Train your mind to decipher all the sights your eyes take in

Visual Culture. First edition
May 27, 2005

Readers of Richard Howells’s Visual Culture will immediately be struck by the sheer breadth of cultural artefacts included for analysis. These range from Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage to Picasso’s Guernica ; from the Beatles’s Abbey Road album cover to advertisements for Renault cars; and from the early cinema of the Lumière brothers to The Cosby Show .

But Howells’s objective is not to offer a comprehensive coverage of the history of visual culture. He sets out “to introduce students to the analysis of visual culture” and to encourage readers to develop their visual literacy. In a world of visual abundance in which visual literacy is too frequently poorly developed in education, such an objective is laudable. Howells’s text provides an excellent foundation through which to explore the fundamentals of visual analysis.

The text is divided into two parts. The first introduces a range of theoretical approaches drawing on the work of Erwin Panofsky, Roger Fry, Ernst Gombrich, John Berger, Roland Barthes and Clifford Geertz. The second section offers an alternative media-centred approach exploring the fine arts, photography, film, television and new media. Each chapter can be read as a self-sufficient text, with suggestions for further reading, or as part of the more comprehensive whole, providing an insightful overview of issues pertinent to any student of visual culture.

My one reservation regarding this approach concerns the chapter titled “Art history”. From the outset, Howells qualifies this by use of the adjective “traditional”. Thus “traditional art history” is defined as “an essentially conventional approach that concerns itself with the unfolding story of art”. The model for this is Gombrich’s ubiquitous The Story of Art, which Howells deconstructs in the remainder of the chapter.

However, dividing art history from other areas of analysis, including ideology, semiotics and hermeneutics, inevitably implies that there is little or no distinction between this traditional mode and contemporary art-historical practices. Indeed, Howells is all too willing to drop the qualifier “traditional” and adopt the present tense when he claims “there is something very cosy about art history, and that cosiness needs to be exposed to an icy blast of interrogation”.

This fails to recognise the considerable changes that have taken place in the art-historical discipline over the past two decades, not least its now-standard deployment of many of the theoretical modes of analysis that Howells includes elsewhere in his text.

Despite this reservation, there is little doubt that Visual Culture offers a sound and engaging introduction to the nuances and complexities of visual analysis and will be of great benefit to its readers.

Mike O’Mahony is lecturer in the history of art, Bristol University.

Visual Culture. First edition

Author - Richard Howells
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 292
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2411 1 and 2412 X

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