Essay on Art

500 words essay on art.

Each morning we see the sunshine outside and relax while some draw it to feel relaxed. Thus, you see that art is everywhere and anywhere if we look closely. In other words, everything in life is artwork. The essay on art will help us go through the importance of art and its meaning for a better understanding.

essay on art

What is Art?

For as long as humanity has existed, art has been part of our lives. For many years, people have been creating and enjoying art.  It expresses emotions or expression of life. It is one such creation that enables interpretation of any kind.

It is a skill that applies to music, painting, poetry, dance and more. Moreover, nature is no less than art. For instance, if nature creates something unique, it is also art. Artists use their artwork for passing along their feelings.

Thus, art and artists bring value to society and have been doing so throughout history. Art gives us an innovative way to view the world or society around us. Most important thing is that it lets us interpret it on our own individual experiences and associations.

Art is similar to live which has many definitions and examples. What is constant is that art is not perfect or does not revolve around perfection. It is something that continues growing and developing to express emotions, thoughts and human capacities.

Importance of Art

Art comes in many different forms which include audios, visuals and more. Audios comprise songs, music, poems and more whereas visuals include painting, photography, movies and more.

You will notice that we consume a lot of audio art in the form of music, songs and more. It is because they help us to relax our mind. Moreover, it also has the ability to change our mood and brighten it up.

After that, it also motivates us and strengthens our emotions. Poetries are audio arts that help the author express their feelings in writings. We also have music that requires musical instruments to create a piece of art.

Other than that, visual arts help artists communicate with the viewer. It also allows the viewer to interpret the art in their own way. Thus, it invokes a variety of emotions among us. Thus, you see how essential art is for humankind.

Without art, the world would be a dull place. Take the recent pandemic, for example, it was not the sports or news which kept us entertained but the artists. Their work of arts in the form of shows, songs, music and more added meaning to our boring lives.

Therefore, art adds happiness and colours to our lives and save us from the boring monotony of daily life.

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Conclusion of the Essay on Art

All in all, art is universal and can be found everywhere. It is not only for people who exercise work art but for those who consume it. If there were no art, we wouldn’t have been able to see the beauty in things. In other words, art helps us feel relaxed and forget about our problems.

FAQ of Essay on Art

Question 1: How can art help us?

Answer 1: Art can help us in a lot of ways. It can stimulate the release of dopamine in your bodies. This will in turn lower the feelings of depression and increase the feeling of confidence. Moreover, it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Question 2: What is the importance of art?

Answer 2: Art is essential as it covers all the developmental domains in child development. Moreover, it helps in physical development and enhancing gross and motor skills. For example, playing with dough can fine-tune your muscle control in your fingers.

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2 What is a Work of Art?

Richard Hudson-Miles and Andrew Broadey


George Dickie’s (1974) “What is Art? An Institutional Analysis” begins by surveying historical attempts to define art according to necessary and sufficient conditions. As such, it would seem to serve as a useful point of departure to the subject of this chapter. However, reading this essay today, with knowledge of the various challenges to classificatory logic of art history mounted by social and cultural theory, one tends to weary at this endless, perhaps hopeless task. In turn, critical neologisms such as “postmodern” (Jameson 1991; Owens [1980] 2002), “expanded field” (Krauss 1979), “post-medium” (Krauss 2000), “relational” (Bourriaud 2002), “alter-modern” (Bourriaud 2009), and “post-conceptual” (Osborne 2017) have all been introduced as theoretical attempts to supplement, redefine, or differentiate the art historical canon and its attendant taxonomies, periodisations, and categorisations. Dickie himself acknowledges that by the mid-1950s many philosophers had begrudgingly conceded that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for a work of art. Instead, like Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), one of the most important analytic philosophers, famously suggested about definitions of games ([1953] 2009, 65–66), perhaps we can aim for no more than a series of suggested “family resemblances” which unify some, but never all, of a maddeningly heterogeneous field of artistic practices? A quick survey of the diversity of contemporary art would certainly affirm such conclusions. Nevertheless, this task remains an ongoing concern of philosophical aesthetics, from which one could roughly delineate six approaches, each of which is problematic in its own way. This chapter will introduce each of these approaches, testing them against the irreducible complexity of contemporary artworks. Given this, the chapter might fall short of offering easy answers to the question “What is a Work of Art”?

Before proceeding, it is necessary to clarify the more expansive connotations “art” had in Ancient Greece. Indeed, Herbert Read’s (1893–1968) Education through Art (1961, 1-2) insists that most of the problems with modern art education stem from a misreading of the concept of “art” in Plato. In his time, “techne” [ τέχνη ], and its Latin equivalent ars , referred to all forms of human sensuous production, including crafts, social sciences, even skilled labour. Paul Oskar Kristeller (1951) has convincingly demonstrated that the modern sense of “art” was invented in the eighteenth century. Here, the Beaux-Arts tradition ossified five practices (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry) under the signifier “art.” The rise of a European art market during this period instigated a new need to distinguish artworks from other commodities. Concepts such as “genius,” the “masterpiece,” and a romantic image of the artist, became increasingly important as mechanisms for justifying the uniqueness, desirability, and inflated price tags of “Fine Art” (Shiner 2001, 99–130), especially painting, which remains the most commercial of artforms. Consequences of this were the separation between artisan and artist, and the conceptual narrowing of “Fine Art” to simply painting and sculpture. Conceptual art practices of the twentieth century made significant efforts to broaden the signification of “art” once again, pushing it into what Rosalind Krauss has called “the expanded field” (Krauss 1979). Politically, such practices aimed to create forms of art which were deliberately unclassifiable, immaterial, and non-commodifiable, thus resistant to cooption by the market or gallery systems.

Representational Theories of Art

The words “representation” or “imitation” generally signify philosophical theories of art which, if not directly, can be traced back to the work of Plato (424/423–348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Following Plato, such theories suggest art is essentially mimetic, meaning its primary objective is to represent an exterior and more authentic reality. Such theories remained influential during the Renaissance, only fading during the nineteenth century, and persisting in “commonsense” attempts to engage with art today. There is significantly more to the philosophy of artistic representation than Plato and Aristotle, though the classificatory logic of Kristeller’s (1951) “modern system of art” could also be traced back to the work of these two philosophers. Aristotle’s Poetics (335 BCE), in particular, outlines a taxonomic subdivision of the arts and their essential characteristics that remains influential today, especially in literary theory. However, given the limited scope of this introduction, this section will focus mainly on Plato.

As Maria S. Kardaun (2014) argues, the connotative distinction between art as “imitation” or “representation” depends on how one reads Plato. Like techne , mimesis carried expansive connotations in Ancient Greece, including “reflecting,” “expressing,” “mirroring,” and “copying,” alongside “representing” and “imitating.” Therefore, the sophistication of Plato’s art theory, which is sometimes too readily collapsed into his ultimate proscription and censorship of the arts, can be missed with careless reading (Kardaun 2014, 151–2). The persistent, but simplistic and inaccurate (150), reading is based on the famously dismissive Book X of The Republic (380 BCE). [1] From here, the conclusion is usually that Plato rejects all art as “mere imitation” of ideal Forms—abstract but entirely pure concepts such as beauty, virtue, and truth, which precede, yet inform experience. The Forms are knowable only by gods, or perhaps the philosopher-kings Plato envisaged ruling in The Republic . Art can index but never equal them due to the imperfection of human beings. Given that art often represents existing worldly objects and actions which themselves are mere imitations of ideal Forms, it follows that mimetic art represents a thrice-removed simulacrum (a copy of a copy of the Forms), and consequently one of the lowest orders of knowledge.

Yet, despite their imperfections, both art and life strive towards the pure perfection of the Forms. For example, throughout Book V of The Republic , Plato argues that the harmony of the perfectly ordered republican state approximates the “cardinal virtues” of wisdom, courage, discipline, and justice so closely that it soothes the spirit in a manner that transcends even the best works of art. Similarly, despite its apparently low ontological status, Plato suggests the best art can be used as an educational tool, albeit in strictly censored form (bk. III, 376e2–402a4). However, the problematic characteristic of art for Plato is that it stirs our emotions; its affectivity causes us to act in ways that are not rational. Artists rely on divine inspiration, not logic. The audience of a play is seduced by the drama, or the crowd at a musical performance gets entranced by its rhythms. Art is powerful, corrupting, therefore dangerous. This is the primary reason for his infamous proscription of art from the ideal republic (bk. X, 605c–608b).

Whilst still figuring art as imitation, Aristotle’s Poetics pushes back against Plato’s disparaging critique of the mimetic arts. He even suggests that they can benefit society in the following ways. Firstly, he argues that art does not simply imitate reality but accentuates it. For Aristotle, the creative skills of the artist may teach us more about the nature of reality than reality itself. In Chapter 5, he argues that poetry can tell us more than the particulars of history through its expression of universals. Secondly, the emotion central to the experience of art can function as a form of cathartic release for the audience, possibly helping them purge negative feelings and overcome other problems (1449b).

Where imitation theories debate whether art is an accentuation of the world or its mere simulacrum, representational and neo-representational theories focus more on the communicative act. Art does not simply represent the world; it is a representation produced with a specific public in mind whom it speaks to, and in turn, who recognise its content and status as art. Reflecting on the development of such theories, Peter Kivy (1997, 55–83) argues that shift of emphasis means that their real philosophical heritage lies in the work of analytic philosopher John Locke’s (1632–1704) account of language. Book III of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding ([1689] 1979, 223–54) insists words primarily signify ideas, however imperfect, formed in the imagination of an individual (225); communication is then the successful transference of “ideas” from one imagination to another. As Kivy (1997, 58) points out, this Lockean position has been used to support a plethora of “cinematic” accounts of literary and visual art, which figure art as the successfully shared mental representation between artist and audience. Mental representation, in this sense, refers to those images engendered in the mind by poetic literary phrases and dramatic actions, as well as the colours, shapes, and forms of the plastic arts. Kivy raises two main objections to this cinematic model. Firstly, that it is more valid for representational painting than other art forms. Secondly, the term “representation” unhelpfully confuses semantics, consciousness, phenomenology, and presentation (64). Though literature is clearly not non-representational, literary artforms, such as novels, contain large tracts which communicate in ways that don’t involve images. Furthermore, a representational theory of art (literary or visual) tout court (71) denies the differences between the “spectator” of art (theater/public/passive) and its “reader” (modern novel/private/active), which a variety of late-twentieth century art theory (Rancière [2006] 2011, 2009b; Barthes [1971] 1977, 142–9; Mulvey 1975) would expose repeatedly. [2]

Painting of a wooden chair, with the perspective slightly off so that the seat and bottom legs look a little too large, and angled not quite correctly in relation to the back of the chair.

The narrowness of both representational and imitation theories of art is revealed when they are tested against actual artworks. To use a canonical example, it might be useful to ask what is the exact nature of the (Aristotelian) augmentation, (Lockean) “ideas,” or (Platonic) representations offered by Van Gogh’s Chair (1888)? Much art historical ink continues to be spilt arguing about precisely such questions. The Platonic reading would be that it simply imitates the haptic knowledge of an unknown carpenter of Arles, who themselves merely copied the ideal Form of the chair. Another common reading is that it communicates the simplicity and authenticity of the proletarian identity Van Gogh identified with. Using evidence from Van Gogh’s letters, Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton (1978, 58–60) claim these Arles interiors operate as “oblique self-portraits” projecting an ideal of simplicity which he equated with modern masculinity. Later, in J’accuse Van Gog h (Johnstone 1990), Pollock argued that the signature perspectival distortions of his pictorial space were not an attempt to represent anything, but simply accidental results of the technical incompetence of a self-taught amateur. Another reading, attempted by both Albert Lubin (1996, 167-8) and Harold Blum (1956), claims the stylistic differences between Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s chairs reveal latent repressed homoerotic feelings between the two “friends.” The obvious argument raised by these diverse symbolic readings is that if paintings can sustain such a variety of interpretation, then can it be justifiably argued that they represent any singular artistic vision of the producer?

These questions have been complicated by the emergence of non-representational and immaterial art practices in the late twentieth century. Joseph Kosuth’s (1965) One and Three Chairs , explicitly attempts to foreground questions of meaning and representation in art, and contribute to the further definition and categorisation of art. It is regarded as one of the first pieces of “Conceptual Art.” In Kosuth’s words, the “purest” definition of conceptual art would be that it is an enquiry into the concept of “art,” as it has come to mean (Kosuth [1969] 1991).

A wooden chair, with a picture of the same chair on the wall next to it, and a dictionary definition of the word "chair" on the wall on the other side of the chair.

Here, Kosuth directly questioned Clement Greenberg’s (1909–94) then dominant account of the development of modernist art (discussed below) as a linear process gradually revealing “medium-specificity”—the essential characteristics common to artistic disciplines such as painting (flatness) or sculpture (three-dimensionality). Instead, Kosuth considered that the readymades attributed to Marcel Duchamp produced a new construction of art beyond enquiry within any given medium. Art now “questioned.” A shift from “modern art” to “conceptual art” had occurred, “one from appearance to conception.” Kosuth talked of “artistic propositions,” whose value derived from their capacity to analyse or question: “the artist, as an analyst is not directly concerned with the physical properties of things. He is only concerned with the way (1) in which art is capable of conceptual growth and (2) how his propositions are capable of logically following that growth” (Kosuth [1969] 1991). Kosuth’s own works attempted to follow this function of analytic proposal. One and Three Chairs (1965) presents an industrially produced chair alongside a photograph of the chair, and a dictionary definition for the word “chair.” Reception of the work takes the form of an enquiry into whether art imitates, communicates, represents, or augments, and also to whether meaning itself originates in the artist, audience, or the structures of language itself.

Throughout modernism, critics have consistently correlated form with aesthetic value mediated by judgments of taste. Clement Greenberg considered the aesthetic to be a test of whether a given practice qualified as art. His early text “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) was a defence of taste (high culture) against kitsch, or culture generated out of mass commodity production, such as Hollywood or magazines. Later texts, such as “Modernist Painting” (1960), theorised a developmental logic in the history of painting: a purification of the medium around the values of formalism. Greenberg’s position built upon modernist criticism leading back to the turn of the 20 th Century. Clive Bell (1881-1964) and Roger Fry (1866-1934) identified the realisation of formal relationships in the work of early modernists, such as Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, with artistic insight and the reception of these works with aesthetic experience. Bell claimed what he termed “significant form” was the distinguishing factor in an artefact’s existence as art (Bell [1914] 2002). Significant form concerns particular compositions of line, colour, and shape that produce aesthetic emotion in the spectator. Roger Fry offers a further distinction, claiming art is a unity of formal elements held in a specific balanced relation that arouses aesthetic emotion (Fry [1909] 2002). A unity of elements is key for Fry. He considered that a work can be superficially ugly, displeasing, or lacking sensuous charm, but can arouse aesthetic emotion because of the unity of elements it conveys.

Each of these positions is rooted in Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) analysis of judgments of taste (Kant [1790] 2000). Kant claims aesthetic judgments concern moments when our rational faculties are set into a state of “free play,” resulting in the claim, “this is beautiful.” On this basis, when we feel aesthetic emotion, or appreciate the significance of the form of a work of art, our cognitive faculties engage the unorganised flux of sound, light, materials, etc. he calls the “manifold” in a state of free play rather than determining this flux as an array of entities in context. When we are able to say of such an object or situation “this is beautiful” we aren’t interested in what it is in itself or what it can do for us, we are rather encountering the manner in which our cognitive faculties can interact with environmental stimuli in a state of free play. For Kant this relation is the marker of the beautiful and the reason why judgments of taste are non-determinate but objective, as no concept is deployed (“this is a …”) but our cognitive faculties are activated in a manner that allows us to reasonably expect the assent of others (“it’s beautiful, isn’t it”). It follows that as objects of taste are an interface for our rational powers and we expect others to assent to our judgments of taste, [3] when we experience beauty, we recognise our participation in a community of sense . Finally, for Kant, art is distinguishable from other objects of beauty, such as natural forms, by virtue of its mediation by a genius capable of configuring forms in order to compel aesthetic judgment. Fry echoes this point in his emphasis on unity.

For Greenberg, art had to be a product of aesthetic judgment: “when no aesthetic value judgment, no verdict of taste, is there, then art isn’t there either” (1971). Greenberg considered modernism to be a self-critical tendency that brought judgments of taste to the fore. Practitioners pursued aesthetic value in their art; in doing so they recognised the constraints of specific media and adapted their work to those constraints. In “Modernist Painting” (1961), Greenberg emphasised a progressive reduction in tactile associations in the work of 20 th Century painters, which paved the way for abstract expressionist reduction of the pictorial field down to a colour space entered by eyesight alone. In the 1960s, Greenberg championed the flat spray-painted colour fields of Jules Olitski as exemplars of “high modernism,” because such works held out to the viewer the possibility of examining the grounds of visual experience: the projective, weightless and synchronous nature of sight.

Diarmuid Costello (2007) notes that Greenbergian criticism and Kantian aesthetics appeared to be closely aligned in the moment of high modernism. He also claimed emergent postmodern critics, such as Rosalind E. Krauss and Hal Foster, believed that challenging its premises meant setting forth an anti-aesthetic rejection of Greenberg. Krauss’s structural analysis of modernism (1979) dismantled high modernist assumptions of art’s aesthetic nature, arguing that modernist artworks, such as the sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, existed in an oppositional relation to architecture and the landscape. This basis in opposition meant that modernist art was in fact a contextual construct. The function of Greenbergian modernism was to suppress the opposition, and naturalise Modernist art as context free, making it in Krauss’s words, “abstraction,” “placeless,” and “self-referential” (1979). With the advent of postmodernism in the late 1960s Krauss argued that minimalism, conceptualism and land art synthesised the terms of the opposition (for example sculpture and architecture) in practice, emphasising art’s contextual existence.

Brian O’Doherty makes the further claim that modernism had always depended on contextual factors to provide conditions conducive to its correct (aesthetic) reception in his analysis of the convention of the “white cube” gallery ([1977] 1986). White cube galleries are uniform, clean, white environments, designed to provide a purified environment of artistic display. O’Doherty’s point is that this design convention historically developed alongside modernism to provide a neutral context for the reception of modernist art. For O’Doherty, the social form of the gallery conditioned modes of contemplative reception that modernist painting necessitated. The gallery was the unremarked context that gave the work “space to breathe” ([1977] 1986). For Costello, the binary nature of this debate (aesthetic/anti-aesthetic) is a function of the critical narrowing of Kantian aesthetics in modernist theory down to an austere formalism. Instead, Costello claims Kant’s theorisation of the aesthetic is broad enough to encompass much of the practice Krauss included in the expanded field, because “it is above all the way in which artworks indirectly embody ideas in sensuous form, by bringing their “aesthetic attributes” together in a unified form that is the focus of judgments of artistic beauty” (Costello 2007). The sensuous embodiment of ideas is the qualification missed by Greenberg, Fry, and Bell. This enables us to conceive the aesthetic as a response that can range across forms of art and non-art in a way that is consistent with the emergence of the expanded field as an aesthetic mobilisation of non-art forms as art.

