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How to Understand a Work of Art

Learn to understand any artwork you come across in a fraction of the time it would take to get a degree in Art History.


  • Step 1: Google If you're trying to understand a famous work of art, a quick Google search will yield almost limitless information and countless explanations.
  • Step 2: Read the plaque If you’re stuck on your own, start by reading the title card or plaque. If it has a self-explanatory name like 'I love ham,' your work here is done.
  • Step 3: Question the location Question the work’s location. Is it a part of a larger exhibit? Is it grouped with other works that have a common theme?
  • TIP: Assume that everything in a work of art was created to support an idea. This might not always be the case, but it’ll get you thinking about purpose and relevance.
  • Step 4: Check out historic connections Check out any historic connections a piece may have. For example, if you’re looking at a sculpture made in the late 1940s, there’s a pretty good chance it has something to do with World War II.
  • Step 5: Appraise the values of the public For public art, try to appraise the values of the intended demographic. Minimalist, towering sculptures appear outside minimalist, towering bank buildings for a reason.
  • TIP: Most public art is commercial and designed to satisfy a need. Often that need is simply to add something interesting to an open space without insulting or angering.
  • Step 6: Ask yourself what you like If the work is designed for the home, ask yourself what you like. It’s going to be hanging on your wall, after all.
  • Step 7: Tell a story Imagine telling a story about the work of art, or being the artist and describing it to other people. Sometimes talking it through like this will help you make new observations or connections.
  • FACT: The oldest known sculptures are often called Venus Figurines, and almost all of them resemble pregnant women.

You Will Need

  • A work of art
  • An inquisitive spirit

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