Topic 1: Theoretical Perspectives: Symbols, interpretation and contexts

Theoretical Perspectives: Introducing Symbols, Interpretation and Contexts

(Image Salvador Dali, 1957, from

  • One needs understanding of the culture and context of images in order to work out the intention and meaning.
  • Posits two questions to pose of an art work –
    • What does it look like?
    • What does it mean?
  • (in “How to write about contemporary art” Gilda Williams gives 3 questions to answer when writing about art –
    • What is it? (What does it look like? How is it made? What happened?)
    • What might this mean? (How does the form or event carry meaning?)
    • Why does this matter to the world at large? (What, finally, does this artwork or experience contribute – if anything – to the world? Or, to put it bluntly, so what?) p. 49) Williams, Gilda (2014), How to write about contemporary art (London Thames & Hudson, 2014.).
  • Art of a particular place and time tends to be similar in look and style.
  • Art is produced for a purpose – which may not be the eventual outcome (e.g. religious works, intended as Church icons for prayer and devotion, are now often in art galleries with a secular purpose – being priceless old masters)
  • Art’s meaning is based on the references to external elements within it – e.g. Madonna and child, pop star, elements in a still life (which may show e.g. affluence)
  • Like language, for someone unfamiliar with a culture, meaning of an image may be unclear. (e.g. prehistoric cave paintings – we can only surmise their meaning at the time they were made – but will never know their real significance to the cultures they served)
  • 5 images – Breughal (Procession to Calgary) , Phillipines Religious procession photograph, van Gogh Wheatfield, photograph of a wheatfield at dusk.
  • Quotes Berger that out of context (i.e. looking at historic images today) art’s authority is lost.
  • Berger’s view on art comes from British art historian TJ Clark’ s theory and is labelled “The New Art History”.   It is based on a cultural view of art including politics, psychology/psychoanalysis, linguistics, anthropology and sociology.
  • 2 images – Eolo Bottara The Archibald 2008
  • David Teniers The Cabinet of Archduke Leopold William
  • Both show rooms full of paintings in hung in academic style – floor to ceiling


Activity – find ads that allude to fine art to advertise products – analyse the original image context and the intent of the new one.

  • Images – Botticelli The Birth of Venus – original and an ad for diamonds appropriating the original


  • Also post-moderism in art relies on appropriation – e.g. Barry Kite’s remake of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1981) (Kite, Luncheon of the Trucking Party)
  • Kite collages extras into the image – e.g. background of a truck stop, two truckers in a the foreground, a waitress in Renoir style (also appropriated).
  • g. Yasumasa Morimura (Futago, 1990) – appropriation of Manet’s Olympia (1865). – homosexual male (the artist himself) becomes the subject, and also the black slave.


Looking at all things Visual

Visual images are made for many purposes –

  • Religion and worship
  • Propaganda (political or commercial advertising)
  • Status symbols
  • Documenting events (current and historical) – there is an editorial crossover here into propaganda!
  • Documenting nature and natural events
  • Evoking fantasy (e.g. surrealism, supernatural creatures and places)
  • To give pleasure
  • Recording how people looked and the fact that they exist/ed
  • Elucidate philosophical and other ideas and concepts (e.g. mathematical, graphical diagrams, flow charts)

Man has always used the arts to comment on, demonstrate and explain the world, and his ideas about it.

From the Met Museum: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

C215 Image source

Cloud uses the example of “Justice” an exhibition at Bridewell Police Station in Bristol 2009, as an example of site specific art with a particular social purpose.

The arts are embedded in almost every aspect of our daily lives, and provide connections between us and between different generations and cultural groups.

Thinking about art – art theory, aesthetics

One can make and look at art in a naive, childlike way, viewing the work without reference to outside influences.  This was a popular way of viewing art in the early 20th century.  Grenfell (Cloud), however disputes that one can still make innocent childlike art once one gains the self-consciousness of the child approaching adolescence.

The literate viewer, however, will view art from a variety of perspectives.  Aesthetics is the study of theories of art and art philosophy.  Modern day art discussion includes other disciplines as well – psychoanalysis and psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology.  “The study of the relationship between theory, images and culture is what we refer to as visual culture.” (Cloud)

Broudy’s aesthetic concept model

Harry S.  Broudy postulated that the arts should be embedded in the generalist curriculum and actively taught as another way of seeing the world and understanding the role of culture within it.  As such educators should be literate in the arts and able to elucidate aesthetic theories and practices to their students.   Aesthetics as well as cultural context are vital to a full appreciation and understanding of art.

  • Theory informs practice informs theory cycle.

Broudy recommends a full curriculum in various media of visual art, inter-meshed with a theoretical underpinning and critical evaluation.  There is an integration of all arts into this, and the whole is integrated into the wider curriculum.  i.e. We (and our education) are more than the sum of the parts. 

A philosophy of art: The influence of Marx and Freud

Grenfell states that there is now, in the 21st century, less concern over the disparity between rich and poor than there was in the early 20th century, when Marxist (socialist) theory was espoused by a large number of artists and philosophers.  (I dispute this – today, more than ever, wealth flows upward to the rich – the disparity is becoming wider.)

