Visual culture is usually identified with “image culture”. However, the truth is that neither images are necessarily visual experience phenomena nor is visual culture limited to the realm of the image and of the operations of the imagination. A visual culture transcends the purely perceptive element of vision: as Merleau-Ponty wrote, the visible always has an invisible frame.
Visual culture is a form of sociohistorical organization of visual perception, of regulation of the functions of vision and of its epistemic, aesthetic, political and moral uses. It is also, at least since the Upper Palaeolithic, a socially organized way of creating, distributing and inscribing visual texts, a process that always implies certain technologies of rendering-visible, techniques of production, reproduction and archive.
Visual culture refers to the management of visuality - understood as socialized vision - and visibility, which refers to the scope of the “public” or “common”. The modern public space is a field of gravitation and conflict between visibilities and invisibilities. However, already in premodern societies, the symbolic economy of the religious concerned the administration of visibility and invisibility, the powers of vision and clairvoyance.
Human societies know very diverse forms of visuality: there are spatiotemporal forms, such as the external, objectifying vision, and there is an immersive vision. Let us thus distinguish clairvoyance, vision and visioned. We might still distinguish between several regimes of vision that regulate the ways of seeing. There is a regime of invisibility: for example, while polytheist art renders the gods visible, monotheist art makes the visibility of one God impracticable. There are still regimes of seeing indistinctly, such as in certain expressions of erotic art where the naked body does not get to be shown, and the viewer is invited instead to guess bodily forms and postures, veiled by garments. There is still a regime of total vision, predominant in the postmodern visual culture: from pornography to the enlarged image, typical of documentaries on the natural world, and to medical endoscopy, a visuality that seems to dispute the technical and symbolic boundaries of the visible.
The exercice, the experience and the powers of vision still interfer with another two phenomenological dimensions: that of the image and that of the gaze: visual representations always refer to a social imaginary, to the reproduction or modification of shared images. The gaze, which is vision changed by desire or by the will to know/be able to, receives particular determinations in each sociocultural context: the vigilant, cautious or courteously distracted gaze, and the game of interaction between those and other forms of gaze in daily contexts, are an essential part of modern culture, and through them are modulated the structures of reciprocity, of mutual recognition, of the hierarchy and fight for space and control. Experiences that, at present, are combined with the experience of being seen by the specialized, panoptical systems of state and private video surveillance.