Art Essay


Write a 3 page research paper including two of the artwork/artist pairs below, ONLY.
Use at least 1 bullet point from each of the 3 Methods of Analysis (see below). Again, notthree bullets from the same method.
Your interpretation of the Methods of Analysis MUST be based on the descriptions in Chapter 4, and I will be using those definitions/descriptions when grading your work.
MLA format-…
1000 words or 4 pages max, not including works cited page
You must use a minimum of 2 sources, not including your textbook.
This assignment must be uploaded via Canvas’ assignment repository. Your essay will be verified through Turnitin’s originality checker.
All papers must include a “works cited” page for all sources. Plagiarized work will result in an automatic 0% on the research paper.
Again, plagiarized work will result in an automatic 0% on the research paper.

Khan Academy
Smart History
Sandro Boticelli’s, Birth of Venus
Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles de Avignon
Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Swing
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornero Chapel with the Esctacy of St.Teresa
Eduard Manet, Olympia *For more analysis look into Titian’s Venus of Urbino
Jan van Eyke, The Wedding Portrait
Isenheim Alterpice, Matthias Gruenwald
Jose-Clemente Orozco, An Epic of American Civilization


1. Content Analysis

Subject Matter
2. Historical Context

Context for the creation of artwork
Physical surroundings
Method of encounter
3. Writings About Art

Modern Criticisms
Ideological Criticisms
Psychoanalytic Criticisms
Post structuralism
Feminist Criticism

school essay school art school art history
Formal Analysis
Formal analysis is the integrated study of the elements and principles of art (see Chapter 2) and the way they are used in a specific artwork. Architecture can be formally analyzed as well. The arrangement of elements and the application of principles in an artwork comprise its composition.

Consider, for example, the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Fig. 4.1). Formally, it is very wide compared to its height. It is symmetrical in relation to the central vertical axis. Horizontally, it is divided into five parts. The first, third, and fifth parts stand out and have vertical columns, with cast shadows that create strong lights and darks. The second and fourth areas are recessed and flat and have low contrast. These are all formal elements, and they are arranged very intentionally to give a specific effect. The central section of the building is most emphasized because the dome creates a vertical emphasis and a strong focal point. The building is very large and sits up high, with many steps in front. The structure is entirely white, which stands out strongly against the background. Of course, formal analysis can be limited to just the elements and their organization, but actually it goes beyond that. The formal elements make clear that this is an important building.

The formal qualities of any other artwork could be similarly analyzed. Consider, for example, the Tlaloc Vessel (Fig. 4.2), from Mexico, c. 1440–1469. Without knowing anything about the work, we can see that it is frontal and symmetrical, the most formal of all compositions. The features of the face have been abstracted into simple geometric shapes. The emphasis in the vessel is more on the vertical than the horizontal, but there are some strong horizontal elements: (1) the red band near the top; (2) the two handles, which align with the twisted braid; and (3) the large square earrings, which align with the mouth. There are very few diagonal elements in this composition. The most prominent colors are blue and gray-brown.

4.2Tlaloc Vessel, Aztec, c. 1440–1469. Clay and pigment, 13″ × 13″ × 12.5″. Museo Templo Mayor, Mexico City.

Formally, this vessel is symmetrical and vertically oriented with several horizontal accents. The color scheme is predominantly blue and gray-brown.

Tlaloc Vessel, Aztec, c. 1440–1469. Clay and Pigment, 13″ × 13″ × 12.5″. Museo Templo Mayor, Mexico City.
Formal qualities add to an artwork because they are aesthetically satisfying. The elements in the U.S. Capitol Building are balanced. The size and relationship of one part to another have been carefully considered. In the Tlaloc Vessel, the integration of the face shape into the overall shape of the vessel is interesting, and the way the face has been simplified and made geometric is interesting to see as well. Looking at art is a very different experience from looking at the general environment, which is disjointed and disorganized. The formal qualities of artworks make them organized and satisfying visual experiences, adding considerably to the power of art.

Content Analysis
Content is an artwork’s theme or message. Content is conveyed primarily through the artwork’s subject matter and through its symbolic or iconographic references.

