Sunday, April 4, 2010

4/5: What do we mean by visual culture?

Last Update: 04-08-2010 00:09:50

We very deliberately used the term "visual culture" rather than "art" in the title of this symposium. What does visual culture include, and why might it be a more fruitful domain for discussion?

As scientific theories are disseminated through communication modalities of their time, a “second life” of such theories bear witness within the cultural imaginary. In addition, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as a scientific mechanism for the unfolding transformation of living matter, instigates other forms of cultural manifestations. Either operating in a parallel universe of ideas, or more directly, through the influence of literary narratives, the visual arts and popular culture’s instantiations corresponding intellectual activities emerge. One apt example, is the reference to the simian, particularly as a creature of instinct rather than an agency describing conflicting ideologies within science and the arts.

In the satirical magazine, Hornet (1871), Charles Darwin is pictured as an ape, a brutish hairy animal walking on all fours. Employed as a retort to Darwin’s theory of descent, and to its proposed implications overturning biblical narratives; this impertinent visual message is a crude summation of the fears associated with the general public in relation to the admonishment of God, the creator, and his infinite powers.

Similarly, another attack on this concept of creation can be referenced in Francis Picabia’s, Portrait of Cezanne (1920). This creation theme, however, concerns artistic invention. Commenting on the shifting role of the visual artist, from mimicry to critique, Picabia employs the simian as an emblem representing artists who blindly accept external reality as the only significant truth. Mocking Cezanne, Rembrandt and Renoir, Picabia clearly satirizes mimesis as rote instinct.

Other ideas about evolution can be seen in various artists’ works from the 19th century onward. Frederick Church, J.M.W. Turner and Casper David Friedrich, and other Romantics swerve towards the forces of nature as sublime wonder. Thus, revealing mankind as part of these glorious forces, yet dwarfed by a higher power. Towards the end of the 19th century, Odilon Redon, himself interested in the more internal or invisible mechanisms of nature, employed microscopic images as symbolist devices for the self and its hidden dimensions.

The natural motifs of Art Nouveau and the ontologically driven “cut and paste” techniques of the surrealists all have resonance with Darwin’s revolutionary theories. Visual art, however, unlike science, is unrestrained by the duration of time necessary to visualize one species gradually becoming another. In visual art all options remain open, from the absurd to the prescient. Visual art and visual culture leave behind unique traces of artifacts as an historical documentation of the ways in which mind filters (in and out) those grand ideas which profoundly alter our conception of ourselves.

We're off to a flying start. But before we get too far afield, I would like to point to the broad parameters and trends in visual culture from 1700 to 1860, which can also be thought as sources, resources, models for evolutionary discourse, as well as the cultural environment in which evolution took root. Visual culture is more than just art. Art is big: visual culture is bigger and includes things like penmanship, vernacular and grand architecture, fashion, garden design, landscaping, dance, theatre, domestic decoration—anything which has a look. Between 1700 and 1859, when Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there was a proliferation of images, of printed items (books, pamphlets, prints, broadsheets, newspapers, magazines), printed by new or improved print technologies (steam press, paper manufacture, wood engraving, copper engraving and etching, chromolithography), distributed in whole or part by new or improved distribution technologies (railroads, sailing and steam ships, roads, canals, telegraph). And these proliferating images could be seen in proliferating spaces (and in turn often referred back to proliferating spaces): the expansion/extension of urban, “state” and home spaces (Urban: shops, taverns, inns, coffeehouses, oyster bars, workshops, churches, museums, theatres, markets; State: schools, postal system, libraries, voluntary associations; Home: differentiated homes and rooms, gardens, etc.). And, alongside this, there was a proliferation of political orders/regimes (republics, kingdoms, empires, and the international system) and intellectual orders/disciplines (college, museum and university departments, academic fields and topics): hence the multi-tasking Voyage of the Beagle, and the many other exploratory/collecting/conquering voyages.

