Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Robert J. Belton, Sights of Resistance: Approaches to Canadian Visual Culture

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Robert J. Belton, Sights of Resistance: Approaches to Canadian Visual Culture

Rhona Richman Kenneally
Concordia University
Belton, Robert J. Sights of Resistance: Approaches to Canadian Visual Culture. University of Calgary Press, 2001. 398 pp., 100+ illus., accompanying CD-ROM, cloth, $59.95, ISBN 1-55283-011-4.

1 In the last several years, a variety of publications have appeared that introduce students to key components of visual culture, and, especially, that address and develop the interstices of discourse relevant to visual cultural production in the domains of communication, cultural and media theory, art history, film studies and material culture. Such works reflect a cross-disciplinarity that can truly enrich the study of what were once discrete fields, and offer ideological, methodological and historical points of departure and convergence that lend themselves well to hybridization.

2 Of these texts, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright's Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford University Press, 2001) may be considered exemplary. Suited to an undergraduate audience, and covering a variety of visual media including photographs, posters, drawings, installations, virtual and digital works, movies, television, and advertising, it summarizes and contextualises significant texts, applies them in clear, informative and often entertaining ways, is organized into accessible, pertinent and thought-provoking topics, and offers suggested readings that guide students to the primary sources themselves. In short, Practices of Looking is an exciting entree into the critical issues concerning visual theorists today, exploring, as it does, debates on gender, authenticity, representation, the virtual world, the impact of digitization, and other pivotal matters.

3 It is within this frame of reference that Robert J. Belton's Sights of Resistance: Approaches to Canadian Visual Culture seems highly ambitious. Not only does this work commit itself to exploring the main objectives of visual culture studies per se, but must also, to some extent, introduce its audience to Canadian visual works, many of which are less familiar than the examples that Sturken and Cartwright have at hand. Given such an agenda, Belton's book, despite certain limitations, is to be acknowledged as contributing in important ways to existing Canadian works on the topic.

4 Belton has many intentions in this book. He wastes no time, for example, in distinguishing his strategies from those utilized by other scholars in the field. Studies of Canadian visual culture by critics such as Dennis Reid and J. Russell Harper centre attention on what Belton classifies as the "current critical phenomenon called the death of the author" while other historians such as Harold Kalman, Michael Bird and Terry Kobayashi keep their foci on specific areas — architecture; folk art, and so on. Belton's aim is to broaden his perspective, to encompass a "broad sample of most aspects of Canadian visual culture" to include commercial art and printmaking, for example, as well as the traditional realm of painting or photography. In addition, he articulates a commitment to avoiding "textbook closure," the sense that one book contains sufficient material to appear to have "everything one needs to know, as well as how to know it." Moreover, this text sets out to overwrite a residual approach to studying art history that rests on the development of a student's abilities in "art appreciation," with a new strategy aimed at achieving visual literacy, the ability to "'read' visual information in the absence of verbal cues..." Such intentions are consistent with evolving methodologies, for example, postmodern observations offered by such interpreters as Jean-Francois Lyotard, which validate attempts to acknowledge the complexities of cultural production, rather than endorse methods to reduce or simplify analytical criteria to facilitate understanding. It comes as no surprise, then, that the resulting work weighs in at almost four hundred pages of hard copy, plus a compact disc.

5 The format of Sights of Resistance lends itself to the ordered and systematic presentation of material. Two introductory chapters set forth the book's themes and explore the notion of "visual poetics," the term essentially defined as the interrelationship between three main categories — form, content, and context. A chapter containing a survey of Canadian visual culture follows, beginning with prehistoric times until roughly 2000. Two timelines comprise the subsequent chapter, one targeting "important moments in Canadian history" and the second narrowing its sphere to "important moments in Canadian visual culture." The bulk of the book is devoted to the fifth chapter, which consists of case studies. Here, a black and white version of each subject (painting, building, etc.) appears on a right-hand page, and, on the opposite page, several paragraphs of text bring different elements of that subject to the reader's attention. Some of these entries are wholly written by Belton, others are partially or even exclusively devoted to quoting other critics' interpretations. A selection of coloured images is embedded within the chapter, each one a colour duplicate of a black and white version to be found elsewhere. In the first three chapters, words in bold type inform the reader that their definition may be sought in the glossary of the CD-ROM included with the book. The CD itself reproduces the text of the book page by page, the key difference being that the words which were in bold in the book, along with additional ones situated within case study entries, are here hot-linked directly to the glossary: clicking on them brings up a sub-page with their definition, one which almost always, itself, contains words linked to their own definitions. (Is such duplication justified, or would the CD have been sufficiently useful in itself?)