If we test this discussion against an example of art practice then we start to see that a particular attitude to the bounding of form appears to mediate the premises of Bell’s, Fry’s, and Greenberg’s positions. Significant form as criterion or modernist colour space as focus appears to rest on the certitude of its separation from social form. Further to this, we can see that the theorisation of the expanded field as somehow anti-aesthetic also misses the centrality of aesthetic experience to the reception of works operating beyond the bounds of medium specificity. Works by Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica explore form in ways that extend beyond the limits of conventional media and compel attention in a manner that is consistent with the expanded conception of formalism we have outlined. Oiticica was a member of the Rio de Janeiro based Neo-Concrete movement, and around 1960 developed a series of hanging “Spatial Reliefs” that expanded colour forms into architectural space.

A red panel hanging from the ceiling, with the edges folded in on itself in a few different angles.

Núcleos (Nuclei) (1960–6) consists of hanging geometric panels that occupy a cuboid field. The shapes comprising the work align dynamically at right angles; the central panels are coloured in a rich yellow and graduate to a deep orange at the periphery. The audience moves in and out of the panels as they navigate the gallery, so there is not any strict spatial division between the work and the social space it occupies. This work raises difficult questions for Bell’s position as the encounter with colour forms relates to the architectural structure of the gallery. The work appears to necessitate the collapse of the opposition between work and architecture, or aesthetic and non-aesthetic form. Oiticica’s panels assert the objecthood of colour and break open the static nature of contemplation, turning artistic reception into a dynamic participatory navigation of the work.

The backdrop to Krauss’s and O’Doherty’s interventions is the integration of artistic form into wider social practices of meaning making. Roland Barthes (1971) describes this shift as a movement from work to text (Barthes [1971] 1977). For Barthes, it is the limit or frame of the work that defines the pictorial field and an area of focus for aesthetic emotion. Consequently, he reconceives the work as part of a field of co-related elements whose interactions determine their significance. Rather than a play of pure forms in the artwork, contexts develop through an ongoing play of social forms, whose meaning and status is an object of negotiation. Following Costello, we can argue that when appreciated from the viewpoint of its sensuous manifestation according to a play of our cognitive faculties such semiosis of social form is in fact aesthetic.

If we define art according to its expressivity, we immediately have to contend with the diversity of practices people have considered expressive. For example, the colour harmonies of Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract compositions and Stuart Brisley’s visceral performances are obviously very different types of art practice, but both artists describe their work using the term “expression.” Reflecting this diversity, definitions of art as expression theorise art in terms of enlivenment, purgation, communication, spontaneity, and even transformation. We will navigate this diversity by considering positions developed by Leo Tolstoy and R.G. Collingwood, who focus narrowly on how an artwork might articulate conscious emotion, before considering broader positions advanced by Harold Rosenberg and Gilles Deleuze, for whom expression concerns acts of both individual and social transformation.

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) claims art is the transmission of feeling ([1896] 1995). Many different expressions provoke feelings of different kinds in us, but the facility that for Tolstoy distinguishes art is a capacity to produce a unity of feeling between artist and audience. Upon making the work, the artist feels the emotions it expresses and upon receiving the work, each audience member feels this same emotion. We can recognise two assumptions that go unexplained in Tolstoy’s argument: art communicates, and art expresses. Further, he assumes what is subjective for the artist is objective for the audience. Tolstoy’s focus on communication leaves questions concerning the relation of expression to form and representation unanswered. We might also raise a further query around the necessity of premeditation that Tolstoy’s linkage of expression and universal communication seems to require, and the spontaneity that seems to accompany acts of artistic creation.

R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943) resolves some of these issues through his claim that art gives form to expressions that arise in the act of creation (Collingwood [1938] 2013). Art cannot be preconceived (planned and executed): to express is to become conscious of emotion in the act of creation. Similarly, to create is to give plastic reality to feelings that arise in the process of the laying down of forms. By relating artistic expression to creation in this way, Collingwood addresses the assumptions Tolstoy leaves unanswered, but by linking creation to formal arrangement he also limits the range of emotions art provokes to the kinds of aesthetic emotion we previously considered when we discussed Fry.

In contrast to Tolstoy and Collingwood’s narrow theorisations of expression, broader models accommodate unconscious expression and emotions that belong to states of subjective transformation. An early instance of such a model is Aristotle’s analysis of feelings of “fear and pity” ([335 BCE] 1996) experienced by audiences of Greek tragedies, which he identifies with catharsis, or the purging of stored feelings. Aristotle’s analysis makes a change in state or a moment of transformation in the artist or audience member a possible dimension of expression. Aristotle thinks appropriate levels of cathartic response indicate a capacity to engage positively in social life as they demonstrate an ability to interpret others and are hence a marker of virtue.

Abstract painting with roughly circular or oval shapes of red and white and black paint in between them.

Poet and critic Harold Rosenberg (1906–1978) theorised abstract expressionist painting in a similar manner, terming it “action painting” (Rosenberg [1952] 2002). Rosenberg argued that painters, such as Lee Krasner, whose works combined improvisational gesture and “all-over” composition, gave symbolic form to emotions that arose in artistic acts of self-questioning, or self-transformation. This transformative potential lay, Rosenberg argued, at the intersection of psychic and plastic forces made to speak for each other in the artist’s address to the blank canvas. For Rosenberg the act of painting was a ritual of self-discovery; symbolic languages were invented through painterly improvisation engaging an array of conscious and unconscious emotion, resulting in moments of self-reinvention. In the words of Clyfford Still (1952), painting was an “unqualified act.”

A subsequent generation of artists viewed expression as action beyond the studio, in the social field. They considered Abstract Expressionism’s pictorial mediation of gesture as indirect when artists could work with the raw material of their practice: their own bodies. To witness Stuart Brisley repeatedly vomiting in a gallery, Gina Pane cutting herself with a razor or spectate on one of Herman Nitsch’s ritualistic actions is to encounter expressions according to an expanded model.

Two men sitting at a table with large paintings on the walls that have large red blotches of paint covering most of the canvas, and smaller drawings arranged in a 3 by 3 grid on part of the wall.

Here, the practitioner explores the potential of their own body to realise the kinds of psychological transformation discussed by Rosenberg through more direct means, refashioning the form of art in accordance to the openness of an event. The intention is to produce change, not just achieve moments of cathartic release.

Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Felix Guattari (1930–1992) conceptualise expression in this manner as a force of articulation that demarcates an assemblage (1996). By “assemblage” they mean a dynamic apparatus that articulates a field of social reproduction or transformation. We could talk about the Brisley/gallery assemblage as actions projecting architecturally constrained affect, or the Pane/razor assemblage of laceration and sensation/psychological intensity. Expression here is not merely the feelings of the artistic given plastic form; it is a power to bring forth potential within a structure in order for it to be differently articulated. This transformative aspect defines an event as a moment of rupture that brings forth unformed potentials within the assemblage. Art practices realised in this mode embrace the unknown as a true force of creation by producing a zone of affect that unfolds possibilities of social/psychological change, in contrast to familiar forms and feelings.

The Aesthetic Attitude

Theories of “aesthetic attitude” are less concerned with isolating essential characteristics of artworks, than with describing a certain state of receptivity or the conditions of spectatorship which make the experience of art possible. According to these theories, to attend to art properly we must enact a special kind of distancing, or “disinterestedness.” Here, art is judged outside of the influence of subjective desire or ulterior motivation. The most significant contemporary defender of the theory of the aesthetic attitude is Jerome Stolnitz (1960). For him, “disinterested attention” means focusing on art objects for longer than one would real world objects, sympathetic to their aims, and encountering them for their own sake alone. Before him, Edward Bullough (1880–1934) had characterised the aesthetic attitude as “psychical distance” (1912), where the everyday self is negated in order to generate a space to encounter the world from an aesthetic viewpoint. Stolnitz traces the aesthetic attitude back to the British philosophy of taste articulated in the work of Edmund Burke (1729–97), David Hume (1711–76), Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), and the Earl of Shaftesbury [Anthony Ashley-Cooper] (1671–1713). However, the most influential (and infamous to hostile commentators) account of this special state of aesthetic receptivity is found in Kant’s Critique of Judgement ([1790, 5: 204–10] 2000, 89–96). In Kant’s own words, “one must not be in the least bit biased in favor of the existence of the thing but must be entirely indifferent in this respect in order to play the judge in matters of taste” (Kant [1790, 5: 205] 2000, 90–1). For Kant, disinterested judgments are non-cognitive—they are outside conceptual knowledge of the object judged, moral interest in it, or any pleasures derived from it. The aesthetic attitude therefore involves willing suspension of the above in order to experience beautiful objects as if one had no prior knowledge of them. His example is a palace, which can be appreciated aesthetically neither by its owner, due to their possessive vanity, nor those who built it, due to their knowledge of the blood and sweat expended on its construction. Similarly, true art is to be distinguished from “remunerative art” ([1790, 5: 304] 2000, 183), whose appeal partly, if not wholly, results from an associated financial reward. A quick, but insufficient, reference also needs to be made to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), whose The World as Will and Representation ([1819] 2011) contains an important contribution to aesthetic attitude theory. Schopenhauer regards aesthetic contemplation as a form of sanctuary from the violence and enslavement of the world of Will (urges, instincts, cravings). For him, careful aesthetic contemplation brings us closer to the Platonic world of Forms, whilst also giving us a better understanding of the sensory world around us.

The most influential philosophical critique of such theories is Dickie’s “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude” (1964). His objection is that “disinterested” contemplation is simply one way of giving attention to art. In terms of philosophical rigour, it is thus indistinct from careful “interested” contemplation. To push Dickie’s argument further, denying the social history of an artwork to emphasise its aesthetic affect will produce a particular idea of art, just as explaining art as a mere reflex of its conditions of production will produce another. Neither approach could claim to have utmost validity in this scenario. A sensitive dialectical approach, incorporating both aesthetic affect and the sociology of art could come closer to attending to the complexity of the question “What is a work of art?”

Aesthetic attitude theories fell out of favour in the late twentieth century, perhaps because of Dickie’s critique, but also because of the increased influence of sociological and materialist theories of art. The claim for disinterestedness as a necessary condition for experiencing art has scandalised many commentators on the left. The classic sociological rebuttal comes from Bourdieu’s (1930-2002) Distinction ([1979] 1996)—a lengthy text, citing an overwhelming array of statistical data to demonstrate that aesthetic “disinterestedness” is a bourgeois illusion, available only to those whose privileged financial situation allows them the luxury of time, or the illusory distance, for such contemplation. According to Kant’s reading, “remunerative artists” are not true artists, despite the fact that no artist can live on fresh air alone. Bourdieu (486-88) concludes that the aesthetic attitude is simply the attitude of the ruling class, and that the purity of the aesthetic attitude is simply veiled contempt for the impurity, and by implication inferiority, of popular, working class culture. As we have seen, contemporary art criticism, such as O’Doherty (1986) and Bishop (2005), has highlighted that the aesthetic attitude finds its physical and spatial equivalent in the hegemonic “white cube” model of display. From the 1960s onwards, radical art practices attempted to problematise the benign image of art galleries as neutralised and universal arenas for disinterested contemplation.

Grayscale image of two women sitting on the top flight of stairs leading to an entrance to a white-coloured house that has WOMANHOUSE letter-writing above.

An example would be the exhibition Womanhouse (1972), organised by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro. Over three months, female artists from Cal Arts’ Feminist Art Program renovated a disused Hollywood mansion, turning it into a space for the discussion, production, performance, and display of original artworks. Rather than affecting the faux neutrality of the aesthetic attitude, all exhibited work was explicitly and aggressively “interested.” Men were prohibited from entering the space, and works were given titles such as Menstruation Bathroom (Judy Chicago), Crocheted Environment, or Womb Room (Faith Wilding), and Eggs to Breasts (Robin Weltch and Vicky Hodgetts). The foregrounding of factors specific to the contemporary experience of femininity highlighted the general omission of women from mainstream art galleries and curatorial programmes. The discursive, dialogic, and productive nature of Womanhouse also functioned as a critique of the sterility, neutrality, and passivity of the aesthetic attitude and its attendant white cube model of display. Womanhouse , as political other to such institutions, exposed the exclusion and oppression which the aesthetic attitude has been shown to disguise.

The Institutional Theory of Art

This chapter opened by discussing Dickie’s (1974) “What is Art? An Institutional Theory of Art.” Alongside Arthur Danto’s “The Artworld” (1964), these two texts outline an “institutional theory of art.” For Danto, “The Artworld” describes an enclosed and self-reproducing system of institutions, discourses, critics, publishers, and artists, all of whom are invested in an agreed-upon definition of art. The primary function of the Artworld then is not the production of specific artworks, but the reproduction and dissemination of a dominant idea of art through cultural and educational institutions like schools, universities, museums, or galleries. Dickie’s argument is even more straightforward. For him, art is simply whatever artefact or activity a representative of the Artworld has designated as art. This is not to suggest that artistic practices cannot occur outside the Artworld, such as the activities of hobbyist painters, or countless aspirational student artists, it is simply that these activities will not be recognised as art without its official institutional acknowledgement.

Given that the previous section of this chapter has already suggested that the Artworld is exclusive and non-representative, its absolute power to act as arbitrator of what is art and not-art is highly problematic. Consequently, all manner of radical art practices repeatedly sought to undermine its authority. A recurrent strategy of the “avant-garde,” dating back to Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism (1855), is the establishment of independent exhibitions on the periphery of the Artworld where alternative and oppositional practices can emerge. Such counter-exhibitions have been mounted by the Impressionists (1874–1886), the Dada movement (1916), the Surrealists (1936, 1938), and more recently the YBAs (Young British Artists) (1988). All of these seem to have been recuperated by the Artworld in one form or another, with many gaining canonical status. This capacity of the Artworld to assimilate its symbolic opposition seems to strengthen Dickie’s and Danto’s theses.

From the 1960s onwards, many artists attempted what is now called “Institutional Critique” of the exclusionary and elitist practices of the Artworld. An infamous exhibition by Hans Haacke at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (1971) linked photographs of NYC buildings to financial records, diagrams, and maps of Manhattan to expose links between a Guggenheim trustee and one of New York’s most notorious slum-lords; subsequently his exhibition was cancelled. The feminist artists’ collective The Guerrilla Girls have spent the last three decades covering the billboards outside major art galleries with statistical evidence of the lack of female artists in their permanent collections. Andrea Fraser’s (1989) Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk involved the artist dressing like an employee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and offering a guided tour of the collection, filled with exaggerations, misinformation, and institutional parody. Not only does this performance satirise the stulted manners and orchestrated behaviours of gallery functionaries, it also highlights the extent to which the audiences of art rely on institutional interpretations to translate their own experiences for them.

Preceding both Institutional Critique and the Institutional Theory of Art, perhaps exceeding them both, is an enduringly influential essay by the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” ([1935] 2007). Written during the Nazi ascent to power, the text invites “a far-reaching liquidation” of art’s traditional institutions, whose structures he saw as complicit with the social passivity that allowed authoritarian fascism to rise. Benjamin was excited by the capacity (“exhibition-value”) of new technologies of visual production (photography, lithography, cinema) to create new audiences for art outside the Artworld, thus changing the way art is received and understood. With the advent of these new artforms, the individualised reception of art, like viewing a painting alone in a gallery, is replaced by the collective experience of viewing film in a cinema, or a billboard poster in the city space. Because of this, the authority of art institutions to control the meaning of art recedes, not least because art now comes to meet us, in our situations and contexts, rather than vice versa. The consequence of this is that the meaning of art is constantly recontextualised and co-authored at the point of reception, rather than fixed at the point of production by an artist or the moment of exhibition by a gallery or curator.

Benjamin coins the term “aura” to describe the mystifying concepts (creativity, genius, eternal value, uniqueness, mystery) with which galleries, art criticism, and aesthetics surround art production. For Benjamin, these “auratic” discourses not only make art appear more special than it is, but by exaggerating the uniqueness of art and artists, tend to imply that the rest of us are hopelessly ordinary or limited in comparison. For Benjamin, this resembled the general tendency of the public to passively accept social inequality and the status quo, not to mention the hero worship of the “Führer-cult” he witnessed in 1930s Germany. However, the mass dissemination and reproduction of art gradually causes its aura to wither away. This technological “withering” of art’s aura is inseparable from, and impossible without, the creation of a newly energised, critically active, and democratic public sphere, and therefore irreducibly political. The possibilities of new digital media, especially the internet, have multiplied this political effect exponentially. Activist artist groups like Mongrel (2000) can now hack into the Tate Gallery website and reauthor its content. Simple phone technologies can allow users to steal facsimiles of famous artworks, such as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and rework them into an infinite array of internet-based memes, GIFs, or fashion accessories. Writing recently, Andrea Fraser (2005) pessimistically recognised that many of the practices of Institutional Critique have become institutionalised. Yet, current digital reproductive technologies have the seemingly infinite capacity to perpetually redefine art and its institutions from the bottom up, and “reactivate the [art] object reproduced,” leading “to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind” (Benjamin [1935] 2007, 221).


Representation, formalism, expression, aesthetic attitude, and institutionality each constitute dimensions of art practice, but they do violence to the heterogeneity of art practice when we make them function as art’s necessary and sufficient conditions. To traverse the impasse, we might address the question differently, by asking what variable conditions can determine the unfolding of art. This approach attains the flexibility to consider immanent features—expression, form, etc.—in relation to contextual forces.

One example is Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) positioning of art’s condition between mental processing and the raw data of our senses (Nietzsche 1896). Nietzsche radicalises Kantian aesthetic judgment, pointing out that our viewpoint is articulated through the medium of perception, which is separate from the raw materiality of natural events. Nietzsche’s position is an example of anti-essentialism: what we call truth is something provisional and bound up with the mode of its production. For Nietzsche, perception’s mode is a series of metaphoric abstractions from natural events—from nerve stimulus, to optical information, to mental judgment. The value Nietzsche attributes to art is based on the capacity he thinks art has to help us approach the intensity of those events in nature, and our primal integration within these events. Hence, art conveys our primal perceptual connection with our surroundings by manifesting a play of materiality and conceptual determination. An example of such a practice is Joan Mitchell’s “Rock Bottom” (1960).

Photo of an abstract painting, white canvas with predominantly blue brush strokes interspersed with red, green-yellow-ish and white streaks.

The painting comprises a colour field of gestural mark-making, conveying emotions felt by the artist within a landscape. In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935–37) Heidegger extends Nietzsche’s analysis to explore how we draw out possibilities of experience through interpretation. He argues that our viewpoint and the particular ways in which it is embedded in the world influences the way the world is disclosed to us. The way we approach disclosure is by circling within the dynamics of experience, between the objects of experience and the ways in which we approach them. The artwork is an aspect of this interpretative circling. It captures and draws out its dynamics. Like Nietzsche’s critique of truth and Heidegger’s analysis of disclosure, Mitchell’s painting articulates judgments as the product of dynamically combined viewpoints, references, memories and sensations.