Yes, and let's add the Victorian fairy tale to this list as well, particularly "Water Babies" (1863) by Charles Kingsley. Charles Kingsley, a 19th century Anglican theologian and friend of Darwin believed that "moral lessons of nature" could be taught through his delightful fairy tale 'Water Babies." In this evolutionary parable, the reader is introduced to Tom, a filthy animal-like chimney sweep. In an effort to escape his harsh existence, he inadvertently jumps into a stream, where he falls into a deep sleep. Here he meets up with the fairies who turn him into a water baby, and hence, develops a set of gills. As he learns to exercise reason and sound judgment, the nature of his being changes once again......from fish to amphibian to mammal, etc. He comes to know the law's of nature's developmental processes in which matter can be altered to create new forms. Encountering on of the Chief Fairies, Mother Carey, Tom asks:"I hear you are very busy.""I am never more busy than I am now," she said without stirring a finger. " I heard, ma'am, that you are always making new beasts out of old.""So people fancy. But I am not going to trouble myself to make things, my little dear. I sit here and make them make themselves."In this fairy tale, Kingsley is able to reconcile theology with Darwin's theory of evolution, in that God, the Almighty Creator, formulates the process of evolution as an expedient technology to "create new forms out of old."

Image caption: Suzanne Anker, "Water Babies," 2004-2006, Digital output on watercolor paper, 24" x 36" each

Thinking about Kingsley's Water-Babies points the discussion about visual culture in yet another direction. Darwin’s first major statement on evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, which appeared in 1859, is notably devoid of visual material, in fact only contains one chart and no illustrations. This was likely a strategic decision—many contemporary works on natural history did use illustrations, often very carefully rendered—Darwin wanted to emphasize the theoretical nature of his work (earlier and more technical studies, such as his study of barnacles, and later publications for the broad public included many illustrations). But, I would argue, the brief prose descriptions of Origin of Species are a kind of visual culture, an attempt to create vivid images in words:
On the plains of La Plata, where hardly a tree grows, there is a woodpecker (Colaptes campestris) which has two toes before and two behind, a long-pointed tongue, pointed tail-feathers, sufficiently stiff to support the bird in a vertical position on a post, but not so stiff as in the typical wood-peckers, and a straight, strong beak. The beak, however, is not so straight or so strong as in the typical woodpeckers but it is strong enough to bore into wood. Hence this Colaptes, in all the essential parts of its structure, is a woodpecker. Even in such trifling characters as the colouring, the harsh tone of the voice, and undulatory flight, its close blood-relationship to our common woodpecker is plainly declared; yet, as I can assert, not only from my own observations, but from those of the accurate Azara, in certain large districts it does not climb trees, and it makes its nest in holes in banks! In certain other districts, however, this same woodpecker, as Mr. Hudson states, frequents trees, and bores holes in the trunk. [Origin, 6th ed., 109]

For me we can define visual culture as the collection of visual artifacts created by a society at a given time. At any given time humans in their cultural context choose to make artifacts to be viewed visually, and what they choose to represent or create for visual appreciation varies over the centuries and between cultures.

These choices reveal deep ontological but also cognitive assumptions. When the early anatomists started dissecting the human body and making drawings of what they found, this was part of a large restructuring of western thought when the internal structure of the body became a pre-occupation in both the arts and sciences (and politics cf Foucault)
We know that the visual cortex is very plastic, and neuronal mechanisms are developed in interaction with the visual stimuli that the brain experiences (Hubel and Wiesel). The introduction of cinema, television and now web visual stimuli changes the way that the brain develops to enable rapid recognition of useful image structures.
Finally let me note the feedback between scientific visualization and the conduct of science. In astronomy we have rapidly discovered the social impact of images (cf the impact of Hubble Space Telescope images) even though a large majority of astronomical science is carried out with other kinds of instruments (spectrographs). Funding agencies realize this. It is hard to get on the front page of the new your times with a spectrum, but a visualization of water on the moon gets the attention.

