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Drawing on social theories when making assumptions of the past

Critical analysis of written historical sources

Using art as a window upon cultural beliefs - past and present

Using the present to understand the past


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Using art to consider Australian history

Both pictures and written accounts provide an insight to the past, but the former has some significant advantages over the later. Firstly, a picture can be an act of individual insight like writing, but it if gains currency by the public, it can act as a mirror upon shared experiences - as opposed to a written account which is more individualistic. In other words, a picture that has been embraced by a community reflects the creativity of one individual that the rest of the community respects. It then becomes part of collective memory. On the other hand, unless it is a quote or great speech, a written account reflects the conscious agenda of one individual that may not be shared.

A comparison of iconic war images of Australia and the United States provides an example of how images can reflect more than just the individual that created them. During the course of the wars, thousands of images were taken, but certain images were collectively selected as having strong resonance with a culture. Exactly why they resonated is open to debate; however, the fact that the do resonate is highly significant.

 

George Silk's iconic photo of Rapahel Oimbari assisting Private George ‘Dick’ Whittington

George Silk's iconic photo of Rapahel Oimbari assisting Private George ‘Dick’ Whittington

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, by Joe Rosenthal /

Joe Rosenthal's iconic "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima"

A second advantage of visual art is that it is more holistic. Not only can it communicate in a glance what may have otherwise have taken a thousand words, but it can also communicate feeling and intuition that is quite often beyond the possibilities of words.

2.02 J. C. F. Johnson, A game of euchre. 1876. National Library of Australia, Canberra. The image reveals something about 18th century fashions, housing and a perspective on race relations.

For academia, the main deficiency in using art is that its use is subjective while academia models itself on stringing together “facts” via citations to written records. For example, academic convention wouldn't allow for an intepretation of a painting like W.B Gould's painting of the Landlord such as:

“My subjective interpretation of The Landlord, by W.B Gould, was that the showing of missing teeth at a time dead pan expressions were convention indicates that Convicts developed a self-effacing personality.”

The Landlord

The Landlord, by W.B Gould

An academic fact would be a citation to a written record saying that Convicts had a self-effacing personality. Furthermore, the writing should be in the third person so it masquerades as an objective fact rather than subjective opinion.

Even though the analysis of art is subjective, so too is the analysis of written records for the later relies on judgements being made about the credibility of the author as well as how representative the author was. Such judgements are extremely problematic when studying Australian colonial writing because Aborigines and the Convicts constituted the bulk of the Australian population, but both groups were mostly illiterate thus unable to record their version of events. Events therefore come from a class that was unrepresentative. Art doesn't suffer the same biases because every subculture of society was able to make art, and did in fact do so.

 

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