*This article is part of Arts Help's Art Theory series.

In 2014, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary coined the term “culture” as the word of the year. An uptick in “culture” definition searches on Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary website implies that, in 2014, “Confusion about culture was just part of the year’s “culture.” As New Yorker reporter Jonathan Rothman suggests, an effort to entirely understand the sociological concept of culture is elusive, no matter the year. Human beings are in a continuous search to grasp how culture is defined, practiced, and embodied. What’s more is that culture is an all-encompassing term that blanket describes the complex and manifold matters for which humans interact, believe, think, create, and behave–– there is no one way to categorize culture as it is ever-changing, always diverse, and immeasurable.

In action, the word “culture” is often compounded with an additional term or phrase: a descriptor that aims to compartmentalize the different modes through which culture exists and is enacted. In 2014, compound terms including culture were searched online just as fervently as the word culture alone. Phrases like pop culture, consumer culture, start-up culture, high culture, media culture, as well as, violence culture, rape culture, and cultures of silence include just a handful of the ways that the word culture is adapted and given expanded meaning. As apt as the quest was to understand the expansive notion of culture seven years ago (and many years before), the journey still continues. In 2021, the concept of what culture is, how it operates, and the ways in which it transforms is still at the height of society’s minds and systems.

What Is Culture For? Hardcover Book by The School of Life

One formation, or categorization, of the term culture has accrued notoriety over the past two decades as it seemingly tries to make sense of all the rest. Visual culture, as Lauren Schleimer puts into words “is a term that refers to the tangible, or visible, expressions by a people, a state or a civilization, and collectively describes the characteristics of that body as a whole.” Schleimer’s definition of visual culture stems from an anthropological blueprint, and the term now encompasses many more concepts.

Art & Visual Culture

Visual culture is an interdisciplinary notion that constitutes the visual as a precursor for knowledge and understanding. Leah Houston articulates, “visual culture is a way of studying” the world and its relations through means of “art history, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. It is intertwined with everything that one sees in [their] day to day life––advertising, landscape, buildings, photographs, movies, paintings, apparel––anything within our culture that communicates through visual means.” For transdisciplinary theorist Irit Rogoff, “visual culture opens up an entire world of intertextuality in which images, sounds and spatial delineations are read on to and through one another, lending ever-accruing layers of meanings and of subjective responses to each encounter we might have with film, TV, advertising, art works, buildings or urban environments”. Visual culture is “a transdisciplinary and cross-methodological field of inquiry.”

While the concept and nature of visual culture is not new, its popularization as a field is relatively young. In Mieke Bal’s 2003 essay Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture, Bal questions whether visual culture can be defined as a positive, productive discipline. She expresses, “rather than declaring visual culture studies either a discipline or a non-discipline, I prefer to leave the question open and provisionally refer to it as a movement. Like all movements, it may die soon, or it may have a long and productive life”. Contrary to Bal’s sentiments, the contemporary notion of visual culture is widespread. In contemporary times, visual culture has proven to outlast its particular moment in history. In fact, the nature of visual culture is expansive enough that it now operates as a highly popular field of study. Countless academic institutions offer visual culture studies as a major for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees, and moreover, several institutions have dedicated visual culture departments.

Image from the department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths University of London

In a written response to Bal’s article, art historian James Elkin meets Bal’s statements with tension, and argues positively for the interdisciplinarity of the emerging visual studies field. Elkins implies that visual culture studies offer the space for disciplines such as art history, media studies, and linguistics to come together; it appeals to “those who want to bring together several fields to create a meeting place of disciplines, a kind of bazaar or collage of simultaneous and kaleidoscopically alternating disciplinary fragments”. In extension to Elkin’s thoughts, the study of visual culture brackets various societal shifts, bridging notions of postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and the information age into a realm of intersectional study. Elkin’s quotes theorist W.J.T Mitchell, “‘Visual culture starts out in an area beneath the notice of these disciplines – the realm of non-artistic, non-aesthetic, and unmediated or “immediate” visual images and experiences.’ It is about ‘everyday seeing’, which is ‘bracketed out’ by the disciplines that conventionally address visuality”.

Norval Morrisseau, “Cosmic Children I”, n.d., serigraph on paper, 61 x 44.5 cm

Despite academic bearings, the notion of visual culture is prudent to contemporary life. In contemporary society,  a “shift in emphasis toward an increasing importance of the visible…is due principally to two related factors: the organization of economies and societies with and by images and the related hyper-development and intensification of visual technologies.” Marquard Smith articulates the ways in which apparatuses of visual culture are almost always multi-sensory, stating that “the internet always involves a coming together of text and image, of reading and looking simultaneously; that cinema always comprises sight and sound, viewing and hearing at once; that video phones necessitate a confluence of text (texting), image (photographing/videoing), sound (ringtones), and touch (the haptic or tactile bond between the user and [their] unit)”.

Photograph by Cho Gi Seok

Visual culture flows through the circuits of everyday social, economic, political, and scientific systems––the broad culture of the 21st century is supremely visual and multisensorial. Images (photographs, pictures, illustrations, videos, and so on) precipitate beyond the realm of contemporary art; they are active elements that coordinate functions of the internet, journalism, marketing, computer technologies, systems of surveillance, scientific practice, and more. Likewise, the pinnacle of visual exchange, social media, relies on images as well as visual and sensory communication in order to exist and persist. There is a sea of images directly outside the eyes of most individuals: humans come into contact with rows of visual objects through their cell phone devices, newsfeeds, and streaming accounts. Humans are in a constant relationship with “a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.”

The definition of the “visible” is changing due to the rapid advancement of technologies; new technologies have succeeded in making that which was never visible before perceivable. Newfangled forms of visual media––from video conferencing to augmented reality––continue to change the way that humans communicate, experience, learn, and exchange. Furthermore, individuals’ access to visual exchange platforms is perpetuating how visual content is made, circulated, and aestheticized––these platforms give space for the development of visual mediums, expanding and revolutionizing the way that art, design, photography, performance, music, marketing and so on are traditionally practiced and determined.

In addition, these technologies simply change the way that images are seen and understood. Through the immense popularity of social platforms such as Instagram and YouTube the visual world intersects with the contemplative world. The systems of social media are just one aspect of contemporary visual culture. Yet, the  advancement of these visual exchange platforms exemplifies a shift in how contemporary culture tends to embody visualization as a means to develop intersectional understanding and take action towards the social and economic consequential issues that prevail global societies.

Ice Watch in London, Olafur Eliasson 2018

Visual culture is fluid, continuously adapting, and as humans we constantly find new ways to engage with, contemplate, and question the world through visual imagery. In the words of W.J.T Mitchell, “The most far-reaching shift signaled by the search for an adequate concept of visual culture is its emphasis on the social field of the visual, the everyday processes of looking at others and being looked at. This complex field of visual reciprocity is not merely a by-product of social reality but actively constitutive of it”. While perhaps the exact theory of visual culture is challenging to pinpoint, it is without dispute that visual culture is a pivotal element in the apparatuses of art, art history, design, media as well as  contemporary global societies. As a field of study, and everyday notion, the theory of visual culture argues for how images influence new ways of thinking, understanding, and mediating. It is a way of looking at the world to make sense of the universe and humanity’s divergent and complex relations.

Sofía Probert New York Times Illustration
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