March 10, 2014

[Book Review] Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image

Is the study of visual culture a legitimate field of interdisciplinary inquiry or a trendy movement? It is a question sharply debated by educators, curators, researchers, and others today. Among other things, opponents of visual culture are concerned that there is a blatant disregard for the essential differences between works of visual art, “fine art,” and other types of cultural artifacts. Some take the position that visual art is the sole province of art history and that visual culture studies wrongly includes every kind of visual artifact in their purview—including fine art. Proponents argue that visual culture is a valid research and curricular area, which takes the visual image as a focal point in the cultural context of meaning-making. The debate is complex; with many nuances, but essentially, it boils down to aesthetics verses utility.
The Crying Boy,' painted by Bruno Amadio,
was popular in Turkey during the 1970 and '80s.
Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image ("Visual Culture") situates itself squarely within this debate. By drawing upon theoretical insights from such fields as communication, global studies, history, Islamic studies, sociology, and art history, the text unfolds as a model of how visual culture may serve as an entry point among the disciplines that treat visuality. The thirteen essays address four topics — “moving” images, Islamic iconographies, satirical contestations, and authenticity and reality in trans-national broadcasting — wherein researchers explore the constructed nature and fluidity of Islamic and secular ideologies in public visual culture after the colonial period.

"Visual Culture" contributes to filling a gap in knowledge and understanding concerning how images are articulated locally, statewide, and regionally, as well as imported and re-articulated in the modern Middle East. This work moves the study of Islamic art forward from the twentieth to the twenty-first century by engaging the role of visual culture through the framework of formations of secular and Islamist registers in public culture.
Poor Christians and Muslims united in suffering during Lebanese Civil War.
Rich Christians and Muslims are united in ignoring them, Handhala observes.
Unpublished drawing, Naji al-Ali, 1978.

The aestheticization and politicization of suffering in the Turkish Islamic imagination as portrayed in the widely circulated and re-imagined image of the ‘Crying Boy’; the mural of Muhammad’s ascension on the exterior wall of a five-story building in Tehran; the iconography of Arab secularism in the powerful imagery of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali: each invites methodological investigation to understand the roles of visual metaphors, icons, and other devices that construct meaning.

There is widespread use of imagery in the modern Middle East and there is a need to explore the role of imagery in that context. "Visual Culture" explicates how imagery functions rhetorically in speaking to individuals within those societies, for architects of social conventions, and about Middle East societies to the rest of the world. Communication scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, art history and Islamic art scholars, as well as educators and researchers interested in the modern Middle East will find this work useful to their research, teaching, and their students.

Gruber, C., & Haugbolle, S. (Eds.). (2013).Visual culture in the modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the image. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press
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