ARTH101 Study Guide

Unit 3: How Art Speaks – Finding Meaning

3a. Identify the four levels of meaning in works of art: formal, subject, context, and iconography

  • What are the qualities that make art iconographic?
  • How does context shape the production and experience of art?
  • What are some of the main genres or subjects of art?

The formal qualities of art relate to its material qualities and the way that we perceive them, and are inseparable from how we experience a work of art. Some art plays up its formal qualities so that they become more foreground than background – this kind of art might be called "formalist", because of how it demonstrates concern with the perceptual and material components in art.

What we have so far called "content" can be subdivided into other categories. Over spans of time, art is usually said to show evidence of genres (typical subjects of art), such as landscapes, portraiture, or street photography. In film, popular genres are sci-fi, romantic comedy and mystery.

Subjects organize traditions around making and influence our expectations of art. Art also has a context, which describes its interconnections with other artworks, or other aspects of society. For instance, some art is clearly made for religious spaces, and take religious themes and ceremony as its surrounding context to add to its meaning.

Art might also make strong use of common symbols, called iconography, which incorporate meanings that are widely shared in a culture into the artwork itself, where it will be recognized by those who can decode the symbols.


Art subjects are also called genres, and are ways that we can instantly identify what are artwork is interested in communicating since in any genre of art there will be many thousands of examples with which we may already have some familiarity. Kano Eitoku's Old Pine and Cherry Trees by Rocks is an example of landscape art, which is a very common subject or genre of visual art.

To review, read The First Level of Meaning: Formal.

3b. Define the term context, and discuss its essential role in finding meaning in art

  • What are some of the main aspects of context that affect the making of art?
  • How does one distinguish context-related features of art from other features?
  • How does one become aware of the role of context in art?

Context itself can be a complex concept. It can relate to a whole range of factors, such as language, tradition, geography, world-views, religions, history, and the present circumstances. It can also reference local materials, available technologies. and access to art schools. Many things can have an impact on how an artwork is produced and experienced, and those factors that go beyond artists and artworks themselves fall under the heading of context.


An example of context playing a clear role in visual style is Street Art, which takes its inspiration from outdoor public places and urban environments. Richard Hambleton, for instance, made artworks that looked like realistic crime scenes to stun passersby:

To review, read The Third Level of Meaning: Context.

3c. Describe the six critical perspectives: structural, deconstructive, formalist, ideological, psychoanalytical, and feminist

  • What are some of the most common perspectives used in art criticism?
  • What are some similarities that can be found in the main critical perspectives
  • What are some of the main differences between critical perspectives?

Criticism of art is usually part of a certain intellectual tradition. 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. This kind of criticism argues that artworks can be interpreted as being comprised of stable and recurring cultural codes that can be decoded by the art critic. Deconstructive criticism, on the other hand, plays up the differences in art that prevent it from forming stable structures of meaning. Formalist criticism analyses the material and perceptual attributes of art and its associated experiences. Ideological criticism seeks out evidence of power and social imbalances and sees art as potentially a way of perpetuating world-views which need to be challenged. Similarly, feminist criticism focuses on gender inequality and roots out the forms of patriarchy that appear in art. Finally, psychoanalytic criticism traces the patterns of conflict between consciousness and the unconscious, and seeks in art aspects of personality that are beyond subjective control and which subvert social personas.


Feminist art will often highlight the role of the male gaze in constructing images of women. At the same time, it may employ images of the female body in a free-spirited and self-assured manner. Pauline Boty's painting It's A Man's World II is a good example of this vein of work which exhibits this kind of ambivalence, being both a celebration of women in their freedom of expressing themselves through their bodies, but also cognizant of how desire is organized for men in typical poses of women that are popular in mass media.

Surrealist art was a movement inspired by psychoanalysis, which saw dreams as 'the royal road to the unconscious" as Freud wrote. Psychoanalytic interpretations of art look for expression of psychological complexes in art, for instance caused by aspects of life that we repress in order to go about social life as productive citizens. These repressions, however, come out as forms of neuroses, which psychoanalytic therapy seeks to uncover in order to help the patient cope. Surrealists sought in psychoanalytic themes images that might provoke discomfort in the viewer, by making them contemplate aspects of their existence which in their daily life they might prefer not to think about.

To review, read Critical Perspectives.

Unit 3 Vocabulary

Be sure you understand these terms as you study for the final exam. Try to think of the reason why each term is included.

  • formal qualities 
  • formalist
  • genres
  • subjects
  • context
  • iconography 
  • structural criticism
  • deconstructive criticism
  • formalist criticism
  • ideological criticism
  • feminist criticism
  • psychoanalytic criticism
  • Feminist art
  • Surrealist art