition of Visual Culture. Following this, two further items will be described and discussed in relation to Visual Culture; those being Visual Culture’s inter-dependence on the Metropolis, and its association with le flâneur. These are included not with the intention of widening the definition per se, rather, as a means to undergird the definition and to direct any future discourse.

Keywords: Visual Culture, Aesthetics, The Built Environment, Art, The Dream of the Metropolis, Le Flaneur

i) Introduction Teaching an undergraduate unit on Visual Culture, the first task the author set students at their initial meeting is to ask participants to define what exactly is Visual Culture and what the phrase means to them. As a clear definition is usually not forthcoming, they spend some time to engage educands with questions and after eliciting an array of elemental parts, facets, characteristics, and parameters, the group tries to piece together what can be considered a rough definition. Although this can change incrementally over time depending upon the class, what comes to their minds, or the values associated by the cohort, the definition the author usually settles upon is something similar to that which follows:

Visual Culture is the academic study of the visually constructed world around us (it does not include the natural environment). From the built environment in which we dwell, reside, exist, and transit through, to the clothes we wear, the objects we encounter, engage with, and derive pleasure from; the transportation we ride in or on and the decorations or art which adorns our physical internal spaces. Visual culture is the visual sphere in which we exist and which confers a textural or aesthetic dimension to our lives, ideally enriching our domain; elevating it beyond the base and animalistic existence towards the Divine.

In addition to the above definition, the author also has another, a much shorter byline which they insert into publications when asked by editors to give some form of biography:

I research the functions of artefacts, realia, film, and art beyond their immediate purpose and place in society.

According to the author’s definitions, therefore, when we engage in discussion on the topic of defining visual culture what we are actually talking about is ‘Visual | Culture,’ not ‘VISUAL culture,’ nor ‘visual CULTURE.’ We are focusing neither on the visual nor purely on the cultural, what we are working with is the assimilation of these two disciplines into a unified whole with equal weight placed on the elemental parts. It is within the frame of this unified whole where the individual nature of the component parts are subsumed then transcended to provide a new altogether more dynamic mélange which is the world of Visual Culture. From primary lived experience and their personal perspective, the author maintains that the keystone of this amalgam appears to be situated somewhere near the loci of: ‘purpose,’ ‘function,’ and ‘engagement’ that is to infer that it is the impact the visual has upon us, our lives, our societies, and our culture which is of primary importance; this is not an inert discipline.

ii) Exploring Terms and Parameters As a photographer, artist, and educator it is extremely important that those of us engaged in the study or teaching of Visual Culture are, as the Americans are so fond of saying, “On the same page” - that is, in order to both facilitate discourse and to enhance and develop the field of Visual Culture, it is vitally important we are not talking at crossed purposes or using different academic languages. In Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea, American philosopher George Lakoff (2006) revisited G.B. Gallie’s (1956) concept promulgating the notion of the ‘essentially contested concept.’ What this can be distilled down to is how to define something in concrete terms which is malleable over cultures and societies in both space and time. The idea being that different people approach the same concept or topic with a different weltanschauung and thus imbue it with different proprieties creating twisted variants of what are supposed to be acknowledged as universal core values and ideas. That ideas, notions, truths, and values are not unyielding over time à la Grand Récit, but malleable, loaded, and culturally specific à la Petit Récit, deriving meaning over space and time from their embodiment within a specific cultural context is of importance when striving to arrive at some form of consensus, as is attempted here.

Although there has been a definite turn away from postmodernism in the current post-postmodern epoch, its legacy still remains firmly embedded in societies worldwide. That legacy which includes the accepted norms of plurality, heterogeneity and multiplicity has recently become the idea du jour manifested in the post-millennial mantra ‘diversity’ and ‘MyTruth.2’ The problem is however, that whilst in this post-postmodern epoch we should champion Barthe’s Texte Lisible (1970), if we do not settle upon at least the fundamental constructs of what does and does not constitute Visual Culture, then, as noted above, we can have no genuine discourse, dialogue or philosophical exchange because those of us with competing definition are talking at crossed purposed in a different philosophical or ontological language.

2 Despite the keystone of postmodernism residing in the locus of the micro narrative and the readerly text, we should not mistake these concepts for a cultural free-for-all, that is we should not erroneously correlate the notion of plurality with equality; all ideas, concepts, hypotheses, and opinions are not the same. And just because someone believes something to be the truth does not automatically make it so, hence the Achilles Heel of the revisionist, social justice or woke movements.

