Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction

James Elkin

ISBN: 0415966817

I picked up this book because I’ve been interested in questions about the visual: What makes an image compelling? How do people understand manufactured images? What makes an image art? What makes an image important?

Elkins doesn’t provide answers to these questions (they aren’t among the aims of his book) but he is interested in a framework for interrogating the visual. This book is aimed at an academic audience; Elkins is considering the place of visual studies in the academy first and foremost. He considers definitions of terms, theoretical positions, and the potential for visual studies as a field of inquiry.

So what is visual studies? By way of description, it “is poised to become one of the most interesting and conceptually challenging subjects that has emerged in academic life in the last several decades.” It is about images: the perception, consumption, creation, interpretation, distribution, and use of artistic or technical images. For Elkins, it is also about making it more difficult and thus more rewarding to practice.

There is much material here on where art history departments are falling short, and letting communications/media/film studies departments handle the “visual studies stuff.” Elkins hammers on the gulf between humanities scholars and scientists, and posits that a successful visual studies will at least begin to breach this gulf.

The book contains some interesting bits on interdisciplinary, academic writing, and the use and abuse of footnotes that will probably only appeal to academics and like-minded nerds. Elkins intersperses black and white plates and sidebar commentary, an effect that is more intriguing than jarring, and allows him to make quick hits, such as the “intersection between real encounters and Close Encounters, between myths and their appearances, is a wonderful subject for visual studies.”

The book has a few minor flaws (few typo-type mistakes slipped through editing; hi-gloss pages can make long text passages harder than necessary to read) but generally reflects high-quality production values. Elkin can come across a bit haughty at times; his point is often than we don’t know the things we should know, or think we should know. And I do wish he had leaned even more heavily of the question of whether or not it is really necessary to keep citing the same half-dozen generally French theorists.

Bottom line: this is a book that will open up endless questions, let you learn something about deep-sea oarfish and St. Peter’s oversized left hand in a famous painting, and cause you to look up the second law of thermodynamics if you don’t know it. I really enjoyed it.

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