Visual Culture and Religion: An Overview

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If the word culture, as Raymond Williams once pointed out (Williams, 1976, p. 76), is among the most complicated words in the English language, what can anyone hope to achieve by clapping the word visual in front of it? Not surprisingly, the use of the term visual culture among scholars of art, film, and media is quite varied. For many it simply refers to forms of imagery beyond the pale of traditional fine art, such as film, mass-produced prints, and advertisements. For others the term signifies something procedural: the method of study or the set of questions and themes that occupy a particular body of scholarship. For yet others the term marks a significant turn in the practice of art history, which involves pedagogical as well as political commitments that depart from traditional art historical practice. No discipline takes images with the single-minded seriousness of art history, and because art historians have been prominent in debating the use of the term, a review of developments in that discipline is a helpful way of approaching the definition of visual culture. From there it will be possible to consider the implications of visual culture for the study of religion.

Visual Culture and Art History

The rise of interest in popular culture, film, women's studies, ethnicity and race, and sexuality challenged the dominance of traditional scholarship in the humanities, which was historically invested in the canon of fine art and literature. For a long time art historical interpretation had also avoided political interpretation of images and had largely ignored contemporary imagery, especially mass-produced imagery, because it lacked the craftsmanship of fine art. Nor did it accommodate the categories of genius, professional artist, and masterpiece or the criteria of museum value that dominated the discipline and its canon of fine art. But during the 1960s and 1970s art historians and art critics who were engaged by contemporary art's disavowal of traditional tastes or the celebration of political critiques of established authority in cultural and social affairs became interested in issues of reproduction, the conceptualization of viewing as a social and psychological act, and the ways of seeing that shaped the meaning of images. The social history of art sought to situate works of art within the ideological constructions of class and gender that were inseparable from any act of representation.

By the 1980s a rising tide of scholarship in art history had begun to explore canon formation, gender, sexuality, and the art of marginalized cultures, races, and ethnicities. A "crisis in the discipline" was discussed in professional forums, and the first instances appeared of what came to be known as the "new art history" (Rees and Borzello, 1988). Of special importance was the application of deconstruction, semiotics, and psychoanalytic theory (of greatest influence were the writings of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan). Practitioners of the new art history were intrigued by the visual construction of power relations, which they conceptualized as the "gaze," the visual field that evaluates space and object as intelligible forms.

Work in the 1980s and 1990s also explored the nature of representation, often in connection with the discussion of postmodernism and inspired by the oracular writing of Jean Baudrillard. A number of important studies during this time complemented the social history of art with greater attention to audience and reception, finding an important connection to the interest in the gaze and the visual construction of reality. At issue was the status of art history, the authority of its claims, its autonomy from the prevailing interests of the elite that controlled cultural institutions, as well as a host of questions about the nature of representation.

The reflection on ideology, the nature of vision, the gendered gaze, and the constructedness of representation led some art historians to greater awareness of the audience and its role in the interpretation of art. Prominent theoretical studies in the sociology of art assisted art historians along this line of thinking. Anthropological studies have produced ethnographies of image users. David Freedberg's The Power of Images (1989) problematized for art historians the capacity of images to incite fear and desire among viewers, for whom the appeal of images was not a matter of taste or connoisseurship but their ability to act upon people, other images, or the viewer's own desires and anxieties. Freedberg's book and several other studies in the next years helped art historians redefine the scope of art history. The study of response (Freedberg, 1989; Elkins, 2001) and reception (Heinich, 1996; Doss, 1999) decentered the traditional focus of the discipline as the discourse on images to a discourse on the use and conceptualization of images.

