09.14.2011 / Farewell to Visual Studies? A Report from the Field

Bridget R. Cooks and Jeanette Roan discuss the past, present, and future of visual studies following their participation in the 2011 Stone Summer Theory Institute on the theme “Farewell to Visual Studies.” Topics to be addressed include the multiple and diverse genealogies of visual studies, the relationship between art history and visual studies, the status of the image in visual studies, and the politics of visual studies.

Bridget R. Cooks is Associate Professor of Art History and African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her scholarship addresses representations of African Americans in visual culture, the history of African American artists, and museum criticism. She curated the critically acclaimed exhibition The Art of Richard Mayhew at the Museum of the African Diaspora in 2009. Her first book, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum is forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.

Jeanette Roan is an Associate Professor in the Visual Studies Program and the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts. Her research addresses representations of identity and difference in U.S. culture and global flows of people, images, and ideas across the Pacific. She is the author of Envisioning Asia: On Location, Travel, and the Cinematic Geography of U.S. Orientalism (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

Student Review:
by Malia Rose

Don’t fret, there’s no need to change our majors or quit our jobs in the field of Visual Culture Studies. Despite the provocative and seemingly apocalyptic theme of this year’s Stone Summer Theory Institute–Farewell to Visual Studies–the report-back from Dr. Bridget Cooks and Dr. Jeanette Roan assuaged any dire concerns and confirmed that the field is still alive and kicking. Cooks’s and Roan’s conversational presentation on the content and outcome of the five-day Institute suggest that the field may be suffering some growing pains, but this is not tantamount to failure. For those in the room who are new to the field, learning of Michael Ann Holly’s disappointment with the lack of ancient art scholarship does not suggest total defeat, but that there’s more to do. And, certainly, Bridget Cooks’s report on W.J.T Mitchell’s racist and sexist metaphors for engaging with images does not imply that we should throw the discipline out the door. Rather, we should continue studying the intersections of visual and cultural criticism, and the injustices revealed therein. Our field is charged with a diversity of critical approaches to and investments in the visual, and although this may be uncomfortable for those in search of core texts, methodologies, or structuring categories, I think it’s a refreshing and exciting option at the otherwise strictly monitored Academic buffet table.

Student Review:
by Becca Roy

The provocative title of the 2011 Stones Summer Theory Institute’s program, Farewell to Visual Studies, is perhaps a double entedre. From Jeanette Roan and Bridget Cooks’ report back from the program, it is evident that ‘farewell’ is not a term implying a loss or failure, but rather a term of support, wishing the field of visual studies a bon voyage as it embarks into academia as an established interdisciplinary field. But if the purpose of the Stones Summer Theory think tank was to define the current practices and predict future methodologies, then it seems like the cohort was given an impossible task. For it is the inherent nebulous inclusivity of visual studies, which attracts so many of us students and provides insightful and progressive academic space, that leaves the field difficult to define.

But to alleviate skepticism about the retreat of visual studies, Jeanette and Bridget shared the arduous, extensive, and inspiring list of required reading for their weeklong seminar, totaling over 15,000 pages of rigorous theory. However, in a discussion at the Institute about primary foundational texts, the multimodal impact and progressive interests of visual studies proved to be more important than a definitive or prescribed agenda.[1] Jeanette explained the two interpretive paradigms of visual studies: treating the visual object as if it is invested with an animating power of its own, and treating the visual object as a cultural representation and a construct that is filled with meaning. (Later in the question and answer portion of the forum, Tirza Latimer presented, with reservations, the possibility that the object will tell you, through a mystical connection, what methodological framework to employ to activate the object’s agency.) Jeanette and Bridget also spoke about German initiatives in visual studies that have followed trajectories parallel to but independent from contingencies of scholars in the U.S. and the U.K. Though both the Anglo-visual studies scholars and their counterparts, the three B’s (Gottfried Boehm, Hans Belting, and Horst Bredekamp) have been working with little communication, they are both responding to the “peculiar lives of [visual] objects.”[2]

Though Bridget relayed some inappropriate, bigoted remarks made by W.J.T. Mitchell in his book, What do Images Want? : The Lives and Loves of Images, it does not mean that the field has evolved past its investment in race theory, queer theory, or gender studies. It simply means that the goals of visual studies are still relevant, and this should incite us to look to visual and cultural studies to provide critical interventions to continuing inequalities.

In this vein, it is our responsibility as rising scholars in the field to continue to traverse boundaries in our visual practices to ‘make visual studies more difficult.’[3]

Jeanette and Bridget spoke about the ‘Case of the Calvin Klein Suit’ and ‘The Case of the Neglected Crystal’ as two of Elkin’s ten proposed improvements to the field. The ‘Calvin Klein Suit’ is Elkin’s call for a radical intervention in pedagogy and a more rigorous engagement with Marxist theories, not just recognition of capitalist ideology. In the section describing the ‘neglected crystal’ Elkins calls for the deeper excavation of obfuscated histories, especially those outside of the ‘canon.’ Art history is perhaps Michael Anne Holly’s forgotten gemstone, as she has distanced herself from the field because of its lack of engagement with medieval art and its focus on contemporary visual objects. But with a final boost of confidence, Bridget and Jeanette seemed to encourage us to commit to and engage with our interests in ways that allow for a depth and texture of interpretations, and allow space for the recognition of the ‘life’ of the object.


[1] Though Jeanette mentioned that someone suggested Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, and Envisioning Asia: On Location, Travel and the Cinematic Geography of U.S. Orientalism as foundational texts.

[2] Keith Moxey, “Visual Studies and the Iconic Turn,” Journal of Visual Culture 7 (2008): 132.

[3] James Elkins, “Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult,” in Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 63-123, 210-218.