These two books by Nicholas Mirzoeff, associate professor of art at the State University of New York, constitute an impressive foray into a new and exciting (or at least popular) field, which he terms visual culture. But it is a proto-discipline that exists on the margins of many others. Though strongly influenced by cultural studies, it is by no means co-terminous with it. And although highly coloured by the "new critical theory" of radical art history, its proponents often attempt a reasoned approach that is close to that of another form of critical theory, to be found in sociology. Deeply imbued with the conventionalist paradigm of Foucault, it also embraces strongly held positions within philosophy and literary studies.
It may seem an oxymoron to assert that studying visual culture is concerned, above all else, with "reading" images, but this powerful metaphor lies at the heart of Mirzoeff's work. The two books - An Introduction to Visual Culture and The Visual Culture Reader , a textbook that covers the history and theory of visual culture since the Renaissance and a set of readings that maps out stages in that journey - must be seen as interlinked publications particularly useful for any number of courses, though this would not make them pointless as individual purchases. Singly or as a pair, they are a tour de force as well as a tour d'horizon .
Mirzoeff covers a lot of ground in his textbook, devoting the first part to a history of "modern ways of seeing" from easel painting to photography, and on into television, computers and, of course, virtual reality. He notes that the shift from modernity to postmodernity has paralleled the process by which the visual is replacing the linguistic as the prime means of communication, and thus of culture.
In the second part of An Introduction , the "culturalist" approaches of modern cultural studies take centre stage, with helpful doses of psychoanalysis, "queer" theory and a pertinent case study - the death of Diana, princess of Wales, which Mirzoeff considers to be the "coming of age of a global visual culture".
The place he accords to photography in this process - a central one, for the wide circulation of still images of Diana were the key, in his view, to her global importance - seems slightly at odds with his earlier assertion that photography "died sometime in the 1980s" as a result of the computer revolution.
The hackneyed argument that digital manipulation has somehow "abolished" the causal link between a photograph and the event it depicts,Jwhich ignores the fact that image manipulation was born with the medium, is wheeled out at one point in the book, only to be waved away when it becomes inconvenient. Surely, postmodernism asserts the multiplicity of cultural forms, rather than going back to the modernist idea that one form replaces another?
Mirzoeff includes many interesting examples in a well-written and intriguing book that covers an enormous field. This scope is its strength as well as its Achilles heel, for the number of hares set off by his contentions would require a well-disciplined army to track down.
The accompanying Visual Culture Reader allows both teacher and student to sample some of his sources, and would be useful in a context in which some of the wilder or more idiosyncratic views of the author could be subjected to closer scrutiny.
Peter Hamilton is lecturer in sociology, Open University.
The Visual Culture Reader. First Edition
Editor - Nicholas Mirzoeff
ISBN - 0 415 14133 8 and 14134 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 530