Subject Matter
Subject matter is the substance of a work of art, in contrast to its form. Some aspects of subject matter are obvious just by looking at an artwork: for example, the Tlaloc Vessel is a ceramic pot that has a face on it. Other aspects must be learned: for example, Tlaloc was the Aztec god of rain. The Aztecs, rulers of large areas of Mexico from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, believed that Tlaloc sent rain to farmlands, and, thus, this deity’s image often appears on drinking and water-carrying vessels. Tlaloc vessels were also used in Aztec religious rituals, when they would be filled with water and broken in the temple, symbolically spilling the life-giving water onto the earth.

All works of art have subject matter, even abstract and nonobjective works (recall from Chapter 1 that abstract works are distortions or simplifications of some real-world entity, whereas nonobjective works have no real-world reference). In Dona Schlesier’s 2004 mixed-media piece Setting Cycles (Fig. 4.3), the subject matter is in the organization of the materials themselves, in which their dichotomies are explored: smooth versus rough, organic versus mechanical, circular versus rectangular, colorful versus neutral, empty versus dense, and so on. The round form may suggest the setting moon or the movements of planets, giving the viewer the option to interpret the work based on that title.

4.3Dona Schlesier. Setting Cycles, 2004. Mixed media on paper (oil pastel, handmade paper, papyrus, and thread), 30″ × 22″.

All works of art have both formal organization and subject matter, even abstract and nonobjective art.

Dona Schlesier. Setting Cycles, 2004. Mixed Media on Paper (Oil Pastel, Handmade Paper, Papyrus, and Thread), 30″ × 22″.
Many works of art also have a subtext, the underlying ideas or messages. In Edward Hopper’s 1942 oil painting Nighthawks (Fig. 4.4), the obvious subject matter is customers in a corner diner, late at night. Additionally, in many of his paintings, Hopper focused on the loneliness of city life, and, indeed, all four people in Nighthawks seem isolated from or unable to connect to others around them. The street outside is empty. A subtext in Nighthawks is a sense of impending doom or entrapment. There is no door shown to get in or out of the diner. Hopper’s uncomfortable atmosphere in this painting may be suggesting the imminent future in the United States right after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the country into World War II.

4.4Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 33″ × 60″. Art Institute of Chicago.

There is obvious subject matter in this painting as well as some concepts not immediately apparent.

Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on Canvas, 33″ × 60″. Art Institute of Chicago.

Artists can use metaphors or symbols to convey content. A visual metaphor is an image or element that is descriptive of something else. In Setting Cycles, the handmade paper is just paper, but it acts as a visual metaphor for the passage of time, as it is piled up one layer upon another and some areas seem to be disintegrating with age.

A symbol is an image or element that stands for or represents some other entity or concept. Symbols are culturally determined and must be taught. For example, in the United States today, a dove is a symbol of peace. But people from other cultures would not know by observation alone to connect “dove” and “peace.” However, as communications become more global, symbols can more often be understood across cultures. Graphic and environmental designers often use symbols for wayfinding, which is the means people use to orient themselves and navigate unfamiliar spaces. Certain symbols are understood by increasingly large numbers of people, as seen in airport signage (Fig. 4.5). Indeed, contemporary airport signage contains so many symbols that it could be considered iconography.

4.5Signs in an airport, Malaga, Andalusia, Spain, 2006.

Signs in An Airport, Malaga, Andalusia, Spain, 2006.Enlarge Image

Iconography is a system of symbols that allow artists and designers to refer to complex ideas. It literally means “image” (icono-) and “to write” (-graphy). Some cultures and religions developed complex iconographic systems: for example, ancient Egypt, Byzantium, medieval Europe, Buddhism, and Hinduism, to name only a few. In medieval Christian symbolism, the unicorn stands for both Jesus Christ and a faithful husband in marriage (see Fig. 13.3). Mary, mother of Jesus, was often shown with flowers, symbolizing purity or sorrow.

Figure 4.6 is Yama from Tibet and painted around the mid-seventeenth or early eighteenth century. It contains a complex set of symbols, and once we become familiar with this iconography, we know that Yama is the Indian god of death, who later became the protector of the adherents of the Buddhist religion. Dressed in leopard skin and wearing a headdress of human skulls, Yama holds a thunderbolt chopper and skull, while standing on black lotus petals in a sea of blood. This fierce god fights against the inner demons such as hatred and lust. He tramples an agonized creature beneath his feet. Four buffalo-headed Yamas are located near the corners, and various holy figures hover above, while many skulls occupy the space below.

