Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Ray Bailey


Ray Bailey


The question is all too familiar. Unavoidable, even. You hear it at family gatherings, in the break room at work, while getting your hair cut: What is Visual Studies? Unfortunately it’s not such a simple question to answer. You have spouted countless jumbled iterations, been met too often with thinly-veiled expressions of perplexity. Your responses range from the concise (“It’s a multidisciplinary study of vision and visual artifacts”) to the in-depth (“So there are three sectors…”) to the grossly oversimplified (“Basically Art History”). Which template you decide to use will be based on the estimated interest level of the inquirer and the circumstances under which the conversation occurs, with responses being adapted and improvised as you see fit. Such is the life of the Visual Studies major. You are always on your toes…

The central preoccupation of my research has been exploring what Visual Studies is. How does it present a potentially significant, innovative approach to the study of vision? What can Visual Studies add to the contemporary academic landscape that is compelling and distinct?

To investigate these questions, I immersed myself in a wide range of literature and experimented with different modes of writing, eventually realizing that my own experiences in the major provided a wealth of raw material for the discussion I was developing. And so the final product is my attempt to blend creative memoir and personal narrative with more formal writing styles, as a mode for examining the virtues of Visual Studies education in greater depth. It is inspired by some of the writers I discovered through my research, like John Berger and Dave Hickey, whose work enacts similar experiments.

Visual Studies is many different things to different people, but simply saying, “Visual Studies is many different things to different people” and leaving it at that seems just as fruitless as the converse—trying to impose very rigid, programmatic constraints on what it can or should be. Without making any overly-restrictive claims, then, I tried to invoke some of the more significant aspects of my experience as a means of delving deeper into dialogue about our nascent academic circle. It is my hope that this dialogue will continue to drive Visual Studies toward its full potential and inspire further discussion around these topics.

Sector B / Art and the Culture of Seeing

ADVISORS: Julie Nelson Davis (ARTH) | Sharka Hyland (FNAR)