ARTH101 Study Guide

Unit 1: Defining Art

1a. Distinguish between the form and content of an artwork

  • How does art address our senses and minds differently?
  • What aspects of art can be analyzed comparatively regardless of which artist or culture produced it?
  • What shapes our interpretation of art?
Our understanding of art consists of a few qualities. First are the descriptions and analyses of a work of art's features. These are based on the perceptual qualities of the artwork (such as the colors, shapes, or contrasts the composition employs), the material they are made of, and the methods used to produce them. There are interpretive aspects of art that are informed by culture. These interpretations can be unique to a given person, group, or society. Since humans perceive art similarly across most populations (by using our eyes and ears), we often see fairly broad agreement about the perceptual and material aspects of art since we can objectively verify these qualities.
However, interpretations of art are often subjective. Art can be controversial, mysterious, socially significant, or personal. Our interpretations can depend on other factors, such as the cultural background of the artist or viewer, the use of symbolic material, and the artistic consumption habits of the audience.
We describe the perceptual and material dimensions (the objective aspects) of an artwork as its form, whereas the interpretive (subjective) components are its content. These categories, form and content, derive from Greek antiquity, where philosophers distinguished between what something says (the content) and how something is said (its form).
Example: In this image, a formal aspect of the image is that it is a triptych, meaning an image composed of three frames aligned side-by-side. An aspect of content is that the viewer needs to know something about important figures in Christianity as the image depicts, in the order of left to right: John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, St. John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene.

 To review, read Form and Content.

1b. Explain aesthetics and the role it plays in different cultural conventions and perspectives

  • What general intellectual endeavor does aesthetics belong to?
  • What kinds of questions does aesthetics ask?
  • How do we articulate aesthetic insights?
It is hard to separate art from conversations about it, which we call the discourses of art. Art is saturated with concepts, histories, schools and movements, linkages to the history of ideas, debates about the nature of beauty, and judgments on what makes art "good" or 'bad".
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with matters related to art. The term is based on the ancient Greek word aisthesis, which means "sensory experience." As you might expect, different cultures have produced different discourses on aesthetics: for example, what people considered beautiful in Indian art 500 years ago will probably be different from what people considered beautiful during the European Renaissance or in a 20th-century postmodern exhibit. The development of ideas is inextricably linked to the movements of culture, and aesthetics is affected by variations across social geographies and throughout history.
Example: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, which is an ordinary urinal that he signed "R. Mutt," is an example of a famous artwork that explicitly challenged our conception of what was considered art. Duchamp tried to exhibit Fountain at a show the Society of Independent Artists produced to test the limits of society's principles and commitment to artistic freedom.


To review, read Defining Art.

1c. Explain the difference between subjective and objective responses to art

  • What kinds of statements about art are likely to be non-controversial?
  • Which aspects of art require a more personal response?
  • What aspects of art can be subject to scientific investigation?
The distinction between subjective and objective information is key to the development of science and the philosophies that emerged during the Enlightenment. Both concepts come from Rene Descartes (1596–1650), a French philosopher and scientist who famously said, "I think, therefore I am."
We come to know the objective dimension of the world through our senses and through instruments that measure our environment. For example, we can analyze the pigments used in cave paintings and arrive at objective determinations about when they were produced using methods like carbon dating. Even in a less technical sense, we can agree that certain stylistic features belong to particular periods of time.
The subjective dimension is less tangible and is rooted in personal experiences. We do not only encounter art as raw sensory data, but we come to it already influenced by our own biases, expectations, needs, and prior art education. These factors, as well as other aspects that make us individuals, play a role in shaping our personal and social subjective responses to a work of art.
Example: An example of subjective and objective dimensions playing out in art can be found in a story related to Andy Warhol's work Brillo Soap Pads (also called the Brillo Box). Andy Warhol designed a series of plywood boxes and hired carpenters to create replicas of mass-produced commercial goods, including a replica box of Brillo soap pads that looked identical to the actual commercial product.
Objectively the artwork is just a cardboard box made to look like a common store item of packaged goods. But subjectively, the work invokes the graphic style of popular consumer culture and in an art context, can become quite valuable to collectors of art. This work was purchased in 1969 for $1,000 and sold at Christie's in 2010 for $3 million! Aside from its monetary value, another aspect of its subjective dimension is the way it makes its audience reconsider the potential aesthetic value of products they would never consider to be artistic in the first place.