4.6Yama, Tibet, mid-seventeenth to early eighteenth century. Distemper (pigments mixed with egg yolk, egg white, and/or glue) on cloth, 72⅜” × 46⅝”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This painting has a complex iconography, or system of symbols, that refers to religious beliefs of Buddhism.

Yama, Tibet, Mid-Seventeenth to Early Eighteenth Century. Distemper (Pigments Mixed with Egg Yolk, Egg White, and/or Glue) on Cloth, 72⅜” × 46⅝”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.Enlarge Image

Iconography can be embedded in architecture. We already saw the U.S. Capitol Building (Fig. 4.1). Its design reflects Greek and Roman architecture, visually connecting the government of the United States to the ideas of democracy (Greece) and power (the Roman Empire). The building has two wings, instantly conveying the idea of the two houses of Congress and physically containing them. The central dome symbolizes unity.


The Maori Meeting House (Fig. 3.39 and Fig. 9.17) contains political and religious iconography that is important to the native Maori people of New Zealand.

The Influence of Historical Context, Physical Surroundings, and Method of Encounter
In addition to analyzing form and content, it is important to know the context in which an artwork was made, especially the cultural, historical, political, religious, and social conditions of the day. We have already seen that Edward Hopper was likely influenced by the horrific events at the beginning of World War II when he painted the lonely and isolated figures in Nighthawks(Fig. 4.4). Every artist and every artwork is similarly shaped by concurrent external circumstances.

As we are viewing artwork today, we are also influenced by our own contemporary environment and society, which affect our ideas about artwork of the past, the present, and other cultures. In addition, the location and circumstances surrounding our encounter with art can change what we think about it.

Context for The Creation of The Artwork
Context consists of the external conditions that surround a work of art. Context includes a host of factors, such as historical events, economic trends, contemporary cultural developments, religious attitudes, social norms, and other artworks of the time.

Historical context and geographic location had an enormous influence on Rembrandt van Rijn as he worked on the large painting The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq (Fig. 4.7), also popularly called The Night Watch. During Rembrandt’s lifetime, almost all of the countries in Europe were ruled by powerful kings or nobles. All the large paintings were made for royal palaces or for majestic Catholic churches. Yet Rembrandt and other Dutch artists worked for middle-class clients in the Netherlands, a republic run by city-dwelling manufacturers and merchants made prosperous by trade. No king or saint is depicted—only middle-class citizens assembling for a civil guard parade. This subject matter on a large scale never would have been commissioned if Rembrandt had lived under a seventeenth-century monarch. The painting hung in a banquet room in an Amsterdam militia hall, where years of candle and fire soot darkened its varnish, resulting in the mistaken notion that this is a night scene.

4.7Rembrandt van Rijn. The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, or The Night Watch, c. 1642. Oil on canvas, 11′ 11″ × 14′ 4″. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Historical circumstances influenced the artist in making this work. By showing members of the ordinary merchant class rather than nobles or popes, this artwork is indeed the product of a Protestant middle-class culture.

Rembrandt van Rijn. The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, or The Night Watch, c. 1642. Oil on Canvas, 11′ 11″ × 14′ 4″. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.Enlarge Image

Of course, context is just as important in artwork produced today. In the 1990s, Shirin Neshat produced a series of photographs called Women of Allah, one of which is Speechless (Fig. 4.8). Neshat was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States as a teenager, just as Iran was being transformed into an Islamic state led by clerics. Her subject is Islamic women and femininity in a country where women’s actions and rights are limited by religious law. In her photographs, women’s hands or faces emerge from beneath veils, often framed by guns or flowers. On the photos, Neshat wrote religious quotes or poetry in Farsi, the language of Iran. The context for Neshat’s poignant photos is the political and social climate in a fundamentalist Islamic culture, along with the associated Western reactions.

4.8Shirin Neshat. Speechless, 1996. Pen and ink over gelatin silver print, 49″ × 36″.

This photograph reflects aspects of being a woman in a contemporary fundamentalist Islamic culture.

Shirin Neshat. Speechless, 1996. Pen and Ink over Gelatin Silver Print, 49″ × 36″.

Physical Surroundings
The location of an artwork also affects its meaning. Many works of art can be moved physically from one location to another, but the location change might have a profound impact on the work. Historical events at a location can also change the meaning of an artwork.