Scientific visualization is part of visual culture. Michael Sappol makes the observation:
Darwin’s first major statement on evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, which appeared in 1859, is notably devoid of visual material, in fact only contains one chart and no illustrations. This was likely a strategic decision—many contemporary works on natural history did use illustrations, often very carefully rendered—Darwin wanted to emphasize the theoretical nature of his work (earlier and more technical studies, such as his study of barnacles, and later publications for the broad public included many illustrations). But, I would argue, the brief prose descriptions of Origin of Species are a kind of visual culture, an attempt to create vivid images in words.
This raises different issues about the mental images conjured by words as opposed to the images created in the mind from artifacts of visual culture...
"What we we mean by visual culture?" is a huge question. For our purposes, which is to think about visual culture and evolution, we could break it down as follows.
What visual practices and subjects were resources for evolutionary theorists (and anti-evolutionary theorists), such as Erasmus Darwin, Cuvier, Lamarck, Owen, Agassiz, Richard Owen, Robert Chambers, Geoffroy St Hilaire, Charles Darwin, Haeckel and others, to develop, imagine, represent evolution?
Before Darwin ever got going, and after, how did people talk about evolution, transformism, progress, etc.? And how did they represent those things visually? What visual practices were implicated in the development of evolutionary theory? What visual practices were useful?
And we can turn the question on its head!
As evolutionary discourse developed, how did evolutionary ideas shape visual culture--broadly conceived--painting, sculpture, scientific and non-scientific illustration, object design, theater, film, political propaganda, etc.? And here, I want to remind everyone that we can look for both direct and indirect connections: pictorial and literary realism, impressionism, cubism, primitivism, neo-medievalism, vernacular illustration, psychoanalysis, socialism, eugenics, pragmatism and fascism all drank from the well of evolutionary discourse. For an evolutionary image that illustrates an evolutionary narrative, see attachment....

Image caption: HG Wells, The time machine (1895; 1926); artist: AS Merritt. An evolutionary narrative of a future in which social divisions between rich & poor have led humanity to evolve into 2 species: pacifistic vegetarian Eloi & violent cannibalistic Morlocks.

To add to definitions of visual culture beyond those already mentioned (Anker, Sappol, Malina), let’s consider the disciplinary angle. In the last decade or two, some art history programs have changed their names and degree offerings to Visual Culture, and the accompanying literature marking this shift tends towards highly-mediated visual forms: largely computer-generated, existing predominantly as virtual or projected images, digitally distributed via the web. Part of this shift aims to bring the imagery of mass culture under the scope of the analytical and theoretical tools drawn from art history/criticism, thereby challenging the traditional high/low divide in that field, while at the same time, affirming new technologies as a valid means and media for creating art.
In comparison, the study of Material Culture (coming out of American and Cultural Studies, Anthropology, etc.) has aimed in a similar direction, yet is often more three- than two-dimensional, often more experiential in a spatial sense rather than virtual/screen-based (objects, buildings, foodstuffs, etc.). For me, “visual culture” as used in this symposium covers ALL of these areas.

Furthermore, it’s very helpful to note the technological, economic, social, institutional, and political contexts within which different types of visual culture AND scientific theories are created and function. To add to changes in tools for seeing (telescopes, etc.), printing technologies/media, and distribution systems (railroad, worldwide web), ideological shifts also play a fundamental role in shaping visual, textual, and conceptual imagery. I am excited to watch how our discussion threads into these various facets of evolution and visual culture and their changing contexts over the next ten days.
I think of visual culture as a subset of "culture." Although you could easily argue the reverse, based on the evolution of our visual thinking over millennia.

There are probably as many definitions of visual culture as there are for culture, which number 164; that is, according to Alfred Kroeberand and Clyde Kluckhohn who compiled and reviewed a list of definitions of culture in 1952.

Apparently, our concepts of visual culture are nested in our concepts of culture, like Russian nesting dolls. The most common definition of culture highlights our ever-evolving sense of intellectual refinement and cultivation. These developments are taken to mean these things:
“Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture;
An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning; and the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.” (

But before there was some sophisticated 'taste' for the fine arts, and before there was some 'integrated pattern of human knowledge,' and before there were 'shared attitudes, values' and so forth, there clearly existed communities of human beings who shared their understanding of the world through their visual communications.

From my perspective, visual culture encompasses all forms of “visible language,” to borrow Muriel Cooper’s phrase, that the human brain has invented, innovated and experienced -- or envisioned and expressed -- in myriad ways over eons. It represents the sum of human knowledge and our collective life experiences made visible in all our symbolic creations.

