How to Think About Art

Art is an expression of human creativity, and it can have many meanings. It can be used to convey political, religious or philosophical ideas, to explore the nature of perception, or simply for pleasure. It can be as simple as a piece of colorful fabric that brings joy to a viewer, or as complex as the life story of an artist. The emotions and skills poured into each work are what make it valuable. Three people can look at the same work of art and have wildly different reactions to it, each based on their own history and everything that comes together to make them who they are.

The most common definition of art is that it is representation or mimesis, an attempt to replicate something that is real or significant. This concept was first developed by Plato and was the dominant theory of art for centuries. Its weakness is that it places too much emphasis on the idea that art is a copying process and not an expressive communication. Another definition focuses on art as an end in itself. It defines art as a communication of an experience. This concept is more flexible than the previous one, but it also has its weaknesses. It is difficult to prove that a specific artwork has this meaning and not some other purpose, and it can be too subjective.

An alternative to both of these ideas is that art is a particular kind of language. This interpretation draws on the philosophy of Wittgenstein, who argued that the concepts used in most definitions of art are part of general theories of language that include traditional metaphysics and epistemology. These theories are prime instances of language gone on a conceptually confused holiday.

A third way of thinking about art is to treat it as a system of symbols. This approach has its advantages, especially in allowing us to view a work of art through its historical context. The problem is that it can also lead to an overemphasis of the cultural content of a work, which may obscure its artistic significance and value.

One of the best ways to think about art is through the practice of visual analysis. To do this, students examine a work of art, write descriptive observations about it and then compare those observations to what they read in an article on the topic. This exercise can help students develop their written and oral communication, information-gathering and justification skills. It can also help them develop their ability to notice small details in a work of art that might otherwise be overlooked. For example, students can identify the title of a painting and who created it, or they can look at color or shape relationships in a work and find out how they might have been influenced by its time period.