My academic relationship with visual art began in my freshman year with Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’, when I considered the notion that what I think of writing, inscribing letters and characters in books and articles, is only a small amount of writing, and not the earliest form. Derrida argued that ‘the concept of writing exceeds and comprehends that of language’, and I was convinced. Considering that philosophy written in books was only one, and not necessarily the most well qualified, way of communicating ideas opened my mind to the possibility that by only pursuing my interests through ‘philosophy’, a certain kind of book and curriculum, I was not remaining focused on the cream of the crop, but completely neglecting a vast body of material relevant to my ‘philosophical’ interests.
My philosophical interests were still present, but they became tempered with the knowledge that philosophy by itself, as it is taught as a curriculum of books and articles, might not be the right way to study human experience. Without much more nuanced reasoning than this, I started registering for art history classes. Much of the time, I didn’t have any sort of philosophical spin on what I was learning. I would hear that such-and-such and art piece was produced at such-and-such a time, in such-and-such a place, and I would repeat what I heard on the next test. I learned something very important at this time, how to visually analyze a painting. Most of the time I might have nothing creative to say, no way to draw in more general questions about form, symbolism, or the medium, but the skill of picking apart every detail my eyes could soak in is one of the most important I have learned.
After taking a few more classes, I began to start trying arguments about the terminology of art history, for instance that a place is not a borderland because there are different sorts of people inhabiting it, but because violence is deployed to maintain that the borders do not overlap, and that the border does not cross. Around this time, I began to move closer to study of culture rather than just the culture of art production or consumption. My classes got much more detailed, and we began to pay more and more attention to the conditions artists were producing their work under and their audience was viewing under, giving me a greater and greater ability to fruitfully combine my knowledge about the two.
My most recent work has followed through on both learning experiences. In ARTH 302, ‘The Art of Mexico and Mesoamerica’, I present a more formalized definition of regionality that simultaneously allows for more structured conversations about the history and geography of art and artists, while also making the concept flexible enough to accommodate modern artists with international influences. In PHIL 360, ‘Aesthetics’, I have applied Simon Critchley’s philosophical analysis of tragedy and comedy to Francis Bacon’s portraiture and Pop art, fleshing out ways in which visual art can offer us paradigms for considering our own finitude. In my independent study, I have adopted the theories of Baudrillard and Habermas to discuss the future of social media in terms of discourse, image dissemination, and attention as currency, applying my knowledge of art production an industry affected by economics of demand, barrier to entry, and distribution, to the unique situation recent developments in computer networking technology have brought to us.
It is tempting here to conclude with an elegy to the special qualities of painting, and declare it as fundamental to my research in the future, but that wouldn’t be accurate to my experience. What my study of visual culture has brought me, in the context of my philosophy research, is a wealth of skills and knowledge for applying visual art history and theory to philosophical writing, and vice versa. I don’t believe I would be applying an emphasis in music history or literature all that differently if I had studied those instead, and in fact one of the greatest benefits of studying art history to me has been the realization that most other art forms can be fruitfully analyzed in the context of philosophy as well.
I started studying art history, particularly painting, to broaden the sorts of writing (in the Derridean sense) I could fruitfully consider, previously being relegated almost exclusively to early modern Western philosophy. This goal has been accomplished, in the broader study of history that art history courses prompt, in that I can apply similar skills of formal analysis to literature as well as visual art, and of course in all of the cases where I have directly brought my knowledge of visual culture to bear on a philosophical project.