22nd October 2012
This was a book that was suggested as a good introduction to the subject of visual culture by Peter Haveland and I must say a big thank you to him for this as it’s a very easy read as well as extremely informative. I’m not sure how long it will take for the semiotics and hermeneutics to sink in, and more importantly be applied to my visual study of images, but like anything else we try to pick up along our cultural travels it will always, to some extent, influence us no matter what we think we understood or remember.
Part 1 is a gut swooping rampage through the theory of visual analysis before passing on into part 2 about the various media. Only a short way into the book I’d found out more about how to read a picture than I’d learned in the last twelve months, so a good start as far as I was concerned. Iconology, form and art history are the first three subjects that provided this grounding and then came the semiotics and hermeneutics.
Iconology I found was fairly straightforward in understanding what it was; the problem comes with identifying the icons and applying that knowledge. To have renaissance paintings with religious meanings and icons in them to interpret by a modern person with no deep religious training isn’t easy. Even the painters themselves apparently had some of these problems as books of meaning for different icons were produced so that there could be no misunderstanding. I do however have a an issue with part of the text where it claims that even ordinary people of the age would have understood what they meant and would have read the images easily. That doesn’t sit too well with the statement of fact about icon interpretation being produced for the painters to use. Presumably the painters were better versed in their subject than the average peasant so if they needed help, what chance the poor peasant? A small point, probably because it’s the only one I can recall that seemed oddly opposite.
Form apparently is a way of helping to interpret images that don’t have any particular imagery in them that can be seen as an object or subject. It takes the post-impressionists as the first period where this form of analysis comes into its own, along with all the modernist paintings which followed that have only colour, lines and shapes to define them. I didn’t find this an easy concept to assimilate and can only think that I’ll either have to revisit it from another point of view of wait for it to sink in.
Art history isn’t really something I see as pertinent to photography as the art form is very new and although context is, provenance and attribution aren’t really a problem as such because with modern record keeping and multiple copies of images available, single ownership really isn’t the issue.
Ideology is an area that has meaning with all images, and possibly even more so with photography. The ever-present, all-pervading camera has captured so much more information on different cultures in the short period of its existence than possibly all painted art put together. The saying that the camera never lies may not be true, but it’s more likely to be true than most paintings, drawings and sketches, as the photographer cannot as easily change what the camera captures as what a painter may or may not put in, leave out or entirely move from one setting to another.
Putting ‘spin’ into and on to images isn’t something new, but it certainly becomes obvious when the authors point out the texts, arguments and counter arguments associated with discerning what has been implied or meant by artists. A rich area for political agendas and sociologists.
Signifier, signified and sign, the holy trinity of semiotics. Great once you realise what they mean, but to put an explanation of them into words of my own ….. mmmmm …… not just now thanks. It was quite funny to realise the lengths that manufacturers are forced to go to ensure that their products name is not offending anyone in their particular language or being taken as a joke because of the slang meaning. With visual culture it’s quite enlightening how we are all semioticians to some extent with our need to interpret the messages that are being passed to us visually every day.
Hermeneutics is a new concept entirely to me and it was challenging to be introduced to it. In my simple way I understand this form of study or analysis to be the literal interpretation of art within a culture versus the intended meaning. Now if this is right, I think it’s very difficult to know definitely what the intended meaning was, or is, as artists are usually very reticent about discussing the meanings of their work. On top of that there are any number of pundits who will very willingly give you their interpretation, even to the point of contradicting the artist themselves in some cases. But the deconstruction of cock-fighting in Bali is very interesting, although very convoluted and bitterly disputed. I feel that hermeneutics is possibly a study too far for me and I’ll stick with the more easily understood, at least for me anyway, theories.
The second part of the book is a straightforward analysis of the different forms of media available as part of our visual culture. Saying straightforward should not in any way detract from what I found to be an excellent read and analysis of the different areas. It was really interesting to see how the various subjects, theories and arguments manifest themselves within them to enlighten ones approach to appreciation.
Overall I had a great time reading this book and completed a quite densely printed 346 page book in little over a week, quite a record for me, but an indication of how I was trapped by it and found I had to keep picking it up and progressing.
I would recommend this volume to anyone as I’ve found that what I’ve picked up from it has already been put to good use in a review I wrote of the Prix Pictet at the Saatchi Gallery, London on 20th October, the link to my review is below.