W.J.T. Mitchell: There Are No Visual Media.

In his article There Are No Visual Media, W.J.T Mitchell argues that using the term “Visual Media” to describe works of art (i.e. film, painting, photography, etc.) is inaccurate and problematic because these forms of “visual media” involve other senses.  Mitchell’s “claim that there are no visual media, then, is really just the opening gambit that would lead toward a new concept of media taxonomy, one that would leave behind the reified stereotypes of ‘‘visual’’ or ‘‘verbal’’ media, and produce a much more nuanced, highly differentiated survey of types of media” (Mitchell 400).

There Are No Visual Media is a great read, particularly because it will challenges your individual notions around what you perceive as visual media.  What I still cannot grapple with, is fully accepting Mitchell’s argument as convincing – particularly, as the works in which he refers to require first and foremost one’s sense of sight.  With out sight, in most cases, our additional sensory experiences with a work of art will cease to exist.

Selections from then text:

“And if it is argued that silent film was a ‘‘purely visual’’ medium, we need only remind ourselves of a simple fact of film history—that the silents were always accompanied by music, speech, and the film texts themselves often had written or printed words inscribed on them. Subtitles, intertitles, spoken and musical accompaniment made ‘‘silent’’ film anything but” (Mitchell 396).

“And you might be right, and it would be important to distinguish the different ways that language enters painting. But that is not my aim here. My present task is only to show that the painting we have habitually called ‘‘purely optical,’’ exemplifying a purely visual use of the medium, is anything but that. The question of precisely how language enters into the perception of these pure objects will have to wait for another occasion” (Mitchell 396-397).

“Seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas ourselves” (Mitchell 397).

“Architecture is not primarily about seeing, but about dwelling and inhabiting. Sculpture is so clearly an art of the tactile that it seems superfluous to argue about it. This is the one socalled visual medium, in fact, that has a kind of direct accessibility to the blind. Photography, the latecomer to art history’s media repertoire, is typically so riddled with language, as theorists from Barthes to Victor Burgin have shown, that it is hard to imagine what it would mean to call it a purely visual medium” (Mitchell 398).

“Photography of this sort might be better understood as a device for translating the unseen or unseeable into something that looks like a picture of something we could never see. From the standpoint of art history in the wake of postmodernism, it seems clear that the last half-century has decisively undermined any notion of purely visual art. Installations, mixed media, performance art, conceptual art, site-specific art, minimalism, and the often-remarked return to pictorial representation has rendered the notion of pure opticality a mirage that is retreating in the rearview mirror. For art historians today, the safest conclusion would be that the notion of a purely visual work of art was a temporary anomaly, a deviation from the much more durable tradition of mixed and hybrid media” (Mitchell 398).

“That is, the very notion of a medium and of mediation already entails some mixture of sensory, perceptual, and semiotic elements. There are no purely auditory, tactile, or olfactory media either… If all media are mixed media, they are not all mixed in the same way, with the same proportions of elements” (Mitchell 399).

“McLuhan’s larger point, however, was definitely not to rest content with identifying specific media with isolated, reified sensory channels, but to assess the specific mixtures of specific media” (Mitchell 399).

“And we also need to be mindful that media are not only extensions of the senses, calibrations of sensory ratios. They are also symbolic or semiotic operators, complexes of sign-functions. If we come at media from the standpoint of sign theory, using Peirce’s elementary triad of icon, index, and symbol (signs by resemblance, by cause and effect or ‘‘existential connection,’’ and conventional signs dictated by a rule), then we also find that there is no sign that exists in a ‘‘pure state,’’ no pure icon, index, or symbol” (Mitchell 400).

“The claim that there are no visual media, then, is really just the opening gambit that would lead toward a new concept of media taxonomy, one that would leave behind the reified stereotypes of ‘‘visual’’ or ‘‘verbal’’ media, and produce a much more nuanced, highly differentiated survey of types of media” (Mitchell 400).

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