How to Understand a Work of Art

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December 8th, 2010

No matter what your major in college, you're bound to be asked to analyze a work of art at some point in your college career. Whether it's a painting, sculpture, novel, poem or piece of music, your approach in looking or listening really shouldn't be all the different. While you may need to refine your approach based on your assignment, there are some pretty basic essentials you'll need to consider when trying to interpret any work of art– no matter the medium. Here are a few that can help you through any artistic analysis.

Determine the artist's purpose. Did the artist have a particular reason for creating this piece of work? Think about what may have motivated the artist to choose this subject matter or style, it could help you to get a better grasp on the work of art as a whole.

Learn about its historical context. This means that you need to spend some time learning about the history of the work of art. Look at what was going on that might have influenced its creation. Many works of art are created in direct response to societal changes, political events, oppression or variety of other external causes.

Use your senses. There's a lot to be garnered from just looking at the colors of a painting, the language of a book or the instruments in a piece of music. Spend time just soaking in a work of art. You may find you understand it more intuitively than you might have thought.

Figure out the emotional impact. One of the most important elements in understanding art is to understand how it makes you feel. Whether a work makes you angry, sad or feel nothing at all, there was a purpose behind that.

Consider style. This is an important element to consider both from a historical standpoint, as artists can be part of an artistic movement, and from a personal standpoint. Different styles will cause different reactions in a viewer. Consider why an artist may have chosen to work in this particular style.

You may never become one of the world's great art critics, but that doesn't mean you can learn to be a critical consumer of the arts. Use these pointers anytime you need to take a hard look, or listen, at a work of art to get the most out of your experience.

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