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 qualities 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 we perceive them – inseparable from how we experience a work of art. Some art plays up its formal qualities, so they become more foreground than background – we might call this kind of art formalist due to the way it demonstrates concern for the perceptual and material components of art.
We can subdivide what we have called content into more specific categories. Over spans of time, we say that art shows evidence of genres (typical subjects of art), such as landscapes, portraiture, or street photography. In books and films, popular genres are sci-fi, romantic comedy, and mystery. We often discover allegorical meanings – sometimes called hidden or double meanings, frequently of a moral or critical nature – in many subjects and genres.
Art subjects organize traditions around making and influence our expectations of art. Art also has context, which describes its interconnections with other artworks, or other aspects of society. For example, some art is clearly made for religious spaces and takes religious themes and ceremony as its surrounding context to add to the meaning.
Art may also use common symbols, called iconography, which incorporate meanings a culture widely shares into the artwork itself, where it will be recognized by those who can decode the symbols.
Example: Art subjects are also called genres and are ways that we can instantly identify what an 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. This image is an example of landscape art, a 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 can be a complex concept. It can relate to a whole range of factors, such as language, tradition, geography, worldviews, religion, history, and the present circumstances. It can also reference local materials, available technologies, and access to art schools. Many things impact how we produce and experience art. The factors that go beyond artists and the artworks themselves fall under context and exclude other factors, such as those that belong to the medium itself or to our perceptual capacities (formal factors).
Example: Street Art, which takes its inspiration from outdoor public places and urban environments, uses context to inform its visual style. For example, Richard Hambleton 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 common perspectives used in art criticism?
  • What are some similarities in the main critical perspectives?
  • What are some differences between critical perspectives?

Art criticism is an intellectual tradition that includes several critical perspectives that involve key concepts and methods of analysis.

  • Structural criticism considers art as a system of elements composed together, like a language or set of repeating forms. This kind of criticism argues that interpreting artworks involves examining stable, recurring cultural codes that art critics can decode.

    "Structural criticism involves studying social institutions as systems or structures and the relationships which organize these signs into meaningful systems. Structural analysis studies these relationships which we often see within very widely divergent societies." (Annette Michelson)

  • Deconstructive (also called post-structuralist) criticism, on the other hand, points to the differences in art that prevent it from forming stable structures of meaning. French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, asserted that there is not one single intrinsic meaning to be found in a work – there are often many, and they are often conflicting.

    "A deconstructive approach to criticism involves discovering, recognising and understanding the underlying and unspoken and implicit assumptions, ideas and frameworks of cultural forms such as works of art." (Art Terms, Tate Gallery)

  • Formalist criticism analyses the material and perceptual attributes of art and its associated experiences.

    "Formalism describes the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world. In painting, therefore, a formalist critic would focus exclusively on the qualities of colour, brushwork, form, line, and composition." (Art Terms, Tate Gallery)

  • Ideological criticism examines evidence of the power and social imbalances. It believes art can perpetuate worldviews that need to be challenged.

    "The primary goal of the ideological critic is to discover and make visible the dominant ideology or ideologies embedded in an artifact and the ideologies that are being muted in it." (Sonja Foss)

  • Similarly, feminist criticism focuses on gender inequality and roots out the forms of patriarchy in art.

  • Finally, psychoanalytic criticism traces the patterns of conflict between consciousness and the unconscious and examines artworks for aspects of personality that are beyond subjective control and which subvert social personas.

Examples: Feminist art often highlights 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 that exhibits this kind of ambivalence. It is a celebration of women and their freedom to express themselves through their bodies, but it is 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 psychoanalysis inspired, which saw dreams as "the royal road to the unconscious" as Freud wrote. These psychoanalytic interpretations look for the expression of psychological complexes in art, such as those caused by aspects of life we repress as we go about our social lives as productive citizens. These repressions appear in the form of neuroses, which psychoanalytic therapy seeks to uncover to help the patient cope. Surrealists sought psychoanalytic themes by creating images that provoke viewer discomfort by making them contemplate aspects of their lives they probably prefer to ignore in their daily lives.

To review, read Critical Perspectives.

3d. Explain the meaning of form and content

  • What components belong to art's formal qualities?
  • What shapes the meanings we obtain from encounters with artworks?
  • How can we tell the difference between form and content in art?

Form and content are not just ways to analyze art; artists use them deliberately to provoke specific responses in people. Artists might assume a common cultural background, so viewers instantly recognize the symbols they use. Or, they might use a specific process to create the work to achieve a certain perceptual effect. Many artists are keenly aware of the material properties of the media they work with. They understand the objective qualities and subjective responses people will likely experience when they view their work. Many formal principles of art are grounded in gestalt psychology, which studies how our sense of whole objects is organized in our perception.
To review, read Form and Content.

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.

  • allegorical
  • content
  • context
  • deconstructive criticism
  • feminist criticism
  • formalist
  • formalist criticism
  • genres
  • gestalt
  • iconography
  • ideological criticism
  • psychoanalytic criticism
  • religious themes
  • structural criticism
  • symbols