What is Visual Culture?

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Coveting Nature: Art, Collecting, and Natural History in Early Modern Europe, installation at Krannert Art Museum, 2017
Coveting Nature: Art, Collecting, and Natural History in Early Modern Europe, installation at Krannert Art Museum, 2017. Photo by Julia Nucci Kelly

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World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, installation at Krannert Art Museum, 2017.
World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, installation at Krannert Art Museum, 2017. Photo by Julia Nucci Kelly
Academic Engagement

Art History 495, taught by Prof. David O'Brien, introduces students to the concept of visual culture, which many scholars have proposed in recent years offers a new paradigm for the study of art history. Some of the questions asked in the course are: Why has the visual become such an important category in the humanities? What new approaches characterize recent scholarship on visual culture? How have visual cultural approaches changed the practice of art history? 

This capstone course for Art History majors reviews the types of skills and knowledge art historians are expected to possess and considers art history as a discipline and as a profession. In the course, students review ideas and methods that are at the center of the field and investigate the careers available to those in Art History.

As component of their investigation, students visited Krannert Art Museum for a tour and discussion of Coveting Nature: Art, Collecting, and Natural History in Early Modern Europe with exhibition curator Maureen Warren. Warren gave a detailed overview of the works in the exhibition, and the group discussed visual culture as a topic in museums and curation.

Later in the semester, students visited Krannert Art Museum a second time to revisit these ideas in the context of a second exhibition, World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean. With senior curator Allyson Purpura, students examined a second type of curatorial framework around which an exhibition can be organized. When thinking about visual culture on the Swahili Coast, they were encouraged to think about modes of cultural exchange and shared forms and structures of understanding across broad geographies and among human communities.