Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Elkins Lecture at Lipscomb

James Elkins, professor at the School of the Art Institute and author of a bunch of books, spoke at David Lipscomb this Monday. First of all that’s kind of a remarkable sentence. You just don’t expect to hear about someone like that speaking at Lipscomb. Vanderbilt maybe. This is part of a new lecture series in the visual arts at Lipscomb. Not sure if the rest of the people are as prominent as Elkins.

I thought Elkins might talk about religion and art, since that’s the topic of one of his books and a subject of obvious relevance to such a deeply church-affiliated institution. Maybe that would have been too obvious. Or people didn’t want to go there. Or that’s not the lecture he’s doing these days. What he did talk about was the status of visual practices within the entire range of intellectual disciplines in the university (you can find the basic ideas by going to Elkins’ website , scroll down to “Visual Practices Across the University” and check out the section “Table of content and introduction”). To grossly oversimplify, when you really look at how visual material is used as a tool for intellectual discovery and explanation of the world, and when you strip away spurious uses of visual information, visual practices have the most importance in disciplines outside the humanities, like medical research or the physical sciences. It’s in those disciplines that the details of visual information matter, such as the specific features of an image on a mammogram will that guide diagnosis of structures in the breast, or modeling of chemical processes. Much of the humanities doesn’t have any great use for visual information, and Elkins even argued that art history does not concern itself particularly with visual detail.

The prevalence of visual practices in realms outside the humanities is a valid observation, but comes as no surprise to the countless people who have those beautiful Edward Tufte volumes on visual information on their shelves. Like every budget analyst I work with. Which just confirms Elkins’ point.

One of his claims struck me as odd. He contrasted the poverty of visual practices he found with the belief that our society is one of the most visual cultures ever. We see lots of images, etc. But what about the traditional claim that the West is logocentric? Hasn’t pure sensory input always taken a back seat to information processed through words? Nowhere more so than the university. It’s no surprise that the visual is an afterthought in an academic culture where everything is oriented towards the production of words. And it is most true of the humanities, where all there is are articles and books.

The best thing about the talk was that he had the most beautiful presentation slides ever. The text was whitish grey on a dark, not-quite-black background that looked smoky, like the captions on a silent movie, or even more so like a Guy Maddin movie. He uses a clean and elegant, kinda elongated font, and there were never many words on the screen, everything perfectly boiled down to the essential cues.


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