The attention Nietzsche and Heidegger bring to the embedding of knowledge within specific modes of perception sets the groundwork for deconstruction, which extends these insights into a general analysis of textuality. Textuality assumes material relations that comprise social reality have an inescapable written quality that shapes acts of interpretation. In deconstruction textuality is taken as a condition of knowledge production. Deconstruction addresses art’s ontology by asking what is at stake when we pose the question “What is art?” An example of this deconstructive strategy would be Michel Foucault’s (1926–1984) essay This is Not a Pipe (1983), on Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (1928–29), which features the image of a pipe and the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Foucault claims the pipe cannot be present without the painting. In a similar manner, Paul de Man (1919–1983) argues the practice of philosophy cannot commence without writing (1982). De Man foregrounds how philosophical discourse tends to rest upon metaphor, or figural language, and emphasises how such tropes have to coexist in writing with literal or grammatical meaning, yet even though they appear to mutually exclude each other in the act of reading, texts are always open to literal or figural interpretation. For example, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”—a story where a community is detained underground and forced to watch shadows, which they mistake for truth, before breaking out of the cave into the blinding light of actual truth—merely describes a series of events if read literally (Plato 380 BCE). Insight comes when we read it figuratively as an allegory of the difference between truth and opinion. Yet, the literal interpretation is also important, because it reveals these tropes as figures of language, compromising the effectiveness of the argument. In order to proceed Plato’s arguments must suppress, or be blind to, literal interpretation, yet blindness runs contrary to the metaphor of illumination central to Plato’s narrative. Such deconstructive analysis reads literal and figural interpretations through each other, a procedure de Man terms “allegories of reading.” Magritte’s painting allegorises in this way by presenting a discontinuity between image and caption, revealing how the interpretation of painting depends on a play of visual aspects and the power of naming. This strategy was later appropriated by Marcel Broodthaers to critique the authority of the public museum in Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968–71).

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) developed similar insights to frame truth as subject to a process of differing and deferral from itself (Derrida 1967). As de Man notes, words and signs never fully summon forth what they mean but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ. Meaning is forever “deferred” or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. Thus, for Derrida, we reside in a web of language/interpretation that has been laid down by tradition and which shifts each time we hear or read an utterance. Philosophy becomes an act of forensically reading these displacements and instabilities, analyzing the relations of power they manifest. We never arrive at the fixed essences expected by the philosophical tradition, but bear witness to the textual architectures out of which all truth claims arise. Derrida’s (1987) The Truth in Painting seizes upon a passing reference to the “parergon” or frame in Kant’s third critique to demonstrate the codependency of artwork, “Artworld,” and art. [4] For Derrida, the physical frame of a painting can be viewed simultaneously as internal and external to the artwork; the frame is subordinate to the artwork, yet also emphasises and completes it. Also, it can legitimately be regarded as part of the wall of the gallery and part of the painting, collapsing the boundaries between artwork and context. For Derrida, the concept of the parergon can be extended metaphorically to deconstruct the relationship of the artwork to the wider Artworld which acts as its determining frame. Focusing on what “frames” an artwork indicates an instability in any theory of the aesthetic that regards it as separate to social form.

Some of the most significant and sustained challenges to philosophical aesthetics in recent years have come from the work of Jacques Rancière (2009a; 2004). In The Politics of Aesthetics (2004), Rancière introduced the concept of three regimes of artistic production, each of which codifies and delimits what is and what is not recognizable as art in a given epoch. The “representative regime,” stemming from Aristotelian thought, lays down the “rules” of artistic production, including the delimitation of different genres / modes of practice. It also fixes the “principles of convenance”—the styles, methods, images, tropes, and significations proper to each artistic category within this rigid taxonomy. In contradistinction, an earlier “ethical regime” of art, emerging from Platonic thought, judges art according to its truthfulness to an ideal. A third regime, the “aesthetic regime” of modern art production, anarchically undoes these systems of regulation and definition, revealing them as repressive limits on the socio-political capacity of art. Though the concept of these regimes insists that our understanding of art is historically determined, the regimes themselves are meta-historic, unlike the conceptual categories of art history, and can overlap and co-exist in a particular era. For Rancière, the disciplines of philosophical aesthetics and art history are political as they restrict what is knowable as art through the task of categorisation and definition. At the same time, both artistic practice and aesthetics can act as counter-politics to this system by opening aporia within the prevailing regimes of production, exposing the exclusivity and hierarchical ordering of the Artworld, and the a priori ordering of the world, which Rancière refers to as the “distribution of the sensible” (2004, 12), that determines the forms and rights of participation in all of the above.

From narrow definitions of art based on representation, form, expression, or residing in a specific aesthetic attitude or institutional framework, we have developed a position that insists upon such criteria as mutable and historically contingent. This contingency is revealed by both careful philosophical reading and the agency of contemporary artworks. The one universal claim we can make for art is that it is a form of practice. For example, to discuss expression in art effectively, we were forced to broaden this categorisation out from notions of purgation (Aristotle) and self-transformation (Rosenberg) to consider expression on a social basis by addressing how events bring forth change (Deleuze) and how art can take the form of an event. Thus, we might conclude that what we call expression in art is inconstant and bound closely to the diverse specificities of practice.

The weakness of restricted representational, expressive, and formalist theories is the centrality they give to the artist and critic in turn as locus of meaning. Against such theories, we have identified that the origin of art resides as much within modes of social form and social structure. Individual acts of artistic production are part of a series of ongoing chains of signification that spread across general structures of meaning as they manifest at that time. In short, such acts are additive or disruptive. In contrast, institutional theory runs the risk of explaining artistic production, display and reception in a manner that leaves the disruptive charge of the individual work unexplained. Finally, the “aesthetic attitude” has been criticised for suggesting a universalised experience of modern art, outside of national, political, historical, or cultural reference points, disguising the predominantly white, bourgeois, western-centric, patriarchal, and heteronormative character of the artworld’s discourses and power bases. At the same time, the aesthetic act can work against normativity, exposing difference, and heterogeneity, and dissensus within presumed communities of sense (Rancière 2010; Derrida 1987).

From de Man we conclude, to answer the question “What is Art?” we must be attentive to its literal meanings, born out in the specificities of material and context. Moreover, this kind of answer interrogates the disciplinary assumptions that inform the question, a process that ultimately deconstructs the truth claims of philosophy. What is left is a paradoxical interplay of materiality and signification, which allows us to make the limited conclusion that intrinsic functions (representation, form and expression) co-exist with extrinsic determiners (aesthetic attitude and institutionality), challenging assumptions that inform many of the positions (Plato, Fry, Collingwood, Dickie, etc.) we have examined. A philosophy that seeks to reveal art’s essence is blind to the sensuous particularity and heterogeneity of works of art. Insight comes when philosophy analyses these specificities withholding its own assumptions. It might also learn something about itself in the process.

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Further Reading

Brunette, Peter, and David Wills, eds. 1994. Deconstruction and the Visual Arts . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cazeaux, Clive, ed. 2000. The Continental Aesthetics Reader. London: Routledge.

Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D Buchloh. 2004. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism and Postmodernism . London: Thames & Hudson.

Kivy, Peter. 1997. Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 55–83.

Rancière, Jacques. 2009. The Emancipated Spectator . Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 1–24.

Stallabrass, Julian. 2006. Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warr, Tracey and Amelia Jones. 2000. The Artist’s Body . London: Phaidon.

  • Here, Socrates rejects the claim that poets, or artists in general, are suitable teachers for the young citizens of the republic. Throughout Book X, he argues that artistic representations are unreliable. Painters of shoes know less about ideal Forms than shoemakers, who at least have applied knowledge. A painter of a bridle knows less about its truth than the bridle maker, and certainly less than the horseman who has practical knowledge of its use. Socrates establishes a hierarchy of knowledge gained through use, manufacture, and representation, arranged according to their distance from the truth of the Forms. Because artists create subjective copies of things which are already copies of universal Forms, “representative art is an inferior child of inferior parents” (603b). Stripped of their poetic colour, these arts contain little rational substance (601b). In contradistinction, only philosophers know the truth of the Forms in themselves. Because of their unreliability, and their potential corrupting capacity to engendered emotional rather than rational responses in their audiences, it is concluded that the representative arts should be strictly censored, if not banished, within the ideal republic. ↵
  • The famous “death of the author” thesis is generally accepted to begin from the essay by Roland Barthes ([1971] 1977, 142–9) of the same name, though countless cultural theorists and philosophers have contributed to the debate. In his essay, Barthes argues that the meaning of a literary work is produced at the point of its reception, by an active reader situated within a dynamic social context, rather than at the point of its production, where its meaning is fixed by a unique authorial intention. A precursor to this theory can be found in Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” ([1935] 2007). Here, Benjamin claims that new media technologies exponentially increase the audiences and contexts for reception of art, invalidating the authority of any singular claim over the meaning of specific artworks. Feminist film theory, such as the work of Laura Mulvey (1975), theorised the specificity and difference of the female spectator in and against the patriarchal ideology produced and reproduced by Hollywood cinema. Building upon this, Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (2009b) argues that the presumptions of hegemonic models of theatrical performance and artistic display render their audiences physically, and by extension intellectually and politically, passive. In contradistinction, the promiscuity of the modern novel, which is recontextualised endlessly by mass culture, perpetually meeting new readers who invent new readings in turn, contains what he regards as The Politics of Literature ([2006] 2011). Plato recognises the same anarchic potential of writing, albeit as a negative rather than emancipatory quality, in his dialogue The Phaedrus . ↵
  • For example, when we gaze up into the blueness of the sky and contemplate its beauty it seems beside the point for us to identify it as "the sky." Even a tacit awareness of what we are looking into is superseded in the moment of contemplation by the experience of beauty. This is structurally consistent with Kant’s argument. The faculties (imagination and understanding) that would otherwise identify the blue field apprehended as the sky are in a state of free play. No concept is deployed because there is no synthesis of the apprehension into a determinate judgment. A different order of aesthetic judgment is operative. ↵
  • It is perhaps worth pointing out that Danto remained committed to the professional distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy that this chapter has tried to sidestep. See Danto and Liska (1997), where he dismisses the pretentiousness of continental thought, especially Derrida’s. Presumably, despite the possible compatibility of the concepts of “Artworld” and “parergon,” Danto would probably never have countenanced such a comparison. ↵

What is a Work of Art? Copyright © 2021 by Richard Hudson-Miles and Andrew Broadey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis

Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.

A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?

Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?

A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.

Methods & Theories To Consider:




Social Art History

Biographical Approach


Museum Studies

Visual Cultural Studies

Stylistic Analysis Example:

The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.” Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall. Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.

Compare and Contrast Essay

Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.

Compare and Contrast Example:

Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’

Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.

Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.

Stele of Naram-sin , Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"

Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.

Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.


Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality? Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?

The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.

  • Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
  • Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
  • Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
  • Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
  • Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
  • Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
  • Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion.
  • The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
  • Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage.

Works of Art Essay

Introduction, basic facts about the works, personal philosophies of artists, artwork in time-context, comparison: form, content, and subject matter, aesthetic qualities and symbolic significance.

Pieces of artwork from different time periods portray varying styles. Several time periods had distinctive schools of thought. As a result, an artist who created a piece of work revealed a certain philosophical point of view. Aspects like positioning of key figures in an artwork tell of a particular style used to construct an image. Personal philosophies of artists rely upon the prevailing conditions of the time. It is imperative that the viewer makes some identities such as the visual appearance of the work.

Therefore, many works of art belonging to the same period are closely related to the context of the period. This essay has two main parts. The first part highlights more about the impressionism period’s paintings, basic facts about the works, the personal philosophies of the artists, and art work in time context. On the other hand, the second part compares the forms of art with respect to content, subject matter and form. It also compares and contrasts the symbolic significance, aesthetic attributes and the different perspectives from the artists.

The period chosen is Impressionism. Despite the differences in the paintings to be compared, all have got one description in common. Historically, impressionism as an art period dates back to 1874. These artworks have a unique way from their ability to create brilliant and rosy images. Usually, paintings from the impressionism depicted nature. Light and shadows are blended to create softened outlines. The viewer gets an impression of the sun illuminating the canvas (Perry, 1997, p. 11).

The works belong to an impressionism period. The three paintings chosen for comparison are the works of Cassatt Mary, Renoir Pierre-Aguste and Signac Paul. In all paintings, the theme involves people in a house setting. At a glance, the paintings do not have many details except the subjects in their setting.

The positioning of main figures in the frames is a point that draws interest. In the works below, the figures assume a central location in the frame. In addition, the figures in the pictures are presented in bold colors. The bold colors are blended well with shadows to create an outstanding brilliance.

Mary Cassatt’s 1880 painting, Renoir Pierre-Auguste’s 1864 painting, and Signac Paul’s 1885 painting

The above paintings are, from left to right, Mary Cassatt’s 1880 painting, Renoir Pierre-Auguste’s 1864 painting, and Signac Paul’s 1885 painting. The first two paintings have their main figures positioned in the foreground. The last painting has the main figures in the middle ground of the frame.

However, a viewer of the painting cannot miss to note the inclusion of purple colors in all paintings. Therefore, the usage of bold colors that present a shimmering effect, and softened outlines of images is evidence that these paintings belong to the impressionism style of painting. Consequently, Mary Cassatt, Renoir Pierre-Aguste, and Signac Paul were impressionists.

Mary Cassatt’s paintings, during the impressionism period, often depicted family life. In the first place, she painted ladies in their homes. For instance, the painting above is entitled, Lydia crocheting in the Garden at Marley . At that time, her male compatriots in the art painting were working on landscapes.

The impressionism movement was the school of thought in the painting world that Mary lived in. The greatest influence for in-home paintings was females in her time were not allowed to walk alone unattended. This piece of work was done when her sister was ill. There is vibrancy in the painting.

However, the face of Lydia is sad. Therefore, Mary must have been sad too; her sister was ill at the time. One should note that the painting was made in France at that time. Women’s place in society was confined to the homesteads. This influenced the setting of her paintings (Swain, 2011, p 20).

Renoir’s painting above is entitled Little Miss Romaine Lacaux . This oil on canvas paint was done in 1864. The painting was also influenced by the impressionism school of thought. This painting is one among many others depicting children. He held a philosophy of living and working. The main influence for this painting was the closure of the Gleyre Studio in 1864 (Klein & Monet, 2006, p 11). Another influence was his affection for children. His age at that time might have influenced this affection.

Paul Signac had a wealthy background. His painting career was initially influenced by his friendship with other artists like Monet. Signac was both an anarchist and libertarian. The painting illustrated above was created in 1885; the year Signac was in constant resistance from bourgeois (Walther & Suckale, 2002, p 508).

Generally, Signac was influenced by impressionist paintings of artists like Monet and Seurat. Two milliners, Rue du Caire portray the widely held idea in the 19 th century that a woman’s work was indoors. Thus, this picture reveals a disorganized environment in which a woman conducts her daily chores.

The three artworks belong to different artists but same time period. The works are further distinguished from one another through philosophies that an artist held then. In this example, the school of thought was impressionism. As a result, each artist combined artistic requirements of impressionism with prevailing situations. This combination was represented as a pictorial idea of the artist about some subject. Therefore, the school of thought, at that time influenced an artwork.

In the first painting made by Mary Cassatt, the blend of colors offsets the dull mood of the picture’s face. The image is generally flat. Nevertheless, the brown color scaling the perspective in the middle ground of the frame adds some form and texture picture. The large bonnet worn by the lady suggests the painters’ internal feeling of hiding a sad mood in the face of the picture.

In the second painting, Renoir combines the effect of shadows and light to offset the flat upper part of the girl with form. The circular shape of the cloth in the lower waistline of the picture introduces motion and transition in colors. Colors begin with dullness and brighten upwards. This color transition introduces innocence in the child; the subject matter.

Lastly, Signac’s milliner is based on flatness. The brushstrokes applied to the tablecloth combines with the wallpaper to introduce parallelism, in the picture. However, flatness of the picture is reduced by the bending figure. Form is introduced in the picture, around the back of the milliner. This underscores the painter’s subject matter; domestic chores of a woman, that time.

The painting of Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marley has an awkward aesthetic value. The large bonnet on her head does not match with either her thin body or sad face. Unlike the other two paintings, Mary Cassatt symbolically expressed her sadness through this quality.

There is a quality of elegance in Little miss Romaine by Renoir. The elegance is enhanced by usage of bright colors around the face of the girl. This symbolically depicts innocence in children. Lastly, the aesthetic quality in the Two Milliners is powerful. The bending woman in the picture symbolically represents burden. Despite the differences, all paintings embrace the use of bold and bright colors to present their subject matter.

In conclusion, impressionism employed the use of bold and bright colors in most of the paintings. The most preferred color was purple. The paintings comprised majorly of outdoor scenes like landscapes. Through such artworks, an artist’s subject matter is evident. Therefore, impressionists usually painted according to the prevailing situations at the time.

Klein, AG. & Monet, C. (2006). Claude Monet . Minnesota: ABDO Publishing Company.

Olga’s Gallery (2011). Web.

Perry, G. (1997). Impressionist Palette: quilt color and design . California: C&T Publishing Inc.

Swain, C. (2011). Claude Monet, Edward Degas, Mary Cassatt, Vincent Van Vogh . London: Benchmark Education Company.

Walther, IF. & Suckale, R. (2002). Masterpieces of Western Art : A History of Art in 900 individual studies from the Gothic to the present day, part 1. Bonn: Taschen.

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  • Women Writers and Artists About Social Problems
  • An analysis of the Luncheon of the boating party
  • Art through History
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  • Necklace of Five Gold Pendants and Twenty One Stone Beads
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IvyPanda. (2019, May 1). Works of Art.

"Works of Art." IvyPanda , 1 May 2019,

IvyPanda . (2019) 'Works of Art'. 1 May.

IvyPanda . 2019. "Works of Art." May 1, 2019.

1. IvyPanda . "Works of Art." May 1, 2019.


IvyPanda . "Works of Art." May 1, 2019.

The Value of Art Why should we care about art?

The Value of Art, Essays on Art

One of the first questions raised when talking about art is simple—why should we care? Art in the contemporary era is easy to dismiss as a selfish pastime for people who have too much time on their hands. Creating art doesn't cure disease, build roads, or feed the poor. So to understand the value of art, let’s look at how art has been valued through history and consider how it is valuable today.

The value of creating

At its most basic level, the act of creating is rewarding in itself. Children draw for the joy of it before they can speak, and creating pictures, sculptures and writing is both a valuable means of communicating ideas and simply fun. Creating is instinctive in humans, for the pleasure of exercising creativity. While applied creativity is valueable in a work context, free-form creativity leads to new ideas.

Material value

Through the ages, art has often been created from valuable materials. Gold , ivory and gemstones adorn medieval crowns , and even the paints used by renaissance artists were made from rare materials like lapis lazuli , ground into pigment. These objects have creative value for their beauty and craftsmanship, but they are also intrinsically valuable because of the materials they contain.

Historical value

Artwork is a record of cultural history. Many ancient cultures are entirely lost to time except for the artworks they created, a legacy that helps us understand our human past. Even recent work can help us understand the lives and times of its creators, like the artwork of African-American artists during the Harlem Renaissance . Artwork is inextricably tied to the time and cultural context it was created in, a relationship called zeitgeist , making art a window into history.

