Reviewed | Davis’s ‘A General Theory of Visual Culture’

Posted in books, reviews by Editor on May 28, 2012

Recently added to caa.reviews:

Whitney Davis, A General Theory of Visual Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 432 pages, ISBN: 9780691147659, $55.

Reviewed by James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; posted 18 May 2012.

Along with David Summers’s ‘Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism’ (New York: Phaidon, 2003) (click here for review), Whitney Davis’s ‘A General Theory of Visual Culture’ is one of the most ambitious and potentially foundational books on art history in recent decades. It is unusually dense in logical argumentation, so it is more than a convention to say that it cannot helpfully be summarized. Because longer reviews will be needed to assess the book’s arguments, I want to use the generally shorter review length here in caa.reviews to raise two points about the book as a whole. But first I will evoke, as succinctly as possible, the book’s content, purpose, and significance.

Davis’s book ranges widely across the central examples of art-historical methodology, from Heinrich Wölfflin to Michael Baxandall, including discussions of writers as different as T. J. Clark, Arthur Danto, Ernst Cassirer, Nelson Goodman, and Giovanni Morelli. There are extended readings of texts by Erwin Panofsky, Richard Wollheim, E. H. Gombrich, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and critiques of formal analysis (chapter 3), style analysis (chapter 4), and iconography (chapter 7). The book’s visual examples range from prehistory to Renaissance art to modernism and Warhol.

Davis’s principal purpose is to provide a “general theory of visual culture,” by which he means an account of the relation between what is cultural about vision, and what is visual about culture. He has many ways of putting this difference, and the variety is itself significant. (More on that later.) To ask about what is cultural about vision is to note that “styles of depiction . . . have materially affected human vision,” and to ask about what is visual about culture entails the possibility that “some things,” but not all, “are visual in culture, or visible as culture” (6; see also p. 8).

As a conceptual reorganization of art history’s fundamental terms of engagement with objects, the book is exemplary, and it is difficult to imagine a reader who is engaged with the discipline for whom this book is optional reading. . .

The full review is available here» (CAA membership required)