For many anthropologists and art historians, the earliest traces of visual culture extend past the Paleolithic people of Lascauux in Dordogne, France whose cave paintings documented their life experiences and interactions with the natural world some 15,000-10,000 B.C. These artifacts document the evolution of our consciousness and the growing awareness of our creative potential. They also clue us to how we have applied this knowledge of visual thinking to continually improve the quality of our lives, and to help ensure our survival.
To build on Christina’s points regarding the disciplinary angles we use to explore and develop our definitions of visual culture: I think there’s a radical transformation of disciplinary knowledge happening right now that’s certainly reflected in the change of names and curricular offerings. Many art history/criticism programs, like other programs for teaching artistic and scientific disciplinary knowledge, are branching out to connect with research groups that are focused on understanding the spectrum of human visual communication systems, tools, strategies, and practices. For instance, groups such as the Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC) at Harvard are exploring new ways of using computers to tap virtually every facet of our senses and sense of imagination to help improve the way we communicate data, knowledge, scientific concepts and principles, mathematical models of physical phenomena, and so forth.

To layer this point: this transformation is occurring largely because we’re adapting a more “transdisciplinary” perspective as we attempt to understand the nature of human knowledge and its potential applications. According to the polymath, Robert Root-Bernstein, and historian, Michele Root-Bernstein, this emerging practice of transdisciplinary thinking marks an evolution in our creative seeing-thinking-learning that naturally transcends our silos of compartmentalized knowledge -- silos we’ve skillfully built with the aid of Cartesian thinking and modern science.

On a related note: You would think that In this period of Post-Modernism, people wouldn’t care any more about the ‘validity’ of the ‘traditional high/low divide.' You would imagine that we would no longer fixate on the novel technology or new media we use to make art and treat our physical senses to provocative aesthetic experiences. But that divide and fixation are still present, no matter how moot the validity issue strikes us today. It’s one of those unspoken [Bucky Fuller] ‘trim tabs’ that trail behind the rudder of contemporary art and visual culture -- influencing the way we think, act, behave, and assess the qualities and meanings of our experiences . It’s visibly market-driven, spiked with value judgments that reinforce our notions of high quality works of art and culture versus "the other stuff” that confounds our more sophisticated concepts of beauty and aesthetics.

While the term "visual culture" didn't exist in the 19th century, it's a more productive concept for approaching the world in which Darwin was raised and worked, precisely because of the "wide net" definitions others in this thread have been offering. Particularly in urban centers, visual material just exploded, particularly in the second quarter of the century. Pretty much everyone had more access to visual materials, and the ability to produce and disseminate visual materials became easier. Darwin and his immediate predecessors were immersed in this visual explosion, as likely to read a copy of an illustrated paper or visit the latest panorama as to pore over an engraving of a recent painting.

Just want to throw out here a few more samples of 18th- and 19th-century visualizing practice. In this post I want to point to the idea of progress--human progress in technology, production of knowledge, artfulness, moral development--which was a powerful cultural project that nourished evolutionary discourse in the 18th and 19th century. Frontispiece. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia...(25 ed.), 1741. This engraving symbolically depicts the progress of Arts & Sciences. Based on Raphael’s School of Athens. Wellcome Library, London.
Louis Figuier, Figuier, Les merveilles de la science, t. 1, 1867. Titlepage.

In response to Michael Sappol's question about visual practices before Darwin, it might be interesting to note the illustration that appeared in Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, and I am posting one such work. The successive printings of the "Jocko” and "Grand Gibbon" in 1775, 1812, and 1853 show that the later engravers borrowed heavily from their predecessors (I can "hear" readers adding "just like visual culture now"). These prints do reveal some of the conventions of their time, including the improbably held staff and the anthropomorphised facial expression. Art historian Kenneth Clark has pointed out that George Stubb's Green Monkey, although intended to be realistic, shows the animal eating fruit it would never touch in its life. Even though Buffon emphasized direct, unadorned observation, since living primates were relatively uncommon in Europe at the time, inaccuracies appeared and illustrators needed to rely on earlier drawings done by others. It is, however, known that the menagerie of Versailles (begun around 1700) contained monkeys that were used to study comparative anatomy and would have likely included artists as well as scientists making use of this access.
Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de (1707-1788). Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. Deux-Ponts: Sanson, 1785-1791 .

