How I Analyze Art: Context is Everything

I think almost every object we interact with is worthy of deeper consideration. Whether it’s a piece of advertising, a chair in our homes, a film, a game, a book–every object has the potential to reveal something. For me what makes this a worthwhile is not the object in and of itself, but the context we are experiencing it in.

Think about this: when you watch your favorite movie tonight while you’re eating dinner, you are creating a unique experience. Never before has someone viewed this film, in this exact place, seeing exactly what you’ve seen before, and knowing/believing exactly what you know/believe. Even though you’ve watched this film many, many times, watching it tonight is still a new experience. Maybe you’re distracted and playing on your phone. Maybe you repeat all the lines. Your relationship to this object is unique and that’s due partially to the qualities of the object, but also to how it relates to your life.

Every time you interact with a piece of art, there are two sets of contexts that overlap. First, there’s the context that surrounds you as a reader/viewer/player (I’m going to abbreviate this to RVP). This is the accumulation of what you know, what you’ve experienced and learned, your childhood and upbringing, and even your biases and prejudices.

Secondly, there is the context around the text itself. This might include historical context like when it was created, who created it, and what else was being made at the time. And cultural context like where it was made, what the customs/traditions around making art and media are in that location, how does the creator/text relate to the culture, etc. I’m sure you can think of many more.

Not only does all this context have the potential to give you insight into the world around the object, it allows you to have a conversation or a dialogue with the art piece. The experience you have with the art is unique. Although you can be taught to notice certain nuances that are in that piece of art or any piece of art (like color palette and shot styles in film, or motifs and sentence structure in a book) what you actually take away from that book is a product of what you’re looking for, what you already know, and where you are in your life and journey with art. I don’t read books in the same way that I did when I was a teenager, or the same way I did in college. I now have the benefit of all that experience.

Even when I’m not actively doing analysis, context still applies. For example it’s easier than ever for me to tell in a few pages if I’m going to like a book based on whether and how it’s similar to things I’ve read before and liked or if it’s different in interesting ways. It lets me know what kinds of details and structures I’m interested in, so I know what to pay attention to in a film or book. When I watch movies, I’m interested most in mise en scene. I love costuming and set design. I’m obsessed with how movies look. But my husband is totally different, he’s listening to the sound. Is it diegetic (can the characters hear it too?)? Does it seem appropriate or is it overdone? This means that when the movie is over, we have a lot to talk about because we were noticing a lot when the movie was playing.

When you’re asked what a book/film/painting means, in many ways you are describing what it means to you. Analysis is about what you can creatively notice, describe, and support. Taking classes that teach you how to analyze texts help you develop a vocabulary to talk about what you’re interested in, and see patterns in how those interests translate into different art forms.

Even when the creator tells you what they were trying to achieve or get across in the work, you don’t have to take their words at face value. Their part in the work is now only context. Their ideas and opinions influenced what they created, but they don’t sum up your unique experience–they don’t even matter that much because what the art is is not necessarily what the creator wanted it to be. So I try not to worry too much about what the author says their book means because all they can tell me is what the book means to them. I think it’s much more interesting if I can provide evidence for what the book means to me.

What I love about analysis is that it’s a tool that allows us to explore complexity and make our understanding of the world more nuanced and complicated. Analysis of art reminds us there are many ways to be correct and many experiences that are true. And I find that somehow both exciting and comforting.

How do you go about analyzing something? What do you find most interesting in the piece of art you’re looking at? Let me know in the comments!

One thought on “How I Analyze Art: Context is Everything

  1. Irene Nana says:

    I believe I analyze everything I see and do by impressions that the art piece imprints upon me. . Does it make me feel an emotion? Does it stimulate a response? I appreciate your input into analysis. I will dig further as I experience a new moment since I doubt I have ever seen things as you do since we are all unique. This will be fun.


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