On the Visual
Visual Studies as an academic discipline is a relatively new field, and our program, too, is of recent vintage. Evolving from what was originally the Art History Program at CCA, the program was revamped and renamed Visual Studies in 2004 under the leadership of Mitchell Schwarzer. Today Maria Makela is the chair of the college's Visual Studies Program.
Though we continue to offer courses in the history of the traditional fine arts, our program now also includes courses in the history and theory of film, photography, advertising, digital gaming, television, performance, vernacular architecture, the decorative arts, the internet, and fashion.
In short, as a program, we study not just painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts, but all the images, objects, and buildings that we encounter in our increasingly media-saturated world. Our goal is to prepare students to think, write, and speak critically about the visual and the role it plays in our lives.
Students who come to CCA who intend to major or minor in Visual Studies feel especially connected to those who make art. Most have already had some training in the studio and choose CCA because they can continue on this path.
Indeed, majors and minors are required to enroll in any number of art, design, and architecture courses, and work alongside studio majors. Yet Visual Studies majors and minors are particularly drawn to the intellectual, theoretical, and historical underpinnings of visual culture, and spend a more significant portion of their time at CCA than their classmates reading, thinking, and debating about these things in rigorous academic rather than studio courses.
As for me, I have taught at art schools for the better part of my professional career because I so enjoy the stimulation of working in a creative environment with the producers of the objects I study, as does all of our Visual Studies faculty.
I came to CCA in 2004 just when the program changed its name and curriculum, having taught for years in what were at the time more traditional art history departments at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
I immediately felt at home here in our program, perhaps because my own work focuses on the visual broadly defined.
My specialty is the culture of Weimar Germany, arguably the era most similar to ours in terms of its breathtaking expansion of media, specifically visual media. Legendary for the films that were produced at the time, Weimar Germany was also the site at which the photo-illustrated periodical first saw mass distribution, and at which mass production was perfected in factories that were models of efficiency second only to those in the United States.
Germans of the 1920s were inundated with images and mass-produced objects in ways they never had been before, and the artists of the period play on that in their work. The medium of photomontage, pioneered in Berlin at the end of World War I, is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but there are countless others.
I am concerned in my work to probe this relationship between popular culture and art and I do this in my writing and my courses alike. Students in my courses are as likely to see a reproduction of a 1917 ceramic toilet as they would Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.
They might also hear how the confusion of identity that is a central theme of Fritz Lang’s 1926 film Metropolis was related to the development in Germany of inexpensive but silk-like rayon, which destroyed markers of class and particularly unsettled men who could no longer tell at a glance whether a woman was of modest means.
The blurring in Weimar Germany of identity–gender, sexual, class, age, ethnic, national–and its relation to the visual arts is, in fact, the subject of my current book project, which has been so enriched by the questions and comments posed by my CCA colleagues and students alike. I am indeed fortunate to have such good ones.
During my first year in graduate school in 1978, a professor I tremendously admired encouraged me to apply for a grant to study at the Freie Universität in West Berlin. I thought it an absurd idea, since I had been intending to write a thesis on French Impressionism, knew no German, and had never had a class on German art.
Then there was the fact that Berlin at the time was not the hip cultural hub that it is today. It was a city divided by a wall that was decidedly worse for the wear, and one in which, on either side of that wall, Americans were not especially welcome. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go in the unlikely event I got the grant.
My professor nevertheless persisted. She spent countless hours helping me define a topic. She read any number of drafts of my proposal. She even gave me advice about which the best Goethe Institute would be for me to spend a summer studying the language. To my great surprise, I got the grant. I stayed three years, and it changed my life.
You will find faculty like this in CCA’s Visual Studies Program. World-class faculty who are not only scholars and authors but also dedicated teachers committed to helping you succeed—who see the best in you and your potential when you can’t see it yourself.
Whether you’re interested in Asian-American or Latin American film, queer art, digital gaming, African American art, craft, ancient coins, early 20th-century American art, suburban architecture, or any number of other things, you will find someone here who will mentor you with care and concern.
Our faculty has helped students secure internships in museums and galleries, get accepted into graduate school, and find jobs. We are a rapidly growing, but still small and close-knit program, in which the instructors know personally and care about our majors and minors.
The Visual Studies Curriculum
The curriculum is designed to provide not just a strong background in the history and criticism of images and objects of all kinds, but also real-world practical experience that allows students to find a place in a graduate program or a job.
Majors in Visual Studies
Majors take 48 units within the program, distributed between introductory-, intermediate-, and advanced-level courses that build the skill sets of writing and speaking persuasively about visual culture.
Students begin with broad survey lecture courses in the history of world art and other sorts of visual culture, then continue with more focused surveys and seminars designed to deepen understanding and refine written and oral presentation skills.
Among others, such surveys and seminars include the Visual Studies Practicum, in which second-semester juniors work closely with the graduate Visual and Critical Studies students who are preparing for their annual symposium and attend with them the Wednesday forums sponsored by Visual and Critical Studies.
The forums draw students and faculty together in an intimate, seminar-like setting, to converse with path-breaking scholars, artists, and critics. Past forum participants include José Esteban Muñoz, Nao Bustemante, Peggy Phelan, Simon Leung, Teresa de Lauretis, Rita Gonzales, and Guillermo Gomez-Peña, to name a few.
First-semester seniors then take Senior Project I, in which students work with the instructor and, if necessary, another faculty advisor to expand a topic from a previous seminar into a thesis.
This is followed in the second semester of senior year by Senior Project II, the capstone experience of the Visual Studies major. In this course, students work to turn the thesis into a publishable paper and to hone it into a short talk to be delivered at a public symposium.
Minors in Visual Studies
The Visual Studies minor is currently one of only two minors at California College of the Arts. Minors take 21 units in the program and share certain dedicated courses with the majors. The course of study for minors does not involve additional classwork beyond what is already necessary to meet the Humanities and Sciences distribution requirements, and, provided students declare early, is easily managed within the four-year residency.
Bay Area Opportunities
The Visual Studies Program additionally organizes extracurricular activities for the majors and minors. We gather together often at social events with students and faculty and attend exhibitions mounted by the internationally renowned museums and galleries in the Bay Area, including the Asian Art Museum, Berkeley Art Museum, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Oakland Museum of California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the de Young Museum, to name just a few.
Students especially enjoy our “fireside chats,” at which local art professionals talk to the majors and minors about their career path: how they got to where they are today, what they like and dislike about their jobs, and what they would advise students contemplating a similar career.
Past speakers have included Frish Brandt, codirector of the Jeffrey Fraenkel Gallery, perhaps the world’s preeminent photography gallery; Jill Sterritt, head of conservation at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Allison Gass, curator of the recent Luc Tuymans exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.