The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a surfeit of publications under the new rubric of "visual culture" (Evans and Hall, 1999; Sturcken and Cartwright, 2001; Bryson, Holly, and Moxey, 1994; Mirzoeff, 2002). Generally speaking, scholars have made use of the term to designate the subject of their interpretation as well as the method or interpretive framework on which they have relied. But the definition of visual culture (not to mention its value) remains contested ("Visual Culture Questionnaire," 1996). Perhaps the most common meaning of the term is the most simple and least helpful: visual culture is whatever traditional art history does not dofilm, advertisements, cartoons, tattoos. Another approach improves modestly on that one: visual culture is any treatment of imagery or of viewing imagery that is especially mindful of such concepts as the gaze, gendered practice of viewing, postmodern accounts of representation, and so forth. A third, common definition identifies visual culture as distinctly modern, as the product of modernity or postmodernity, as the hypervisual world of simulacra and mass-produced images whose principal purpose is propaganda for state and commerce, which, in radical political economy, are regarded as the same thing. Such a view ignores the ancient power of images in human culture and assumes a presentist perspective and one that tends strongly to reduce images to a means of persuasion. Those who criticize visual culture as an approach to studying imagery argue that the term is incapable of clear definition and is inclined to level artistic quality in a reading of images that regards distinction as unacceptable because it is elitist ("Visual Culture Questionnaire," 1996).

Defining Visual Culture

None of the definitions listed above is strongly compelling. And none of them offers much of substance to the study of religion. Indeed religion plays no role whatsoever in the great majority of visual culture studies cited above. Art historians who identify their work as the study of visual culture have largely concentrated on revisionist analyses of major works of art, the visual construction of gender, the cultural politics of imagery, and the dynamics of the gaze. All of these are quite applicable to the study of religious visual culture, but because many art historians assume that post-Enlightenment modernity is characterized by secularization, religion is considered vestigial and reactionary and therefore uninteresting. By contrast, the following definition of visual culture seeks to offer a way of interpreting images that will contribute to the understanding of religion. Given the dominance of art history as a discipline in the discussion over the last two decades of the twentieth century, the definition of visual culture outlined here is grounded in the development of art history. Defining the term turns on differentiating studies according to the object of their scrutiny.

As it was practiced for much of the twentieth century, art history focused on considerations of style, subject matter, patronage, and the meanings to be derived from these coordinates. Such an approach privileges the visual objectthe painting or sculptureas the principal concern, as the object of explanation. Iconography and stylistic analysis are the primary tools of this approach and serve well to scrutinize the work of art as a highly intentional object, one bearing the intent of the artist, the impress of the artist's visual tradition, and the aims and preferences of the patron, whether prince, collector, church, or state. This manner of analysis preserves the artist as a genius, a skilled maker who endows the work with a supreme intention, a meaning to be excavated by the art historian and matched to the material evidence of the image as the definitive meaning of the work.

Skill at formal analysis, detailed knowledge of the history of style and iconography, facility with the vast tools at the art historian's disposal for such researchiconographical indexes and lexicons, archival collections, museum holdingsform the skills base for competence in this line of inquiry. Art historians proceed by comparing one image under question with the preceding history of visual types in order to determine the relatively unique treatment of the image, positing that every change in its presentation of its subject corresponds to a particular intention of the image maker. The artist's monograph, one of the standard productions of art history in the twentieth century, develops a narrative of artistic production along the biographical lines of the artist's life. Juvenilia, professional formation, early work, mature work, and late productions, analyzed largely in terms of style and subject matter, are the familiar categories of this genre of art historical inquiry. The aim is a definitive edition of the artist's "oeuvre." In any genre of art historical inquiry that focuses on the image, stylistic features of the image are customarily considered to be freighted with intent: style is a kind of signature, the imprimatur of the image maker as well as the visual preference of the image's patron and its primary audience, those who bring to it a visual literacy that maker and patron can presume. With these assumptions and techniques, art historians are able to produce highly detailed analyses of objects, sorting out their histories, makers, and the genres of meaning that proceed from object-centered analysis and interpretation.

Another approach privileges ideas over the object. This approach might be called the intellectual history of art, or the history of ideas about art, or the history of art theory and aesthetics. Whatever one prefers to call it, this avenue of inquiry makes important contributions to the understanding of taste, evaluation, and the interpretation of art. In sum it seeks to delineate the theory of images that informs a particular philosophy, theology, culture, historical moment, or taste. The theory-centered approach may not tell in as detailed a fashion as stylistic or iconographic study why an image looks the way it does, but the intellectual history of art has much to offer regarding why art was valued or not at a particular time, how it was justified or criticized, and how it was interpreted. When conducted by skilled interpreters, this approach enhances studies of art objects by scrutinizing the intellectual schemes that deployed various iconographies, preferred certain styles, interpreted them in a certain manner, and offered rationales for the importance and use of art in the contemporary culture. The intellectual history of art can have everything to do with the history of patronage and the formation of subcultures for whom artistic taste and literacy were definitive. Moreover the history of great interpreters of artfrom philosophers like G. W. F. Hegel or Arthur Schopenhauer to important theorists such as Charles Baudelaire or Walter Benjaminis a special topic of study among intellectual historians of art.

