UB Establishes "Mega" Department of Visual Studies

Students to study, from many angles, how images come to signify cultural meaning

Release Date: June 13, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The emerging academic discipline of visual studies involves the formulation of critical discussions by artists and scholars in different fields that address the contemporary culture of images.

Only 14 universities in the United States and Canada offer an academic concentration in this field, which involves not only the visual arts and art history, but cultural studies, science studies, philosophy, history, perception theory, comparative literature and anthropology.

The University at Buffalo recently became the 15th university when it merged its Department of Art History and Department of Art into a new "mega" Department of Visual Studies in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

"Visual Studies" is not only the new department's name, but one of its academic tracks, and David Schirm, professor of art and chair of the department, expects it to become a Signature Center of Excellence in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Its constituent departments previously focused on the making of art and the study of its articulation through the centuries, but, as Schirm points out, over the past few decades, art has crossed many disciplinary boundaries both in its areas of inquiry and the media used to address them.

He says, "Today, in addition to traditional modes of expression, artists -- including those on our faculty -- increasingly use language, sound, digital images, virtual reality and robotics, often in powerful combinations, to critique politics, culture, corporate practice and the manipulation of a populace through the use of technology.

"Visual studies embraces these new topics and mediums, examines how and why artists select and encode certain images, and how those images are perceived, decoded and contextualized by the audience," Schirm says.

"It is the study of human observation itself and the historical and cognitive processes by which images become encoded as signifiers of cultural meaning."

The department will continue to make available all degree programs offered by the former art and art history departments, including a B.A. and M.A. in art history, and a B.A., B.F.A. and M.F.A. in studio art, and will add a B.A., B.F.A. and M.A. in visual studies.

Gary Nickard, assistant professor of art, helped to develop new programs and explains one of them, the new hybrid B.F.A. concentration called "Visual Arts: Studio," which will be more intensive and less structured than the B.F.A concentrations in computer art, communication design, painting, photography, sculpture and general studios.

The courses available to those in this concentration, he says, exemplify the way the new program will broaden the study of visual arts.

"Students in the Visual Arts: Studio concentration, may still make photographs, Web art, sculpture, paintings, printmaking and so on," he says, "but will be required to select all four of their distribution courses (i.e., courses outside of the department required for the degree), from a group of 200-, 300- and 400-level interdisciplinary courses in visual studies and theory. This actually will give them leeway in devising and personalizing their B.F.A. program."

The courses involved will range from a "Survey of Continental Aesthetic Theory from Kant to Kristiva and Lacan," to a series of 400-level seminars that cover space, vision and power; art, discourse and deconstruction, and the revolutionary sublime, which refers to utopian movements and the art they produced.

"Another course will require attendance at all lectures in the department's Visual Studies Speakers Series, which will feature internationally recognized artists and theorists from many fields," he says, "and we expect to add seminars in art and psychoanalysis and in art and science."

Schirm says an M.A. program in arts management has been proposed and would be administered by the new department.

The department also is promoting actively its application to the state for a Ph.D. program in visual studies, an effort that will be coordinated by Nancy Anderson, Ph.D., the department's first new hire, previously a senior research fellow at the Leslie Center for the Humanities at Dartmouth College.

Anderson will help develop program structure and curriculum, teach science studies and conduct her own research in the history of science. In addition, she will facilitate communication and bridge-building with other departments.

"Our students now require input from faculty in fields far outside of the areas with which they are familiar. UB has top scholars in those fields," Schirm says, "a fact that will enhance our programs greatly and make this an outstanding center for visual studies.

Jolene Rickard, associate professor of art and art history was, like Nickard, deeply involved in the development of the new department.

She says, "The advantage we now have is that we are able to provide our students with a rich starting point for idea development, material experimentation, the development of technical skills, critical thinking, media savvy and reading/verbal skills. These will help them not only to make art, but to understand its place in society.

"Our goal is to help them to better understand and participate in contemporary art practices, as well as take on future leadership roles in the making of culture," she says.

Schirm adds that the intellectual and production rigor of the program "not only reflects that of the department but is in keeping with the goals of a demanding research institution."

In addition to Schirm, Nickard and Rickard, faculty members involved in developing the new Department of Visual Studies are Lori Johnson, assistant professor of art history; Elizabeth Otto, assistant professor of art history, and Charles Carman, associate professor of art history. Tyrone Geogiou, professor of art and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also was instrumental in its conception and facilitation.

Schirm says the art and art history faculties will work with faculty from other departments with expertise in the visual arts, critical theory and the intersections of art, culture and science. They include Donald Grinde, professor and chair, Department of American Studies; James Bono, professor, Department of History and Department of Medicine; Scott Stevens, assistant professor, Department of English and adjunct professor, Department of American Studies; Roy Roussel, professor and chair, Department of Media Study, and Ulrich Baur, professor, Department of Physics.

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