• Unit 3: How Art Speaks – Finding Meaning

    Art asks us questions and conveys meaning. It expresses ideas, uncovers truths, manifests what is beautiful, and tells stories. In this unit, we begin to explore the meaning behind particular works of art within the context of various styles and cultures. We introduce the conceptual tools professional art critics use to interpret art. During this activity, you will provide your own interpretation of a piece of art. You should return to this activity after you have completed this course and review your response.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 1 hour.

    • 3.1: Objective vs. Subjective Meaning

      The distinction between subjective and objective information was key to the development of science and the philosophies that emerged during the Enlightenment (1685–1815). René Descartes (1596–1650), the French philosopher, clearly articulated this concept when he famously stated "I think, therefore I am". We realize the objective dimension of the world through our senses and through instruments that measure our environment. For example, using methods such as carbon dating, we can analyze the pigments artists used when they created cave paintings and arrive at objective determinations about when they were produced. We can also agree that certain stylistic features belong to a particular period of time. The subjective dimension is less tangible and rooted in our personal experiences. We not only encounter art as raw sensory data, but we also bring our own biases, expectations, needs, and prior art education when we formulate our judgments.

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    • 3.2: The Four Levels of Meaning: Formal, Subject, Context, and Iconography

      When we see any object, we can immediately understand its form: the physical attributes of size, shape, and mass. With art, this may first appear simple: we can separate out each artistic element and discover how the artist used it in their work. You practiced doing this in the last two units. The importance of this formal level of meaning is that it allows us to look at any artwork from an objective viewpoint. Artists use specific processes to create their artwork to achieve a certain perceptual effect. Most artists are keenly aware of the material properties of the media they work with. They understand the objective qualities and anticipate the subjective responses people will likely experience as they view the work.

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    • 3.3: Critical Perspectives

      Art criticism is part of the intellectual tradition in most cultures. Each of these traditions provides key concepts and methods of analysis.

      • Structural criticism considers art as a system of elements that are composed together, like a language or set of repeating forms. Artworks are comprised of stable, recurring cultural codes that an art critic decodes.
      • Deconstructive criticism focuses on the differences among artworks that prevent them from forming stable structures of meaning.
      • Formalist criticism analyses the material and perceptual attributes of art and its associated experiences.
      • Ideological criticism seeks out power and social imbalances. For the artist, art is a way to perpetuate worldviews that need to be challenged.
      • Feminist criticism focuses on gender inequality and roots out forms of patriarchy that appear in art.
      • Psychoanalytic criticism traces the patterns of conflict between consciousness and the unconscious and seeks aspects of personality in the art that are beyond subjective control and which subvert social personas.
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    • Unit 3 Assessment

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