The Philosophy of Interpreting Different Artworks

The Philosophy of Interpreting Different Artworks

Whether you're an art student or just an amateur, there's nothing quite like putting your critical thinking skills to the test. And what better way to do that than by analyzing a work of art? Whether it's a painting or sculpture from hundreds of years ago, or something more contemporary—like an installation or performance piece—the process of interpreting different works of art is both fascinating and challenging. Here are some tips for getting started.

Identify the artwork.

The first step in interpreting an artwork is to identify the artist, title and date. For example:

Artist: Pablo Picasso
Title: Guernica (1937)
Date: 1937

    Analyze the formal qualities of the artwork.

    The formal qualities are all of the aspects of an artwork that you can see with your eyes, like color, shape, and line. You should be able to answer questions like: What is this made out of? What size is it? How many colors are there in this image? Is there any texture on this piece? Is there a perspective in which I am supposed to view it (i.e., straight-on or from above)?

    These are all formal questions. They will help you to understand what is happening on the surface level. You should be able to answer these questions about any piece of art, whether it is a painting or sculpture.

    The material qualities of art are all of the aspects of an artwork that you can touch, smell, and sometimes even taste. For example, if you are looking at a sculpture made out of clay or metal, you should be able to answer questions like: What is this made out of? How heavy is it? Can I bend this piece? If so, what happens when I do?

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    Interpret the artwork's iconography and/or symbolism.

    Iconography is the use of visual symbols to represent ideas. A crucifix, for example, is an iconographic image of a crucifix because it represents sacrifice. Symbolism, on the other hand, uses symbols to represent abstract ideas. For example, a cross may symbolize sacrifice or death—or both at once!

    When interpreting iconography and symbolism in artworks, remember these simple rules:

    • If there are no words telling you what something means then ask yourself if it looks like anything else you know about (like a symbol or object). That could give you some clues about its meaning.
    • When reading both visual language and written language together (if there is any text), always look at each piece of text as an individual unit within its own context rather than trying to read too much into one sentence or paragraph at time without considering how each bit relates back into greater whole being created by artwork itself as well as what's written around it within its context.

    In other words, don't read too much into one sentence or paragraph at a time without considering how each bit relates back into the greater whole being created by artwork itself as well as what's written around it within its context.

    Make note of the artist's intention, if you can discern it.

    The most important thing you can do when interpreting a piece of art is to identify the artist's intention. Why did they create the artwork? What was the overriding purpose in their mind? If this information is not immediately evident, you'll need to see if there's any evidence pointing toward it. There may be clues hidden in an image or text that reveal an underlying message or meaning.

    Some artists directly state their intentions in interviews or other writings, while others hint at them by including symbols and images that have meaning for them personally (such as an animal they feel represents certain emotions). Other times, artists may not have any specific message in mind when creating their work—they might simply be expressing themselves through their art!

    In any case, if you're the one interpreting a piece of art, it's important to be aware of your own biases and preconceived notions. Art is subjective and can mean different things to different people; what may seem obvious to one viewer might not be so clear for another.

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    Conclude your analysis by re-examining the title or context of the piece.

    • Examine the title and context. Re-read any descriptive text included with your work, as well as any other information about the piece—such as who created it and when. Look at its placement in an exhibition or gallery; consider how the artist might have chosen to present it in relation to other works on display.
    • Consider what others think about this artwork. Consider what you think of this artwork—what do you see when you look at it? How does it make you feel? What connections can you draw between themes presented in this piece, and those presented by other works from different cultures around the world?
    • What is the meaning behind this work? What does it say about our culture today? Is there anything here that sticks out to me as particularly unique or interesting among all of these works I've seen so far (both visually and conceptually)?
    • What do I think about it? What are my opinions on this piece? Is this work beautiful or ugly? Does it make me feel good, or bad? Why do I feel that way?

      painting of a woman

    Art interpretation requires a lot of critical thinking and analysis skills.

    While it's true that interpretation requires an understanding of art history and the artist's intentions, we should also consider how our own values and biases affect our interpretations. Art interpretation is a skill that people develop over time, but if you're just starting out with art analysis or you're interested in developing your skills further, here are some tips:

    • Think outside the box! This might sound obvious, but sometimes thinking outside of the box can be difficult. One way to overcome this obstacle is by considering what kind of person would create this piece of art (e.g., an elderly man with arthritis?) or where they were likely living when they created it (e.g., in New York City?). If anything else comes up while trying to figure these things out—like maybe they were wearing an outfit that was popular at the time—you can use those details as well!
    • Keep in mind context when deciding whether something has meaning or not; etymology may help too! For example, an image could represent water if it's placed near a lake or pond nearby (iirc). Or maybe there aren't any lakes around but instead someone could interpret this work based solely on its aesthetic value which would mean nothing at all because aesthetics have no meaning unless there are other factors involved such as historical context etcetera :)

    Try to find patterns in the work! What do you notice about this piece of art? Is there anything that stands out to you more than anything else? If so, what does it mean? Does it represent something else entirely? Or perhaps there are just a few pieces of art that look similar but don't quite seem to fit together as a whole; try to figure out why they're different from each other and how they might be related!


    While art interpretation can be fun, it’s also a lot of hard work. Just like any other subject, if you want to get better at it then here are some tips: Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you don’t know what something means or why an artist made a certain choice then go ahead and ask him/her. Also make sure that you look at as many different types of art as possible because each type has its own unique way of communicating meaning through form or symbolism. Finally practice makes perfect so keep analyzing works until they start making sense!

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