External elements to understand before you can interpret art

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African artAfrican artAfrican artAfrican art

External elements to understand before you can interpret art

When it comes to interpreting a piece of art, there are a variety of elements that need to be considered. It’s not as simple as looking at something and forming an opinion. You may not like what immediate image is being presented through a work of art, but if you understand the context of it, you may change your mind and come to appreciate it more.

There are a variety of external elements to understand first before you can objectively interpret art. And we’re about to go through those elements with you. Next time you find yourself in one of the many beautiful and renowned art galleries in the country, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of the art in front of you.


Understand the artist

The first element you need to understand is the artist themselves. Who are they? Where do they come from? What style of art do they prefer? How long have they been in the industry? What are their most common themes to address through their art?

One cannot underestimate the life of an artist and how that influences his or her work. It’s the same for every individual in everyday life where the things of their past predict their future and have an influence on who they are. An artist’s work is a reflection of some part of themselves. Be it their history, their culture, their political opinions or their interpretations of the society they’re in.

When you have background knowledge of the artist before you enter the exhibition, you already have a better understanding behind their motivation to have created these pieces of art.


Understand the time period circumstances

Another external element that affects an art piece, is the time period in which it was created. This includes the political environment at the time and the societal norms.

  • Political environment: You need to understand that in many countries, for a long period of time, art was used as propaganda to promote the government’s agendas. When the fall of those governments came about, artists continued to produce politically-themed artworks. But they were, for the most part, no longer in favour of the reigning or falling government. Art will always be an outlet for political expression and if you can’t understand that element of an art piece, the message will go straight over your head. Many contemporary artists still focus on political rallies of the past because of how it has affected them, their families or their people. And politics will forever be a relevant and documented topic in our lives with art as a popular medium.
  • Societal norms: almost hand-in-hand with politics, come the societal norms that are byproducts of a political reign. In South Africa, for example, Apartheid may have been overcome, yet there are still aspects of it that influence in the way in which our societies and relationships are run. Understanding in which society the art piece was created or the artist has lived in, will also speak volumes about its message. African art is known for its expressions of gender and racial equality with a message of empowerment behind the artwork. In the current political and societal climate, it is used as a voice for the voiceless and a platform to address the world and encourage change.


Understand the trends

Before you walk into a gallery, you may also want to understand what the current art trends are. This may prepare you for the “art” you might see which, at first glance, doesn’t seem much like art at all. Looking at the art trends of 2017, for example, you’ll find many of the art pieces created in that time were focused around greenery, negative space and minimalism with themes of diving, surrealism and the integration of technology.  

Combining your understanding of current art trends and the artist’s personal and time-period context, will provide you with sufficient knowledge to begin interpreting the message within an artwork.  


Understand the face-value elements

Now we get to the actual art piece itself. Take a moment to understand the face-value elements before re-evaluating and forming an interpretation. Which art style has been used? Is it more traditional, modern, abstract or contemporary? What is the initial interpretation of what you see?

Then you take a look at the materials that have been used to create the artwork. You can make art out of pretty much anything, but the way materials are used to create art is purposeful on the artists part. There’s a reason why it’s there and when you add the rest of your knowledge together, it will lead you to an interpretation.

Some more “instant interpretations” that you can do before contextualising is looking at the colours and images that have been used. For example, when you see bold and bright reds in a painting, your first thought is, generally, along the lines of passion and anger. When there are cool tones and shades of blue, you think the opposite: calm. These symbolic associations are also purposeful actions from the artist to portray tone or emotion through art.

Take a step back. Bring to light all your knowledge and understanding of the external elements of this artwork. Now, what do you see?

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