Whilst clearly not an academic source, Wikipedia is most often the student’s first stop when looking for rudimentary information, and thus, as a cultural tour de force which shapes the consciousness of the global populous, it can no longer be negated nor ignored by scholars. According to the Visual Culture page on Wikipedia, “Visual culture is the aspect of culture expressed by visual things.” However, from such a short and inconclusive definition which is provided without source nor context 3, it would be very hard to delineate any parameters or to ascertain what is and what is not considered to be Visual Culture. Aside from the obvious nature of establishing parameters so as to delineate the discipline, what should also be established is the peripheral disciplines which Visual Culture butts up against 4. However, whilst these tangential disciplines may share similar ideas at the superficial glance, the epistemological, ontological, philosophical, and social values embedded within the field of Visual Culture should preclude any serious discussion of shared interspace. That stated, however, what needs to be firmly established is that simply because Visual Culture shares ideas on aesthetics, semiotics, and design &c, with other fields, it does not mean these are defining constructs, merely peripheral elements that may be acknowledged 5. That the discipline of Visual Culture may draw from all forms of visuality, visual expression, and artistic endeavours is a moot point and cohesive definitions need to transcend such petty floor-gazing if they are to become truly useful.

3 It may seem somewhat pedantic, but this not an acceptable definition. Exactly what constitutes ‘visual things’ and ‘things’ needs significantly and comprehensive unpacking. Furthermore there is no etymological underpinning provided for this definition, nor any cultural ties linked, for example, to the founding scholars in the field and their competing definitions.

4 Undoubtedly the field of Visual Anthropology and Aesthetics may come to the mind of the novice when considering the delineation of Visual Culture, as there may indeed be some cross pollination, but that does not mean it is part of the field of Visual Culture.

5 Perhaps the analogy of the Venn Diagram is useful here.

iii) Towards a Definition The above established, however, given the obvious derivation from and innate association with culture, in actuality, a logical point of departure would be to first define culture. According to the Collins Dictionary (2023), culture is defined as: 1) Culture consists of activities such as the arts and philosophy, which are considered to be important for the development of civilization and of people's minds. Whereas the Cambridge Dictionary (2023) defines it in more mundane terms as: 1) The way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time [...] the attitudes, behaviour, opinions, etc. of a particular group of people within society. In the United States, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2023) has, perhaps, a more accurate definition, describing culture as: 1) The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group. 2) The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. Whilst the American Heritage Dictionary (2023) follows along similar Trans-Atlantic lines offering the following definitions: 1) The arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought considered as a unit, especially with regard to a particular time or social group. 2) These arts, beliefs, and other products considered with respect to a particular subject or mode of expression: musical culture; oral culture. Irrespective of, and uninfluenced by the above definitions, the author would define culture as: 1) A distillation of any given society’s: rites, rituals, expressions, and philosophies which define it within a given epoch and distinguish it over time from other civilisations. 2) The condensed spirit of a collective (urban) existence which forms a codified and unified language (not necessarily linguistic) where signs, signifiers, totems, and practices are collectively acknowledged as common property and accordingly used for expression, of ideas, ideals, beliefs, and social mores that transcend the ordinary and which are perhaps most often located neither in the realm of practicality nor function.

iii.ii) Culture, Visual Culture, and The Dream of the Metropolis To be sure, when we talk of Visual Culture, we are talking of an idea inextricably linked and embedded in the human condition, that is the human condition and the human experience as humankind’s longing for The Dream of the Metropolis. Human’s longing for the urban experience, the collective endeavour of realising their hope for community dwelling in the non-natural, constructed built environment of the Metropolis is the keystone in defining and understanding both Culture and Visual Culture. Culture is a direct manifestation or urbanity and is unique to a collective human existence and experience which is not derived from genetic, feudal, or nepotistic lines, per se. Culture is the natural outworking of The Metropolis and the dream of humankind which transcends the mire and drudgery of rural existence; it is the light bulb to the moth, and does not exist in nature, nor in the organic world; that is something entirely different. Culture, as we know it, in all its myriad of definitions and micro nuances is an inevitable byproduct of human civilisations, it is crystalised from the collective co-existence of humans in tribes, groups, and civilisations and unmistakably resultant from urban life. Again, culture and civilisation as defined by the author above, does not reside in rural loci because it has no necessity nor capacity to do so; imagine picking up New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and dropping it in the middle of Nebraska, it would be the same as if the heaven’s opened and dropped a container ship; having similar relevance and germaneness. It is no accident that great architecture, great works or art 6, and great fashion exists within the great Metropoli of the world. And whilst it is not within the scope of this paper to quantify what alternatives reside in rural places, when we speak of Culture, let us be clear that we are talking of the great gatherings of humanity, the great civilisations, and the great melting pots. Let the rural, the natural, and the local find their own definition, and lay claim to their own experience, let them borrow not from ours and murky the water.