A third approach to the study of the visual arts may be called institution-centered because it scrutinizes the social formations of patronage, art instruction, art criticism, and the many organizations that sponsor and regulate the production and presentation of art, including guilds, museums, galleries, exhibitions, collectors, dealers, and artists' societies. Art historians and sociologists of art study the ways in which these institutions exert an influence over the training and career of artists as well as the public display of art and the evolution of taste.

Finally, the approach defined here as visual culture takes yet another form. Although it makes important use of and relies on object-centered and theory-centered studies of imagery, the visual culture approach focuses primarily on visual practices, that is, the things people do with images. A practice-centered approach scrutinizes the social siting of images, the rituals that engage them, behaviors and attitudes toward images, all manner of use, such as devotion and healing, and the power of images as protective devices. Questions of central interest include the migration of images, how they are displayed or hidden from view, the trade or traffic in images, and their hoarding, destruction, and exchange. These queries explore the range of visual practices that help build, maintain, and transform the lifeworlds of those who use them.

Scholars of visual culture are also interested in the ways of seeing that inform images and their reception. Vision is not a passive operation but a creative and constructive one. Seeing orders the world and imposes structures and expectations upon human experience. This is evident in the widely varying systems of composing the visual field in images. Linear perspective, the system privileged in the West since the Italian Renaissance but continually modified and subverted by artists ever since, remains one important perceptual scheme, but one whose artifice and historicity become clear when compared to other models from different parts of the world and different historical epochs.

Methodologically the study of religious visual culture will make use of those procedures that examine the object (iconography, stylistic analysis, archeological analysis) as well as those methods that scrutinize the image's cultural or social function and its reception, including ethnography and sociological methods, such as sample surveys. Scholars of visual culture require the skills of visual analysis practiced by art historians as well as facility with the intellectual history of art and visual theory. Each of those approaches provides necessary interpretive practices to the visual cultural approach because a visual practice presumes a particular theory of the power or efficacy of images and puts an image to work in part because of its appearance and material presence. Examples include Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts (2003); Erika Doss (1999); David Morgan (1998); Donald J. Cosentino (1995); and Sally M. Promey (1993).

The Interpretation of Religious Visual Culture

What does the application of this definition of visual culture do for the study of religion? Religion is often defined as a system of beliefs or organized propositions to which believers assent. But this manner of describing religion reduces it to an intellectual dimension of human experience, ignoring the embodied, lived aspects that are much more characteristic of the experience of religion reported by or observed among practitioners. Scholars of religion engaged by the material culture of belief have made this case (McDannell, 1995; Kieschnick, 2003) and have sought to show that objects of everyday use and commercial nature play an important role in the practice of religion. Inexpensive, common objects, such as devotional pictures, commemorative statuary, prayer beads, wall hangings, and photographs of saints or loved ones, participate fundamentally in rituals of memory, devotion, and the formation and instruction of the young.

An important way of understanding religious objects and images is grasping their social or communal function (Morgan and Promey, 2001, pp. 117; Huyler, 1999; Tanabe, 1998; Eck, 1981, pp. 3343). Another way is narrating their stories, as objects, in the ongoing history of a community or place (Davis, 1997). Still other scholars focus on the community's circulation or traffic of images (Roberts and Nooter Roberts, 2003; Cosentino, 1995) or the importance of cult or devotional images in the public performance of identity (Dean, 1999; Phillips, 1995) or in an extended community or loosely identified cohort, such as admirers of Elvis Presley (Doss, 1999). In every such case the image is not an end in itself but part of a larger fabric of social life. The scholar examines the image as a totem or joint property or shared emblem or ritual artifact or commoditythat is, as part of a social practice. The object of interpretation is not so much an image as the act of using an image, what may be called a visual practice. The image itself is incomplete without its ritual context or practice. Not only is this the case with the need to consecrate images such as statues or icons of Buddha (Kieschnick, 2003, p. 60; Freedberg, 1989, p. 82), but as far as explanation is concerned, the image's meaning is not to be limited to the image itself, such as its style or subject matter.

