What Does Visual Studies Do?
Interview with Keith Moxey
On April 20, Keith Moxey gave the third lecture in the Handwerker Gallery Critical Forum. Moxey is a professor of art history at Barnard College, Columbia University. His critical practice, based on a strong theoretical position, conceives of image analysis as the constant reinscription of the visual production within its historical context. In his lecture, "Nostalgia for the Real: The Troubled Relation of Art History and Visual Studies," Moxey critically analyzed from the poststructuralist theoretical position the historical production of both art history and visual studies, the mutual interdependence and exclusions of their disciplinary boundaries, and the strategic difference of visual studies. After the lecture, the gallery asked Moxey to explain some of the interesting points he had raised.
Keith Moxey is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History at Barnard College and Columbia University in New York city. He is the author of books on the historiography and philosophy of art history, as well as on sixteenth century painting and prints in Northern Europe. His publications include The Practice of Persuasion: Politics and Paradox in Art History (2001); The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics and Art History (1994); Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation (1989). He is also the co-editor of several anthologies: Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Culture (2002), The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspective (1998), Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations (1994), and Visual Theory: Painting and Interpretation (1991).
From Handwerker Gallery Newsletter, Fall 1999., Vol. 1, No. 3
• What is the position of visual studies within the existing academic institutional framework? In other words, in what way does its relationship with art history inform its own disciplinary position?
— I would say that art history and visual studies are two projects not necessarily antagonistic to one another. There is no need for people involved in art history to be worried about the fate of their discipline because of the rise of something called visual studies. Visual studies allows art historians to look beyond the parameters of the canon, at objects that have not traditionally been the focus of their interest. What then would be the relation between the study of the canon and the study of the visual culture? How do we define these terms?
I think that the notion of art has a historiography on its own - namely, the historiography that grew in the late 18th century with the development of aesthetics. This is a special discourse about cultural artifacts that are privileged by means of the concept of art. This has become a part of the culture to which we belong. It is a way of speaking a language, and it is not something that visual studies would seek to contest. I think the point of putting the study of "art with a capital A" alongside, say, the study of television or film or advertising would not be to suggest that everything is the same - not to suggest that we live in a sea of images and one medium is the same as the other. The point is really to show how different they are, to be able to compare the different ways in which these genres are understood. In other words, how it would profit an art historian to be familiar with film studies.
There are all sorts of strategies, heuristic tools, that have been developed in the context of film studies that could also be used in art history. We have seen some of these border crossings already when people applied the concept of the gaze to art history. One would observe the traditions associated with each of the media in order to benefit from the theoretical structures associated with those studies, rather than to collapse them all into some undifferentiated mass of images. I think that is a caricature, to suggest that visual studies ignores the distinction between something called art and other things called television, film, and advertising. Visual studies, at least in my view, would not propose to treat them all as if they are equivalent because they are not. We meet them in the context of traditions, and these traditions are worth respecting.
• How, then, is one to define the visual within the context of visual studies?
— I think that there is a widespread misunderstanding - at least in the essays by Rosalind Krauss and in some of the questions that informed the 1996 issue of the journal October - that somehow visual culture deals with disembodied images. Nothing could be further from what the visual studies program might want to concern itself with.
Visual studies regards images as saturated with language - absolutely through and through; you cannot distinguish the two. They are absolutely interlocked. To talk about visual studies is not to suggest that the visual is somehow wholly distinct from language, but that images have a complicated relation to language. Anybody who is familiar with word-image problems knows that images do things that words cannot. It is very hard to use language to try to account for the specificity of the visual. There is clearly a big difference between these two ways of understanding. Martin Jay writes in his book Downcast Eyes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) that you cannot write without evoking images. The reverse is true: you cannot have images without evoking the language.
• Donald Prezziosi, in an interesting turn of phrase, speaks of modernity as the main product of art history. Would it then be possible to speak about visual studies as both being produced by and producing postmodernism?
— I would tend to put it the other way around: far from modernity being produced by art history, it is clear that modern- ity is the impetus behind art history. If we understand modernity as the cultural period that is informed by a notion of teleological development inspired by the Hegelian notion of history, then clearly art history is deeply indebted to this philosophical attitude and this way of understanding the world. Art history has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it is always going somewhere. For Heinrich Wölfflin this is the movement from Renaissance to baroque. These are the foundations of art history, and it seems to me that art history is deeply indebted to the 19th-century ideas that are basis for modernism.
Turning now to postmodernity: first of all, "postmodernism" is a very complicated term that has been defined and redefined over and over again. I would like to associate postmodernity with poststructuralism. If this is the way postmodernity is understood, then it poses a challenge to all the assumptions made in modernity - the notion of history as teleological, the notion that there is a way of basing knowledge on foundational principles, the idea that language may be transparent to the world. On this basis, it would be possible to think of visual studies as both produced by and producing postmodernism. What I mean by that is that visual culture would not be interested in some foundationalist theory of knowledge; it would not be interested in the universalist theme of aesthetics. It would recognize different subject positions, insisting that subjectivity is always embedded in history. It is gendered, it has ethnic qualities, qualities related to the cultural background, to sexual preferences. Once that has been understood, then visual studies becomes a situated knowledge rather than a knowledge that pretends to universality. And if it is situated and has recognized its situatedness, then it becomes antimodernist. Insofar as it is antimodernist, it is antitraditional art history. Indeed, if art history has a future, it will depend on the status of art as a discursive practice rather than upon its claims to transcendent autonomy.