An example of an artwork that takes its meaning from its site is The New York City Waterfalls(Fig. 4.9), on view for four months during 2008 along the East River near Lower Manhattan. With the assistance of the Public Art Fund in New York, the artist Olafur Eliasson executed the four artificial “waterfalls,” constructed of scaffolding and pumps and ranging from 90 to 120 feet high. Technically, these “waterfalls” could have been built almost anywhere. But Eliasson purposely chose these sites for these works. New York City seems like an enormous and dense urban mass, but in reality it is situated in a mesh of waterways where fresh water meets salt water, an ideal habitat for wildlife. Eliasson wanted to dramatically integrate nature (the falling water) into the city space (the scaffolding) and to draw people back to the New York City waterfronts.

4.9Olafur Eliasson. The New York City Waterfalls, installation along the East River, 2008.

The meaning of this artwork comes in part from the location where it was situated.

Olafur Eliasson. The New York City Waterfalls, Installation along the East River, 2008.
New York is also the site of the World Trade Center (see Fig. 8.30), which was destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks. Those historic events will always be attached to the World Trade Center and can deeply affect people who see pictures of the old site or visit the new structures.

Method of Encounter
We encounter art in all kinds of places—in newspapers, in museums, out on the street, at religious sites, in public parks, in government or corporate buildings, in schools, at festivals, and in malls, along with many others. The nature of our encounter adds meaning to the artwork.

We know most works of art through photographs, which communicate only a fraction of the total experience of actually being in the presence of the art. The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet (Fig. 4.10), begun in the seventeenth century, is an enormous structure situated high in the Himalaya Mountains. It is the home of the Dalai Lama, the traditional spiritual and political leader of Tibet, although the current Dalai Lama has lived in exile since the Chinese invaded in the 1950s. Looking at photographs at your leisure, you can study the entire palace, seeing it framed against majestic peaks or reflected in a nearby lake. Were you to actually approach and enter the palace, your experience would be quite different: physical exertion while climbing steep stairways, brisk mountain weather, partial glimpses of buildings rather than “the perfect shot,” encounters with other pilgrims, and tour buses at the base of the mountain.

4.10Potala Palace, the former summer palace of the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, Lhasa, Tibet.

If you know this famous palace only through photographs, your experience of it is very limited.

Potala Palace, The Former Summer Palace of The Tibetan Buddhist Leader, The Dalai Lama, Lhasa, Tibet.Enlarge Image

Even for artworks that we actually encounter in life, the way we come in contact with them affects how we perceive them. To the people of the first millennium BCEDong Son civilization (Vietnam), the bronze Drum (Fig. 4.11) with a resonating top plate was widely used in rituals related to the community, fertility, and dead warriors. The entirety of the rituals, plus the appearance of the drum and the sound it makes, was part of the way the Dong Son people knew this artwork. Now, in a museum, we see only the isolated object, silent and removed from its ritual context. This is the same with every artwork we encounter. When we experience art as it is being used in life, we get a fuller and richer context for the work. In contrast, the museum preserves the work and removes it from the distracting environment.

4.11Drum, Dong Son civilization, Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, 3rd–1st century BCE. Bronze, 24.5″ × 31″. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.

In the museum, viewers are limited to visually studying this drum. In the culture for which it was originally made, it provided sound and visuals as part of a larger ritual.

Drum, Dong Son Civilization, Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, 3rd–1st Century BCE. Bronze, 24.5″ × 31″. Musee des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris.
Writings about Art
Art writings help us understand the full meaning of artworks. There are four major groups who write about art: (1) art critics, who describe works of art (usually contemporary art) and then evaluate their significance; (2) art historians and academics, who primarily research art of the past and art of other cultures; (3) curators, who write catalog essays, wall labels, and educational material for museum and gallery exhibitions; and (4) artists, who write about their own work and the work of other artists.