Religious value

For religions around the world, artwork is often used to illustrate their beliefs. Depicting gods and goddesses, from Shiva to the Madonna , make the concepts of faith real to the faithful. Artwork has been believed to contain the spirits of gods or ancestors, or may be used to imbue architecture with an aura of awe and worship like the Badshahi Mosque .

Patriotic value

Art has long been a source of national pride, both as an example of the skill and dedication of a country’s artisans and as expressions of national accomplishments and history, like the Arc de Triomphe , a heroic monument honoring the soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars. The patriotic value of art slides into propaganda as well, used to sway the populace towards a political agenda.

Symbolic value

Art is uniquely suited to communicating ideas. Whether it’s writing or painting or sculpture, artwork can distill complex concepts into symbols that can be understood, even sometimes across language barriers and cultures. When art achieves symbolic value it can become a rallying point for a movement, like J. Howard Miller’s 1942 illustration of Rosie the Riveter, which has become an icon of feminism and women’s economic impact across the western world.

Societal value

And here’s where the rubber meets the road: when we look at our world today, we see a seemingly insurmountable wave of fear, bigotry, and hatred expressed by groups of people against anyone who is different from them. While issues of racial and gender bias, homophobia and religious intolerance run deep, and have many complex sources, much of the problem lies with a lack of empathy. When you look at another person and don't see them as human, that’s the beginning of fear, violence and war. Art is communication. And in the contemporary world, it’s often a deeply personal communication. When you create art, you share your worldview, your history, your culture and yourself with the world. Art is a window, however small, into the human struggles and stories of all people. So go see art, find art from other cultures, other religions, other orientations and perspectives. If we learn about each other, maybe we can finally see that we're all in this together. Art is a uniquely human expression of creativity. It helps us understand our past, people who are different from us, and ultimately, ourselves.

Reed Enger, "The Value of Art, Why should we care about art?," in Obelisk Art History , Published June 24, 2017; last modified November 08, 2022,

Basic Composition Techniques, Essays on Art

Basic Composition Techniques

A few easy tips

Is there such a thing as Bad Art?, Essays on Art

Is there such a thing as Bad Art?

Yes, but it's complicated

Art History Methodologies, Essays on Art

Art History Methodologies

Eight ways to understand art

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Scythian gold scabbard. The main frieze in embossed relief features a battle scene between Greeks and undetermined barbarians.

Gold, Griffins, and Greeks: Scythian Art and Cultural Interactions in the Black Sea

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Ottoman Wedding Dresses, East to West

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The Feathered Serpent Pyramid and Ciudadela of Teotihuacan (ca. 150–250 CE)

Wall painting from Teotihuacan, abstractly representing what may be a deity, in shades of red, green, orange, and blue.

Teotihuacan (ca. 100 BCE–800 CE)

Stone mask carved into lapis lazuli, made by a Condorhuasi-Alamito artist.

Stone Masks and Figurines from Northwest Argentina (500 BCE–650 CE)

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sculptural object, the book of hours: a medieval bestseller, boscoreale: frescoes from the villa of p. fannius synistor, botanical imagery in european painting, bronze sculpture in the renaissance, bronze statuettes of the american west, 1850–1915, buddhism and buddhist art, building stories: contextualizing architecture at the cloisters, burgundian netherlands: court life and patronage, burgundian netherlands: private life, byzantine art under islam, the byzantine city of amorium, byzantine ivories, the byzantine state under justinian i (justinian the great), byzantium (ca. 330–1453), calligraphy in islamic art, cameo appearances, candace wheeler (1827–1923), capac hucha as an inca assemblage, caravaggio (michelangelo merisi) (1571–1610) and his followers, carolingian art, carpets from the islamic world, 1600–1800, cave sculpture from the karawari, ceramic technology in the seljuq period: stonepaste in syria and iran in the eleventh century, ceramic technology in the seljuq period: stonepaste in syria and iran in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, ceramics in the french renaissance, cerro sechín, cerro sechín: stone sculpture, the cesnola collection at the metropolitan museum of art, charles eames (1907–1978) and ray eames (1913–1988), charles frederick worth (1825–1895) and the house of worth, charles james (1906–1978), charles sheeler (1883–1965), chauvet cave (ca. 30,000 b.c.), childe hassam (1859–1935), chinese buddhist sculpture, chinese calligraphy, chinese cloisonné, chinese gardens and collectors’ rocks, chinese handscrolls, chinese hardstone carvings, chinese painting, the chiton, peplos, and himation in modern dress, the chopine, christian dior (1905–1957), christopher dresser (1834–1904), classical antiquity in the middle ages, classical art and modern dress, classical cyprus (ca. 480–ca. 310 b.c.), classicism in modern dress, claude lorrain (1604/5–1682), claude monet (1840–1926), coffee, tea, and chocolate in early colonial america, collecting for the kunstkammer, colonial kero cups, colossal temples of the roman near east, commedia dell’arte, company painting in nineteenth-century india, conceptual art and photography, constantinople after 1261, contemporary deconstructions of classical dress, contexts for the display of statues in classical antiquity, cosmic buddhas in the himalayas, costume in the metropolitan museum of art, the countess da castiglione, courtly art of the ilkhanids, courtship and betrothal in the italian renaissance, cristobal balenciaga (1895–1972), the croome court tapestry room, worcestershire, the crucifixion and passion of christ in italian painting, the crusades (1095–1291), the cult of the virgin mary in the middle ages, cut and engraved glass from islamic lands, cyprus—island of copper, daguerre (1787–1851) and the invention of photography, the daguerreian age in france: 1839–55, the daguerreian era and early american photography on paper, 1839–60, the damascus room, daniel chester french (1850–1931), daoism and daoist art, david octavius hill (1802–1870) and robert adamson (1821–1848), death, burial, and the afterlife in ancient greece, the decoration of arms and armor, the decoration of european armor, the decoration of tibetan arms and armor, design reform, design, 1900–1925, design, 1925–50, design, 1950–75, design, 1975–2000, the development of the recorder, direct versus indirect casting of small bronzes in the italian renaissance, divination and senufo sculpture in west africa, domenichino (1581–1641), domestic art in renaissance italy, donatello (ca. 1386–1466), drawing in the middle ages, dress rehearsal: the origins of the costume institute, dressing for the cocktail hour, dualism in andean art, duncan phyfe (1770–1854) and charles-honoré lannuier (1779–1819), dutch and flemish artists in rome, 1500–1600, eagles after the american revolution, early cycladic art and culture, early documentary photography, early dynastic sculpture, 2900–2350 b.c., early excavations in assyria, early histories of photography in west africa (1860–1910), early maori wood carvings, early modernists and indian traditions, early netherlandish painting, early photographers of the american west: 1860s–70s, early qur’ans (8th–early 13th century), east and west: chinese export porcelain, east asian cultural exchange in tiger and dragon paintings, easter island, eastern religions in the roman world, ebla in the third millennium b.c., edgar degas (1834–1917): bronze sculpture, edgar degas (1834–1917): painting and drawing, edo-period japanese porcelain, édouard baldus (1813–1889), édouard manet (1832–1883), edward hopper (1882–1967), edward j. steichen (1879–1973): the photo-secession years, edward lycett (1833–1910), egypt in the late period (ca. 664–332 b.c.), egypt in the middle kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 b.c.), egypt in the new kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 b.c.), egypt in the old kingdom (ca. 2649–2130 b.c.), egypt in the ptolemaic period, egypt in the third intermediate period (ca. 1070–664 b.c.), egyptian faience: technology and production, egyptian modern art, egyptian red gold, egyptian revival, egyptian tombs: life along the nile, eighteenth-century european dress, the eighteenth-century pastel portrait, eighteenth-century silhouette and support, eighteenth-century women painters in france, el greco (1541–1614), élisabeth louise vigée le brun (1755–1842), elizabethan england, elsa schiaparelli (1890–1973), empire style, 1800–1815, the empires of the western sudan, the empires of the western sudan: ghana empire, the empires of the western sudan: mali empire, the empires of the western sudan: songhai empire, enameled and gilded glass from islamic lands, english embroidery of the late tudor and stuart eras, english ornament prints and furniture books in eighteenth-century america, english silver, 1600–1800, ernest hemingway (1899–1961) and art, ernst emil herzfeld (1879–1948) in persepolis, ernst emil herzfeld (1879–1948) in samarra, etching in eighteenth-century france: artists and amateurs, the etching revival in nineteenth-century france, ethiopia’s enduring cultural heritage, ethiopian healing scrolls, etruscan art, etruscan language and inscriptions, eugène atget (1857–1927), europe and the age of exploration, europe and the islamic world, 1600–1800, european clocks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, european exploration of the pacific, 1600–1800, european revivalism, european tapestry production and patronage, 1400–1600, european tapestry production and patronage, 1600–1800, exchange of art and ideas: the benin, owo, and ijebu kingdoms, exoticism in the decorative arts, extravagant monstrosities: gold- and silversmith designs in the auricular style, eynan/ain mallaha (12,500–10,000 b.c.), fabricating sixteenth-century netherlandish boxwood miniatures, the face in medieval sculpture, famous makers of arms and armors and european centers of production, fashion in european armor, fashion in european armor, 1000–1300, fashion in european armor, 1300–1400, fashion in european armor, 1400–1500, fashion in european armor, 1500–1600, fashion in european armor, 1600–1700, fashion in safavid iran, fatimid jewelry, fell’s cave (9000–8000 b.c.), fernand léger (1881–1955), feudalism and knights in medieval europe, figural representation in islamic art, filippino lippi (ca. 1457–1504), fire gilding of arms and armor, the five wares of south italian vase painting, the flavian dynasty (69–96 a.d.), flemish harpsichords and virginals, flood stories, folios from the great mongol shahnama (book of kings), folios from the jami‘ al-tavarikh (compendium of chronicles), fontainebleau, food and drink in european painting, 1400–1800, foundations of aksumite civilization and its christian legacy (1st–8th century), fra angelico (ca. 1395–1455), francisco de goya (1746–1828) and the spanish enlightenment, françois boucher (1703–1770), frank lloyd wright (1867–1959), frans hals (1582/83–1666), frederic edwin church (1826–1900), frederic remington (1861–1909), frederick william macmonnies (1863–1937), the french academy in rome, french art deco, french art pottery, french decorative arts during the reign of louis xiv (1654–1715), french faience, french furniture in the eighteenth century: case furniture, french furniture in the eighteenth century: seat furniture, french porcelain in the eighteenth century, french silver in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, frescoes and wall painting in late byzantine art, from geometric to informal gardens in the eighteenth century, from italy to france: gardens in the court of louis xiv and after, from model to monument: american public sculpture, 1865–1915, the fulani/fulbe people, the function of armor in medieval and renaissance europe, funerary vases in southern italy and sicily, furnishings during the reign of louis xiv (1654–1715), gabrielle “coco” chanel (1883–1971) and the house of chanel, gardens in the french renaissance, gardens of western europe, 1600–1800, genre painting in northern europe, geometric abstraction, geometric and archaic cyprus, geometric art in ancient greece, geometric patterns in islamic art, george inness (1825–1894), george washington: man, myth, monument, georges seurat (1859–1891) and neo-impressionism, georgia o’keeffe (1887–1986), gerard david (born about 1455, died 1523), german and austrian porcelain in the eighteenth century, the ghent altarpiece, gian lorenzo bernini (1598–1680), gilbert stuart (1755–1828), giovanni battista piranesi (1720–1778), giovanni battista tiepolo (1696–1770), gladiators: types and training, glass from islamic lands, glass ornaments in late antiquity and early islam (ca. 500–1000), glass with mold-blown decoration from islamic lands, the gods and goddesses of canaan, gold in ancient egypt, gold in asante courtly arts, gold in the ancient americas, gold of the indies, the golden age of french furniture in the eighteenth century, the golden harpsichord of michele todini (1616–1690), golden treasures: the royal tombs of silla, goryeo celadon, the grand tour, the graphic art of max klinger, great plains indians musical instruments, great serpent mound, great zimbabwe (11th–15th century), the greater ottoman empire, 1600–1800, greek art in the archaic period, greek gods and religious practices, greek hydriai (water jars) and their artistic decoration, the greek key and divine attributes in modern dress, greek terracotta figurines with articulated limbs, gustave courbet (1819–1877), gustave le gray (1820–1884), hagia sophia, 532–37, the halaf period (6500–5500 b.c.), han dynasty (206 b.c.–220 a.d.), hanae mori (1926–2022), hans talhoffer’s fight book, a sixteenth-century manuscript about the art of fighting, harry burton (1879–1940): the pharaoh’s photographer, hasanlu in the iron age, haute couture, heian period (794–1185), hellenistic and roman cyprus, hellenistic jewelry, hendrick goltzius (1558–1617), henri cartier-bresson (1908–2004), henri de toulouse-lautrec (1864–1901), henri matisse (1869–1954), henry kirke brown (1814–1886), john quincy adams ward (1830–1910), and realism in american sculpture, heroes in italian mythological prints, hinduism and hindu art, hippopotami in ancient egypt, hiram powers (1805–1873), the hittites, the holy roman empire and the habsburgs, 1400–1600, hopewell (1–400 a.d.), horse armor in europe, hot-worked glass from islamic lands, the house of jeanne hallée (1870–1924), the housemistress in new kingdom egypt: hatnefer, how medieval and renaissance tapestries were made, the hudson river school, hungarian silver, icons and iconoclasm in byzantium, the idea and invention of the villa, ife (from ca. 6th century), ife pre-pavement and pavement era (800–1000 a.d.), ife terracottas (1000–1400 a.d.), igbo-ukwu (ca. 9th century), images of antiquity in limoges enamels in the french renaissance, impressionism: art and modernity, in pursuit of white: porcelain in the joseon dynasty, 1392–1910, indian knoll (3000–2000 b.c.), indian textiles: trade and production, indigenous arts of the caribbean, industrialization and conflict in america: 1840–1875, the industrialization of french photography after 1860, inland niger delta, intellectual pursuits of the hellenistic age, intentional alterations of early netherlandish painting, interior design in england, 1600–1800, interiors imagined: folding screens, garments, and clothing stands, international pictorialism, internationalism in the tang dynasty (618–907), introduction to prehistoric art, 20,000–8000 b.c., the isin-larsa and old babylonian periods (2004–1595 b.c.), islamic arms and armor, islamic art and culture: the venetian perspective, islamic art of the deccan, islamic carpets in european paintings, italian painting of the later middle ages, italian porcelain in the eighteenth century, italian renaissance frames, ivory and boxwood carvings, 1450–1800, ivory carving in the gothic era, thirteenth–fifteenth centuries, jacopo dal ponte, called bassano (ca. 1510–1592), jade in costa rica, jade in mesoamerica, jain manuscript painting, jain sculpture, james cox (ca. 1723–1800): goldsmith and entrepreneur, james mcneill whistler (1834–1903), james mcneill whistler (1834–1903) as etcher, jan gossart (ca. 1478–1532) and his circle, jan van eyck (ca. 1390–1441), the japanese blade: technology and manufacture, japanese illustrated handscrolls, japanese incense, the japanese tea ceremony, japanese weddings in the edo period (1615–1868), japanese writing boxes, jasper johns (born 1930), jean antoine houdon (1741–1828), jean honoré fragonard (1732–1806), jean-baptiste carpeaux (1827–1875), jean-baptiste greuze (1725–1805), jewish art in late antiquity and early byzantium, jews and the arts in medieval europe, jews and the decorative arts in early modern italy, jiahu (ca. 7000–5700 b.c.), joachim tielke (1641–1719), joan miró (1893–1983), johannes vermeer (1632–1675), johannes vermeer (1632–1675) and the milkmaid, john constable (1776–1837), john frederick kensett (1816–1872), john singer sargent (1856–1925), john singleton copley (1738–1815), john townsend (1733–1809), jōmon culture (ca. 10,500–ca. 300 b.c.), joseon buncheong ware: between celadon and porcelain, joseph mallord william turner (1775–1851), juan de flandes (active by 1496, died 1519), julia margaret cameron (1815–1879), the julio-claudian dynasty (27 b.c.–68 a.d.), kamakura and nanbokucho periods (1185–1392), the kano school of painting, kingdoms of madagascar: malagasy funerary arts, kingdoms of madagascar: malagasy textile arts, kingdoms of madagascar: maroserana and merina, kingdoms of the savanna: the kuba kingdom, kingdoms of the savanna: the luba and lunda empires, kings and queens of egypt, kings of brightness in japanese esoteric buddhist art, the kirtlington park room, oxfordshire, the kithara in ancient greece, kodak and the rise of amateur photography, kofun period (ca. 300–710), kongo ivories, korean buddhist sculpture (5th–9th century), korean munbangdo paintings, kushan empire (ca. second century b.c.–third century a.d.), la venta: sacred architecture, la venta: stone sculpture, the labors of herakles, lacquerware of east asia, landscape painting in chinese art, landscape painting in the netherlands, the lansdowne dining room, london, lapita pottery (ca. 1500–500 b.c.), lascaux (ca. 15,000 b.c.), late eighteenth-century american drawings, late medieval german sculpture, late medieval german sculpture: images for the cult and for private devotion, late medieval german sculpture: materials and techniques, late medieval german sculpture: polychromy and monochromy, the later ottomans and the impact of europe, le colis de trianon-versailles and paris openings, the legacy of genghis khan, the legacy of jacques louis david (1748–1825), leonardo da vinci (1452–1519), letterforms and writing in contemporary art, life of jesus of nazareth, life of the buddha, list of rulers of ancient egypt and nubia, list of rulers of ancient sudan, list of rulers of byzantium, list of rulers of china, list of rulers of europe, list of rulers of japan, list of rulers of korea, list of rulers of mesopotamia, list of rulers of south asia, list of rulers of the ancient greek world, list of rulers of the islamic world, list of rulers of the parthian empire, list of rulers of the roman empire, list of rulers of the sasanian empire, lithography in the nineteenth century, longevity in chinese art, louis comfort tiffany (1848–1933), louis-rémy robert (1810–1882), lovers in italian mythological prints, the lure of montmartre, 1880–1900, luxury arts of rome, lydenburg heads (ca. 500 a.d.), lydia and phrygia, made in india, found in egypt: red sea textile trade in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, made in italy: italian fashion from 1950 to now, the magic of signs and patterns in north african art, maiolica in the renaissance, mal’ta (ca. 20,000 b.c.), mangarevan sculpture, the manila galleon trade (1565–1815), mannerism: bronzino (1503–1572) and his contemporaries, the mantiq al-tair (language of the birds) of 1487, manuscript illumination in italy, 1400–1600, manuscript illumination in northern europe, mapungubwe (ca. 1050–1270), marcel duchamp (1887–1968), maria monaci gallenga (1880–1944), mary stevenson cassatt (1844–1926), the master of monte oliveto (active about 1305–35), the materials and techniques of american quilts and coverlets, the materials and techniques of english embroidery of the late tudor and stuart eras, mauryan empire (ca. 323–185 b.c.), medicine in classical antiquity, medicine in the middle ages, medieval aquamanilia, medieval european sculpture for buildings, medusa in ancient greek art, mendicant orders in the medieval world, the mesoamerican ballgame, mesopotamian creation myths, mesopotamian deities, mesopotamian magic in the first millennium b.c., the metropolitan museum’s excavations at nishapur, the metropolitan museum’s excavations at ctesiphon, the metropolitan museum’s excavations at qasr-i abu nasr, michiel sweerts and biblical subjects in dutch art, the middle babylonian / kassite period (ca. 1595–1155 b.c.) in mesopotamia, military music in american and european traditions, ming dynasty (1368–1644), minoan crete, mission héliographique, 1851, miyake, kawakubo, and yamamoto: japanese fashion in the twentieth century, moche decorated ceramics, moche portrait vessels, modern and contemporary art in iran, modern art in india, modern art in west and east pakistan, modern art in west asia: colonial to post-colonial, modern materials: plastics, modern storytellers: romare bearden, jacob lawrence, faith ringgold, momoyama period (1573–1615), monasticism in western medieval europe, the mon-dvaravati tradition of early north-central thailand, the mongolian tent in the ilkhanid period, monte albán, monte albán: sacred architecture, monte albán: stone sculpture, monumental architecture of the aksumite empire, the monumental stelae of aksum (3rd–4th century), mosaic glass from islamic lands, mountain and water: korean landscape painting, 1400–1800, muromachi period (1392–1573), music and art of china, music in ancient greece, music in the ancient andes, music in the renaissance, musical instruments of oceania, musical instruments of the indian subcontinent, musical terms for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mycenaean civilization, mystery cults in the greek and roman world, nabataean kingdom and petra, the nabis and decorative painting, nadar (1820–1910), the nahal mishmar treasure, nature in chinese culture, the nature of islamic art, the neoclassical temple, neoclassicism, neolithic period in china, nepalese painting, nepalese sculpture, netsuke: from fashion fobs to coveted collectibles, new caledonia, the new documentary tradition in photography, new ireland, new vision photography, a new visual language transmitted across asia, the new york dutch room, nicolas poussin (1594–1665), nineteenth-century american drawings, nineteenth-century american folk art, nineteenth-century american jewelry, nineteenth-century american silver, nineteenth-century classical music, nineteenth-century court arts in india, nineteenth-century english silver, nineteenth-century european textile production, nineteenth-century french realism, nineteenth-century iran: art and the advent of modernity, nineteenth-century iran: continuity and revivalism, nineteenth-century silhouette and support, nok terracottas (500 b.c.–200 a.d.), northern italian renaissance painting, northern mannerism in the early sixteenth century, northern song dynasty (960–1127), northwest coast indians musical instruments, the nude in baroque and later art, the nude in the middle ages and the renaissance, the nude in western art and its beginnings in antiquity, nudity and classical themes in byzantine art, nuptial furnishings in the italian renaissance, the old assyrian period (ca. 2000–1600 b.c.), orientalism in nineteenth-century art, orientalism: visions of the east in western dress, the origins of writing, ottonian art, pablo picasso (1881–1973), pachmari hills (ca. 9000–3000 b.c.), painted funerary monuments from hellenistic alexandria, painting formats in east asian art, painting in italian choir books, 1300–1500, painting in oil in the low countries and its spread to southern europe, painting the life of christ in medieval and renaissance italy, paintings of love and marriage in the italian renaissance, paolo veronese (1528–1588), the papacy and the vatican palace, the papacy during the renaissance, papyrus in ancient egypt, papyrus-making in egypt, the parthian empire (247 b.c.–224 a.d.), pastoral charms in the french renaissance, patronage at the early valois courts (1328–1461), patronage at the later valois courts (1461–1589), patronage of jean de berry (1340–1416), paul cézanne (1839–1906), paul gauguin (1848–1903), paul klee (1879–1940), paul poiret (1879–1944), paul revere, jr. (1734–1818), paul strand (1890–1976), period of the northern and southern dynasties (386–581), peter paul rubens (1577–1640) and anthony van dyck (1599–1641): paintings, peter paul rubens (1577–1640) and anthony van dyck (1599–1641): works on paper, petrus christus (active by 1444, died 1475/76), the phoenicians (1500–300 b.c.), photographers in egypt, photography and surrealism, photography and the civil war, 1861–65, photography at the bauhaus, photography in düsseldorf, photography in europe, 1945–60, photography in postwar america, 1945-60, photography in the expanded field: painting, performance, and the neo-avant-garde, photojournalism and the picture press in germany, phrygia, gordion, and king midas in the late eighth century b.c., the piano: the pianofortes of bartolomeo cristofori (1655–1731), the piano: viennese instruments, pictorialism in america, the pictures generation, pierre bonnard (1867–1947): the late interiors, pierre didot the elder (1761–1853), pieter bruegel the elder (ca. 1525–1569), pilgrimage in medieval europe, poetic allusions in the rajput and pahari painting of india, poets in italian mythological prints, poets, lovers, and heroes in italian mythological prints, polychrome sculpture in spanish america, polychromy of roman marble sculpture, popular religion: magical uses of imagery in byzantine art, portrait painting in england, 1600–1800, portraits of african leadership, portraits of african leadership: living rulers, portraits of african leadership: memorials, portraits of african leadership: royal ancestors, portraiture in renaissance and baroque europe, the portuguese in africa, 1415–1600, post-impressionism, postmodernism: recent developments in art in india, postmodernism: recent developments in art in pakistan and bangladesh, post-revolutionary america: 1800–1840, the postwar print renaissance in america, poverty point (2000–1000 b.c.), the praenestine cistae, prague during the rule of rudolf ii (1583–1612), prague, 1347–1437, pre-angkor traditions: the mekong delta and peninsular thailand, precisionism, prehistoric cypriot art and culture, prehistoric stone sculpture from new guinea, the pre-raphaelites, presidents of the united states of america, the print in the nineteenth century, the printed image in the west: aquatint, the printed image in the west: drypoint, the printed image in the west: engraving, the printed image in the west: etching, the printed image in the west: history and techniques, the printed image in the west: mezzotint, the printed image in the west: woodcut, printmaking in mexico, 1900–1950, private devotion in medieval christianity, profane love and erotic art in the italian renaissance, the pyramid complex of senwosret iii, dahshur, the pyramid complex of senwosret iii, dahshur: private tombs to the north, the pyramid complex of senwosret iii, dahshur: queens and princesses, the pyramid complex of senwosret iii, dahshur: temples, qin dynasty (221–206 b.c.), the qing dynasty (1644–1911): courtiers, officials, and professional artists, the qing dynasty (1644–1911): loyalists and individualists, the qing dynasty (1644–1911): painting, the qing dynasty (1644–1911): the traditionalists, the rag-dung, rare coins from nishapur, recognizing the gods, the rediscovery of classical antiquity, the reformation, relics and reliquaries in medieval christianity, religion and culture in north america, 1600–1700, the religious arts under the ilkhanids, the religious relationship between byzantium and the west, rembrandt (1606–1669): paintings, rembrandt van rijn (1606–1669): prints, renaissance drawings: material and function, renaissance keyboards, renaissance organs, renaissance velvet textiles, renaissance violins, retrospective styles in greek and roman sculpture, rinpa painting style, the rise of macedon and the conquests of alexander the great, the rise of modernity in south asia, the rise of paper photography in 1850s france, the rise of paper photography in italy, 1839–55, the rock-hewn churches of lalibela, roger fenton (1819–1869), the roman banquet, roman cameo glass, roman copies of greek statues, roman egypt, the roman empire (27 b.c.–393 a.d.), roman games: playing with animals, roman glass, roman gold-band glass, roman housing, roman inscriptions, roman luxury glass, roman mold-blown glass, roman mosaic and network glass, roman painting, roman portrait sculpture: republican through constantinian, roman portrait sculpture: the stylistic cycle, the roman republic, roman sarcophagi, roman stuccowork, romanesque art, romanticism, saint petersburg, saints and other sacred byzantine figures, saints in medieval christian art, the salon and the royal academy in the nineteenth century, san ethnography, sanford robinson gifford (1823–1880), the sasanian empire (224–651 a.d.), scenes of everyday life in ancient greece, scholar-officials of china, school of paris, seasonal imagery in japanese art, the seleucid empire (323–64 b.c.), senufo arts and poro initiation in northern côte d’ivoire, senufo sculpture from west africa: an influential exhibition at the museum of primitive art, new york, 1963, seventeenth-century european watches, the severan dynasty (193–235 a.d.), sèvres porcelain in the nineteenth century, shah ‘abbas and the arts of isfahan, the shah jahan album, the shahnama of shah tahmasp, shaker furniture, shakespeare and art, 1709–1922, shakespeare portrayed, shang and zhou dynasties: the bronze age of china, shoes in the costume institute, shōguns and art, shunga dynasty (ca. second–first century b.c.), sienese painting, silk textiles from safavid iran, 1501–1722, silks from ottoman turkey, silver in ancient egypt, sixteenth-century painting in emilia-romagna, sixteenth-century painting in lombardy, sixteenth-century painting in venice and the veneto, the solomon islands, south asian art and culture, southern italian vase painting, southern song dynasty (1127–1279), the spanish guitar, spiritual power in the arts of the toba batak, stained (luster-painted) glass from islamic lands, stained glass in medieval europe, still-life painting in northern europe, 1600–1800, still-life painting in southern europe, 1600–1800, the structure of photographic metaphors, students of benjamin west (1738–1820), the symposium in ancient greece, takht-i sulaiman and tilework in the ilkhanid period, talavera de puebla, tanagra figurines, tang dynasty (618–907), the technique of bronze statuary in ancient greece, techniques of decoration on arms and armor, telling time in ancient egypt, tenochtitlan, tenochtitlan: templo mayor, teotihuacan: mural painting, teotihuacan: pyramids of the sun and the moon, textile production in europe: embroidery, 1600–1800, textile production in europe: lace, 1600–1800, textile production in europe: printed, 1600–1800, textile production in europe: silk, 1600–1800, theater and amphitheater in the roman world, theater in ancient greece, theseus, hero of athens, thomas chippendale’s gentleman and cabinet-maker’s director, thomas cole (1801–1848), thomas eakins (1844–1916): painting, thomas eakins (1844–1916): photography, 1880s–90s, thomas hart benton’s america today mural, thomas sully (1783–1872) and queen victoria, tibetan arms and armor, tibetan buddhist art, tikal: sacred architecture, tikal: stone sculpture, time of day on painted athenian vases, tiraz: inscribed textiles from the early islamic period, titian (ca. 1485/90–1576), the tomb of wah, trade and commercial activity in the byzantine and early islamic middle east, trade and the spread of islam in africa, trade between arabia and the empires of rome and asia, trade between the romans and the empires of asia, trade relations among european and african nations, trade routes between europe and asia during antiquity, traditional chinese painting in the twentieth century, the transatlantic slave trade, the transformation of landscape painting in france, the trans-saharan gold trade (7th–14th century), turkmen jewelry, turquoise in ancient egypt, tutankhamun’s funeral, tutsi basketry, twentieth-century silhouette and support, the ubaid period (5500–4000 b.c.), ubirr (ca. 40,000–present), umberto boccioni (1882–1916), unfinished works in european art, ca. 1500–1900, ur: the royal graves, ur: the ziggurat, uruk: the first city, valdivia figurines, vegetal patterns in islamic art, velázquez (1599–1660), venetian color and florentine design, venice and the islamic world, 828–1797, venice and the islamic world: commercial exchange, diplomacy, and religious difference, venice in the eighteenth century, venice’s principal muslim trading partners: the mamluks, the ottomans, and the safavids, the vibrant role of mingqi in early chinese burials, the vikings (780–1100), vincent van gogh (1853–1890), vincent van gogh (1853–1890): the drawings, violin makers: nicolò amati (1596–1684) and antonio stradivari (1644–1737), visual culture of the atlantic world, vivienne westwood (born 1941) and the postmodern legacy of punk style, wadi kubbaniya (ca. 17,000–15,000 b.c.), walker evans (1903–1975), wang hui (1632–1717), warfare in ancient greece, watercolor painting in britain, 1750–1850, ways of recording african history, weddings in the italian renaissance, west asia: ancient legends, modern idioms, west asia: between tradition and modernity, west asia: postmodernism, the diaspora, and women artists, william blake (1757–1827), william henry fox talbot (1800–1877) and the invention of photography, william merritt chase (1849–1916), winslow homer (1836–1910), wisteria dining room, paris, women artists in nineteenth-century france, women china decorators, women in classical greece, women leaders in african history, 17th–19th century, women leaders in african history: ana nzinga, queen of ndongo, women leaders in african history: dona beatriz, kongo prophet, women leaders in african history: idia, first queen mother of benin, woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e style, woodcut book illustration in renaissance italy: florence in the 1490s, woodcut book illustration in renaissance italy: the first illustrated books, woodcut book illustration in renaissance italy: venice in the 1490s, woodcut book illustration in renaissance italy: venice in the sixteenth century, wordplay in twentieth-century prints, work and leisure: eighteenth-century genre painting in korea, x-ray style in arnhem land rock art, yamato-e painting, yangban: the cultural life of the joseon literati, yayoi culture (ca. 300 b.c.–300 a.d.), the year one, years leading to the iranian revolution, 1960–79, yuan dynasty (1271–1368), zen buddhism, 0 && essaysctrl.themev == 'departments / collections' && essaysctrl.deptv == null">, departments / collections '">.

