Common Concepts Used when Evaluating Artwork

To enjoy and appreciate art, you do not need any special degrees or higher learning, but if you spend any time reading about or researching artwork, you are likely to come across a number of terms on a regular basis. Understanding what these terms mean will probably not make you appreciate the art anymore, but it will provide a basis for explaining why you like a piece of artwork or understanding others interpretations of a specific piece of artwork.

What are Aesthetics?

Aesthetics is a Greek word that is used in philosophy to describe the study of beauty. The idea is that a work of art can be studied and rated based off of how it pleases and appeals to others. In the past, many philosophers set out to develop a sort of rating system based off of this, but of course since everyone is different, this concept was never truly relevant.

However, aesthetics are still studied today, except that most of the time the researcher is more interested in how a piece of artwork was accepted during a specific time frame in a specific area. So, when most people use the word aesthetics today, they are more focused about answering philosophical questions about beauty and not actually rating a specific piece of artwork.

Understanding Context

Understanding the context, or history and social situations that were present when the artwork was made, is an essential part of understanding a piece of artwork. The context is important, because it helps reveal why the artist made the work of art and understand our own biases. Also, the context of a piece of artwork often directly relates to whether a person likes it.

As an example, consider a mask made in Africa a thousand years ago. To many, the mask may simply look like a goofy face or perhaps a scary face and not much more. However, when it was made, the mask was part of a tradition that directly relates to the culture. It served a purpose and understanding this purpose, helps us understand the artwork.

As an example of how bias affects context, the mask could very likely appear goofy when in context to current civilization, but when you look at in the context it was created, it would probably have a much deeper meaning, such as showing an angry vengeful god.

By understanding why the artwork was made and the intentions of the artist, it is often possible to appreciate a piece of artwork dearly, even though it does not actually please us aesthetically.

Understanding Culture

Understanding culture is often closely intertwined with understanding an objects context. At its most basic, culture refers to the ideas, principals, and practices of a civilization.

Today, many cultures are intertwined, but in the past, groups of people would settle, often completely separated from others. As these people grew, they developed traditions and practices that could vary greatly from the other pockets of civilization.

By understanding what ideas, objects, and ideologies were important to a culture, it is possible to garner a much greater appreciation for their artwork. As in the example above with the African mask, it is possible to understand what the mask meant to the culture and therefore better appreciate its significance.

Other Important Concepts

Often, objects are created not to mirror what is, but instead to show what should be. This is a common concept in art and involves the artists interpretation of what is ideal or should be idealized.

Imagery is also important and refers to what the actual colors, shapes, or style of the artwork is intended to convey. Often, objects will be exaggerated to show their importance or perhaps even leave out a number of things to draw us to what is important.

Of course, as what is hopefully obvious from the above examples, tradition is also an incredibly important concept and should always be considered when looking at a piece or artwork.

Comparing Artwork

When enjoying and evaluating art, or for that matter almost all aspects of life, comparison is often one of the biggest factors. It is in our nature to compare things against that which we know, understand, appreciate, and love, to help define what it is.

In terms of art, this often means comparing one similar picture to another. However, when comparing different pieces of artwork, it is essential to consider the culture and context of the artwork.

For example, take two different pictures of a popular figure. In one, the painting could have been created at a time when the leader was in favor, so it paints him in an excellent light. In this case, the artist might idealize the subject. Another picture of the same figure could be dramatically different perhaps evenugly. This does not mean that the artist is without talent, but it could be that the leader had fallen out of favor at this point.

While comparison can be a powerful tool, it is important to note that personal preference, feelings, and judgments play a role.

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