The meaning of an artwork is not fixed and permanent from the moment it is made. Rather, each successive writer can add new interpretations to the same works of art. As an example, the writings about Georgia O’Keeffe do not all agree about her flower paintings, which view blooms up close and large, as in Black Iris(Fig. 4.12), from 1926. O’Keeffe connected such works to her love of nature. She wrote in one letter:

4.12Georgia O’Keeffe. Black Iris, 1926. Oil on canvas, 36″ × 29⅞”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There is a lot of disagreement about whether the imagery in O’Keeffe’s large flower paintings is sexual or not.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Black Iris, 1926. Oil on Canvas, 36″ × 29⅞”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
There has been no rain since I came out but today a little came—enough to wet the sage and moisten the top of the dry soil—and make the world smell very fresh and fine—I drove up the canyon four or five miles when the sun was low and I wish I could send you a mariposa lily—and the smell of the damp sage—the odd dark and bright look that comes over my world in the low light after a little rain.

(Cowart 1987:239)

Some writers believe that O’Keeffe’s flower paintings represent female sexuality in a positive way, a notion that O’Keeffe rejected. Feminist writer and artist Judy Chicago wrote:

[O’Keeffe] seemed to have made a considerable amount of work that was constructed around a center. . . . There also seemed to be an implied relationship between [her] own body and that centered image. . . . In her paintings, the flower suggests her own femininity, through which the mysteries of life could be revealed.

(Chicago 1975:142)

Still other writers see a different feminist aspect to O’Keeffe’s work, as revealed in this quote by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin:

Her work since 1915 has been labeled “feminine” by many critics because of its association with the female body. But the wide range of her artistic language would seem to gainsay this simple description. Although O’Keeffe has rarely made a cause out of being a woman artist. . . . Her ability to go it alone has become a contemporary feminist model for freedom of thought and action.

(Harris and Nochlin 1976:302)

The fact that there are contradictory interpretations of an artwork and of an artist’s life is not a negative thing. Most great artwork contains complex messages that can be challenging, profound, or even conflicting.

Most art writers base their writings on a particular philosophical position. We will look briefly at several of these from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Modernist Criticisms
Modernist philosophical positions generally present master narratives that specify the correct way of analyzing any artwork. Inherent in Modernism is the notion of progress—and the belief that previous art styles are preludes to the next significant step forward in the growth of Western art. Modernist philosophers seek the relationship between art and truth. In this relationship, idealism and aesthetics are important, and as a result “fine art” is emphasized as being far superior to the art of “popular culture.”

The first modernist philosophical position, formalist criticism, emphasizes formal analysis. Specifically, it is the analysis and critique of an artwork based on the compositional arrangement of its elements (refer to Chapter 2). Formalism first appeared in England in the early twentieth century as a way to appreciate artworks from other cultures, in particular the imported Japanese prints and African sculptures. Although Europeans did not understand the subject matter and iconography of these artworks, they appreciated them as art from a formalist point of view.

After World War II, formalist criticism was associated with Modernist art in the United States. The critic Clement Greenberg promoted works such as Morris Louis’s Blue Veil (Fig. 4.13), from 1958–1959, because they were “self-critical,” focusing on what was “unique to the nature of [their] medium,” so that “art would be rendered ‘pure’” (Greenberg 1961:13). Blue Veil was “pure” painting because it eliminated brushstrokes and emphasized the flatness of the painting surface. Recognizable imagery, symbolism, and narrative were eliminated as detrimental distractions. Painting was the medium that most thoroughly represented the ideas of formalist critics in the late 1940s and 1950s.

4.13Morris Louis. Blue Veil, c. 1958–1959. Acrylic resin paint on canvas, 93.2″ × 158.5″.

Formalist critics praised paintings like this one because it does not depict recognizable subject matter, has no perceivable brushstrokes, and does not give the illusion of deep space.

Morris Louis. Blue Veil, c. 1958–1959. Acrylic Resin Paint on Canvas, 93.2″ × 158.5″.Enlarge Image

Ideological criticism, rooted in the writings of Karl Marx, deals with the political underpinnings of art. All art, according to this position, supports some particular political agenda, cultural structure, or economic/class hierarchy. Even artwork that may seem neutral is still political. For example, Serge Guilbaut researched the ways that the Central Intelligence Agency promoted Abstract Expressionist artists, like Morris Louis (Fig. 4.13) and Jackson Pollock (see Fig. 11.38), in order to prove that the United States was culturally superior to Communist countries in the Cold War era after World War II. Other ideological theorists were Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno.

