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The Humanities Conference 2003

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The Visual Arts and Dissident Scholarship: Citizenship, the Humanities, and Activist Critique

Pete Hay, Jane Quon.

It is argued that the progressive impoverishment of the humanities within tertiary and secondary education threatens to rob individuals, groups and entire societies of the capacity for reflexivity that is increasingly necessary within the social, economic, political and cultural dynamism that will characterise the decades ahead. Only a vibrant humanities can provide that critically important capacity for negative feedback that will enable the requisite adjustments. In the emergent world the role of the humanities must be dissident and activist. As global processes threaten to reject the ideal of a democratically-empowered citizenship in favour of the unthinking stimulus-response function of the consumer, the capacities of critical rationality and creative imagining are becoming ever more imperative. This paper develops a case for the social necessity of the latter – creative imagining – and, in the liberation of imaginative possibility, the role of the visual arts, it is argued, is central. The visual arts embody a language that proceeds in accordance with a unique interior language. By virtue of their idiosyncratic modes of representation as images, meanings within visual arts are unique, and they defy translation into other forms of knowledge. Though they can bridge across to other epistemological frameworks - that of science, for example - ‘only’ a sense of meaning in a work of visual art may be experienced. The exact nature of that meaning tends, paradoxically, to defy precise verbal description, remaining enigmatic and elusive. Thus, artistic form has the potential to communicate perceptions, values, emotional ‘intelligence’, non-cognitive understanding. Aesthetic assimilation is a process of revelation: it frees what was otherwise not amenable to change; it makes one receptive to the new. As a communicative mode it can contribute to the creation of a public realm of dissident and critical inquiry such as the times demand. To do so is to visit challenge and discomfit upon oneself in the short term, but any public authority with a capacity to envision the public good beyond electoral timescales must ensure that current educational funding priorities are reversed, so that the humanities, and within those, the visual arts, are again funded at levels appropriate to their social importance.


Pete Hay
Reader in Geography and Environmental Studies
Geography and Environmental Studies
University of Tasmania

Pete Hay is a much-published senior academic. He is also a poet and essayist. His most recent publications include Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought (UNSWP/Indiana University Press 2002), A Companion to Environmental Thought (Edinburgh University Press 2002) and Vandiemonian

Jane Quon  (Australia)
Honorary Research Associate
School of Geography and Environmental Studies Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology
University of Tasmania

Jane Quon is an experienced multimedia artist with international exhibition credits. She has a background in art teaching, media production, primary industry and tourism, has a First Class Honours degree in fine art, and has completed a PhD in applied ecological art.

  • Humanities
  • Visual Arts
  • Citizenship
  • Art as Communication
  • Art and Social Change
  • Research Funding
  • Democracy
  • Radical Critique
  • Art and Science
  • Globalisation

(Virtual Presentation, English)