Pho, Campbell's, Visual Culture, High-Low, and the like

Annie Stancliffe
Dec 12, 2012 8:26PM

At, we're really just a bunch of nerds. It's not surprising, then, that every two weeks, of our own volition, a group of us get together for a salon-style discussion in reaction to a chosen reading loosely organized around the theme of perception. As an alum of Penn's Visual Studies department (shoutout!) this theme is closely aligned with my interests, and helped to inspire the creation of the Visual Perception gene on 

At the latest lunchtime meeting of Salon (picture of our beloved office picnic table above), we discussed a text by Horst Bredekamp from the Spring 2003 edition of Critical Inquiry (link below). @Jessica Backus came across this reading while researching precedents for The Art Genome Project; at Salon, we discussed the text in relation to Visual Studies and the convergence of images featured on Between slurps of Pho, we talked about how a discerning eye can be applied to both a Renaissance painting and a poster on the subway, whether contemporary advertisements should be evaluated with the same tools and approaches usually reserved for academic art-historical analysis, and if the relationship between Art History (capital A, capital H) and Visual Studies boiled down to the familiar discussion of high and low culture. Can we approach Andy Warhol's image of a Campbell's soup can the same way as the label on the soup can itself? 

One of's programmers, @Leonard Grey, had a particularly insightful comment at this point, noting that analyzing "low" visual culture with a "high" art approach is analogous to a classical musician analyzing pop music, perhaps resulting in a dismissive or oversimplified conclusion. I had never thought of it that way before. Leonard went on to point out the close relationship between music and artmaking, citing John Cage's iconic 1952 composition, 4'33", which was partially inspired by Cage's close friend and collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg. 

About Rauschenberg's series of white paintings, Cage said: "...I said that there should be a piece that had no sounds in it. But I hadn't yet written it. And the thing that gave me the courage to do it, finally, was seeing the white, empty paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, to which I responded immediately. I've said before that they were airports for shadows and for dust, but you could say also that they were mirrors of the air."

Sure, we strayed a bit from the original subject of the reading and probably generated more questions than we answered. Taking turns from Warburg to Warhol to Cage, our conversation led us down a path of insights and discovery that I never could have anticipated. In that way, Salon reminds me a little bit of search; you don't always know where you'll end up, but there's a good chance you'll end up somewhere unexpected and delightful.


Annie Stancliffe