Of course, some ideological writings do deal with art that is overtly political, and some artwork functions as ideological criticism. For example, the well-documented Mexican Muralist movement of the mid-twentieth century promoted the rights and power of the indigenous Mexican people over the ruling class. The artist Juan O’Gorman produced murals that commemorated the struggle for Mexican Independence. Panel of the Independence—FatherHidalgo (Retablo de la Independencia—Hidalgo) (Fig. 4.14), from 1960–1961, shows atrocities committed against the indigenous people and also portrays the church, the army, and major leaders in the struggle.

4.14Juan O’Gorman. Panel of The Independence—Father Hidalgo (Retablo de la Independencia—Hidalgo), 1960–1961. Mural. Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico City.

Some artworks have overt political content. By painting such images, the artist ensures that this piece of history will not be forgotten, and he also promotes rights for the downtrodden everywhere by memorializing this uprising against an oppressive ruling class.

Juan O’Gorman. Panel of The Independence—Father Hidalgo (Retablo de la Independencia—Hidalgo), 1960–1961. Mural. Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico City.Enlarge Image


Three other important leaders of the Mexican Muralist movement were Diego Rivera (see Fig. 8.25), José Orozco (see Fig. 13.29), and David Siqueiros (see Fig. 10.7).

Psychoanalytic criticism holds that art should be studied as the product of individuals who are shaped by their pasts, their unconscious urges, and their social histories. Sigmund Freud wrote the first psychoanalytic criticism when he examined Leonardo da Vinci’s work in light of Leonardo’s presumed homosexuality and episodes from his early childhood. Psychoanalytic criticism seems appropriate for work that deals with strong emotional content, intuition, dream imagery, or fantasy, such as the 1955 painting Tomorrow Is Never (Fig. 4.15). The work of Kay Sage alludes to hallucination, fantasy, or dream, with a sense of motionlessness and impending doom.

4.15Kay Sage. Tomorrow Is Never, 1955. Oil on canvas, 37⅞” × 53⅞”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The imagery in this painting as well as the surreal nature of the title suggest a dreamlike quality.

Kay Sage. Tomorrow Is Never, 1955. Oil on Canvas, 37⅞” × 53⅞”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.Enlarge Image

Structuralism holds that in order to understand a work of art, one must study the structure of art and the complex interrelationship of all its parts. Structure gives meaning to an artwork, like a sentence determines the meaning of individual words within it. Structuralism was originally applied to the study of language, as was semiotics, the study of signs in verbal or written communication. Its systems of analysis were then applied to fields such as anthropology, architecture, and art. Although Structuralism is a modernist position, it influenced Post-structuralist philosophies in the Postmodern era, which we will see next.

Postmodern Philosophical Positions
Postmodernism is not a continuation of Modernism but rather a set of philosophical positions that question Modernism. Whereas Modernist philosophies stated certainties, Postmodernism deals with subjectivity, nuances, and ambiguity. The following is a summary of several postmodern points of view.

Post-structuralism is a range of reactions against Structuralism, but it is not a homogeneous set of ideas. Although structure is important to study, Post-structuralists believe that this will result not in one single meaning to an artwork but rather in multiple meanings because every viewer approaches the work with varying perspectives. Major Post-structuralist writers include Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva.

The work of artist Gerhard Richter reflects many Post-structuralist ideas. His black-and-white painting in Figure 4.16 is one of a group of fifteen collectively titled October 18, 1977, referring to the deaths of three leaders of the radical Baader-Meinhof group. Like an unclear news photo, Richter’s painting is a blurred image of Gudrun Ensslin, who planned bombings and kidnappings to protest latent Nazism in the German government. On October 18, she and two others were found dead in prison. Authorities declared the deaths suicides, but many factions suspected that the protestors were murdered by authorities. Richter’s paintings represent a perfect Post-structuralist moment. The unclear image evokes a young woman who appears open and friendly, totally discordant with the crimes she apparently planned. The blur also indicates the lack of closure and continuing controversy concerning what exactly happened to her and her cohorts.

4.16Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977, 1988. One of fifteen paintings, oil on canvas; installation variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This painting refers to highly publicized events in recent German history. The blurring refers to the controversies surrounding the deaths of three young radicals.

Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977, 1988. One of Fifteen Paintings, oil on Canvas; Installation Variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
One Post-structuralist, Jacques Derrida, introduced the idea of deconstruction, which holds that, from the inside, any system looks natural and coherent but that it is, in fact, filled with unseen contradictions, myths, or stereotypes. The collective self-portraits of Cindy Sherman seek to deconstruct stereotypes of woman in Western cultures. One self-portrait is Untitled (Self-Portrait of Marilyn Monroe) (Fig. 4.17), from 1982; another is Figure 11.12. Sherman produced many more self-portraits, and in them she photographed herself in stereotypical roles, often from movies, such as the girl next door, the seductress, the trapped housewife, and the vulnerable hitchhiker. However, there is no “self” in these self-portraits. As the critic Douglas Crimp wrote,

4.17Cindy Sherman. Untitled (Self-Portrait of Marilyn Monroe), 1982. Ektachrome photo, 15.5″ × 9″. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The title of this artwork suggests that Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait was modeled after a photograph of Marilyn Monroe and that they were both playing socially defined roles rather than presenting images of their actual selves.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled (Self-Portrait of Marilyn Monroe), 1982. Ektachrome Photo, 15.5″ × 9″. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Sherman [as a person] is literally self-created in these works; her self is therefore understood as contingent upon the possibilities provided by the culture in which Sherman participates, not by some inner impulse. As such, her photographs reverse the terms of art and autobiography. They use art not to reveal the artist’s true self, but to show the self as an imaginary construct. There is no real Cindy Sherman in these photographs; there is only the guises she assumes. And she does not create these guises; she simply chooses them in a way that any of us do.

(Crimp 1989, reprinted in Risatti 1990:138–139)

Post-structuralist artists and critics in the late twentieth century often focused on the medium of photography, which easily copies existing things and can be produced in multiples for wide distribution. This fits the Postmodernist idea that there is no original, no “real,” only copies. In contrast, Modernist critics valued the original art object, a unique creation of a gifted artist.

Feminist criticism is concerned with the oppression of groups (especially women) in a given society, along with the oppression of their belief systems. Feminism advocates equal social, political, and economic rights for all women and men. Some prominent feminist writers include Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock.

Feminists employ various strategies to achieve their goals. First, feminists have revised how we see historical artworks. For example, previous art historians treated nude women in paintings as simply part of the composition, whereas feminist writers analyze the work as having been made for the male gaze. (For more, see Chapter 6, “The Feminine Body and the Gaze”.) Feminists pointed out the large number of artworks made by men that feature female nudes in museums, while historically there are practically no male nudes painted by women.


The Guerrilla Girls’ 1986 poster Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?(Fig. 12.1) is an example of an artwork functioning as feminist criticism.

Second, feminists have broken down the barriers encountered by women’s artwork and the media they use. Modernist critics have denigrated pottery, weaving, and decorative work as minor arts. Now works such as the Navajo Wearing Blanket (Fig. 4.18), woven by a woman, are studied and featured in museums.

4.18Wearing Blanket, Navajo, Arizona, 1860–1870. Wool, 67½” × 49″. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage (10.107.1), 1910.

Weaving was considered a minor art in the Modernist era, but feminists have attempted to revise the perception of such media.

Wearing Blanket, Navajo, Arizona, 1860–1870. Wool, 67½” × 49″. Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage (10.107.1), 1910.
Finally, feminist critics and art historians have researched and publicized women artists who have been ignored in the past, such as the seventeenth-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most important painters of her era. Determined and skilled, she executed large historical paintings that were considered beyond the ability of women. After her death, she sank into obscurity, and her works, like Judith and Holofernes (Fig. 4.19), from 1612–1613, were attributed to her artist father. Herself a victim of rape and ill treatment from men, Gentileschibrought an immediacy to the beheading scene that is different from the idealized, sanitized way that male painters depicted the biblical event.

4.19Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and Holofernes, 1612–1613. Oil on canvas, 62.5″ × 49.5″. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Feminist art historians have researched women artists in the past whose lives and works have been ignored, such as Artemisia Gentileschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and Holofernes, 1612–1613. Oil on Canvas, 62.5″ × 49.5″. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.
Writings on visual culture attempt to integrate all of the visual components of contemporary culture. People in industrialized nations consume massive numbers of images every day, seeking information, meaning, or pleasure. To writers of visual culture, art is only part of this intense barrage of images and must be analyzed in relationship to film, advertisements, the Internet, television, and so on. People have become spectators rather than participants in their own lives, and the writers examine how we receive and use this diverse imagery. As Nicholas Mirzoeff wrote, “Visual culture . . . is not just part of your everyday life, it is your everyday life” (Mirzoeff 1998:3).