Visual Culture is relatively new to my personal lexicon. It is also relatively new in the public lexicon. Time will tell how the public “sees” Visual Culture. For this discussion on evolution, a topic of social and cultural division, the relevance of the Visual Culture terminology suggests the most appropriate use will relate to the widest application of visual interpretation. Everyone with sight (and arguably without the ability to see) is part of Visual Culture and “see” through the lens of individual cultural heritage, education and experience.
While Visual Art is limited by the individual’s interpretation of the art they are willing to interpret, Visual Culture is inclusive of mankind’s ability to interpret everything seen with collective and/or individual meanings.

Visual culture for in this case also means the way humans envision and manipulate the animal world; thus, Darwin was strongly influenced by the experience of livestock and pigeon breeders who were able to direct the look of animals and birds (artificial selection planting seeds that led to natural selection). Classificatory charts were also part of his visual culture as were museum (comparative anatomy) and zoo installations. In terms of the latter, the orangutans at the London zoo were dressed as humans and trained to rock in chairs and so on by their keepers. Darwin appeared to be quite taken by that spectacle, enthusiastically noting the human-like qualities of Jenny, a popular favorite.Both Michael Sappol and Suzanne Anker have brought up literary connections. In terms of the richness of description rather than imagery in Origin of Species James Secord's work on Vestiges of Creation by Robert Chambers comes to mind. Published shortly before The Origin, colorful language and an accessible narrative of creation made it easy to read and it was a best seller. Darwin credits it with the public interest in his own work, which as Michael points out is also rich in its descriptive detail.

Finally, I would like to make the point (in light of Ellen Levy's comment on Stubbs) that Erasmus Darwin, Darwin's evolutionist grandfather, was close to a number of artists, including Stubbs (who painted many anthropomorphic animals and was a master of animal anatomy) that can easily be factored into Darwin's background.

Darwin's argument, famously, is founded on a metaphor: nature "selects", just as pigeon fanciers select, only for survival rather than plumage and over impossibly long periods of time.
A metaphor is a fundamental way of knowing, which explains the unknown in terms of the known.
Is visual culture inherently metaphorical?
Does it describe that set of aesthetic, synthetic, exploratory and explanatory processes that use both images and imagery?

Suzanne mention of Kingsley's Water Babies which brings up the debate Steven J Gould recounted in Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History.

In 1861 Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Owen debated human uniqueness publicly and it was followed closely in the press. Owen claiming the lack of a hippcampus in primates and Huxley from exhaustive research dissecting primates for his seminal work Evidence As to Man's Place in Nature. Gould describes the debate as a war waged over a little bump on the brain.

Kinglsey wrote that if a real water baby had ever been found, "they would have put it in spirits, or into the Illustrated News, or perhaps cut it into two halves, poor dear little thing, and sent one to Professor Owen and one to Professor Huxley, to see what they could each say about it." Aside from how funny this is, I was interested because of the reference to putting a water baby in spirits (ethyl alcohol). I noticed that the cover of an H.G. Wells book also made the blog, and again I was reminded of a reference to preservation for museums. At the very end of "War of the Worlds," Wells refers to "the magnificent and almost complete specimen [of a Martian] in spirits at the Natural History Museum..."

We're rapidly adding to our stock of visual practices: specimen collection and display, animal breeding, gardening, thick and vivid textual description, inventories on ruled paper, charts, maps, illustrated children's books, anatomical and botanical plates. All of them influencing, influenced by evolutionary discourse, and/or part of the methodology of evolutionary (and also anti-evolutionary) knowledge production.

As for proliferating anthropomorphic illustrations of animals--and the growth of domestic pet-keeping--they might well have contributed to the erosion of belief in human exceptionalism. But we should remember that Aesop's Fables, fairy tales, and other cultural productions with anthropomorphized and talking animals, long co-existed with, and did not seem to trouble, tenacious cultural/religious/philosophical beliefs in an absolute division between brute and human.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization... (1832), pl. III, opp. 313. A less anthropomorphized primate. National Library of Medicine

Camper, Dissertation sur les variétés naturelles qui caractérisent la physionomie des hommes des divers climats et des différens ages (1791). National Library of Medicine

Nathaniel's metaphorical question:
Darwin's use of "selects" can also be seen in relationship to Darwin as a collector. Selection is primary to collecting. Collecting and the mirror of interpreting collections are both metaphoric and at the same time a very physical process evolving into museums of artifacts we deem precious enough to attempt to preserve into the deep time of infinity. Collections are "known" to the extent our current knowledge can decipher the unknown from the tangible.