Because an image gains significance in its circulation, exchange, veneration, and narration, those must each be studied in order to understand the image in situ. And an image's meaning is never fixed or complete but forever undergoing mutation and stratification, as the meandering narratives that Richard Davis relates in his 1997 study of the "lives" of Hindu statuary. Sculptures of Hindu deities were consecrated after having been fashioned, then installed in temples, where they might become well known for their power to act on behalf of petitioners. When Muslims invaded the subcontinent, priests tried to anticipate the destruction of the cult statuary by removing it from the temple, deconsecrating it, and burying it. Sometimes the statues were forgotten where they lay until their rediscovery, when a new chapter in their lives would begin with reconsecration and reinstallation in a temple or, during the British Empire period, their appropriation by the colonial force and exhibition in museums or palaces as ethnographic objects or as trophies. Images created to illustrate an early book on Hindu myth and culture by a British missionary (Ward, 18171820) circulated in Europe and the United States, serving as one of the earliest visualizations of Hindu deities. Such images illustrated the Protestant imagination of "pagan idolatry," which was rudimentary to the Protestant understanding of mission. It is important to understand images in a robust way, as sustaining many, often staunchly rival, cultural perspectives. Images, in other words, are the lens through which cultures perceive one another.

Images are actually deposits, pastiches, thickly sedimented repositories of previous lives consisting of fragments of memory that are made to adhere to one another. This allows them to be forms of resistance as well as subordination. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe illustrates this dynamic of imagery. One account written over one hundred years after the apparition was said to have taken place (1531) was produced, according to one scholarly authority, by a Mexican Creole, Miguel Sánchez, whose purpose was to advocate the propriety of criollismo, those born in Mexico of Spanish-born parents. An alternative account, the Nican mopohua, written at the same time, portrayed the Virgin's revelation as directed to the indigenous population (Poole, 1995, p. 126). Modern advocates of liberation theology and Chicano and neo-Aztec identities have seen Guadalupe as yet another kind of symbol and have relied on the Nican mopohua (Brading, 2001, pp. 342360).

Not only are images historical pastiches, they also frequently integrate other forms of representation. Word and image, for examples, can be made to cooperate in powerful ways in order to avoid proscriptions against imagery that are sometimes enforced by religious traditions that consider the written or spoken word to be the privileged medium of divine revelation and authority. Such traditions include Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, and certain versions of Protestant Christianity, such as Puritanism and other Calvinist sects. As anxious as each of these traditions may profess to be regarding the inappropriateness of visual imagery, each contains abundant examples of devotional and instructional uses of imagery. Recalling the contribution of Islam to their spirituality, Sikhs, for instance, stress the importance of avoiding imagery in worship. Yet images of the gurus and Sikh history abound in temples and in private homes. Among the most interesting figures in the tradition, the man who is portrayed more than any other Sikh, is Gurū Nānak, the founder of the faith and an immensely charismatic leader and teacher, who is shown emanating an aura, his eyelids half closed, his large eyes focused on the blissful state of his soul (Brown, 1999). The image models the visual presence or demeanor of peace that Sikhs recognize in those who have achieved spiritual wisdom. One image of Nānak consists of the text of one of his writings contained in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the collection of hymns and verse that form the central document and authority of the faith. Nānak is his word, his wisdom is manifest in his visual appearance. The intermingling of word and image stresses this unity and both enforces and obviates the injunction against imagery in worship: one sees Nānak and his wisdom, but one sees his word, which one is not allowed to confuse with an image and thereby lose sight of the true goal of the spiritual life (Singh, 1990, p. 12).

