A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on my porch with a friend and my partner, trying to explain just what visual studies is. My friend, a historian, and my partner, who teaches in an English department, both listened patiently as I muddled through my usual preambles:
It’s like art history, but with a more politicized vision… Some people approach visual studies as a means to think about perception and technologies that have literally changed vision… Others use it as a means to explain how what is made (or allowed to be) visible is a tool of consolidating and maintaining hegemonic power… Some people see it as a development of art history; others define it as a radical rupture.…
I listed examples of potential objects of study. I began with the obvious: art, posters, film, advertisements, maps. I then listed more totalizing, which is to say less concrete, examples: systems of representation, discourse, the use of space, the commons. I inventoried the range of theoretical tools at my disposal: Marxism, feminism, critical race studies, indigeneity, postcolonialism, and queer theory… My historian friend nodded generously. “Yes,” she said, “people in my discipline work on these issues, as well.” My partner, more than a bit familiar with this intrigue of mine, acknowledged that his classroom and writing practice also welcome a variety of methodologies and source materials. So, what then, I proceeded to ask, is it that makes visual studies a discipline when its approach—that is to say, its methodology of interdisciplinarity—is being practiced (and seemingly welcomed) across the humanities?
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Sara Blaylock is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota Duluth and co-directs the International Association for Visual Culture. She received her PhD in Visual Studies with a designated emphasis in Feminist Studies from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2017. Recent and forthcoming publications include “Bringing the War Home to the United States and East Germany: In the Year of the Pig and Pilots in Pajamas” (Cinema Journal, 2017), “A Material Revolt: Body Portraits in the Prenzlauer Berg of the 1980s,” (Voices of Dissent. Art in the GDR, 2016), “Authenticity’s Visual Turn” (Politics of Authentic Subjectivity: Countercultures and Radical Movements Across the Iron Curtain (1968-1989), 2018), and “The Subject Who Knows: Photographers and Photographed in the Late East Germany (The Oxford Handbook of Communist Visual Cultures, 2019).