Reading the Visual World

Thoughts and comments on this course syllabus would be much appreciated. 🙂

Reading the Visual World

Office Hours By Appointment

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting (1995)

As subjects, we are literally called into the picture, and represented here as caught.
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1978)

What is “visual culture”? What do we mean when we speak of “the visual world,” “images,” “symbols,” or “signs”? What kinds of “things” are conjured in our minds by these words? Furthermore, if these words lead to visual “things,” to “images,” in our minds, must then “images” lead to words? This course will explore the myriad of shapes, forms and contexts that art, “image(s),” takes within cultures.

From art to architecture, advertising to film, visual culture takes many forms throughout history and especially within today’s marketing-charged, internet-driven culture of constant images and streaming video. How we see and how we interpret what we see is essential to how we comprehend the world around us. Yet few disciplines, outside of the Fine Arts, examines the relationship between image and text in order to develop a critical vocabulary for discussing it, dissecting it, and theorizing it in new and exciting ways. Therefore many are left intrigued yet perplexed by visual culture, lacking the means to express what they see and how feel about it.

This course will serve as a wide-ranging introduction to visual culture and critical approaches to the study of art in all its assorted forms. An emphasis will be placed on exploring elements of the visual world to better understand types of images, ways of interpretation and understanding, and methods of speaking and writing of and about images. The seminar will serve as a workshop in which students will help set the agenda for weekly discussions by bringing their own interests, impetuses for seminar participation, and modes of interpretation to the material.

Formal interest in art, art history, architecture, aesthetic studies, advertising, film, anthropology, or museum studies is not required, in fact the more diverse and wide-ranging the backgrounds, interests, and disciplinary fields of the students involved the better.

Course Requirements:

Because this is a once a week seminar, a premium will be placed on attendance and active participation, the life-blood of any seminar. In addition to being prepared to discuss weekly assigned readings and visual materials presented in class, students will be expected to write weekly responses based on questions or prompts given in class or in the syllabus. Responses are to be brought to class in hard copy with the student and should serve as a tool for discussion and investigation of the class material. They will be turned in at the end of the class for which they were assigned. Late or digital formats will not be accepted unless prior arrangements have been made with the professor.

Each student will also be responsible for two presentations: a museum presentation midway through the semester and a presentation in class at the end of the semester. For the museum presentation, students will select a piece on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  They will prepare a short object analysis/discussion to present to the class, who will meet for that week at the museum. Final presentations will be an in-class presentation (with necessary images) of students’ final semester paper. The paper, the topic of which shall be decided in conjunction with the professor, should be a discussion of a single “image” utilizing all the tools and analytical skills acquired over the course of the semester.

These components will comprise the student’s semester grade and will be weighted as follows:

Class Participation 10%

Weekly Responses 50%

Museum Presentation 20%

Seminar Presentation 20%

Just as there is no expectation of previous course work in related field(s), there are no required textbooks for the course. Instead, the professor will distribute PDFs of all assigned readings at the start of the semester, or make them available for download through a web client such as Blackboard. A bibliography of materials is provided at the end of the syllabus for reference and future use of the student. With that said, a considerable number of readings will come from Donald Preziosi’s seminal edited volume “The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology” (we will, in fact, read almost the whole volume over the course of the semester). Some students may find that they would like to purchase the book so that they have the readings gathered in one handy volume. This is entirely up to the student.

The syllabus may change at the discretion of the professor. All changes to assigned readings and/or due dates will be made in advance and new material provided by the professor.

Week 1:


Introduction to the course, explanation of the syllabus and student requirements, and a “getting to know one another” discussion.

In-Class Activity: What interested you in the course? How do you define “visual culture”? What do you think is your relationship to the visual arts?


Gardner (Kleiner and Mamiya), “Introduction.” (skim)

Gombrich, “Introduction.”

Hartt, “Introduction.” (skim)

Maquet, Chapter 1 (“The Reality Anthropologists Build”)

Chapter 2 (“Art in Everyday Reality”)

Week 2:

Art History: Making the Visible Legible

Having laid a general foundation to the concept of “art” in the previous week, this week will concentrate on the history of Art History; how it developed as a field of inquiry, and most importantly how it has and continues to produce a vocabulary and methods of discussion and analysis of visual culture.


Preziosi: “Introduction”

“Art History: Making the Visible Legible” (and page 21)

Michael Baxandall’s “Patterns of Intention”

Heinrich Wöfflin’s “Principles of Art History”

“History as Art: Introduction.”


Compare and contrast your thoughts on “visual culture” and your relationship to it prior to the first class meeting and the readings and after. Have your opinions/thoughts changed?  If so, how?

Week 3:

Style, Iconography, and Semiology: Mechanisms of Meaning in Visual Culture

The previous two weeks have been devoted to establishing a foundation for the course at hand but also for the study of the visual arts at large. This week will be devoted to the means by which Art History, and thus visual culture, is legitimized as an autonomous field of study. Readings and discussion will be based on the “visualness” of the visual arts, the key issue that sets such inquiries as ours apart from other fields of historical or cultural pursuit.