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ARTS - Herzberg: Writing Essays About Art

  • Art History
  • Current Artists and Events
  • Local Art Venues
  • Video and Image Resources
  • Writing Essays About Art
  • Citation Help

What is a Compare and Contrast Essay?

What is a compare / contrast essay.

In Art History and Appreciation, contrast / compare essays allow us to examine the features of two or more artworks.

  • Comparison -- points out similarities in the two artworks
  • Contrast -- points out the differences in the two artworks

Why would you want to write this type of essay?

  • To inform your reader about characteristics of each art piece.
  • To show a relationship between different works of art.
  • To give your reader an insight into the process of artistic invention.
  • Use your assignment sheet from your class to find specific characteristics that your professor wants you to compare.

How is Writing a Compare / Contrast Essay in Art History Different from Other Subjects?

You should use art vocabulary to describe your subjects..

  • Find art terms in your textbook or an art glossary or dictionary

You should have an image of the works you are writing about in front of you while you are writing your essay.

  • The images should be of  high enough quality that you can see the small details of the works. 
  • You will use them when describing visual details of each art work.

Works of art are highly influenced by the culture, historical time period and movement in which they were created.

  • You should gather information about these BEFORE you start writing your essay.

If you describe a characteristic of one piece of art, you must describe how the OTHER piece of art treats that characteristic.

Example:  You are comparing a Greek amphora with a sculpture from the Tang Dynasty in China.

Greek amphora

If you point out that the color palette of the amphora is limited to black, white and red, you must also write about the colors used in the horse sculpture.

Organizing Your Essay

Thesis statement.

The thesis for a comparison/contrast essay will present the subjects under consideration and indicate whether the focus will be on their similarities, on their differences, or both.

Thesis example using the amphora and horse sculpture -- Differences:

While they are both made from clay, the Greek amphora and the Tang Dynasty horse served completely different functions in their respective cultures.

Thesis example -- Similarities:

Ancient Greek and Tang Dynasty ceramics have more in common than most people realize.

Thesis example -- Both:

The Greek amphora and the Tang Dynasty horse were used in different ways in different parts of the world, but they have similarities that may  not be apparent to the casual viewer.

Visualizing a Compare & Contrast Essay: 

Introduction (1-2 paragraphs) .

  • Creates interest in your essay
  • Introduces the two art works that you will be comparing.
  • States your thesis, which mentions the art works you are considering and may indicate whether the focus will be on similarities, differences, or both. 

Body paragraphs 

  • Make and explain a point about the first subject and then about the second subject 
  • Example: While both superheroes fight crime, their motivation is vastly different. Superman is an idealist, who fights for justice …… while Batman is out for vengeance. 

Conclusion (1-2 paragraphs) 

  • Provides a satisfying finish 
  • Leaves your reader with a strong final impression. 

Downloadable Essay Guide

  • How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay in Art History Downloadable version of the description on this LibGuide.

Questions to Ask Yourself After You Have Finished Your Essay

  • Are all the important points of comparison or contrast included and explained in enough detail?
  • Have you addressed all points that your professor specified in your assignment?
  • Do you use transitions to connect your arguments so that your essay flows into a coherent whole, rather than just a random collection of statements?
  • Do your arguments support your thesis statement?

Art Terminology

  • British National Gallery: Art Glossary Includes entries on artists, art movements, techniques, etc.

Lee College Writing Center

Writing Center tutors can help you with any writing assignment for any class from the time you receive the assignment instructions until you turn it in, including:

  • Brainstorming ideas
  • MLA / APA formats
  • Grammar and paragraph unity
  • Thesis statements
  • Second set of eyes before turning in

Contact a tutor:

  • Phone: 281-425-6534
  • Email:  w [email protected]
  • Schedule a web appointment:

Other Compare / Contrast Writing Resources

  • Southwestern University Guide for Writing About Art This easy to follow guide explains the basic of writing an art history paper.
  • Purdue Online Writing Center: writing essays in art history Describes how to write an art history Compare and Contrast paper.
  • Stanford University: a brief guide to writing in art history See page 24 of this document for an explanation of how to write a compare and contrast essay in art history.
  • Duke University: writing about paintings Downloadable handout provides an overview of areas you should cover when you write about paintings, including a list of questions your essay should answer.
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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by Erik Larsen

Introduction and Historical Information

Despite its relative brevity, Walter Benjamin ’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” continues to inspire significant scholarly attention as a major work in the history of modern aesthetic and political criticism. The essay is credited with developing an insightful interpretation of the role technological reproduction plays in shaping aesthetic experience; more specifically, Benjamin catalogues the significant effects of film and photography on the decline of autonomous aesthetic experience. After fleeing the Nazi government in 1933 , Benjamin moved to Paris, from where he published the first edition of “Work of Art” in 1936 (Brodersen XV). This publication appeared in French translation under the direction of Raymond Aron in volume 5, no. 1 of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Benjamin subsequently rewrote the essay and after editorial work by Theodore and Margarethe Adorno it was posthumously published in its commonly recognized form in his Schriften of 1955 (Wolin 183-4).

Basic Themes and Arguments

Benjamin begins his essay by briefly distinguishing his categories from traditional aesthetic values, those of “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” (218). In contrast, “Work of Art” relates these tendencies to bourgeois and fascist ideologies and to the conditions, inevitably generated out of capitalism itself, which provoke “revolutionary demands in the politics of art” (217-8). In order to catalogue and ultimately subvert classical and Romantic aesthetic ideals, Benjamin describes the process by which modern technological reproduction strips these institutions and their iconic artworks of their aesthetic authority. Benjamin claims that in times past the role of art has been to provide a magical foundation for the cult. Here the artwork’s use value was located in its central position within ritual and religious tradition (223-4). A statue or idol conveyed a sense of detached authority, or frightening magical power, which inhered in (and only in) that particular historical artifact. The reproduction in mass of such an item would have been unthinkable because it was its unique singularity that produced the sacrality of the ritual.