6 This ordered approach is both highly welcome, and, unfortunately, to some extent disadvantageous. Its chief asset is prioritizing connectedness as a means of exploring contextuality. For example, a case study entry that arouses particular attention can be metaphorically inserted, by the zealous reader, back into the survey and the timelines; bolded words become points of entry into discussions of ideas and theories applicable to visual culture; and definitions allude to other keywords or concepts and stimulate navigation toward primary discursive sources. On the other hand, such fluidity has its down side, and can lead to the confusion often encountered on the Internet, when hotlinks break down into a maze of clicking that can be more confusing than elucidating. To be fair, the conceptualisation of this work as a textbook — such that its use might be guided by a course instructor — builds in, to some extent, a bumper-like mechanism to help overcome such unwieldiness. In addition, the proliferation of words in bold font, in the first few chapters of the book, is distracting. Perhaps the case studies, in which there are no bolded terms, ought to have been a model throughout the book itself: since the text is reproduced in its entirety in the CD, it would be simple enough to turn to the digital version to discover and access the definitions.

7 Finally, this fragmented orientation — survey, timelines, case studies, glossary — makes reconstitution of the individual morsels of knowledge, such as could be applied to one image, for example, a challenge perhaps readily embraced by a student-reader comfortable with exploring on his or her own. But such analytical gymnastics might prove daunting to the student who is less proficient at working independently, or is familiar with a more integrated or linear approach to visual culture studies. This is especially true because some of the writing is rather cryptic. For example, Belton attributes the selection of particular imagery for a poster promoting "Canada's New Army" by Eric Aldwinckle as follows: "Unless he were trying to avoid too explicit a reference to a bit of Catholic hagiography because of conscription sentiments, Aldwinckle's metaphor collapses into catachresis." A decoding process of four keywords — "reference," "hagiography," "sentiments" and "catachresis" — is a necessary first step before a novice could even begin to understand this sentence and Belton's meaning.

8 In striving to achieve its multiple goals, Sights of Resistance makes distinct inroads. It would be difficult to argue that the work imposes one rigid, didactic reading on the works it references. The engagement is clearly open-ended, and would lend itself well to class discussions precisely because of the multivalenced readings that are encouraged by the book's structure and scope. The case studies, in particular, embrace the works being investigated within the wide realm of visual culture writing. For example, one study focuses on a 1931 photo-lithograph, entitled "Resorts in the Rockies," which depicts the Banff Springs Hotel, an RCMP agent, and a bobbed, pant-suited woman who looks like she is leaning against the Mountie's bended leg. This artifact prompts three quotations from secondary sources selected by Belton. The first is E. J. Hart's The Selling of Canada, which explores the CPR's role in the establishment of Canadian tourism and alludes to the hotel's "baronial" style. The second, by José Knighton, comes from an article on "eco-porn" that compares landscape photography to pornography; it concludes with a reference to the overlaps between the two as indicative of "the depth of our cultural sickness." The third (Kate Linker's "Representation and Sexuality") talks about Freud, Lacan and Berger and highlights the power of the masculine gaze. Thus are three components of the litho brought to the reader's attention, juxtaposed for purposes of similarity and contrast, and representative of three distinct forays into visual culture analysis.

9 Undeniably, a great deal of ground is covered here. An investigation of the glossary alone unveils copious references, and laudable attempts at comprehensiveness and breadth. Deceptively simple terms, such as "material" and even "architecture" are allocated space. So, too, are more complex or obscure phrases, such as "commodity fetishism," "metonymic skid" (a term coined by Roland Barthes), and "Visigoths in tweed," a "derogatory synonym for the cultural left coined for use in the popular media by Dinesh D'Souza" ("cultural left" and "media" have their own links). Footnotes and a bibliography ought not be overlooked by course instructors, either.

10 It seems almost petty to point to aspects of Belton's oeuvre that do not quite live up to the inclusive and expansive exercise undertaken here, but a few make their presence felt. First, this book was clearly conceived as an art history work, first and foremost. The first two words of the first sentence are "Art historians," who are mentioned as decrying the absence of a "comprehensive guide to Canadian art." A few pages later he refers to what he is attempting to achieve as an innovative version of "writing art history." The effect of these declarations is to place Sights of Resistance squarely within the domain of one discipline, despite the author's declared interdisciplinary motives. Well and good, if the course is situated in an art history department. Problematic, and necessitating qualification and justification, if it is selected for use in a studio, architecture, design or other department that engages visual culture. In addition, certain assumptions associated with long-standing historical paradigms seem tacitly sanctioned here. For example, the glossary entry on "popular culture," rather than defining the term, instructs the reader to go to "high art" in the glossary and ultimately frames the two as oppositions, even as Belton argues that contemporary approaches to visual culture are "gradually reducing the traditional academic separation" between the two. "Art" and "craft" are similarly differentiated in the chapter on visual poetics. And the case studies consist mostly of what would be classified as artworks, with only a minority inclusion of artifacts associated with everyday life. It would have been nice, too, to see architecture depicted in plan, or interiors shown (only about three interiors make their way into the book), rather than the conventional exterior views.

11 Sights of Resistance, then, is to be recognized as a welcome expansion of the Canadian cultural repertoire. One looks forward to a time when students exposed to this book, themselves, appropriate its messages and contribute their own critical narratives to a receptive audience.