Preziosi, “Style: Introduction”

Meyer Shapiro, “Style”

Ernst Gombrich, “Style”

Chapter 5


Take three pictures with your cell phone camera or digital camera. One image should capture a “style.” One should represent “iconography.” And one should represent “semiology.” Write a brief paragraph describing how your photos represent/articulate the concept. Be prepared to share your images in class and discuss them.

Week 4:

Off the Wall: Sculpture, Architecture, Land Art and Landscape

So far the course has focused on the concept of images and art in a two-dimensional sense (paintings, drawings, etc). This week will focus on the means by which we interact with and speak of that which we move through and around.


Courbusier, Towards An Architecture, pp 93-130.

Hays, Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge, and Power,” interview with Paul Rabinow

Michell, Landscape and Power, Read: Preface and Introduction. Skim: “Imperial Landscape,” “The Effects of Landscape,” and “Invention, Memory, and Place.”

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? “What Sculpture Wants: Placing Antony Gormley.”

Preziosi, Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.”

Rasmussen, Chapter 1, (“Basic Observations”)


Beyond the obvious technical differences, how do the processes of thinking about and speaking of architecture, sculpture, and landscape differ or are similar to paintings? Can we speak of architecture and landscape in the same iconographical or semiotic terms as paintings and other visual images? Why or why not?

Week 5:

The Viewer and the Viewed: Gaze, Gender and the Object

Up to this point we have discussed the visual world in historical and methodological terms, but these have been passive discussions. This week the readings and class discussion will take our “looking” from passive to active, “seeing.” Not only are we, the viewer, “seeing” the work of art, but the object is being “viewed.” Does our gaze change the meaning of the object? Furthermore, when we take into account the role of gender and the nature of our gaze on the object, in most cases a woman, does this affect our understanding? When reading this week’s readings, pay attention to the role and concept of gender and how the use of gaze and viewership alters perception and meaning.


Butler, “Art and Feminism: An Ideology of Shifting Criteria.”

Frascina and Harris, “Introduction to Part II,” T. J. Clark’s “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of ‘Olympia’ in 1865,” and Griselda Pollock’s “Modernity and the Spaces of Feminity.”

McDaniel and Robertson, “Sexual Bodies: The Gaze and Sex and Violence”

Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient.”

Preziosi, Chapter 7.


Select an image of your choice. First, analyze the image without taking into consideration the concepts of gaze and gender discussed in this week’s readings, and then analyze the image with those considerations. Be prepared to discuss your image in class.

Week 6:

The Black Sheep: Orientalism, the “Other,” and the Non-Western World

Last week we started to examine visual culture through active means of “seeing,” engaging in images on more than a purely stylistic level. By engaging in a discussion of the “gaze” and the question of gender and how these affect the viewer’s understanding of an image, we have transitioned into more critical and theoretical discussion of what visual culture consists of and how we can use multiple tools of analysis to examine them. We continue this theme this week with a discussion of “the Other” and Orientalism.


Frascina and Harris, Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.”

Preziosi: Chapter 9: Introduction

Timothy Mitchell, “Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order”

Annie E. Coombes, “Inventing the ‘Postcolonial’: Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating”

Saad, Empire and Its Discontents


What is Orientalism according to our authors? Do you agree with them? Edward Said first wrote about Orientalism in the 1970s, do you think it’s still prevalent now? Why or why not? Cite examples.

Week 7:

Museum Presentations

Class will be held at the Museum of Fine Arts. Students are to gather inside the main entrance of the museum by the start of class time. There are no assigned readings or response paper for this week. The presentation will serve as your response (a hard copy of which will need to be provided to the professor at the museum), and your attentiveness and participation in discussing your colleagues’ presentations will serve as your participation.

Up to this point we have discussed “traditional” media, now we will turn to discuss media that are included under the umbrella of “visual culture” but are not traditionally considered part of Fine Arts. For this second half of the semester I’d like to focus less on discrete methodological or historiographical questions and more on technological developments that lead not only to the inclusion of new media within the larger discourse of visual culture but also to new theoretical paradigms. This half of the seminar will open with two weeks of introduction lectures on new media and modernism/post-modernism and student discussions of texts. The final two weeks of seminar discussion prior to presentations will serve as student led workshops centered in new media and theoretical models in the readings.


Barthes, Camera Lucida. (skim)

Coles, Design and Art, pp 10-22, 29-57, 74-88, 154-71

Groys, “Iconoclasm as an Artistic Device: Iconoclastic Strategies in Film,” and “From Image to Image-File and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization.” (skim)

Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator”

Frascina and Harris, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Harrison, Chapter 2

Joselit, Chapter 4 (“Avatar”)

Kracauer, “Basic Concepts” and “History and Fantasy”

Lavin, Clean New World

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? Read: “Addressing Media.” Skim: “The Ends of American Photography: Robert Frank as National Medium,” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction.”

Panofsky, Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures

Perry and Wood, Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5

Vogue, Extreme Beauty

Week 8:

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Photography and Film


Week 9:

Video Changed the Museum Star: Conceptualism/Structuralism/Post-Modernism

Week 10:

The Mad (Wo)Men of Madison Avenue: Fashion, Advertising, Performance, and Design

Week 11:

High Techne: Technology, the Internet, and Cyberculture


Week 12:

Final Presentations


Week 13:

Final Presentations

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Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, Feminism, History

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