In order better to describe this illusive quality Benjamin introduces the concept of the “aura.” As the term implies, the aura includes the atmosphere of detached and transcendent beauty and power supporting cultic societies. It also includes the legitimacy accorded to the object by a lengthy historical existence. Benjamin writes: “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (221). In order to clarify the idea he compares it to the experience of natural phenomenon: “we define the aura of the later as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (222-3). Benjamin’s example is noteworthy because, as with the cultic artifact, the aura of the mountains seems to rest on something autonomous and free from human intervention. The statue is not like any other object produced or used within a society; it appears free from the taint of ideological control or human interference, as though its power, like that of the mountain, issues independently from within.

The coming of modernity and the disappearance of the cult only partially signal the end of auratic art. Benjamin recognizes in modern art’s emphasis on autonomy a lingering cult of the aura. Specifically, the L’art pour l’art movement preserved and developed the sense of autonomy and distance native to ancient religious works (224). In fact, it could be said that Romantic and symbolist aesthetic ideals, derived partially from Kant’s apotheosis of the artwork’s autonomy, represent an extreme attempt to indemnify the aura. For example, Mallarmé’s vision of a “pure” artwork is of something utterly detached from everyday reality or social and political influences (Melberg 100). Much of nineteenth-century art and aesthetics thus represent a conscious attempt to defend the special status of the artwork from the banality of bourgeois capitalism. More specifically, the cult of “pure” art is a response to the mechanical reproduction of artworks that threatens to strip them completely of their aura.

Benjamin acknowledges the reality of artistic reproduction throughout history, although he suggests that mechanical reproduction introduced an entirely new and revolutionary change in the experience of the artwork (218). With mechanical reproduction, which appears in its most radical forms in film and photography, millions of images of an original are circulated, all of which lack the “authentic” aura of their source. This process both affects and is the effect of changing social conditions in which all previously unique and sacred institutions have become equal (223). The general willingness to accept a reproduction in place of the original also signifies an unwillingness to participate in the ritualistic aesthetics and politics of earlier times. For example, a photograph or film of a Catholic cathedral denudes its unique aura, transforming the role of participant into that of a spectator or possibly a detached commentator.

Although Benjamin discusses photography briefly, his argument focuses primarily on the revolutionary potential of film as a mode of mechanical reproduction. The film actor, unlike stage performers, does not face or respond to an audience. The audience’s view also becomes synonymous with the imperious perspective accorded to the camera. The net effect of these innovations is to place the viewer in the impersonal position of critic—something prior cultic experiences of art would never have allowed (229). The prevalence of film, as well as other mechanical reproductions, also creates a culture of minor experts ready to judge art rather than loose themselves in participatory ritual (231). Benjamin also notes that film relies on a series of cut and spliced images that must be assembled to form an aesthetic whole. Like Dadaist painting, film’s swift juxtapositions and movements strike the viewer violently, disrupting contemplation and easy consumption of the image (238). Susan Buck-Morss develops this point further, commenting that for Benjamin art must “restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation, and to do this, not by avoiding the new technologies, but by passing through them” (5).

The deep political and social significance of these reflections are developed briefly in Benjamin’s epilogue, wherein he recognizes in fascism a final and terrible instantiation of the L’art pour l’art movement. As a form of extreme capitalism, fascism ultimately does not alter the structure of property relationships. Instead it substitutes aesthetic expression into the world of politics, thus supposedly allowing the masses the right to self-expression. The result is a reinstatement of the aura and cultic values into political life, a process which inevitably ends in war (241-2). In a chilling final paragraph Benjamin suggests that self-alienation within fascism has become so extreme that the destruction of humanity becomes an aesthetic experience. In response to this total aestheticization of politics, Benjamin writes that communism responds in a supposedly positive gesture by “politicizing art” (242).

Reception and Interpretation

Numerous scholarly articles and books continue to focus on Benjamin’s artwork essay, with a mixture of positive and negative responses indicative of its general readership over many years. Ian Knizek, for example, criticizes Benjamin’s essay by suggesting that the aura could be transferred effectively to the reproduction (361). Adorno similarly criticized the essay by pointing to the manner in which modern modes of reproduction produce less rather than more critical citizens. He also suggested that in certain instances the autonomous work of art excludes the aura and produces greater self-rationalization (Wolin 193-4). Other more recent critical work has explored Benjamin’s arguments in the context of contemporary debates about the unprecedented levels of participation in art that novel forms of electronic media offer (Ziarek 209-25). Generally speaking, the essay continues to play a significant role in understanding how technology contributes to a de-aestheticization of the artwork in modernity. However, its relatively optimistic attitude towards technology and media, one not shared by many of Benjamin’s contemporaries, has been linked by Miriam Hansen to that of the avant-garde aesthetics of the 1920s (181-2).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Brodersen, Momme. Walter Benjamin: A Biography. Ed. Martin Derviş. Trans. Malcom R. Green and Ingrida Ligers. New York: Verso, 1996.

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” October 62 (1992) : 3-41.

Hansen, Miriam. “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology.’” New German Critique 40 (1987) : 179-224.

Knizek, Ian. “Walter Benjamin and the Mechanical Reproducibility of Art Works Revisited.” British Journal of Aesthetics 33 (1993) : 357-66.

Melberg, Arne. “The Work of Art in the Age of Ontological Speculation: Walter Benjamin Revisited.” Walter Benjamin and Art. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Continuum, 2005. 93-107.

Wolin, Richard. Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Ziarek, Krzysztof. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Electronic Mutability.” Walter Benjamin and Art. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Continuum, 2005. 209-25.

work of art essay

Visual Analysis: How to Analyze a Painting and Write an Essay

work of art essay

A visual analysis essay is an entry-level essay sometimes taught in high school and early university courses. Both communications and art history students use visual analysis to understand art and other visual messages. In our article, we will define the term and give an in-depth guide on how to look at a piece of art and write a visual analysis essay. Stay tuned until the end for a handy visual analysis essay example from our graduate paper writing service .

What Is Visual Analysis?

Visual analysis is the process of looking at a piece of visual art (painting, photography, film, etc.) and dissecting it for the artist’s intended meaning and means of execution. In some cases, works are also analyzed for historical significance and their impact on culture, art, politics, and the social consciousness of the time. This article will teach you how to perform a formal analysis of art.

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A visual analysis essay is a type of essay written mostly by students majoring in Art History and Communications. The process of visual analysis can be applied to painting, visual art, journalism, photo-journalism, photography, film, and writing. Works in these mediums are often meant to be consumed for entertainment or informative purposes. Visual analysis goes beyond that, focusing on form, themes, execution, and the compositional elements that make up the work.

Classical paintings are a common topic for a visual analysis essay because of their depth and historical significance. Take the famous Raphael painting Transfiguration. At first glance, it is an attractive image showing a famous scene from the Bible. But a more in-depth look reveals practical painting techniques, relationships between figures, heavy symbolism, and a remarkable choice of colors by the talented Raphael. This deeper look at a painting, a photograph, visual or written art is the process of visual analysis.

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Formal Analysis of Art: Who Does It?

Most people who face visual analysis essays are Communication, English, and Art History students. Communications students explore mediums such as theater, print media, news, films, photos — basically anything. Comm is basically a giant, all-encompassing major where visual analysis is synonymous with Tuesday.

Art History students study the world of art to understand how it developed. They do visual analysis with every painting they look it at and discuss it in class.

English Literature students perform visual analysis too. Every writer paints an image in the head of their reader. This image, like a painting, can be clear, or purposefully unclear. It can be factual, to the point, or emotional and abstract like Ulysses, challenging you to search your emotions rather than facts and realities.

How to Conduct Visual Analysis: What to Look For

Whether you study journalism or art, writing a visual analysis essay will be a frequent challenge on your academic journey. The primary principles can be learned and applied to any medium, regardless of whether it’s photography or painting.

For the sake of clarity, we’ve chosen to talk about painting, the most common medium for the formal analysis of art.

Visual Analysis

In analyzing a painting, there are a few essential points that the writer must know.

  • Who is the painter, and what era of art did they belong to? Classical painters depict scenes from the Bible, literature, or historical events (like the burning of Rome or the death of Socrates). Modernists, on the other hand, tend to subvert classical themes and offer a different approach to art. Modernism was born as a reaction to classical painting, therefore analyzing modernist art by the standards of classical art would not work.
  • What was the painter’s purpose? Classical painters like Michelangelo were usually hired by the Vatican or by noble families. Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel just for fun; he was paid to do it.
  • Who is the audience? Artists like Andy Warhol tried to appeal to the masses. Others like Marcel Duchamp made art for art people, aiming to evolve the art form.
  • What is the historical context? Research your artist/painting thoroughly before you write. The points of analysis that can be applied to a Renaissance painter cannot be applied to a Surrealist painter. Surrealism is an artistic movement, and understanding its essence is the key to analyzing any surrealist painting.

Familiarizing yourself with these essential points will give you all the information and context, you need to write a good visual analysis essay.

But visual analysis can go deeper than that — especially when dealing with historic pieces of visual art. Students explore different angles of interpretation, the interplay of colors and themes, how the piece was made and various reactions, and critiques of it. Let’s dig deeper.

A Detailed Process of Analyzing Visual Art

Performing a formal analysis of art is a fundamental skill taught at entry-level art history classes. Students who study art or communications further develop this skill through the years. Not all types of analysis apply to every work of art; every art piece is unique. When performing visual analysis, it’s essential to keep in mind why this particular work of art is important in its own way.

Visual Analysis

Step 1: General Info

To begin, identify the following necessary information on the work of art and the artist.

  • Subject — who or what does this work represent?
  • Artist — who is the author of this piece? Refer to them by their last name.
  • Date and Provenance — when and where this work of art was made. Is it typical to its historical period or geographical location?
  • Past and Current Locations — where was this work was displayed initially, and where is it now?
  • Medium and Creation Techniques — what medium was this piece made for and why is it important to that medium? Note which materials were used in its execution and its size.

Step 2: Describe the Painting

Next, describe what the painting depicts or represents. This section will be like an abstract, summarizing all the visible aspects of the piece, painting the image in the reader’s mind. Here are the dominant features to look for in a painting:

  • Characters or Figures: who they are and what they represent.
  • If this is a classical painting, identify the story or theme depicted.
  • If this is an abstract painting, pay attention to shapes and colors.
  • Lighting and overall mood of the painting.
  • Identify the setting.

Step 3: Detailed Analysis

The largest chunk of your paper will focus on a detailed visual analysis of the work. This is where you go past the basics and look at the art elements and the principles of design of the work.

Art elements deal mostly with the artist’s intricate painting techniques and basics of composition.

  • Lines — painters use a variety of lines ranging from straight and horizontal to thick, curved, even implied lines.
  • Shapes — shapes can be distinct or hidden in plain sight; note all the geometrical patterns of the painting.
  • Use of Light — identify the source of light, or whether the lighting is flat; see whether the painter chooses contrasting or even colors and explain the significance of their choice in relation to the painting.
  • Colors — identify how the painter uses color; which colors are primary, which are secondary; what is the tone of the painting (warm or cool?)
  • Patterns — are there repeating patterns in the painting? These could be figures as well as hidden textural patterns.
  • Use of Space — what kind of perspective is used in the painting; how does the artist show depth (if they do).
  • Passage of Time and Motion

Design principles look at the painting from a broader perspective; how the art elements are used to create a rounded experience from an artistic and a thematic perspective.

  • Variety and Unity - explore how rich and varied the artists’ techniques are and whether they create a sense of unity or chaos.
  • Symmetry or Asymmetry - identify points of balance in the painting, whether it’s patterns, shapes, or use of colors.
  • Emphasis - identify the points of focus, both from a thematic and artistic perspective. Does the painter emphasize a particular color or element of architecture?
  • Proportions - explain how objects and figures work together to provide a sense of scale, mass, and volume to the overall painting.
  • Use of Rhythm - identify how the artist implies a particular rhythm through their techniques and figures.

Seeing as each work of art is unique, be thoughtful in which art elements and design principles you wish to discuss in your essay. Visual analysis does not limit itself to painting and can also be applied to mediums like photography.

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The Structure: How to Write a Visual Analysis Paper

It’s safe to use the five-paragraph essay structure for your visual analysis essay. If you are looking at a painting, take the most important aspects of it that stand out to you and discuss them in relation to your thesis. Structure it with the simple essay structure:

Introduction: An introduction to a visual analysis essay serves to give basic information on the work of art and briefly summarize the points of discussion.

  • Give a brief description of the painting: name of artist, year, artistic movement (if necessary), and the artist’s purpose in creating this work.
  • Briefly describe what is in the painting.
  • Add interesting facts about the artist, painting, or historical period to give your reader some context.
  • As in all introductions, don’t forget to include an attention-grabber to get your audience interested in reading your work.

Thesis: In your thesis, state the points of analysis on this work of art which you will discuss in your essay.

Body: Explore the work of art and all of its aspects in detail. Refer to the section above titled “A Detailed Process of Analyzing Visual Art,” which will comprise most of your essay’s body.

Conclusion: After you’ve thoroughly analyzed the painting and the artist’s techniques, give your thoughts and opinions on the work. Your observations should be based on the points of analysis in your essay. Discuss how the art elements and design principles of the artist give the painting meaning and support your observations with facts from your essay.

Citation: Standard citation rules apply to these essays. Use in-text citations when quoting a book, website, journal, or a movie, and include a sources cited page listing your sources. And there’s no need to worry about how to cite a piece of art throughout the text. Explain thoroughly what work of art you’re analyzing in your introduction, and refer to it by name in the body of your essay like this — Transfiguration by Raphael.

If you want a more in-depth look at the classic essay structure, feel free to visit our 5 PARAGRAPH ESSAY blog

Learn From a Visual Analysis Example

Many YouTube videos are analyzing famous paintings like the Death of Socrates, which can be a great art analysis example to go by. But the best way to understand the format and presentation is by looking at a painting analysis essay example done by a scholarly writer. One of our writers has penned an outstanding piece on Leonardo Da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, which you may find below. Use it as a reference point for your visual analysis essay, and you can’t go wrong!

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian artist born in April 1452 and died in May 1519who lived in the Renaissance era. His fame and popularity were based on his painting sand contribution to the Italian artwork. Leonardo was also an active inventor, a vibrant musician, writer, and scientist as well as a talented sculptor amongst other fields. His various career fields proved that he wanted to know everything about nature. In the book “Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance” by Alessandro Vezzosi, it is argued that Leonardo was one of the most successful and versatile artists and anatomists of the Italian renaissance based on his unique artwork and paintings (Vezzosi, p1454). Some of his groundbreaking research in medicine, metal-casting, natural science, architecture, and weaponry amongst other fields have been explored in the book. He was doing all these in the renaissance period in Italy from the 1470s till his death.

Visual analysis essays will appear early in your communications and art history degrees. Learning how to formally analyze art is an essential skill, whether you intend to pursue a career in art or communications.

Before diving into analysis, get a solid historical background on the painter and their life. Analyzing a painting isn’t mere entertainment; one must pay attention to intricate details which the painter might have hidden from plain sight.

We live in an environment saturated by digital media. By gaining the skill of visual analysis, you will not only heighten your appreciation of the arts but be able to thoroughly analyze the media messages you face in your daily life.

Also, don't forget to read summary of Lord of the Flies , and the article about Beowulf characters .

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Essays About Art: Top 5 Examples and 9 Prompts

Essays about art inspire beauty and creativity; see our top essay picks and prompts to aid you.

Art is an umbrella term for various activities that use human imagination and talents. 

The products from these activities incite powerful feelings as artists convey their ideas, expertise, and experience through art. Examples of art include painting, sculpture, photography, literature, installations, dance, and music.

Art is also a significant part of human history. We learn a lot from the arts regarding what living in a period is like, what events influenced the elements in the artwork, and what led to art’s progress to today.

To help you create an excellent essay about art, we prepared five examples that you can look at:

1. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by Linda Nochlin

2. what is art by writer faith, 3. my art taught me… by christine nishiyama, 4. animals and art by ron padgett, 5. the value of art by anonymous on, 1. art that i won’t forget, 2. unconventional arts, 3. art: past and present, 4. my life as an artist, 5. art histories of different cultures, 6. comparing two art pieces, 7. create a reflection essay on a work of art, 8. conduct a visual analysis of an artwork, 9. art period or artist history.

“But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education–education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world…”

Nochlin goes in-depth to point out women’s part in art history. She focuses on unjust opportunities presented to women compared to their male peers, labeling it the “Woman Problem.” This problem demands a reinterpretation of the situation’s nature and the need for radical change. She persuades women to see themselves as equal subjects deserving of comparable achievements men receive.

Throughout her essay, she delves into the institutional barriers that prevented women from reaching the heights of famous male art icons.

“Art is the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects that can be shared with others. It involves the arranging of elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions and acts as a means of communication with the viewer as it represents the thoughts of the artist.”

The author defines art as a medium to connect with others and an action. She focuses on Jamaican art and the feelings it invokes. She introduces Osmond Watson, whose philosophy includes uplifting the masses and making people aware of their beauty – he explains one of his works, “Peace and Love.” 

“But I’ve felt this way before, especially with my art. And my experience with artmaking has taught me how to get through periods of struggle. My art has taught me to accept where I am today… My art has taught me that whatever marks I make on the page are good enough… My art has taught me that the way through struggle is to acknowledge, accept and share my struggle.”

Nishiyama starts her essay by describing how writing makes her feel. She feels pressured to create something “great” after her maternity leave, causing her to struggle. She says she pens essays to process her experiences as an artist and human, learning alongside the reader. She ends her piece by acknowledging her feelings and using her art to accept them.

“I was saying that sometimes I feel sorry for wild animals, out there in the dark, looking for something to eat while in fear of being eaten. And they have no ballet companies or art museums. Animals of course are not aware of their lack of cultural activities, and therefore do not regret their absence.”

Padgett recounts telling his wife how he thinks it’s unfortunate for animals not to have cultural activities, therefore, can’t appreciate art. He shares the genetic mapping of humans being 99% chimpanzees and is curious about the 1% that makes him human and lets him treasure art. His essay piques readers’ minds, making them interested in how art elevates human life through summoning admiration from lines and colors.

“One of the first questions raised when talking about art is simple — why should we care? Art, especially in the contemporary era, is easy to dismiss as a selfish pastime for people who have too much time on their hands. Creating art doesn’t cure disease, build roads, or feed the poor.”

Because art can easily be dismissed as a pastime, the author lists why it’s precious. It includes exercising creativity, materials used, historical connection, and religious value. 

Check out our best essay checkers to ensure you have a top-notch essay.