The capacity of images to embody teachers, prophets, saints, or deities goes to the heart of the power of images in religious life. Relics and icons are among the most universal features in world religions. In many Buddhist traditions, for example, relics of the Buddha and paintings and sculptures of him form the core practices of devotion among both elite and popular Buddhists. Images are able to incite and direct devotion precisely because they take the place of the holy one, inviting the believer's physical acts of veneration or adoration, which are relayed through the image to the person. Mahāyāna Buddhism has a long tradition of regarding the Buddha's sūtras as his embodiment (Tanabe, 1988). Orthodox and Catholic Christians revere different versions of the image of Christ imprinted miraculously on a veil or burial cloth. Relics are considered especially powerful sacred points where petitions can secure blessing. In such instances images participate in a metaphysical economy of dispensing merit accrued by saints or deities whose good works and holiness are a kind of spiritual capital that can be accessed through the veneration of imagery. In the case of Buddhist visual piety, a common practice among Southeast Asian Theravāda Buddhists is the ritual application of gold leaf to statues of the Buddha. This act is accompanied with prayers for blessing and karmic merit. Children accompany their parents and grandparents on these occasions and are taught the practice.

In addition to encouraging the cultivation of devotional relationships with the saint or deity, images are able to prompt and guide memory as well as creative thought or association. Used on such ritual occasions as marriage, baptism, and rites of passage, images mark the occasion and then commemorate it by virtue of domestic or public display thereafter. Images are also commonly exchanged or given as gifts on these occasions, signifying important relationships and status within family, clan, or community. If they serve to shape and secure memory and therefore operate as conservative devices, images can act as generative engines of creative or figurative thinking. Tarot cards are a good example of this, as are maalas in meditative visualization. On these occasions, images invite associative processes of thinking that are virtually unlimited. Images such as those on tarot cards provoke association and suggest narratives. Because they literally assert nothing, images invite interpretation. Their ambivalence urges a proliferation of conjecture and association. The result in the case of visual imagery, as well as in literary imagery in such apocalyptic literature as the Book of Revelation or the figurative language in such sacred poetry as the Psalms or allegory as in the Song of Songs, is an open-ended generation of interpretive possibilities. The text or image can be made to mean virtually anything, allowing a fit to be tailored to any occasion or situation. Images and texts like this offer powerful creative resources to religious traditions. It is evident in traditions as diverse as various astrologies or the Yi Jing's system of divination or the Hasidic practice of numerology in which the numeric value of scriptural words discloses deeper levels of meaning. Many religious traditions, or popular subcultures within them, practice sortilege, the apparently random selection of a passage in a book such as the Bible or the Qurʾān, which is then read as an oracle speaking to the person who selected it. In every case chance is incorporated into a material practice that reduces open-ended possibility into a suggestive prompt. Chance is transformed into a revelatory process.

Challenges to the Study of Religious Visual Culture

The place of images in religious study is fascinating in part because of the flurry of misconceptions associated with images, many of which hinge on the idea that images mark an inferior religion or an inferior subculture within a religion. The study of religion is often hampered by prevailing notions like this, which garner an appearance of authority but are often ideological mirages, conjured to serve particular interests. For instance, it is a commonplace that Islam, Judaism, and Protestantism do not engage in religious uses of images. Another such commonplace is that religions that do employ images do so only at the level of popular piety. The "higher" forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity are sometimes said to eschew any role for imagery. Misleading claims like these need to be traced to their sources in order to recognize the cultural work they are intended to perform. All of these assertions originate in polemic: Protestant polemic against Catholicism; an academic elite's polemic against popular, devotional religion; a Buddhist elite's polemic against popular practice; the polemic of the Brahmanic revival against Hindu "polytheism," and so forth. Any study of the visual culture of religion must anticipate this especially tenacious feature of scholarly and theological discourse. Moreover one does well to avoid the art historian's tendency to focus exclusively on objects and the religion scholar's traditional emphasis on doctrine, philosophy, or theology. The aim inspiring the study of the visual culture of religion is deeper understanding of the lifeworlds that religious peoples construct and sustain in their visual practices and in the aesthetic imagination that envisions their worlds or those they seek to create.

See Also

Art and Religion; Iconography; Icons; Idolatry; Images; Media and Religion; Popular Culture.


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David Morgan (2005)