Preliminary research has led to the prior work of 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant.


According to Karl Marx, art is part of the superstructure and is inescapably determined by the mode of production or the economic system.  Capitalism produces commodities, each one of which is a “fetish,” or an object with abstract value.  Fetishism is the projection of human nature and of human desires projected upon an external object.  If one accepts the proposition that all art is commodified, (and art must be a commodity in a capitalist society), then certain consequences logically follow.  All artists are cultural producers, laboring in a capitalist system for the benefits of the market.  All art made within this system is a commodity to be bought and sold as objects of desire upon which human feelings are projected. The work of art in a capitalist society must be a consumer object and therefore must also be an object of desire, a fetish.

In acting as a critic of his or her own time, the artist becomes a prophet for humanity who must condemn current society and who can foresee a better future.  From a socialist standpoint, the artist is a servant of society who has the moral role to reveal the workings of ideology by pointing to the truth.

Postulated the unconscious mind as being a driver in human action and psyche.  (Led to surrealism in 20th century)

Our actions are dictated by our unconscious needs and then rationalised by us to make them understandable.

People justify negative actions by rationalising some positive reason (e.g. Abbott’s ‘for the greater good’, 18th century slave trade, current treatment of refugees by the Australian government).

Philosophy and art

Two schools of philosophy – Analytical philosophy – taking its base in science, mathematical and statistical verification and experimentation & Continental philosophy – based on literature.  The two approaches became mutually exclusive, and only recently is there recognition that this is not always so.

In the arts, philosophy (aesthetics) – has moved from an analytical philosophic base towards a Continental philosophical base, retaining some elements of both.

In the past there was no distinction between art and functionality – this is a relatively modern construct – the work of art having an aesthetic purpose without any other real purpose (though this is arguable – even if that purpose is to exhibit the work for financial gain, or to produce something to sit on someone’s office foyer wall).

Traditional ways of thinking in art history

Grenfell discusses the ways in which John Berger disputes the traditional view of art history.  Traditional historians tend to cloud meaning, rather than giving concrete ways to make meaning by e.g.

Mystification: Explaining works and their method of production by saying the painter is a ‘genius’ rather that being specific about techniques etc.

Privileged Form over Content: Analysis of aesthetics – colour, composition, line, medium, brush work etc. over the intent of the work – this is a modernist approach against an earlier movement towards understanding of subject.

Berger considers both the aesthetics and the intended meaning need to be analysised for a fuller understanding and greater appreciation of a work.

Right wing agenda: Some aspects of art and its discussion have tended to be right wing – elitist.  The use of the word ‘genius’ was one such – excluding those who did not have this unique attribute from the ‘elite art club’.  (This may have gone over the top – with current contemporary agenda being to negate the skill of the artist entirely in a search for the perfect egalitarianism of collectivism, collaboration ad nauseum and triumph of idea over aesthetics.  Artists continue, however, to show their individuality by using all the new tools available (e.g. installation) to explore their own muse.)

Paradigms and paradigm shifts

Although science is considered to be purely data and experiment-based, like all other spheres of human endeavour, is dependent on the culture in which it is practised.  Major changes and new thought lead to paradigm shifts and the eventual integration of new language and concepts into the older norm, possibly replacing older theories.  (Thomas Khun (b. 1912) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962).  It is the same with art – since 1900 there have been several paradigm shifts.  These include the various movements from e.g. Fauvism and Dadaism, through Cubism, futurism etc. to Surrealism and later Expressionism, abstract expressionism and all the sub-movements they have spawned.  Modernism was the result of this explosion of new thought.  This was to be replaced by the revisionist thinking of post-modernism, where it was acknowledged that everything new was the product of something that had gone before, leading to an explosion of appropriation, collaboration, installation and performance art.

The myth of objectivity

Art history and criticism is always dependent on the times and culture of those writing it.  With art history, the emphasis has been on male-dominated, European academic art pathways, with only a few artists being considered ‘masters’ and only a few names remembered.  Whole chunks are missing from both general history and art history – as these were not considered important enough to document, and the artefacts were not considered worth preserving. (Cloud cites two perspectives on Europeans in Australia – the European ‘discovery’ perspective, and the aboriginal ‘invasion’ perspective.)

Grenfell (Cloud) argues against Berger’s reading of art history on several fronts e.g.

  • Berger – the average person feels overwhelmed in art galleries by the implied wealth and the mystic nature or the incomprehensible art on display
  • Grenfell – people are bored in art galleries and find them irrelevant. (is just as much a personal opinion as that postulated by Berger)

Grenfell’s point is that we need to be skeptical about all art writing – realise that the author has a personal slant, which is the product of their background.

Two ways to comment on art – the aesthetic – description of medium, composition, colour, etc. – the formal elements and the work and  the subject and meaning – what/who the picture depicts, why was it painted, for whom, with what intent by the purchaser.

Artscape:  The A-Z of Contemporary Art – My notes

Episode 1 A-K

Episode 2 L-Z


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