6 Even if they are painted within the quietude of the natural environment, they rarely remain in such loci for very long, being destined for the audience, connoisseurs, and patrons of the Metropolis, whose urban lives such works enrich and compliment so wholly allowing the work to reach its true potentiality.

iii.iii) Setting Parameters In order to define the parameters of Visual Culture, it is perhaps prudent to return to the task outlined above in the Introduction, that is, to return and examine what the phrase likely encompasses and what it does not; with the addendum of considering its final purpose. Firstly, in the two tables below the author has listed thirty prominent fields or disciplines of art and design which have been separated into two categories; inclusion and exclusion. In what may appear to be a purely subjective and perhaps seemingly arbitrary manner the author, considering their own definition of Visual Culture (see above) considered whether or not each given discipline both fitted that descriptor and also whether or not it sat comfortably within a working definition for Visual Culture. It should be clearly stated at this juncture, that this is a working list which has been established based upon the author’s defining characteristics of Visual Culture. Whilst the list may be open to reexamination at future points, in this instance, however, it is presented as is, neither for discussion nor challenge; but as a foundation from which to construct a coherent and cohesive understanding of what constitutes Visual Culture.

Table listing design fields and disciplines and their inclusion in the author’s definition of Visual Culture

Fig. 1: A list of thirty prominent design fields and disciplines and their inclusion in the author’s definition of Visual Culture

Table listing the fifteen design fields or disciplines included by the author for his definition of visual culture

Fig. 2: Those fifteen fields or disciplines which the author deems included in the definition of Visual Culture.

7 Multi-dimensional refers to the physical, not the spiritual, the ontological, or the philosophical.

Again, to reiterate, the focus of this primary paper is not to engage in debate about the relevant merits or demerits of the various sub-genres of art and design; rather to offer a working model from which engaged discourse can arise. Whilst each individual may offer their views, their opinions, and their perspectives, they are welcome, nay encouraged to outline their defining parameters and epistemology in a counter paper. The postmodern constructs of heterogeneity, plurality, and multiplicity are welcomed and encouraged.

iv) Refining Definitions The first factor which becomes immediately apparent when observing the above table of delineations, and what appears to unite the disciplines into somewhat of a cohesive nomenclature is a certain mono or unidimensionality, that is, there appears to be general turn towards the two dimensionality of visual expression in order for it to be considered included in the notion of Visual Culture. Even when it is three or multidimensional, e.g. architecture, or fashion, it is the surface plane of those elements which offers primacy; it is that which the eyes meet on the external aspect or façade which immediately draws us in and enriches our existence, even if momentarily. What is noteworthy about this observation is the nature of humans and their co-existence with the visual world around them, manifesting in and upon the physical, urban environment. That is, how the visual which adorns surface creates various visual tones or visual narratives to the physical realm outside of human existence. There is, it is argued, a definite sense of human interaction with space, surface, and texture, often in an analogous or organic sense which underpins the definition of Visual Culture. Drawing from the preceding sections, the author would, after due consideration reconfigure their initial definition and instead proffer the following as their most accurate definition for Visual Culture:

Visual Culture is the observable manifestation of a given urban society’s desire to express itself in a decorative and formalised manner, sometimes for the purpose of surface adornment (art, fashion, design) and sometimes for the purpose of structuralism (architecture, engineering). These urbanist outworkings are inextricably linked to the inorganic, built environment and can be defined as representing “The Dream of the Metropolis,” that is, humankind’s desire to free and distance itself from its past, its primitive, base and functional existence within nature. Visual Culture encompasses both perceptible and tangible elements which present themselves in two and three dimensionality, yet it also transcends the immediate materiality of objects and form, being imbued with spiritual or ethereal attributes which both counter and compliment the rudimentary nature of material form. Visual culture invariably involves a visual and spiritual transaction between the subject and the object, the end result of which is a spiritual, social, and aesthetic betterment leading us towards a state of Grace.