To review, read Subjective and Objective Perspectives.

1d. Define the categories of art, such as fine art, pop art, and decorative art

  • What are some of the major kinds of popular art?
  • What arts are usually categorized under the concept of fine art?
  • How is decorative art different from popular and fine art?
Taking a broad view of the diversity of art practices, we can easily note that there is art that is "in the museums" (like paintings and sculptures), which is different from art that we may find "on the streets" (like graffiti or billboards) or even "on our persons" (as in the case of fashion) or in our homes (such as with embroidery and rugs).
Similarly, we organize art into the categories of fine art, popular art, or decorative art, depending on the roles it fulfills along these social dimensions. We can consider a work of art important for cultural preservation and reflection (fine art), to be a kind of popular communication (pop art), or to serve as handicraft that ornaments or decorates the useful items of our lives (decorative art).
Example: Some artworks intentionally blur the lines between functional, decorative, and fine art sensibilities. These objects seem to be usable in everyday contexts, but they were only intended to be exhibited in a gallery, such as Rodrigo Franzao's Mind I.

Andy Warhol's painting Brillo Box (discussed earlier) is a good example of pop art, which is fine art inspired by popular culture. So these categories of popular, fine, and decorative arts can certainly overlap with each other and even cross-pollinate.
To review, read Artistic Categories.


1e. Recognize, describe, and evaluate artistic styles, such as naturalistic, abstract, and non-objective

  • What do we mean when we say that art is "representational"?
  • How much stylization should be apparent in art before we consider it abstract?
  • What kinds of aesthetic experiences do non-objective art produce?
We often expect art to depict something specific, such as when a portrait needs to resemble a certain person. This is art's mimetic role, which comes from the Greek word mimesis and refers to creating a representation of something. This type of work has a naturalistic style.
But we also know that art often takes great creative liberties in representation, and that many works impart all sorts of stylizations to the objects they represent. We call these artworks abstractions, since their main goal is not to produce an "accurate" mimesis.
Finally, we have all experienced works of art that do not resemble anything at all from our everyday experiences. This kind of art may work with geometries, colors, or materials in ways that do not lend themselves to a clear interpretation. We call this kind of art non-objective because it foregoes any ties to recognizable objects of our experience.
Example: Carles Delclaux's painting Nura is an example of abstract art because it depicts recognizable objects in a highly stylized and thus non-naturalistic manner.

To review, read Artistic Styles.

1f. Discuss the capacity to reflect personally on art

  • What do you normally consider "art" in your everyday experience?
  • Have you ever had debates with friends or family about the artistic merits of a work you may have disagreed about?
  • How often do you find yourself trying to discover the backstory behind a work of art?
While there are many examples of people who reflect on art in a professional way – professors, curators, gallery owners, critics, and others, who use the terminology and the forms of argument of experts – artists usually intend to communicate with members of the general public, not simply those with narrow professional interests. Our experiences are saturated with art of some kind, depending on how we define it.
The graphic design in billboards, music streaming in the background, fashion worn around us, and entertainment such as movies and games in our streaming platforms are all examples of how art makes up the texture of our everyday experience.
This unit is about developing and directing your personal reflective capacity to the creative media and expression we see in our daily lives, not simply to examples we see in special locations and occasions, such as museums and concert halls.
To review these materials, read Defining Art.


Unit 1 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.

  • abstractions
  • aesthetics
  • content
  • decorative art
  • discourses
  • fine art
  • form
  • mimetic
  • non-objective
  • objective
  • perceptual qualities
  • pop art
  • subjective
  • triptych