Mixed Forms of Visual Culture: From the Cabinet of Curiosities to Digital Diversity | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Mixed Forms of Visual Culture: From the Cabinet of Curiosities to Digital Diversity

Mixed Forms of Visual Culture: From the Cabinet of Curiosities to Digital Diversity
by Mary Ann Francis

Bloomsbury, London/New York, 2021
208 pp., illus. 80 b/w and col. Trade, £ 85.00; ePub/Modi, £ 76.50
ISBN: 9781350211377; ISBN: 9781350211391

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
April 2022

The purpose of this book is twofold. First of all, it is an attempt to bring to the fore a less known, more precisely a less studied and not always sharply delineated visual tradition, that that of the “mixed form”, which the author detaches from a broad set of similar or nearly similar practices (intermedia art, hybrid art, multimedia art, etc.): “[mixed form comprises] materially hybrid entities, composed of different substances or structures, and sometimes both. In other words, these mixtures are not about semantic juxtaposition, except as that is realized by material contrast. So, in a Fine Art context for example, a work such as Martha Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c. 1967-72), is not the kind of thing addressed when it only involves one materiality, however effectively plying the seam between heterogeneous magazine imagery” (p. 5). Second, and this is the backbone of the book’s argumentation, Mary Ann Francis also tries to disclose a hidden relationship between this particular form of art production, a form so ubiquitous that it has become almost invisible, and the practice of the division of labor, as progressively but universally imposed by the spread of capitalism since the Renaissance and triumphing today in evermore alienating forms. The link between mixed form and division of labor is both direct, since the rise of mixed form follows that of the division of labor as its shadow, and indirect, for mixed form art does not literally reflect – as in classic Marxist takes on the relationship between art and society – the division of labor, it serves instead as a compensation. In other words, mixed form art is a way of resisting the division of labor, and therefore it is also the utopian expression of a different way of organizing labor and society.

The importance of these two questions, mixed form art and the division of labor, cannot be denied, and Francis gives a convincing and philosophically well framed presentation of the structures, history, stakes, problems, and opportunities of both. In addition, the fundamental question of the link between mixed form art and division of labor is highly relevant, in art as well as society, even if one is not necessarily convinced by the author’s arguments in this regard. What is missing for instance is a more in-depth reflection on the status of mixed form art in precapitalist and non- or anti-capitalist societies. Is mixed form art absent in these social and economic environments? How does the non-division of labor interact with mixed as well as non-mixed art forms? And how can one define the latter: as “pre-mixed” forms, ignoring any form of division of labor, or as “post-mixed” forms, having superseded this divide? By way of corollary, one would also have liked to read a more thorough discussion of the capitalist impulse toward always more strongly mixed art forms, for this evolution is after all what one clearly observes in the supremely capitalist art market.

Having said this, it is a pleasure to follow the author on her historical and taxonomic crossing of the world of mixed form, from the Renaissance and post-Renaissance cabinet of curiosities till today’s digital creations, over popular genres such as the broadsheet, the chapbook and the scrapbook – all well documented and cleverly illustrated. The visual material of the book is refreshing and often very original, while the comments are always helpful as well as consistently structured in function of the underlying general question of the link with division of labor. The book also launches an implicit invitation to expand the study of mixed forms to the field of writing and literature, where it may be interesting to investigate whether the progressive vanishing of “pure” writing is comparable or not to what happens in the field of visual art.

Quite logically, Francis does not always maintain the same style of writing throughout the whole book. She translates her reaction to the division of labor by integrating some form of diversity within her own scholarship by including two chapters exemplifying the less institutionalized – yet not necessarily really “mixed” – genre of the visual essay. Unfortunately, the two examples are less real visual essays (granted, they are highly visual, but there is for instance no real research question that is addressed) than two artistically arranged archives of anthologies, one based on a collection of found scrapbook pages and another offering the visual treatment of the subgenre of the artist scrapbook (with a chromatic translation – one form, one color – of the mixed forms found in various artist scrapbooks). Both series are aesthetically pleasing and cognitively challenging, but the working hypothesis to be tested or challenged remains somewhat implicit, which inevitably diminishes the proper research interest of this work, which belongs as much to the walls of a museum or gallery than to a scholarly publication.