9 Prompts on Essays About Art

After knowing more about art, below are easy prompts you can use for your art essay:

Essays About Art: Art that I won't forget

Is there an art piece that caught your attention because of its origin? First, talk about it and briefly summarize its backstory in your essay. Then, explain why it’s something that made an impact on you. For example, you can write about the Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile – or is she smiling? You can also put theories on what could have happened while Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

Rather than focusing on mainstream arts like ballet and painting, focus your essay on unconventional art or something that defies usual pieces, such as avant-garde art. Then, share what you think of this type of art and measure it against other mediums.

How did art change over the centuries? Explain the differences between ancient and modern art and include the factors that resulted in these changes.

Are you an artist? Share your creative process and objectives if you draw, sing, dance, etc. How do you plan to be better at your craft? What is your ultimate goal?

To do this prompt, pick two countries or cultures with contrasting art styles. A great example is Chinese versus European arts. Center your essay on a category, such as landscape paintings. Tell your readers the different elements these cultures consider. What is the basis of their art? What influences their art during that specific period?

Like the previous prompt, write an essay about similar pieces, such as books, folktales, or paintings. You can also compare original and remake versions of movies, broadway musicals, etc.

Pick a piece you want to know more about, then share what you learned through your essay. What did the art make you feel? If you followed creating art, like pottery, write about the step-by-step process, from clay to glazing.

Visual analysis is a way to understand art centered around what the eyes can process. It includes elements like texture, color, line, and scale. For this prompt, find a painting or statue and describe what you see in your essay.

Since art is a broad topic, you can narrow your research by choosing only the most significant moments in art history. For instance, if you pick English art, you can divide each art period by century or by a king’s ruling time. You can also select an artist and discuss their pieces, their art’s backstory, and how it relates to their life at the time.

If you are interested in learning more, check out our essay writing tips !

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Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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Announcing the sixth volume of the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné

By Will Fenstermaker

June 14, 2017

The 10 Essays That Changed Art Criticism Forever

There has never been a time when art critics held more power than during the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, with the relocation of the world’s artistic epicenter from Paris to New York, a different kind of war was waged in the pages of magazines across the country. As part of the larger “culture wars” of the mid-century, art critics began to take on greater influence than they’d ever held before. For a time, two critics in particular—who began as friends, and remained in the same social circles for much of their lives—set the stakes of the debates surrounding the maturation of American art that would continue for decades. The ideas about art outlined by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg are still debated today, and the extent to which they were debated in the past has shaped entire movements of the arts. Below are ten works of criticism through which one can trace the mainstreaming of Clement Greenberg’s formalist theory, and how its dismantling led us into institutional critique and conceptual art today.

The American Action Painters

Harold Rosenberg

One: Number 31

Harold Rosenberg, a poet who came to art through his involvement with the Artist’s Union and the WPA, was introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre as the “first American existentialist.” Soon, Rosenberg became a contributor to Sartre’s publication in France, for which he first drafted his influential essay. However, when Sartre supported Soviet aggression against Korea, Rosenberg brought his essay to Elaine de Kooning , then the editor of ARTnews , who ran “The American Action Painters” in December, 1952.

RELATED: What Did Harold Rosenberg Do? An Introduction to the Champion of “Action Painting”

Rosenberg’s essay on the emerging school of American Painters omitted particular names—because they’d have been unfamiliar to its original French audience—but it was nonetheless extraordinarily influential for the burgeoning scene of post-WWII American artists. Jackson Pollock claimed to be the influence of “action painting,” despite Rosenberg’s rumored lack of respect for the artist because Pollock wasn’t particularly well-read. Influenced by Marxist theory and French existentialism, Rosenberg conceives of a painting as an “arena,” in which the artist acts upon, wrestles, or otherwise engages with the canvas, in what ultimately amounts to an expressive record of a struggle. “What was to go on the canvas,” Rosenberg wrote, “was not a picture but an event.”

Notable Quote

Weak mysticism, the “Christian Science” side of the new movement, tends … toward easy painting—never so many unearned masterpieces! Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will. When a tube of paint is squeezed by the Absolute, the result can only be a Success. The painter need keep himself on hand solely to collect the benefits of an endless series of strokes of luck. His gesture completes itself without arousing either an opposing movement within itself nor the desire in the artist to make the act more fully his own. Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper.

‘American-Type’ Painting

Clement Greenberg

Frank Stella

Throughout the preceding decade, Clement Greenberg, also a former poet, had established a reputation as a leftist critic through his writings with The Partisan Review —a publication run by the John Reed Club, a New York City-centered organization affiliated with the American Communist Party—and his time as an art critic with The Nation . In 1955, The Partisan Review published Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in which the critic defined the now-ubiquitous term “abstract expressionism.”

RELATED: What Did Clement Greenberg Do? A Primer on the Powerful AbEx Theorist’s Key Ideas

In contrast to Rosenberg’s conception of painting as a performative act, Greenberg’s theory, influenced by Clive Bell and T. S. Eliot, was essentially a formal one—in fact, it eventually evolved into what would be called “formalism.” Greenberg argued that the evolution of painting was one of historical determinacy—that ever since the Renaissance, pictures moved toward flatness, and the painted line moved away from representation. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were two of the landmarks of this view. Pollock, who exhibited his drip paintings in 1951, freeing the line from figuration, was for Greenberg the pinnacle of American Modernism, the most important artist since Picasso. (Pollock’s paintings exhibited in 1954, with which he returned to semi-representational form, were regarded by Greenberg as a regression. This lead him to adopt Barnett Newman as his new poster-boy, despite the artist’s possessing vastly different ideas on the nature of painting. For one, Greenberg mostly ignored the Biblical titles of Newman’s paintings.)

Greenberg’s formalist theories were immensely influential over the subsequent decades. Artforum in particular grew into a locus for formalist discourse, which had the early effect of providing an aesthetic toolkit divorced from politic. Certain curators of the Museum of Modern Art, particularly William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and to an extent Alfred Barr are credited for steering the museum in an essentially formalist direction. Some painters, such as Frank Stella , Helen Frankenthaler , and Kenneth Noland, had even been accused of illustrating Greenberg’s theories (and those of Michael Fried, a prominent Greenbergian disciple) in attempt to embody the theory, which was restrictive in its failure to account for narrative content, figuration, identity, politics, and more. In addition, Greenberg’s theories proved well-suited for a burgeoning art market, which found connoisseurship an easy sell. (As the writer Mary McCarthy said, “You can’t hang an event on your wall.”) In fact, the dominance of the term “abstract expressionism” over “action painting,” which seemed more applicable to Pollock and Willem de Kooning than any other members of the New York School, is emblematic of the influence of formalist discourse.

The justification for the term, “abstract expressionist,” lies in the fact that most of the painters covered by it took their lead from German, Russian, or Jewish expressionism in breaking away from late Cubist abstract art. But they all started from French painting, for their fundamental sense of style from it, and still maintain some sort of continuity with it. Not least of all, they got from it their most vivid notion of an ambitious, major art, and of the general direction in which it had to go in their time.

Barbara Rose

Galvanized Iron

Like many critics in the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Rose had clearly staked her allegiance to one camp or the other. She was, firmly, a formalist, and along with Fried and Rosalind Krauss is largely credited with expanding the theory beyond abstract expressionist painting. By 1965, however, Rose recognized a limitation of the theory as outlined by Greenberg—that it was reductionist and only capable of account for a certain style of painting, and not much at all in other mediums.

RELATED: The Intellectual Origins Of Minimalism

In “ABC Art,” published in Art in America where Rose was a contributing editor, Rose opens up formalism to encompass sculpture, which Greenberg was largely unable to account for. The simple idea that art moves toward flatness and abstraction leads, for Rose, into Minimalism, and “ABC Art” is often considered the first landmark essay on Minimalist art. By linking the Minimalist sculptures of artists like Donald Judd to the Russian supremacist paintings of Kasimir Malevich and readymades of Duchamp, she extends the determinist history that formalism relies on into sculpture and movements beyond abstract expressionism.

I do not agree with critic Michael Fried’s view that Duchamp, at any rate, was a failed Cubist. Rather, the inevitability of a logical evolution toward a reductive art was obvious to them already. For Malevich, the poetic Slav, this realization forced a turning inward toward an inspirational mysticism, whereas for Duchamp, the rational Frenchman, it meant a fatigue so enervating that finally the wish to paint at all was killed. Both the yearnings of Malevich’s Slavic soul and the deductions of Duchamp’s rationalist mind led both men ultimately to reject and exclude from their work many of the most cherished premises of Western art in favor of an art stripped to its bare, irreducible minimum.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Philip Leider

Double Negative

Despite the rhetorical tendency to suggest the social upheaval of the '60s ended with the actual decade, 1970 remained a year of unrest. And Artforum was still the locus of formalist criticism, which was proving increasingly unable to account for art that contributed to larger cultural movements, like Civil Rights, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and more. (Tellingly, The Partisan Review , which birthed formalism, had by then distanced itself from its communist associations and, as an editorial body, was supportive of American Interventionism in Vietnam. Greenberg was a vocal hawk.) Subtitled “Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Utah,” the editor’s note to the September 1970 issue of Artforum , written by Philip Leider, ostensibly recounts a road trip undertaken with Richard Serra and Abbie Hoffman to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in the Nevada desert.

RELATED: A City of Art in the Desert: Behind Michael Heizer’s Monumental Visions for Nevada

However, the essay is also an account of an onsetting disillusion with formalism, which Leider found left him woefully unequipped to process the protests that had erupted surrounding an exhibition of prints by Paul Wunderlich at the Phoenix Gallery in Berkeley. Wunderlich’s depictions of nude women were shown concurrently to an exhibition of drawings sold to raise money for Vietnamese orphans. The juxtaposition of a canonical, patriarchal form of representation and liberal posturing, to which the protestors objected, showcased the limitations of a methodology that placed the aesthetic elements of a picture plane far above the actual world in which it existed. Less than a year later, Leider stepped down as editor-in-chief and Artforum began to lose its emphasis on late Modernism.

I thought the women were probably with me—if they were, I was with them. I thought the women were picketing the show because it was reactionary art. To the women, [Piet] Mondrian must be a great revolutionary artist. Abstract art broke all of those chains thirty years ago! What is a Movement gallery showing dumb stuff like this for? But if it were just a matter of reactionary art , why would the women picket it? Why not? Women care as much about art as men do—maybe more. The question is, why weren’t the men right there with them?

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Linda Nochlin

Linda Nochlin

While Artforum , in its early history, had established a reputation as a generator for formalist theory, ARTnews had followed a decidedly more Rosenberg-ian course, emphasizing art as a practice for investigating the world. The January 1971 issue of the magazine was dedicated to “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History” and included an iconoclastic essay by Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

RELATED: An Introduction to Feminist Art

Nochlin notes that it’s tempting to answer the question “why have there been no great women artists?” by listing examples of those overlooked by critical and institutional organizations (a labor that Nochlin admits has great merit). However, she notes, “by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications,” namely that women are intrinsically less capable of achieving artistic merit than men. Instead, Nochlin’s essay functions as a critique of art institutions, beginning with European salons, which were structured in such a way as to deter women from rising to the highest echelons. Nochlin’s essay is considered the beginning of modern feminist art history and a textbook example of institutional critique.

There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s—and one can’t have it both ways—then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is. But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

Thomas McEvilley

Tribal Modern

One of the many extrapolations of Nochlin’s essay is that contemporary museum institutions continue to reflect the gendered and racist biases of preceding centuries by reinforcing the supremacy of specific master artists. In a 1984 Artforum review, Thomas McEvilley, a classicist new to the world of contemporary art, made the case that the Museum of Modern Art in New York served as an exclusionary temple to certain high-minded Modernists—namely, Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock—who, in fact, took many of their innovations from native cultures.

RELATED: MoMA Curator Laura Hoptman on How to Tell a Good Painting From a “Bogus” Painting

In 1984, MoMA organized a blockbuster exhibition. Curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, both of whom were avowed formalists, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” collected works by European painters like Paul Gaugin and Picasso with cultural artifacts from Zaire, arctic communities, and elsewhere. McEvilley takes aim at the “the absolutist view of formalist Modernism” in which MoMA is rooted. He argues that the removal tribal artifacts from their contexts (for example, many were ritual items intended for ceremonies, not display) and placement of them, unattributed, near works by European artists, censors the cultural contributions of non-Western civilizations in deference to an idealized European genius.

The fact that the primitive “looks like” the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counter view is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation. At one level this show undertakes precisely to coopt that question by answering it before it has really been asked, and by burying it under a mass of information.

Please Wait By the Coatroom

The Jungle

Not content to let MoMA and the last vestiges of formalism off the hook yet, John Yau wrote in 1988 an essay on Wifredo Lam, a Cuban painter who lived and worked in Paris among Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque, and others. Noting Lam’s many influences—his Afro-Cuban mother, Chinese father, and Yoruba godmother—Yau laments the placement of Lam’s The Jungle near the coatroom in the Museum of Modern Art, as opposed to within the Modernist galleries several floors above. The painting was accompanied by a brief entry written by former curator William Rubin, who, Yau argues, adopted Greenberg’s theories because they endowed him with “a connoisseur’s lens with which one can scan all art.”

RELATED: From Cuba With Love: Artist Bill Claps on the Island’s DIY Art Scene

Here, as with with McEvilley’s essay, Yau illustrates how formalism, as adapted by museum institutions, became a (perhaps unintentional) method for reinforcing the exclusionary framework that Nochlin argued excluded women and black artists for centuries.

Rubin sees in Lam only what is in his own eyes: colorless or white artists. For Lam to have achieved the status of unique individual, he would have had to successfully adapt to the conditions of imprisonment (the aesthetic standards of a fixed tradition) Rubin and others both construct and watch over. To enter this prison, which takes the alluring form of museums, art history textbooks, galleries, and magazines, an individual must suppress his cultural differences and become a colorless ghost. The bind every hybrid American artist finds themselves in is this: should they try and deal with the constantly changing polymorphous conditions effecting identity, tradition, and reality? Or should they assimilate into the mainstream art world by focusing on approved-of aesthetic issues? Lam’s response to this bind sets an important precedent. Instead of assimilating, Lam infiltrates the syntactical rules of “the exploiters” with his own specific language. He becomes, as he says, “a Trojan horse.”

Black Culture and Postmodernism

Cornel West

Cornel West

The opening up of cultural discourse did not mean that it immediately made room for voices of all dimensions. Cornel West notes as much in his 1989 essay “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” in which he argues that postmodernism, much like Modernism before it, remains primarily ahistorical, which makes it difficult for “oppressed peoples to exercise their opposition to hierarchies of power.” West’s position is that the proliferation of theory and criticism that accompanied the rise of postmodernism provided mechanisms by which black culture could “be conversant with and, to a degree, participants in the debate.” Without their voices, postmodernism would remain yet another exclusionary movements.

RELATED: Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb

As the consumption cycle of advanced multinational corporate capitalism was sped up in order to sustain the production of luxury goods, cultural production became more and more mass-commodity production. The stress here is not simply on the new and fashionable but also on the exotic and primitive. Black cultural products have historically served as a major source for European and Euro-American exotic interests—interests that issue from a healthy critique of the mechanistic, puritanical, utilitarian, and productivity aspects of modern life.

Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power

Anna C. Chave

Tilted Arc

In recent years, formalist analysis has been deployed as a single tool within a more varied approach to art. Its methodology—that of analyzing a picture as an isolated phenomena—remains prevalent, and has its uses. Yet, many of the works and movements that rose to prominence under formalist critics and curators, in no small part because of their institutional acceptance, have since become part of the rearguard rather than the vanguard.

In a 1990 essay for Arts Magazine , Anna Chave analyzes how Minimalist sculpture possesses a “domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric” that was aligned with “both the American military in Vietnam, and the police at home in the streets and on university campuses across the country.” In particular, Chave is concerned with the way Minimalist sculptures define themselves through a process of negation. Of particular relevance to Chave’s argument are the massive steel sculptures by Minimalist artist Richard Serra.

Tilted Arc was installed in Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981. Chave describes the work as a “mammoth, perilously tilted steel arc [that] formed a divisive barrier too tall to see over, and a protracted trip to walk around.” She writes, “it is more often the case with Serra that his work doesn’t simply exemplify aggression or domination, but acts it out.” Tilted Arc was so controversial upon its erecting that the General Services Administration, which commissioned the work, held hearings in response to petitions demanding the work be removed. Worth quoting at length, Chave writes:

A predictable defense of Serra’s work was mounted by critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and some fellow artists…. The principle arguments mustered on Serra’s behalf were old ones concerning the nature and function of the avant-garde…. What Rubin and Serra’s other supporters declined to ask is whether the sculptor really is, in the most meaningful sense of the term, an avant-garde artist. Being avant-garde implies being ahead of, outside, or against the dominant culture; proffering a vision that implicitly stands (at least when it is conceived) as a critique of entrenched forms and structures…. But Serra’s work is securely embedded within the system: when the brouhaha over Arc was at its height, he was enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art…. [The defense’s] arguments locate Serra not with the vanguard but with the standing army or “status quo.” … More thoughtful, sensible, and eloquent testimony at the hearing came instead from some of the uncouth:
My name is Danny Katz and I work in this building as a clerk. My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine. Despite that I am getting up to speak…. I don’t think this issue should be elevated into a dispute between the forces of ignorance and art, or art versus government. I really blame government less because it has long ago outgrown its human dimension. But from the artists I expected a lot more. I didn’t expect to hear them rely on the tired and dangerous reasoning that the government has made a deal, so let the rabble live with the steel because it’s a deal. That kind of mentality leads to wars. We had a deal with Vietnam. I didn’t expect to hear the arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in a plaza. It’s not a great plaza by international standards, but it is a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms, and breathe recirculated air all day. Is the purpose of art in public places to seal off a route of escape, to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can’t believe this was the artistic intention, yet to my sadness this for me has become the dominant effect of the work, and it’s all the fault of its position and location. I can accept anything in art, but I can’t accept physical assault and complete destruction of pathetic human activity. No work of art created with a contempt for ordinary humanity and without respect for the common element of human experience can be great. It will always lack dimension.
The terms Katz associated with Serra’s project include arrogance and contempt, assault, and destruction; he saw the Minimalist idiom, in other words, as continuous with the master discourse of our imperious and violent technocracy.

The End of Art

Arthur Danto


Like Greenberg, Arthur Danto was an art critic for The Nation . However, Danto was overtly critical of Greenberg’s ideology and the influence he wielded over Modern and contemporary art. Nor was he a follower of Harold Rosenberg, though they shared influences, among them the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Danto’s chief contribution to contemporary art was his advancing of Pop Artists, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein .

In “The End of Art” Danto argues that society at large determines and accepts art, which no longer progresses linearly, categorized by movements. Instead, viewers each possess a theory or two, which they use to interpret works, and art institutions are largely tasked with developing, testing, and modifying various interpretive methods. In this way, art differs little from philosophy. After decades of infighting regarding the proper way to interpret works of art, Danto essentially sanctioned each approach and the institutions that gave rise to them. He came to call this “pluralism.”

RELATED: What Was the Pictures Generation?

