Art Principles and History

Finding Meaning in Art

How do you “read” a work of art?

When a piece of street art catches your eye, or you find yourself walking slowly through the rooms of an art museum, you may not necessarily feel the need to “read” a work of art. Art moves us, and we respond emotionally to the beautiful, disturbing, and mysterious sights around us. A portrait of a mother and a child, such as Mary Cassatt’s painting, The Bath, might cause you to reflect on your own familial relationships. Or, you may find yourself curiously transfixed by the sheer enormity of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s 5,500-pound Shuttlecock, perched precariously in the garden of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sometimes, however, we want to dig deeper and investigate the meaning of art. What is the point of constructing monstrous, purposeless badminton equipment? What were the Cubists trying to do when they fragmented visual reality in their paintings? As a starting point for thinking about the meaning of a particular piece of art, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the content?
    For example, think about what specific images are being depicted, if any, including any familiar figures or symbols; think about the way visual forms are arranged, the shape of the piece, and the materials used to create it.
  • Who is the artist?
    Think about the artist’s biography and other work made by that artist. What do you think the artist intended in making the work?
  • When was the work made?
    Does the work depict, or refer to, any historically significant events? Does its style match a particular historical period or art movement? When did the artist live?
  • Who was the work made for?
    Think about any possible patrons or intended audiences. How does the piece affect those who view it?
  • How has the art changed over time?
    Has the work been moved from its original location? Who has owned the work throughout history? Has it been stolen or damaged? Do contemporary viewers look at this piece differently than those throughout history?
  • Why is this work significant?
    Somebody must have thought this piece of art was important enough to take care of it, put it in a museum or gallery, or to spend so much time and energy on it. Why?

Remember that there is no definitive answer when trying to find meaning in a work of art. A painting, building, or sculpture might mean something to one individual and something else entirely to another. Even the artist has little control over the meaning of the work he or she creates (though certainly a fair amount of influence).


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