Obviously, visual culture covers an enormous amount of territory. However, it is helpful to look at just one example of visual culture analysis. Specifically, some writers have investigated the idea of the carnival and its relationship to artistic innovation. Vulgar, uninhibited, and anticlassical, carnivals gleefully undermine social order by celebrating the fabulous aspect of the grotesque, the temporary overturning of taboos, and excessive behaviors. Costumes decorate and enhance the body to create fantastic distortions and transformations. Carnivals are held throughout the world, often in February. Two examples are the famous annual four-day carnival with all the glitter of the entertainment industry in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras in the United States (Shohat and Stam 1998:34–37). Figure 4.20 is an image from the carnival in Olinda, Brazil, which is known for its giant puppets representing local and international celebrities and politicians. The 15-foot puppets are madeof papier-mâché and are built and carried almost entirely by anonymous local people.

4.20Giant Puppet Parade, street carnival in Olinda, Brazil, February 16, 2010.

Visual culture writers find associations between popular phenomena and art making.

Giant Puppet Parade, Street Carnival in Olinda, Brazil, February 16, 2010.

Chapter 14 deals with more aspects of visual culture. (See the discussion of Las Vegas, Figure 14.10.)

The final Postmodernist philosophical position is relational aesthetics, which focuses on human relationships and social spaces rather than emphasizing art objects in private galleries, homes, or museums. French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud has written about relational aesthetics, and perhaps its most famous practitioner is the Brazilian-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Instead of displaying objects, Tiravanija’s work in galleries has often consisted of cooking and serving Thai meals for gallery goers, which creates a climate for interaction between the artist and the viewers. Tiravanija also created a stainless steel Ping-Pong table called Untitled 2008 (the future will be chrome). It is a beautiful and precious object, but rather than being hands-off, gallery goers play on it (Fig. 4.21). He has also created communal land projects in Thailand for living, farming, and building.

4.21Rirkrit Tiravanija. Untitled 2008 (The Future will be Chrome). Polished stainless steel Ping-Pong table, shown here with artists Jay Nelson, right, and Annie Wachmicki, obscured, playing Ping-Pong during a NADA preview at the Ice Palace in Miami, on December 2, 2008.

Relational aesthetics promotes art practices that emphasize social interaction.

Rirkrit Tiravanija. Untitled 2008 (The Future will be Chrome). Polished Stainless Steel Ping-Pong Table, Shown Here with Artists Jay Nelson, Right, and Annie Wachmicki, Obscured, Playing Ping-Pong During a NADA Preview at The Ice Palace in Miami, on December 2, 2008.

Personal Interpretation
In the end, you may have your own meaning for a work of art. Phenomenologyholds that you, the perceiving subject, engage with an artwork. Ultimately, this interaction produces in you an intellectual and emotional response, based on your own ideas, personal tastes, experiences, and history. You might be immediately aware of some of these factors, while others lurk at the edges of your consciousness. In studying art, you learn about yourself. Your interpretation may differ from everyone else’s. Also, meaning may shift as you change, and a work of art may seem very different to you now than it did a few years ago.

Now that you have read about how artists, critics, and historians derive meaning in artworks, it’s your turn. Copy the guide below to help you derive your personal interpretation and meaning for a work of art or architecture. Use it when you are seeing an actual work rather than looking at a reproduction in a book.

Title of work, date, size, medium, and subject matter
First glance (What caught your eye?)
How are the elements applied in the work?
How is the medium (or material) used in the art or architecture?
How does the overall composition relate a meaning and/or function to you?
What is around the work (next to, behind, above, nearby, etc.)?
What is your personal interpretation? How do you feel about it?
If possible, compare your interpretation with that of a friend. How do you account for points that are the same and points that are different?
Analyze like an art critic.

Debate the merits of an artwork.



Solution Preview

Content analysis: subject matter
The question of death is a matter that puzzles most people profoundly. There are many assumptions of death such as salvation, annihilation, going to heaven and enjoying eternal bliss and many more. In the Renaissance period, some artists had their ideas about death, heaven, and hell. To some extent, it is a depressing matter of discussion. However, it enabled the artist to, imagine and reveal their ideas and thoughts through visual art of magnificent paintings.

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