An Introduction to the Study of Art

The study of art is a broad field, covering tens of thousands of years and many different cultures. It provides students with skills that can be applied in a wide variety of academic, professional and life-long activities. Whether working in museums, galleries or arts reporting, art historians use a range of analytical strategies, including observational and formal analysis, to examine the complex social, cultural and historical contexts of works of art and the artist’s intentions.

Art historians traditionally focus on the art of a particular culture and time period, and often their specializations are also based on nationality. These include the study of Italian Renaissance art, Dutch Golden Age painting, or 19th-century German art. These disciplinary divisions reflect the strong societal influence of nationhood on how artists, historians and critics view art.

Regardless of its cultural context, art has one fundamental function: to communicate human emotions and ideas. Throughout history, the power of art has been used for both utilitarian and ritualistic purposes, as well as to foster political change. Art is also a reflection of the underlying beliefs and values that create a culture, as expressed through its style, form and content.

In the early modern era, intellectual experimentation with art began with movements such as cubism, abstract expressionism and minimalism. In the 20th century, a variety of new media challenged traditional definitions of art, and in the 21st century, the explosion of digital technology has added yet another layer to the debate over what is considered artwork.

When examining a work of art, ask students to identify the subject matter and what emotions it evokes. In addition, have them look at the underlying structure and composition of the work – how does it utilize elements like balance, contrast, movement, proportion, texture, color and line? How did the artist use these elements to convey meaning?

For older students, have them compare the piece to other works of art that they know. How is it similar, and how is it different? Does the work have any recognizable figures or images? How is the light in the piece portrayed, and how does it affect the overall mood of the work?

Then, ask students to compare the work with other pieces by the same artist or from a similar period. How are the techniques used in each piece similar or different? What do the differences in technique tell you about the artist and the historical context of the art?

Lastly, have students write down all the possible ways that this work could be interpreted and critique it. This will force them to examine the work more deeply and come up with their own interpretations. It will also help them hone their critical thinking and information-gathering skills, which are valuable in many fields of study, including the study of history, science, literature and politics. The skills gained from interpreting art are valuable in the workplace as well; they can be applied to business, law, science and international relations.