Linda Reynolds, Williams College,
Visual Resources Association Foundation Board of Directors
Even after four decades of writing on the subject of visuality, even in the wake of the large literature on the visual nature of late capitalism, and even in light of the many claims that our culture is inundated by images, there is still no satisfactory introductory textbook on the subject. Currently there are three kinds of literature that are used in freshman surveys of the visual world: art appreciation texts, surveys of visual culture or world art history, and texts on visuality like John Berger's or W. J. T. Mitchell's. The first is often formal and apolitical; the second has to to with fine art or popular imagery; the third is very general and excludes science.
In this presentation I'll report on three different projects that bear on the possibility of producing a genuinely interesting, comprehensive, useful book and course for freshman, introducing them to the visual world including art. First is the Oxford University Press's project to create a better "art appreciation" text; second are the two books "Visual Practices Across the University" and "Visual Literacy" (both produced for an event in Ireland); third is my own attempt to co-author a book on vision and visuality across all the fields that theorize it: philosophy, neurobiology, affect theory, phenomenology, sociology, art history, feminisms, anthropology, criminology, archaeology, medicine, meteorology, and surveillance.
It is not impossible, I think, to theorize visual competence and literacy in such a course, producing a generation of students who understand how they interact with their visual world.
James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.
He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.
His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes). His most recent book is Art Critiques: A Guide.
Current projects include an edited book series called the Stone Art Theory Institutes, and an edited book series called Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Art. His most recent book is What Photography Is, written against Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida.
He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with specialties in Delacroix and Picasso. Jim’s interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano (contemporary "classical" music), and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.