So if I extrapolate correctly Visual Culture can be considered a collection of people and their collections combined with mental images. Visual Culture is also capable of physical interpretations. Artists make art which can easily be argued as inherently metaphorical. We can interpret the vast expanding visual input amassed in the public eye as metaphorical. We can interpret any thing or idea as metaphorical. I see the point of your question as attempting to define an active relationship between visual input and conceptual output of Visual Culture.

In terms of Michael's comments on brutes and humans, this was also the age when animal rights leagues were first initiated in the U.S. and the U.K. . There is also the cultural example of Victorian love of pets and horses in the U.K. (thus the popular imagery of Landseer--Victoria's favorite artist--with his anthropomorphic dogs and other creatures). Darwin actually intended to use a reproduction of Landseer's humorous Alexander and Diogenes (1848), an anthropomorphic scene with two dogs, as a actual scientific example in Expression of Emotions. When one visits Downe house and sees the dog bed so close to Darwin's favorite chair in the study, the many references to the behavior of dogs in Expression and elsewhere suddenly are brought to a personal and cultural level. One sees Darwin as an animal lover.

Tracy brought up the fascinating Owen/Huxley debate that centered on the role of the hippocampus. It is worthy of some additional elaboration for those who may be unfamiliar with the debate, because illustrations at this time could serve as 'evidence' along with dissection. My source for this information was Charlie Gross’s Brain, Vision, Memory (1998). Owen had something of a monopoly on dissecting animals that died at the London Zoo. He stressed the differences between men and monkeys, placing humans in a separate subclass called the Archencephala (ruling class). As Tracy pointed out, one of Owen’s main points for arguing against continuity between man and beast was that only humans have a hippocampus minor. Huxley repeatedly denied that the distance between humans and apes was that great and publically attacked Owen for concealing knowledge that monkeys do have a hippocampus. The debate gets very interesting here with regard to “visual culture”. After repeating his claims, Owen showed brain illustrations to prove his point. They were unlabeled except bearing titles, a ‘section of a Negro’s brain’ and ‘section of an animal’s brain’. Huxley ridiculed Owens, claiming that critical structures proving continuity, including the hippocampus, had already been found in animals. According to Gross, Owen blamed the artist for the poor brain illustrations submitted, and, in a subsequent publication, restated his beliefs even though he knew that some of the original sources for the drawn figures had indicated a hippocampus minor had existed in that species!

As for Darwin's lack of illustration in "On the Origin..." reference:

Bryant, Julius. 2009. Darwin at home: observation and taste at Down House. Chapter 1 (pp 28-46) in Diana Donald and Jane Munro (editors). Endless Forms. Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. Yale University Press.

On page 43 we find: "He [Darwin] admitted how 'formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry...I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music."

Page 45, "Darwin's genius lay in the visual study of his everyday environment, in the patient, questioning observation of minute variations, and in the practical collating of facts gathered over four decades in the peaceful English countryside. In this way, despite having lost his early love of fine art, he became the greatest connoisseur of the natural world."

Another interesting bit of information:

According to Huxley, R. (editor). 2007. The Great Naturalists. Thames & Hudson, Ltd., London, 304 pages, the great collector Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) had 18,000 specimens plus 7,000 dried plants, bound in 15 volumes, and another 8,000 loose illustrations in his collection. You could make the argument that his illustrations were almost as important as his specimens when wrote his books on animals and plants.

It seems to me Darwin had more faith in his ability to communicate his concepts through his writing than the historically inaccurate natural history illustrations from dried and preserved animals. Museum collections of his era were woefully thin in specimen numbers and preservation practice was not uniform. And he chose the life of a naturalist doing field work away and at home. Debates like Owen/Huxley pushed Darwin to rewrite and clarify repeatedly.

I realize this is conjecture but I believe Darwin felt his exhaustive visual observations described in writing would be less open to metaphorical interpretation than illustration. Having read "On the Origin..." repeatedly in the past year, communicating evolution visually seems enigmatic compared to Darwin's writing. His closing lines invoke visual beauty.

