How to Understand Art

Art is a way of grasping the world – not just the physical world (which science attempts to do), but also the human world – the world of society and spiritual experience. It is this human experience that art communicates that makes it so powerful and influential. It has the power to elicit a wide variety of emotions, thoughts and ideas, and to stimulate discussion and debate.

Art can also help us to understand other cultures. For example, when artists depict the life of an ancient goddess in a painting, it helps us to understand how that culture valued and honored their mythological past. The art of ancient civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Egypt and Greece, often served similar purposes – to decorate utilitarian items like bowls and weapons; to display religious or symbolic imagery; and to demonstrate social status.

In addition to the aesthetic components of a work of art, it is important to consider its technique. This may include elements like line, shape, color, texture, value and illusionistic mass or volume. It is also important to consider movement, proportion, and contrast. Finally, you will want to try to determine the artist’s purpose and intention in creating the artwork.

For instance, a painting might use contrasting colors or textures to create an expressive spatial element that draws the eye through the composition. Or, it might suggest motion by combining the use of jagged and curved lines or geometric and natural shapes. Contrast can also be used in the relationship between actual and visual texture, or by the juxtaposition of various sizes of different objects in a painting.

Many art historians argue that art can be understood in the same way we understand any other form of communication. They call this the “echoing effect” and believe that art allows the viewer to echo back what is seen in the artwork, allowing them to enter into a conversation with the artist.

Some people are naturally aware of this phenomenon when viewing an artwork, and they can make comments that seem insightful beyond their artistic education or training. They can relate an analogy or a connection to music or literature and have a knack for judging the merits of a work by analyzing its content and structure.

Some examples of this type of critical reaction are the recent controversy over a Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney Biennial that sparked both positive and negative reactions in publications across the nation. This article explores the reasons behind such a range of solid and diverse responses to a single piece of artwork and suggests that this is a good indication that we should be taking the time to look at art in an objective manner before jumping to a knee-jerk reaction. It is our hope that this will encourage you to continue to examine works of art for yourself and share your knowledge with others!