Learning Objectives of the Major

The discipline of art history gives students theoretical and practical tools for studying the complex and layered worlds of images that surround each of us. In our department, we make it our chief goal for students to learn and employ several analytical practices that will help them examine and interpret these rich visual worlds. Below is a list of several methods frequently used in our art history curriculum. Please be aware that the following is not a comprehensive list of methodological approaches.

These are but a few of the analytic strategies we employ in this department and to which the art history major will be exposed. It should be noted that while these methods are discussed discretely, they can be combined with one another; moreover, some of the methods quickly overlap with one another. It is quite common, for instance, to use both formalist and contextualist approaches in one study. One may also combine object- and viewer-response analyses when analyzing a single object. While this sort of combining and overlapping may occur, it is always important to be as self-aware about one's methodological approach as possible.

Object-Based Analytical Practices

Formal Analysis

Sometimes referred to as "visual analysis," in our department, we favor the term formal analysis as this moniker recalls its origins in formalism, an art historical method established in the late 1800s under art historians such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl. This method was developed to define the basic formal elements of an art object and assists in defining an object's visual vocabulary and style. As this is one of the oldest and most practical analytical tools, all of our 100-level courses require that students write formal analysis papers. We use this method because it meets several pedagogical goals. The first is that students become familiar with historical terminology. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this practice helps develop skills in visual literacy. With this foundational skill well-honed, one can effectively move on to other forms of analysis.

Iconographic Analysis

While the previous method solely addresses form, iconographic analysis requires one to analyze subject matter. As has been translated many times over, the word "iconography" comes from the Greek words "eikon," for image and "graphe," meaning to write. Thus, the study of iconography allows one to engage the meanings and subtexts of the "written image." In the early- to mid-1900s Erwin Panofsky developed and refined a multi-pronged, systematic approach to studying signs and symbols. While Panofsky's iconographic and iconological systems of analysis still loom large within the field of art history, they have been challenged by others. Today art historians often adopt complementary and more contemporary theories into their iconographic analyses.

Stylistic Analysis

At the heart of this method is the issue of style and how one defines it. For the purposes of stylistic analysis assignments, the department understands style as a cohesive system of forms with shared characteristics, elements, and qualities. As Meyer Schapiro, an American art historian of the 20th century explained, "To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life history, and the problems of its formation and change." In so doing, historians of art are able to identify how artists manipulate styles, recall older stylistic expressions, and even combine styles to create new hybrid forms. Such inquiry into style satisfies, at the least, two distinct objectives. When studied rigorously, a style's visual vocabulary, regional spread and temporal parameters can be identified. At another level, the analysis of style leads to greater insights about socio-political currents that inform the formation, duration, and termination of styles.

Contextualist Analyses

While the previous method of analysis introduced socio-political concerns, the contextualist approach is largely dedicated to identifying and analyzing these issues in order to place art within its greater social and political context/s. Through this method of analysis, one examines how issues such as patronage, religion, ritual, political power structures, political unrest, commercial exchange (or the lack of it), and social trends and fads, among other factors, shape the production practices and aesthetic concerns of artists and movements. By looking at the larger picture, so to speak, this approach moves the discipline of art history away from limiting connoisseurial delectation and philosophical debates about aesthetics toward matters concerning actual history, which effectively underscores the history part of the discipline.

There is no single approach that can be considered "contextualist." Rather, there are a number of ways to study art and more broadly, material culture, that relate to the social and economic worlds that inform the production of art objects. For instance, one could look at the economic environment of a specific artist and how financial factors influence his/her subject matter and style. One may study how the ritual functions of a space or an object directly inform the object's form (form and function relationship). Lastly, studies in feminism, gender, and race have contributed perspectives of paramount import to the contextualist approach to art and material culture.

Viewer Response Analyses

Thus far, the methods outlined primarily address the object's form and historical contexts. Below are two methods that transfer the focus of analysis to the person experiencing the art object. This method, however, never loses site of the art object's primacy. We look at viewers' responses in order to gauge better the shifting meanings of a piece of art.

Perceptual Response

This writing exercise allows one to analyze the specific ways in which an art object affects or moves its viewers. Students consider how the artist's choices of palette, texture, scale, and medium, among many other formal elements, inform the way one perceives and experiences the object.

Reception Analysis

By highlighting the ways in which groups of people have "received" or understood an object at one time (synchronically) or over time (diachronically), the art historian is better able to discern the art object's shifting meaning. While reception theory grew out of literary/hermeneutical studies (Hans-Georg Gadamer) and post-structuralist studies (Roland Barthes), art historians began using reception theory by the 1990s, and continue to adapt it in order to contour and define the multifaceted and dynamic relationship between viewer and object.