October 30, 2009

Visual Culture and LDS Church Art

Part 1- The following paper is a rough draft of something I am tinkering with.
The study of "visual culture" has attracted the attention of sociologists and historians alike. In the book Practices of Looking, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright examine painting, photography, film, television, and new media to understand how images shape—and are shaped by—the communities that view them. It's interesting to consider how the beliefs of Latter-day Saints shape and are shaped by images they employ in official publications. In this series I hope to explore questions of visual culture, history and religion.

Images are like language. They are representations used to “understand, describe, and define the world as we see it.”1   On the surface, these systems of representation seem pretty straightforward: a picture shows us something, it represents an idea, feeling, or object. Sturken observes:
Images have been used to represent, make meaning of, and convey various sentiments about nature, society, and culture as well as to represent imaginary worlds and abstract concepts.  Throughout much of history, for example, images, most of them paintings, have been used by religions to convey religious myths, church doctrines, and historical dramas…2
Debates about representation have been waged over whether images should be interpreted “as they really are” as if they simply mirrored back reality, or “whether in fact we construct the world and its meaning through the systems of representation we deploy.”3 In other words, we should consider whether we as viewers help create the meaning of the images we view.

Ideology and images
In order to explore the meaning of images we must recognize they aren't created in a vacuum. Images are produced within an ideology, the often unstated assumptions regarding how the world works.4 Images help produce ideologies and ideologies are also projected back onto images by viewers. As I will discuss below, religious and political groups often employ images to both shape and express values and beliefs.5

Images have at least two levels of meaning
Roland Barthes formulated the concept of the “denotative” and “connotative” meaning of images. Denotation is the literal or descriptive meaning of an image. This is when an image is believed to depict “documentary evidence of objective circumstances.”6 For example: criminal mug shots are used to capture distinct facial features, dimensions of height, tattoos, and identification numbers.

In addition, a mug shot can connote a more culturally specific meaning. The viewer of the mug shot sees the image in the context of understanding the circumstances behind the image. A criminal is someone who broke the law. The image can connote fear, sympathy, contempt, or other emotions. The connotation changes depending on the ideology of the person viewing the image. The meaning of the image changes depending on the viewer. Connotation is shaped by the cultural and historical context of the image and its viewers’ experienced knowledge of those circumstances.   

Three interpretive positions of viewers
As viewers we can “decode” images in order to help them connote different things. Stuart Hall has outlined three decoding positions:7  

(1) Dominant-hegemonic reading.
Viewers can identify with the hegemonic (or widely-accepted) position and receive the dominant message of an image…in an unquestioning manner.

(2) Negotiated reading.
Viewers can negotiate an interpretation from the image and its dominant meanings. 

(3) Oppositional reading.
Finally, viewers can take an oppositional position, either by completely disagreeing with the ideological position embodied in an image or rejecting it altogether (by ignoring it, for example). 

Sturken argues that a negotiated reading is often the most fruitful because the viewer is more engaged in finding personal meaning in the image: “Negotiation calls to mind the process of trade [as we] haggle with the dominant meanings of an image when we interpret it.”8

So far I've briefly outlined how images are created and interpreted within ideological frameworks. Next, I'll discuss the rise of the “historical art” genre and how it applies to religion. Understanding this context allows for a more responsibly negotiated reading of (albeit often mundane) LDS Church art.


Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 12.

Sturken and Cartwright, Ibid., 13. The authors are not discussing “myth” in terms of a fable, but myth in terms of a foundational or shaping narrative that gives meaning to a group.

Ibid., 12.

Sturken and Cartwright define ideology as “the broad but indispensable, shared set of values and beliefs through which individuals live out their complex relations to a range of social structures” (Ibid., 21).

This is not to say that such images are mere propaganda, which follows “the crude process of using false representations to lure people into holding beliefs that may compromise their own interests” (Ibid.). Images can be used as propaganda to champion a given ideology but all images are created and help create ideology whether positively or negatively.

Sturken and Cartwright, Ibid., 19.

Ibid. 57.



Inari said...

This was a well-written introduction to reading visual language, but it left me longing for Part 2. Did you ever write it, and could you link to it? :)

BHodges said...

I did write it, and saved it someplace on my laptop. As you can see the intro didn't garner much response at the time so I didn't bother putting the rest up. Send me your email address (lifeonaplate[at]gmail[dot]com) and I'll send the rest to you.

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