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Who owns visual culture?


Coinciding with San Francisco MoMA’s massive expansion that is currently underway, the museum has revamped its blog, Open Space. (For an explanation of the design thinking behind the blog’s new look, check out “A More Open Open Space.”) One of the first pieces to appear on the new blog is a short essay by art historian Jennifer González that asks, “Who Own Visual Culture?” The piece parses differences sense of the word “ownership” as it’s used in an art context, from a museum “owning” an artwork to a user of Corbis buying and “owning” an infinitely reproducible image. Here’s an excerpt:

Visual culture is not, or not only, a set of finite objects that reside in archives or on screens. Visual culture is rather an environmental condition, shaped by and understood through the lived experience of seeing and sharing a visual literacy with members of a broader community. Like language, the significance of both vision and images changes with each new generation and individual, each medium and platform. The fleeting but critical instant of vision and visual interpretation may be the only form of “ownership” visual culture actually offers. I “own” what I see only in the process of seeing it; visual culture then has a temporal, hermeneutic meaning tied to a historical moment. In this alternative definition, the idea of ownership as private property necessarily falls away. Instead, we might have to “own up” to what we have seen. We might have to take responsibility for the referents in the image world we inhabit, recognizing that these referents (politicians, political refugees, dying ecosystems) are always already mediated through visual culture, and that all forms of seeing are only ever partial, incomplete, localized, limited…

What seems promising about our present moment is that sites of power cannot wield visual culture exclusively, in part because of the nimble technologies of photography now available. “Speaking back to power” has importantly morphed into “showing back to power”—sharing and redistributing images of its brutality and excesses. One can observe that the current flexible conditions of image circulation and flow that frequently and purposefully bypass network television, national broadcasting, and hegemonic forms of advertising, are slowly but steadily unraveling a previously tightly woven web of visual domination.