04-07-2010 11:23:22
Good morning from the west coast, some wonderful discussions

In exploring Visual Culture from an academic point of view one way to think about it is to understand the most theoretically relevant methodologies for understanding the significance of visual artifacts and the social and cultural qualities of human vision and exposure to a range of cultural perspectives.

It allows you to explore visual evidence for examination, without being constrained by traditional hierarchies of art. Fine arts, architecture, photography, film, performances, utilitarian objects, and popular entertainments all are primary source materials.

04-07-2010 14:49:29
In response to Tracy, the Yale exhibition also made the point that at least for the young Darwin the fine arts (within our broader discussion of visual culture) was of importance, exemplified by his recollection of sublime prints of tropical scenes on the Beagle voyage--the sublime being an aesthetic category then popular in the arts. (Darwin often referred to the sublime in his journal and autobiogray.) In the same catalogue and elsewhere, Diana Donald has made a strong case for the impact of animal painting on Darwin. I also wanted to point out the interesting work of Bernard Smith on Captain Cook's artists (like Hodges), in European Vision and the South Pacific, who demonstrated in their paintings the relationship between climate, geography, atmosphere, and ecology, which influenced von Humboldt and arguably Darwin. Finally, on what is visual culture, I move from fine arts to a partial response to Michael on Darwin and descriptive written detail, at least where color is concerned: Rebecca Bedell has pointed out that Darwin made extensive use if Werner's Nomenclature of Colours....Useful to the Arts and Sciences... (1821) to describe the specifics of colors in nature.

04-07-2010 17:23:03
The sublime, as developed by Burke and Kant, was one of the key categories of the new aesthetics of romanticism. In the Origin of Species, Darwin, the consummate and very careful empiricist was also in some respects an intoxicated romantic. The sweep and deepness and grandeur of Darwin's vision of a purposeless meta-human evolution over eons evoked in words a natural historical sublime, something that artists like Turner and Church were also deeply implicated in.
Frederic Church, “Cotopaxi” (1862)

04-08-2010 00:09:50
Good points, Barbara, Darwin was certainly appreciative of art and with discriminating taste collecting prints as a student earlier in his life. Then later in his life he also made extensive use of illustration and some of the first photos published in "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals". It seems noteworthy to consider his use of the visual interpretation of expressing emotion opposed to the conceptual interpretation of evolution.


04-08-2010 12:33:26
Mike makes an excellent point. I would just add that the sublime is an extension of the third age of exploration: now pointing towards unknowability. Burke's extolling of darkness, infinity, and the non-finito [the always unfinished process] points ahead to the ongoingness of darwinian evolution,

Nature as always "in sketch"--coterminous with the nineteenth-century valorization of the sketch and sketchiness. I forgot to mention in my other post that the cataclysmic paintings of john martin [which darwin knew] also underscore an extremeing of experience that seemed to emerge from a view of nature as red in tooth and claw.

04-08-2010 15:30:10
On Burke I have noted elsewhere that in the end, the medical/physiological implications on Burke's Philosophical Enquiry (1737) seem to have been more important for Darwin than landscape associations (though that factors in as well as Michael points out). Darwin read Burke during his Cambridge days and returned to Burke during his crucial transition into his mature theories. In fact, he noted both Burke and Malthus (the latter often referred to in developing ideas on selection) in the same paragraph in 1838 in notebook N. Burkean ideas on a rapacious nature, the importance above all of self-preservation, and concepts like the indeterminate and endless succession I believe were important for Darwin. Burke dwelled at length on responses of the body when one feels threatened; like Darwin he believed in the universal expression of the emotions (or passions) and similarly compared humans to other creatures including dogs (a favorite for Darwin). After one such comparison, Burke wrote, "I can conclude that fear and pain have the same actions on the body, whatever the species." This brings me back to the anthroporphic images of fear and pain of wild animals attacking horses (symbol of England and civilization) by Stubbs (part of Erasmus Darwin's circle). He was directly indebted to Burke. This message will be far too long for me to also take on Erasmus Darwin and Burke, but his writings in many ways show familiarity with Burke. I could go on about Charles Darwin and Burke.... If interested, I am happy to pass on a chapter on this off-line to anyone who might be interested.

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