Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sunday Essay - the importance of visual images

This short essay is really a note to myself on the importance of visual images and of the way in which images gain and lose power as the meanings and emotional content attached to them vary.

To say that today we live in a very visual world is a bit of a truism. We are saturated with images. Yet what is far from clear is the extent to which individual images retain their power when the visual is so dominant in a general sense. We may well be imaged out!

When I first became interested in Australian art I did so in part because I was trying to understand Australia. Certain paintings spoke to me, and I wanted to know why. As I researched and indeed purchased paintings and prints, I formed views about the way in which changing art reflected the adaptation of an immigrant country to its surrounds.

The process was an interactive one, influenced by my own interests and the things that I was researching at the time. I ended with a series of images in my head that in some ways captured Australian art to that point as I saw it.

This remains my framework. However, I am conscious that the visual geography of my children is not the same as mine.Clare i love this picasso Indeed, and notwithstanding that youngest in particular did art at school for the HSC , I very much doubt that either could discuss Australian art in a historical context.

On the other hand, and this is the point of the photo which shows Clare in front of her favourite Picasso, they have probably got a far more cosmopolitan visual geography than I had at their age or indeed may have now.   

Images change their meanings with time.

Take three flags as an example.

The first is the Union Jack.

By the time I was born, this flag had already lost some of its emotional content within Australia. In fact, as a child and young adult I found it a little odd that it should be so often joined with the Australian flag at events and in photos. It was, after all, the flag of another country.

This does not mean that I was not pro Empire and Commonwealth. I was and, I guess, remain so. It was just that it did not have the same meaning to me as that attached to it by my grandparents' generation.

The second is the Aboriginal flag.Aboriginal flag

Working in Canberra, I used to walk past the Aboriginal tent embassy with its flag most work days. I had no idea that the flag would become one of Australia's national symbols, accepted by all including myself.

The Australian flag is the third and in some ways the most difficult.

Back in the eighties and going on an official mission for the first time, I was given all these little Australian flags that I was expected to wear and to give to people. I reacted with distaste and left them all behind.

In saying this, I have absolutely no problem with people wrapping themselves in flags to celebrate a national triumph. I do, however, have a problem with the increasing use of the flag as a nationalistic backdrop. I just don't like our modern habit of using the flag as an automatic backdrop at things like press conferences.

This is, I suppose, a matter of personal taste. However, as an historian and social analyst I am also interested in what the increasing use of the flag tells us about the changing nature of Australian society. I gorsake1_web am especially interested in the extent to which Australians have lost their sense of self deprecation and irony.

The cartoon on the left is Australia's most famous newspaper cartoon. It is not a good reproduction, but shows a couple of workers on a new building. The top bloke is hanging on to a girder, his mate has dragged his pants down as he tries to stay aloft. The caption says it all.

The enduring success of this particular visual image is central to the Australian character, as are some of the most successful television commercials.

In many ways, TV commercials have become the single most important thing in maintaining Australia's visual images of itself.

Commercials are there to sell product. To do this, they have to attract audience. For that reason, they attempt to play to what the creators believe are the most compelling images in the audiences' mind.

Many ads are simply a replication of common global trends. The best play to the essentially Australian spirit.

The Toyota bugger ads are a classic case because they play to still powerful images in Australia and New Zealand. I should put some YouTube links up to show you what I mean. For the moment, my point is that they, the ads were successful because they did play to the essential ANZAC. In so doing, they reinforced the image.Tom Roberts bailed up

One of the difficulties I face in writing a history of New England is that so many of the visual images have in some senses been lost.

This famous painting set in New England by the Australian artist Tom Roberts is simply called Bailed Up. It shows a bushranger holding up a stage coach.

Painted near Inverell, this is  New England image, but is also an Australian image.

The problem I have in writing the history of New England lies not just in the selection of images to use, but also in the way I attach meaning to the images.

Here I am going to pause and continue at another time!


This post is dedicated to Kangaroo Valley David who noticed that my Sunday Essay had not appeared and asked about it!


Anonymous said...



The sun rises in the east, and Belshaw Essays Sunday.

These things I know.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, KVD!