Similarly, in “Painting, Politics, and Post-Historical Art,” Danto makes the case for an armistice between formalism and the various theories that arose in opposition, noting that postmodern critics like Douglas Crimp in the 1980s, who positioned themselves against formalism, nonetheless adopted the same constrictive air, minus the revolutionary beginnings.

Modernist critical practice was out of phase with what was happening in the art world itself in the late 60s and through the 1970s. It remained the basis for most critical practice, especially on the part of the curatoriat, and the art-history professoriat as well, to the degree that it descended to criticism. It became the language of the museum panel, the catalog essay, the article in the art periodical. It was a daunting paradigm, and it was the counterpart in discourse to the “broadening of taste” which reduced art of all cultures and times to its formalist skeleton, and thus, as I phrased it, transformed every museum into a Museum of Modern Art, whatever that museum’s contents. It was the stable of the docent’s gallery talk and the art appreciation course—and it was replaced, not totally but massively, by the postmodernist discourse that was imported from Paris in the late 70s, in the texts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Lacan, and of the French feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. That is the discourse [Douglas] Crimp internalizes, and it came to be lingua artspeak everywhere. Like modernist discourse, it applied to everything, so that there was room for deconstructive and “archeological” discussion of art of every period.

Editor’s Note: This list was drawn in part from a 2014 seminar taught by Debra Bricker Balken in the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts titled Critical Strategies: Late Modernism/Postmodernism. Additional sources can be found here , here , here (paywall), and here . Also relevant are reviews of the 2008 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” notably those by Roberta Smith , Peter Schjeldahl , and Martha Schwendener .

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The 10 Essays That Changed Art Criticism Forever

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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin Photo

German Philosopher, Art and Culture Critic, Essayist

Walter Benjamin

Summary of Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was one of the most important thinkers of the 20 th century, having published a range of works on culture and society. But he is perhaps still best known for his ideas on art and authenticity; challenging, as he did, the assumption that the original artwork was more valuable to society than the photographic reproduction of that artwork. He was associated with a group of German intellectuals and philosophers who were known collectively as the Frankfurt School though he did not always share their radical political views on the nature of modern society. His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) was an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography, while his Arcades Project (1927-40) helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory. Though relatively unknown in his own lifetime, his writing had a profound impact on subsequent aesthetic theory, cultural and literary criticism, artistic practice, and the emergence of various postmodern art movements. Born into a Jewish middle-class family, his education took him to Berlin, Munich and Bern before he returning back to Berlin in his late twenties. A student of philosophy, Benjamin had been intent on a career as an academic but his ambition was thwarted when the University of Frankfurt dismissed his doctoral thesis (on the origins of German tragedy) as outlandish. He worked as a literary critic, essayist, and translator before relocating to Paris in 1933 following the rise of Nazism. In Paris he continued to write for literary journals but when Paris succumbed to Nazi occupation, he fled toward Spain where he hoped to gain onward passage to America. Having reached the Franco-Spanish border town of Portbou he was mistakenly told by a border official that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. In despair, Benjamin took his own life.


  • Benjamin promoted the view that the photographic reproduction of an artwork (a poster or a postcard for example) was of higher social value than the original (which one is compelled to view in a gallery) because the artwork in question could be possessed and enjoyed (very democratically) by the art lover in a time and place that suits them.
  • Benjamin's premise that a copy was of higher social significance than an original had a profound effect on postmodern thought and has influenced (in one way or other) a number of late-20 th -century art movements, including Pop art, Feminist art, Conceptual art and Appropriation Art.
  • Whereas high art needed the intervention of an art expert or critic to explain its true meaning, Benjamin was an admirer of Hollywood cinema because the sound film could be enjoyed collectively by the public without the need for a critic to explain its meaning: "the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form," he said of the Hollywood film, "the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public."
  • Benjamin's magnum opus, his unfinished Arcades project, helped explain urbanization in terms of an historical and ideological shift from a culture of production to a culture of consumption and commodification. As such, his Arcades project is seen as setting the foundations for the development of the field of Cultural Studies.
  • Benjamin challenged certain assumptions about how history was told. In his view, history was not a linear story of progress whereby humanity learns from the mistakes of the past. He viewed history rather as something chaotic and contradictory in which past mistakes are merely repeated by future generations.

Walter Benjamin and Important Artists and Artworks

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)

Angelus Novus (1920)

Artist: Paul Klee

This work depicts a whimsical figure, part bird, part human, part angel with its hair made of floating scrolls, wings with fingers like tiny cathedral spires, and bird-like feet. Surrounded by a white space, as if inhabiting some other realm, the angel's prominent eyes, conveying both melancholy and astonishment, turn to the right while his torso turns slightly to the left, creating a sense of conflicted movement. Klee's child-like depiction, contrasting with the architectural composition of the whole (as if its body were formed out of various planes of brown, yellow, and orange) conveys the strange newness of its singular presence. A friend described Benjamin as overwhelmed with gratitude when the philosopher was able to buy this work in 1921; his most treasured possession. In the same year, Benjamin launched a magazine Angelus Novus with the intention of drawing "a connection between the artistic avant-garde of the period and the Talmudic legend about the angels who are being constantly created and find an abode in the fragments of the present." Though the magazine was short-lived, Klee's painting remained a continued source of inspiration. For instance, in his 1931 essay on the Austrian writer Karl Kraus, Benjamin wrote that Angelus Novus allowed one "to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction," while in "Agesilaus Santander" (1933), an autobiographical essay written by Benjamin following his flight from Nazi Germany, he wrote, "The angel [...] resembles all from which I had to part: persons and above all things." But Benjamin's near obsession with the painting reached full fruition in his philosophical preoccupation with written history. Indeed, Klee's image had a most profound influence of Benjamin's final work, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940). Using the painting as a poetic analogy for mankind's inability to learn from the past, and its blind faith in progress, he wrote the following: "This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

Oil and watercolor on paper - Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Gisèle Freund: Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1935)

Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1935)

Artist: Gisèle Freund

Freund's photograph depicts a group of children, walking toward the viewer along a rainy stone pathway. Its surface acts as a kind of dark mirror; almost iridescent with reflections and shadows. Looming brick walls and steep buildings rise up in the background as they frame the pathway and the gathered children: the only living presence in the dingy stone environment that is the domain of the urban poor. While the image evokes Benjamin's statement that, "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics," it is also capable of capturing a poignant moment, as Freund acknowledged when she wrote: "It is not my intention to create works of art or to invent new forms. I merely want to show what is close to my heart - man, his joys and sorrows, hopes and fears." This image was part of Freund's photo essay "Northern England," documenting the effects of the Great Depression, which, having been published in a 1936 issue of Life magazine, made her internationally famous. Freund studied art history and sociology in 1932 with Theodor W. Adorno, Karl Manneheim, and Norbert Elias, known collectively as the Frankfurt School. It was here that she made the acquaintance of Benjamin; by now a close associate of the group. Sharing a Jewish heritage, and a commitment to socialist activism, the two became lifelong friends. Following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Benjamin and Freund fled to Paris where they both studied and conducted independent research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Benjamin - who felt "The illiterates of the future will be the people who know nothing of photography rather than those who are ignorant of the art of writing" - actively encouraged Freund's joint pursuit of photography and art history. Following Benjamin's advice, Freund became celebrated for her color photography, her documentary work, and her candid portraiture which featured regularly in Life magazine. In 1974 she published her most famous book, Photographie et Société . Three years later she was elected President of the French Association of Photographers and in 1983 her career was recognized when she was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, France's highest decoration.

Fiber Base Silver Gelatin Print; white outline border - Galerie Claire Fontaine, Luxembourg

Timm Ulrichs: Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility) (1967)

Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility) (1967)

Artist: Timm Ulrichs

Subtitled "Interpretation: The photocopy of the photocopy of the photocopy or the photocopy," this photomontage comprises a hundred photocopies of the original cover of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). As each photocopy becomes more faded, the images take on a kind of spectral presence; semblances of the original that exert a kind of mysterious force within the context of the montage as a whole. At the time Ulrichs completed this work, the contents of Benjamin's essay had become widely absorbed and artists began to question assumptions about authenticity and originality. As art critic Cat Moir noted, Ulrichs's work "recalls Andy Warhol's series of screen-printed Campbell's Soup Cans (1962). Yet whereas Warhol's piece set the dialectics of individual and copy at work in a single temporal frame, Ulrichs's highlights transience and fragility as the image fades [...] The work stages the question of whether endless reproduction ultimately depletes meaning over time." This work was included in the 2017 exhibition "The Time is Now: Reflections on the Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin". Ulrichs's piece was thus seen from a gallery perspective. As art critic David Graham Sheene wrote, the "sequence of black-and-white photocopies reproduce the cover [...] again and again to debunk the essay's central theory - that the infinite reproduction of an image robs it of its almost mystical powers - by showing how a practical image is imbued with mystery through reproduction." A similar counter-argument to Benjamin was put by art historian Norbert Lynton when discussing a touring exhibition that featured the Mona Lisa . The Da Vinci masterpiece was seen by millions of Japanese spectators who filed past the painting at an estimated rate of six per minute (ten seconds per spectator). Lynton argued that, through mass reproduction, the Mona Lisa had in fact acquired "another sort of status, relating not to the quality of the work or its meaning but to the sheer weight of its fame - its stardom." In other words, mechanical reproduction had, in this instance at least, brought about the very thing Benjamin had railed against.

Photocopies - Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

Volker März: Benjamin heute... mit den zwei Herzen der Revolution und Resignation (Benjamin today...with the two hearts of revolution and resignation) (2004-05)

Benjamin heute... mit den zwei Herzen der Revolution und Resignation (Benjamin today...with the two hearts of revolution and resignation) (2004-05)

Artist: Volker März

This rather playful image shows a miniature clay figure of Walter Benjamin, his face with large spectacles turned up to the sky, while his bare chest is cut open, exposing two nearly symmetrical red hearts. The heart's arteries are severed but the cut tubes suggest the hearts are now connected to the exterior world (rather than the body), no longer pumping blood, but breathing the air of another existence. The title places Benjamin within a contemporary context, his two hearts representing the resignation and revolution found in his ideas while also showing him to be a mere mortal. März arranged figurines of some of the twentieth century's most important thinkers in various exhibitions, both within galleries and also in public places (such as train stations or on a boulevard in Zurich) in what was described by art critic Matthias Reichelt as a "process of artistic rapprochement [...] that is equally the process of confrontation and homage." Indeed, März's clay figures represent historical icons from the worlds of philosophy, literature, politics, and history; Benjamin being joined by the likes of Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Adolf Eichmann, Pina Bausch, Natascha Kampusch, Josef Beuys, Nelson Mandela, Petr Ginz, Peter Sloterdijk and Christoph Schlingensief. März wanted to deconstruct these great thinkers in an attempt to "respectfully" bring them down from their plinths and to ask the audience to consider them in relation to notions of the cult of genius. The use of miniature figures, incidentally, reflects Benjamin's own love of the miniature. As cultural critic and writer Susan Sontag noted, he "was drawn to the extremely small [...] To miniaturize means to make useless [whereby it] becomes an object of contemplation or reverie."

Clay mixed media - Volker März collection, Berlin, Germany

Cindy Sherman: Untitled #474 (2008)

Untitled #474 (2008)

Artist: Cindy Sherman

This photograph depicts a fashionable older woman as she stands in a study or library, the walls in the background covered with a collection of drawings and paintings. Poised, her right hand resting on the back of a chair, she turns slightly to face the viewer, her intense gaze conveying a desire to be a commanding and seductive presence. One of Sherman's characteristic self-portraits where, using costume, make-up, and prosthetics, she takes on the various feminine roles and identities. This particular image was part of a series that New York's Museum of Modern Art Curator Eva Respini said was inspired by a former soap opera actress "who created a website for older women who wanted to look fabulous." As curator Helen Winner adds, the setting and pose create a context for the portrait as if "commissioned as a private portrait [...] or a shoot for a magazine article," portraying the aristocratic woman as "living in past...theatrical...vaguely beautiful." Benjamin began his Arcades Project in 1927 with his essay, "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century," and worked on the project until his death in 1940. Published posthumously for the first time in 1982, Benjamin's concepts resonated powerfully with theorists, artists, and cultural thinkers. Indeed, this work was included in "The Time is Now: Reflections on the Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin", a 2017 exhibition that also included works by Chris Burden, Andy Warhol, Walead Bashty, Bill Rauhauser and Timm Ulrichs. Organized in the thirty-six convolutes or the folders in which Benjamin organized his 1000 pages, the exhibition was described by art critic David Grahame Shane as a "ghostly and deliberately weak re-creation of a scaled-down Parisian arcade." In order, Shane continued, to link "each of Benjamin's alphabetical Parisian folders to a contemporary art piece [...] Cindy Sherman, disguised as 'a collector' in a huge framed photograph, confronts this tight entry is by far the most powerful correlation in the show. Sherman's art of disguising her personal identity in other people's apparatuses, clothes, styling, and cosmetics, ties directly to Benjamin's reading of the modern city."

Chromogenic color print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

Columbia University Press

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Essays on art and science.

Eric R. Kandel

Columbia University Press

Essays on Art and Science

Pub Date: March 2024

ISBN: 9780231212564

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $26.95 £22.00

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ISBN: 9780231559454

Format: E-book

List Price: $25.99 £22.00

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Anything Eric R. Kandel says about neuroscience or the relationship between art and neuroscience is noteworthy. He is not only brilliant at explaining difficult and complex scientific ideas and data in simple language but also well-informed about—and sympathetic to—twentieth-century art, and avails himself of an impressive range of art-historical literature. Nancy Princenthal, author of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, and Joseph E. LeDoux, Henry And Lucy Moses Professor of Science, New York University
A lively, erudite inquiry into the experience of art. Kirkus Reviews
Eric R. Kandel’s ‘Essays on Art and Science’ is a fascinating, thought-provoking read that beautifully articulates the complex interplay between our brain’s inner workings and our emotional responses to art. It’s a testament to Kandel’s expertise and ability to make science approachable and relevant to our everyday experiences with art. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the profound ways in which art and science intersect to define our perception of the world. Mental Health Affairs
  • Read an excerpt in Book Post
  • Read an excerpt "The Creative Brain" from as published in The Transmitter

About the Author

  • Neuroscience and Biopsychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Fine Arts and Art History


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48 Attempts to Understand the Creative Spirit

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A two-page spread from the book “The Work of Art.” The left page has a photo of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray walking down a street in Tokyo. The right page has text featuring an interview with Coppola and an illustration of her.

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Walker Mimms’s writing on art and culture appears in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian and other places.

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THE WORK OF ART: How Something Comes From Nothing, by Adam Moss

Why anything exists at all is the first question of philosophy, Heidegger once said.

For Adam Moss , the same is true of the page. In THE WORK OF ART: How Something Comes From Nothing (Penguin Press, $45), Moss, the former editor of New York magazine, interviews nearly 50 people who make things — in a very broad sense of that phrase — with a caseworker’s interest in what we feebly call “the creative process.”

Some are his friends, and many are illustrious. Most retrace a single work: George Saunders recounts the decades of doubt and resignation that yielded the strange conventions of “Lincoln in the Bardo” (2017), his magical realist novel.

Excellent layouts by the design firm Pentagram turn dense arrays of project ephemera into legible timelines. Like any good editor, Moss wants a text; reaching back to 1966, Gay Talese unearths his color-coded storyboards to explain the obsessions that consumed him while reporting on the elusive Frank Sinatra for an Esquire profile that became a model for New Journalism.

The subconscious is duly invoked. The late poet Louise Glück and the playwright Tony Kushner are most practiced on that front, and we hear of the dreams that primed their work. Though Moss joins an investigative tradition forged by James Lord’s “A Giacometti Portrait” (1965) and the great artist-critic Dan Hofstadter’s “Temperaments” (1992), he has fresh things to say with his remit. Employing an à la carte Freudianism, he suggests that receptiveness to chance guides art as much as skill. It’s a liberating fact.

And while he’s eager to explore all areas of thought, Moss has no time for “magical talk,” as he puts it in one of many asides. He wants to demystify creation, and often succeeds. Even the improvisations of Amy Sillman, the articulate and funny abstract painter who walks us through 39 iterations of a single canvas, read as responses to observable stimuli.

By giving cookbooks, crossword puzzles and newspaper design equal documentation, Moss seems to level all created commodities. In this vibrant, companionable and punchily precise dossier, that reduction will either madden or empower you.

THE WORK OF ART : How Something Comes From Nothing | By Adam Moss | Penguin Press | 432 pp. | $45

Explore More in Books

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An assault led to Chanel Miller’s best seller, “Know My Name,” but she had wanted to write children’s books since the second grade. She’s done that now  with “Magnolia Wu Unfolds It All.”

When Reese Witherspoon is making selections for her book club , she wants books by women, with women at the center of the action who save themselves.

The Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro, who died on May 14 , specialized in exacting short stories that were novelistic in scope , spanning decades with intimacy and precision.

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    Art begins with the creator. An artist is driven to express his or her unique perspective be it a musical score, a painting, a literary work, or any number of other forms. There is satisfaction in the mere act of creating, but the work is fulfilled when it strikes a chord in the being of another. Art is a means of relating one specific insight ...

  19. Essays About Art: Top 5 Examples And 9 Prompts

    The products from these activities incite powerful feelings as artists convey their ideas, expertise, and experience through art. Examples of art include painting, sculpture, photography, literature, installations, dance, and music. Art is also a significant part of human history. We learn a lot from the arts regarding what living in a period ...

  20. Work Of Art Essay

    Art is a field of creativity and feelings. It can be used to explain something that cannot be explained with words. Art consists of many things; it does not have to be interpreted or translated to be appreciated. Art can be broken down into these different types: representational, abstract and nonrepresentational art.

  21. The 10 Essays That Changed Art Criticism Forever

    The 10 Essays That Changed Art Criticism Forever. By Will Fenstermaker. June 14, 2017. Dr. Cornel West. There has never been a time when art critics held more power than during the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, with the relocation of the world's artistic epicenter from Paris to New York, a different ...

  22. Writing an Essay About a Work of Art: Planning Sheet and Notes

    1 session; 45 minutes per session. Objectives: 1. SWBAT answer questions about a work of art they are looking at. 2. SWBAT write an outline to a five paragraph essay by using a worksheet with guiding questions. 3. SWBAT use art-specific vocabulary accurately to explain what they see in a work of art. 4.

  23. Walter Benjamin Overview and Analysis

    His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) was an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography, while his Arcades Project (1927-40) helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory. Though relatively unknown in his own lifetime, his writing had a profound impact on ...

  24. Essays on Art and Science

    The essays on art and science in this book vary widely in subject matter, including the angst-ridden portraits of Soutine, conflicting views of women's sexuality, Cubism's challenge to our innate visual processes, and why we react differently to abstract versus figurative art. But each essay focuses on the interaction of art and science ...

  25. Book Review: 'The Work of Art: How Something Comes From Nothing,' by

    THE WORK OF ART: How Something Comes From Nothing, by Adam Moss Why anything exists at all is the first question of philosophy, Heidegger once said. For Adam Moss , the same is true of the page.