Visual Culture: Critical Seeing for the 21st Century

"Visual culture is never neutral, and is thus never without value."

“Visual culture,” Alexis Boylan notes, “has always been inscribed by the dominant and by domination, yet it has also always contained resistance, reversal, and subversion.”

In this historic era of unprecedented visuality, questions about the nature of visual culture have never seemed more alive. The urgencies of racial and gender inequity, the devastation of global health crises, and the precarity wrought by climate change are unrelenting. It takes commitment to look and see critically, and to comprehend the complexity inherent in the visual production of meaning—particularly around politically-charged, pressing issues that affect us all.

And the rewards of this commitment—of this critical seeing—are immeasurable.

Visual Culture by Alexis Boylan

In Visual Culture, Boylan uncovers what’s at stake in this new normal—our highly-charged, hypermediated world of visual rhetoric. She looks closely at the images we seek out and those we have no control over. She investigates how concepts of race and gender are constructed visually; how what we don’t see is often as telling as what we do see. She analyzes art, propaganda, climate change, the nature of sight and seeing, and even how the visual is changing our brains.

How can we navigate this overwhelming visual terrain? Have visual technologies fundamentally changed the nature of truth and knowing? How can we begin to examine the ways that visual culture influences and even shapes us? Boylan not only probes these fascinating and difficult questions, she gives us the tools we need to grapple with both the dark side and the public good of visual culture.

Carrie Mae Weems edited by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

Carrie Mae Weems, a MacArthur Genius Fellow renowned for her powerful, evocative photographs, is the subject of our new MIT Press October Files volume. As relevant today as she was throughout the latter part of the 20th century, Weems recently launched the public art campaign “Resist COVID Take 6” to draw attention to how the pandemic disproportionately hurts Black, Latinx, and Native American communities.

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, editor of Carrie Mae Weems, brings together essays and interviews that celebrate this legendary artist’s work—her bold originality, her provocative repositioning of the Black female body—and ultimately, the critical importance of Weems’ oeuvre in both the history of photography and contemporary art. With contributions from influential figures including Dawoud Bey, Thelma Golden, and Deborah Willis, the volume examines not only the significance of Weems' work but also the necessity for an expanded set of concerns in contemporary art—one in which race does not restrict a discussion of aesthetics as it has in the past, robbing Black artists of a full consideration of their work.

Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism by Lauren Fournier

Evidence of autotheoretical practices are everywhere in contemporary art and literature—and yet they’ve remained almost completely untheorized until now. Lauren Fournier’s engagingly written and highly original book Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism is the first to capture the growing impact of autotheory.

Very much of the moment, Fournier argues that for artists and writers working in the wake of modernism from a feminist sensibility, autotheory became a way to engage philosophy and theory from a lived position. Integrating art with life, practice with theory, and fiction with autobiography, autotheory reveals what is at stake in feminist art and literary perspectives.

Through close readings of the work of icons like Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Maggie Nelson, and Chris Kraus, Fournier—in the words of McKenzie Wark—gives us “a whole series of tactics for thinking and feeling together from the margins—of gender, race, ability, and colonialism. This autotheory creates spaces for being together for those excluded from a culture that only tolerates difference as the mirror to the universal bourgeois subject."

A Black Gaze

Currently, we are busy at work on A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See by Tina Campt, forthcoming this fall. And we can hardly wait. With this book, Campt is the first to theorize a Black gaze in the framework of today’s powerful Black artists who are demanding through their work that we see—and see blackness in particular—differently.

Campt offers poignant and spirited analyses of work from artists like Deana Lawson, Simone Leigh, and Arthur Jafa. With lyrical, poignant writing, she compels us to understand that engaging with this artwork requires us to do more than simply look. The work solicits visceral responses to Black precarity. This distinctively Black gaze shifts us from the passive optics of looking at to the active struggle of looking with, through, and alongside. This distinctive gaze gives us a way to imagine a hopeful future.

Visual culture is never neutral, and is thus never without value, Alexis Boylan reminds us. Visual culture is power.