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Theories of the Visual: Part I. October 11, 2011. Ways of Seeing John Berger. “When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image”(19). Ways of Seeing John Berger.

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ways of seeing john berger
Ways of SeeingJohn Berger

“When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image”(19).

ways of seeing john berger1
Ways of SeeingJohn Berger

“The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images” (33).

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Ways of SeeingJohn Berger
  • Internationally recognized British art critic, painter, author
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Ways of SeeingJohn Berger
  • Internationally recognized British art critic, painter, author
  • Ways of Seeing was also simultaneously a groundbreaking documentary on the BBC (let’s take a peek at one…)
seeing
Seeing:

In this text, Berger constructs vision in a particular way. For him:

seeing1
Seeing:

In this text, Berger constructs vision in a particular way. For him:

“To look is an act of choice” (8)

seeing2
Seeing:

In other words, to look is something that requires active agency on the part of the looker because we all, ultimately, decide what to look at.

And, by virtue of what we choose to look at, we situate ourselves in the world “in relation” to those things we choose to look at, we become “closer” to them.

seeing3
Seeing:

Further, according to Berger:

“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are” (9).

seeing4
Seeing:

Thus, seeing is not just “looking at stuff”—it’s the way by which we situate ourselves in the world, determine where our place is, where we belong.

Seeing also creates a reciprocal relationship with others in a way that, according to Berger, is even “more fundamental than that of spoken dialogue” (9).

seeing5
Seeing:

Hence his claim:

“Seeing comes before words” (7).

the reproduction of the image
The Reproduction of the Image

Not surprisingly, Berger focuses here on visual art and, in particular, how the camera has “changed the way men saw” (18).

the reproduction of the image1
The Reproduction of the Image

He writes: “When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image” (19).

the reproduction of the image2
The Reproduction of the Image

Does that sound like anyone mentioned in your readings?

the reproduction of the image3
The Reproduction of the Image

In Remediation, B+G summarize Walter Benjamin’s argument in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” They write:

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Ways of SeeingJohn Berger

“Benjamin’s argument is that mechanical reproduction produces a fundamental change in the nature of art, a change that destroys the artwork’s ‘aura’ by removing it from the context of ritual and tradition in which art had been historically embedded”(73).

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Ways of SeeingJohn Berger

However, although Benjamin sees this reproducibility as a signal of the end of culture, Berger sees possibility in the multiplicity of images…

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Ways of SeeingJohn Berger

Berger aims to wrestle visual art out of the hands “of a few specialized experts” who represents “a ruling class in decline”(32).

However, reproduction is used so much that it tends “to promote the illusion that nothing has changed” (33).

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Ways of SeeingJohn Berger

But, for Berger, there is possibility in the plentitude of images:

“If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. . .The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images”(33).

the pictoral turn w j t mitchell2
“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell
  • Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago
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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell
  • Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago
  • Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry
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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell
  • Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago
  • Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry
  • Awarded numerous prestigious awards for his scholarship, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowments for the Humanities
the pictoral turn w j t mitchell5
“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

Mitchell observes that the history of philosophy involves a series of “turns” or periods in which a particular topic is obsessed over.

For Mitchell, “it does seem clear that another shift in what philosophers talk about is happening” (11).

He calls this new turn “The Pictoral Turn”

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

This “Pictoral Turn” represents “a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry”(12).

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

Mitchell suggests two opposite, paradoxical reasons for this:

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

1)Our current “age of electronic reproduction has developed new forms of visual simulation and illusionism with unprecedented powers”(15).

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

2) On the other hand, “fear of the image” and anxiety about the power of the image may be driving this turn as well (15).

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

Mitchell focuses on the achievements of the very influential art historian Erwin Panofsky.

Primarily a scholar of medieval and northern Renaissance art, Panofsky is most frequently associated with the concept of iconography, matching the subject-matter of works of art to a symbolic syntax (ie. language) of meaning drawn from literature (ie. language) and other works of art.

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

However, according to Mitchell, there remains some “unfinished business” in Panofsky’s work:

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

However, according to Mitchell, there remains some “unfinished business” in Panofsky’s work:

the question of the spectator.

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

One way to “unweave this tapestry” woven by Panofsky is through the work of Jonathan Crary, whose work attempts to dialogue with Panofsky’s work.

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

However, as much as Mitchell values Crary’s work, Mitchell observes that Crary’s historical narrative follows a “well-worn path” about visual history and the role of the spectator.

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

The familiar story, for Mitchell, is the one about the “‘abstraction’ of visual experience from a ‘human observer’ whose image is progressively ‘alienated’ and ‘reified’” (22).

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

So, then, how to we begin to “state the questions” that the pictoral turn insists we ask?

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

First, we must, perhaps, rethink the practice of iconography.

Iconography traditionally aims to connect a language system to images as a means to organize the visual. But Mitchell suggests a new “critical iconography”:

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

First, we need to take the study of iconography beyond a simple 1-to-1 comparison between image and word (24).

Images are much more complex than that—they play a role in the way we construct ourselves or, in Berger’s terms, how we see ourselves.

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

Second, perception and interpretation are also much more complex than a 1-to-1 comparison between image and word:

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

Mitchell sees value in Panofsky’s argument that interpretation occurs in a three-dimensional “scene” (hence, “theatrical”), that shifts in complexity from “surface to depth” (26)

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

However, Mitchell argues that Panofsky’s method has many problems (he lists six); Mitchell suggests to go even further and “remove the figures from the stage and examine the stage itself, the space of vision and recognition, the very ground which allows the figures to appear” (31).

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“The Pictoral Turn”W.J.T. Mitchell

In simpler terms, Mitchell argues that we need to examine how the ways we see are rhetorically constructed via ideology.

Another way to say it is: the way we see is rhetorical. That is, it is constructed in particular ways and persuade us to see in particular ways.

so what
So What?

First, I think they teach us about how technology has changed our relationship with the image. Is it for the better or for the worse?

*shrug*

In either case, since we now have an unprecedented ability to work with images in a public way online, we should be aware of the effects our use of images can have on our audiences and the larger world.

so what1
So What?

Second, I think these two (admittedly abstract) articles demonstrate how difficult it is to articulate our understanding (or lack of understanding) of the power of the image.

The image does do something to us, the image can be very persuasive, but describing how images do these things is tricky.

so what2
So What?

Third, it suggests to me that in our selection of images in the texts we create, we must take great care, since the effects of the image have proven to be both powerful and unpredictable.

We should aim to be ethical users of images.

so what3
So What?

Fourth, I think they demonstrate that there is a lot of potential in the image.

In other words, images can be fun to play with!

now what
Now What?

So let’s play!

I’ve posted a .doc version of our syllabus on the website. You’ll find it under “Assignments.”

I’d like each group to look over the syllabus and make some visual changes. You are tasked with changing the visual look of this syllabus by adding and deleting images, and altering the overall visual design of this document.

now what1
Now What?

Let’s play!

There are four images currently in this version of the syllabus. You must keep at least one of these imagesand you will tell us all why you made the choices you did (although you can change its location). You must then find, insert, and position new images in the syllabus that you think make the syllabus more visually interesting and more sophisticated.

now what2
Now What?

Let’s play!

You can add as many images as you like. However, keep in mind that the overall document must be visually appealing and organized in a rhetorically effective way.

We’ll all share our results with the group.