Art is more than just painting, drawing and sculpture; it encompasses everything from posters to illustrations and coins. It is a common assignment in many college classes to analyze visual materials, and students must learn how to approach these pieces of art with the same analytical skills that they use when reading or writing about history or literature. When analyzing art, students are often asked to think about the subject matter or how it might have been influenced by social, cultural and economic conditions. Students are also sometimes asked to evaluate the work and share their personal opinions on it.
The first step in evaluating art is to observe and describe it. Students should note the type of material and technique used in a piece, such as what kind of paint was used and how it was applied, as well as any textures or patterns that are present. They should also take note of the composition of a piece, including how elements are arranged in two or three dimensions. For example, how do shapes appear to overlap or stack on top of each other? Does the work seem to be realistic or abstract?
When evaluating the subject matter of an artwork, students should consider its symbolism. This is where things get a bit more subjective, as students should be careful not to make broad generalizations about what they see in an image, such as “all cultures believe that blue symbolizes despair.” Instead, they should try to pinpoint the specific meaning the artist was trying to convey with the piece.
Since antiquity, philosophers and theologians have been theorizing about art, as well as critiquing it. Plato, for instance, wrote that a work of art is only a semblance of truth and that it communicates ideas rather than actual reality. This view is sometimes referred to as metaphysical criticism.
In the 1920s, scholars such as Erwin Panofsky, Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl developed much of the vocabulary that art historians use today. They coined the terms “iconography” and “iconology,” which refer to the symbolism in a work of art, whether it is derived from scripture or mythology.
Since the time of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the Italian Renaissance painter, artists have been attempting to record their impressions and experiences of creating art in written form. The first “true” art history was written by Giorgio Vasari, who compiled The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The book emphasized an evolutionary progression of artistic style over time.
The rise of Impressionism and Expressionism in the nineteenth century ushered in a new, more political aspect to art. Both movements sought to convey certain emotions, such as anger or depression, through color and shape. For example, the expressionists aimed to criticize authority and the existing social order through their paintings. They did this by adding disturbing intensity to their work, which was meant to contrast with the soft, flowing beauty of impressionism. In a similar vein, the cubist movement of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque focused on breaking down an object into geometric segments and showing it from different angles at once.