The above definition, whilst probably incomplete, offers us a starting point from which to begin cohesive discourse on the topic of Visual Culture so that we may discuss it with some degree of commonality and understanding.

iii.ii) Visual Culture et le Flâneur Briefly, the author would also like to mention the relationship between le flâneur and the Metropolis, and its link to Visual Culture. As has been postulated, Visual Culture is inextricably linked to the Dream of The Metropolis, and so it also gave rise to le flâneur; the urban stroller. If one goes for a walk in the countryside, one goes for a walk, or a hike, or some such activity - a purposeful activity for which one requires a particular outfit or footwear if not to suffer the effects of the natural elements. One cannot simply meander in the natural environment in whatever one leaves one’s urban dwelling wearing. This fashion is, therefore, alien and removed - distinct from our daily lives in the Metropolis. Furthermore, one also has to ‘go’ somewhere for such a walk or a hike, the domain not usually being on the vast majority of people’s doorsteps, by the very nature of current patterns in habitation. In addition to these factors, le flâneur, as an urban manifestation could simply not exist in towns or villages either because, aside from their conspicuous nature and the lack of sufficient Visual Culture, the sheer scale of these non-urban environments renders them unsuitable as they are not Metropoli, rather urban collectives. In cities however, urban strolling, flaneuring, or promenading are natural byproducts of the built environment, of nature subsumed by covered roads and surfaces. We can simply leave our property and begin flaneuring. The ability to transition seamlessly and effortlessly between our inner residential spaces and the outer collective spaces of the Metropolis is one dominant factor which clearly enabled le flâneur to manifest. For le flâneur is the natural outworking of the Dream of The Metropolis and its manifestations of Visual Culture and nowhere is this more apparent than in Paris. Paris, as one of the triad of Great Metropoli 8 probably spawned le flâneur as a direct response to the urban design and lifestyle that is unique to the City 9. The great spaces and vistas, the architecture, plazas, the myriad of pavement cafes, and the dearth of Visual Culture in plain sight provided le flâneur with all they needed to manifest themselves as a facet of the Metropolis. As a seed too grows in fertile soil, so le flâneur was nourished and nurtured by the environment of the Metropolis so that they could flourish uninhibited and unhindered. As visual culture is all around the Metropolis, le flâneur on their meandering travels can consume the surface planes, the materiality, the lines, the construction, and the treat of the visual mélange that is encoded in the Metropolis in all its unpretentious glory; it is arguable that no such treats lie in store for the rambler, the hiker, or the hill climber.

8 London and New York being the other two

9 Although not specifically within the scope of this first paper, through their primary research, the author has become aware that of all those individuals who were spoken to on this topic, it is the French (not just the Parisians) who have the clearest mental image of what Visual Culture is, and who incorporate the phrase most frequently into their everyday discussions.

v) Discussion The author maintains that Visual Culture has no capacity but to enrich human existence. It has no propensity to draw away from this and diminish our cities and urban existence in any form, otherwise it falls outside the scope and delineation of its innate parameters. To illustrate this posit, let us take the example of graffiti and tagging, which is often viewed erroneously as a vehicle for self-expression or creativity, some form of artistic endeavour, and perhaps even Visual Culture; which they clearly are not. At their core, what graffiti and tagging are, is a pastiche of art, a fake, a copy, or an allusion to Art or Visual Culture by those who do not truly understand the rôle, function, or purpose of Art in society. Despite sharing certain superficial surface attributes, in essence, graffiti and tagging are entirely different from Art and Visual Culture, not least in terms of skill, motive, method, purpose, and spiritual pursuit. For they are inherently solipsistic, narcissistic acts of virtue signalling and vandalism masquerading as artistic expression and contemporary Visual Culture. The point to establish here is that what appears to demonstrate shared commonality of form or even intent does not necessarily transpire to be the case. In the case of pure Visual Culture it has no malicious or pernicious intent, merely an aim of enriching the lives of people and guiding society towards its better self. Vandalism, however, follows an altogether more base pursuit, it is an attempt to push against the grace and elegance of the Metropolis and to return its inhabitants to a world of dirt. A world of darkness, filth, and squalor; the primordial swamp from which humankind left as fast as it could, fairly running towards modernity and the light. Likewise think of ‘plop art’ - the myriad of grotesque public ‘art’ installations funded by bemused taxpayers and plopped unsuspectingly into public spheres worldwide. Most of these unnecessary, inappropriate, and non-art pieces which, by their sheer size, consume vast quaintness of the earths natural resources, have little or no artistic, historical, cultural, or social response to their surroundings and seem conceived and designed in an inert space (which they probably were). Then pitched to a hapless committee bereft of artistic and cultural knowledge and understanding, who, seeking to create nothing more than an opportunity to either empty a financial budget prior to April 1st or hoping to create a ripple on social media which will distinguish their bland town or dull shopping centre from the next homogeneous blip on the map. Again, as with graffiti and tagging, plop art is not a true artistic expression, and it cannot be classified as Visual Culture because it is detached from the human condition; the human experience. It is not about creating a more beautiful, elegant, and graceful visual world or visual plane upon which the eyes of the Metropolitans can feast (think the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, or the Flatiron Building), rather it is a veritable anti-aesthetic, anti-cultural, and anti-social outworking from the minds of the ignorant.

It might be argued that the triad of filth that is graffiti, tagging, and plop art are a valid counter-point to Visual Grace, or that they are somehow the manifestation and embodiment of the avant-garde. It may also erroneously be posited that they are cool, hip, and modern, and by being so, reflect the flaws and inadequacies of the Dream of the Metropolis with its elegance, order, lines, cleanliness, form, and grace; this is not so. As noted above, what the triad are, is the binary opposite. Rather than being modern or hip, they are antiquated, rather than being cool and edgy, they are trite and moribund, rather than being avant-garde they are passé, and rather than being light and grace they are a calling back to the inarticulate days of primordial grunting and base existence. It is they and their pursuit of drawing Visual Culture and society down to their level, who are outdated. It is they and their pre enlightenment views who are out of step with modernity and the Dream of the Metropolis. If purveyors of such random virtue signalling believe in their mandate, if they are committed to the cause of defiling the Metropolis with squiggles, scribbles, stickers and their grotesque primary colours spewing forth from spray-cans like a colour blind philistine, inducted as a zealous neophyte into the order or disorder. Then let them return to nature, let them spray their tags, stick their stickers like dogs pissing on a lamppost; let them create their world in the manner they wish, let them build their alternatives to the Metropolis, let them actively construct their inner city slums, their Gothams not defile ours. And let them dwell in such loci, whilst those of us in pursuit of aesthetic grace and Visual Culture bask in the magnificent reflection of the Lloyd’s Building, Dalian’s International Trade Center or Conference Centre, or feel the presence of le Centre Pompidou, the Guggenheim or the Azadi Tower with their lines and curves.

vi) Conclusions The author anticipates that amongst the readers of this polemic there will be a large number who, for a myriad of reasons disagree with the definitions and perspectives presented herein. In the crumbling global democracy of choice and opinion, where everyone, it so often appears, considers themselves a polymath expert on all manner of subjects and disciplines regardless of experience, formal training, talent, or scholastic undertakings, this is to be expected; such is the malaise of contemporary society. That aside, what is hoped to have been achieved by this paper is that a coherent voice in the discussions on Visual Culture has been offered up for due consideration and digestion. As noted in the abstract, at a later stage the author intends to conduct a comprehensive literature review so as to ascertain how both the academic community and the general populous perceive, define, and contextualise the term Visual Culture and how it is manifested in both the literature and mainstream popular culture. For the time being, however, the function and purpose of this initial paper was for them to discuss, consider, question, and define what exactly is (and what is not) Visual Culture in their own mind. This definition transcended the purely academic or inert frame and was derived from their own studies, research, and lived experiences being a formal student, an appreciator, collector, connoisseur, and practitioner of disciplines which manifest themselves in a variety of forms under the nomenclature, Visual Culture. As was apparent, the principle method for completing this task was to begin establishing and ascertaining the variety of definitions for both of the component nouns: ‘culture’ and ‘visual culture.’ Following this rudimentary task, the author was able to identify the scope, limits and deficiencies in some of these definitions, and then proffer their own, more cohesive and complex definition to the discussion for due consideration and use. It, being of primacy, that there be some convergent consensus on, at least a working definition of the phrase Visual Culture prompted the completion of this task. Having performed the most basic of research it soon became apparent to the author that both the definition of Visual Culture and (perhaps more importantly) its demarcation and wider ramifications were, in most instances, extremely limited. Contemporary discourse on Visual Culture tends to either suffer from a mistaken assumption of a universal definition, or appears to be lacking the elements of spirituality, philosophy, and ontology from its basic definition. The lack of acknowledging the inter dependency on the Dream of The Metropolis was perhaps the greatest discovery, and thus this papers greatest contribution to the discussion. Furthermore the complex relationship between le flâneur and Visual Culture was also a noteworthy contribution this paper has made to the field. Both of which points, it would be suggested, could be critically examined at more closely and developed further than has been possible here.

References Barthes, R. (1974) S/Z, Miller, R. (trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. Culture. (n.d.). Collins Dictionary. Retrieved August 11, 2023, from Culture. (n.d.-b). Cambridge English Dictionary. Retrieved August 11, Culture. (n.d.-c). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved August 12, Gallie, W. B. (1956). Essentially contested concepts. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian society (Vol. 56, pp. 167-198). Aristotelian Society, Wiley. Lakoff, G (2006) Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Visual Culture. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 3, 2023, from


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