Art History: A Preliminary Handbook

by Dr. Robert J. Belton

The Elements of Art

As complex as works of art typically are, there are really only three general categories of statements one can make about them. A statement addresses form, content or context (or their various interrelations). However, within each of these categories is a variety of subcategories, giving visual culture its variety and complexity.

a. Form

Form means the constituent elements of a work of art independent of their meaning (e.g., the colour, composition, medium or size of a flag, rather than its emotional or national significance). Formal elements include primary features which are not a matter of semantic significance (i.e., which do not carry meaning the way a word does): these include colour, dimensions, line, mass, medium, scale, shape, space, texture, value, and their corollaries. The secondary features are the relations of the primary features with one another: these include balance, composition, contrast, dominance, harmony, movement, proportion, proximity, rhythm, similarity, unity, and variety. A third or tertiary level concerns the way form interacts with content and/or context (see below).

b. Content

There is less consensus here. Some distinguish “subject matter” from “content” – – i.e., denotations vs. connotations, more or less — while others prefer terms like “meaning” vs. “significance.” Semiotics and post-structuralism go even farther, well beyond what can be introduced here. To simplify matters, content means “message,” however that message may be organized. A traditional way of organizing content was simply to place it in basic categories of iconography (signs, symbols, conventions, etc.) called genres, listed here in what was once considered a descending order of importance:

history: important incidents like famous battles, political triumphs, social movements, etc.

megalography: the portrayal of historically important people or things in an absurdly glorifying manner, as if they weren’t really human or ordinary at all

mythology: stories of gods, goddesses, nymphs and heroes, usually (but not exclusively) Greek or Roman in origin

religion: the portrayal of sacred narratives and legends from the world’s holy texts

portraiture: likenesses of real people, usually (but not exclusively) of at least moderate social standing

landscape: representations of places, urban and rural, whether real or imagined

genre: not to be confused with “genres” (the categories in general), the portrayal of scenes of everyday life, including people but not specifically for the purposes of portraiture

still-life: objects, furniture, settings, utensils, flowers, foods, etc., without obvious stories or important people

rhopography: trash, rubbish, waste

This hierarchy of categories was highly elitist, however, and artists who practiced the so-called lesser genres (like flower-painting) were often given short shrift. Moreover, each of the genres actually uses content in subtle ways which the category alone does not reveal. For example, a history painting might be considerably less symbolic — and therefore less intellectually stimulating – – than a still-life, but history painting was automatically considered more serious and important. With fairly few exceptions, similar prejudices are still common in contemporary culture. Hollywood’s Oscars, for example, tend to go to movies with “big themes” like AIDS or the Holocaust.

A better way to organize the category of content is to divide it, like form, into three theoretically value-free levels of complexity. Although they are arranged numerically here, there is no intrinsic hierarchy:

The primary content is the simplest way of taking inventory of what you see, as in literal images; straightforward subjects and imagery; and describable facts, actions, and/or poses. You might think, “what you see is what you get.” The primary content in a picture of a well-groomed older woman sitting in a chair in an important looking office is just that — a well-groomed older woman sitting in a chair in an important looking office. When you realize that the woman is actually Margaret Thatcher, you have moved from primary to secondary content.

The secondary content includes things which push “what you see” into “what you understand,” so to speak. Anyone can recognize a woman in a chair, but a certain knowledge is required to recognize that the woman is Thatcher. A similar move from primary to secondary is involved when we recognize that a blindfolded woman with a set of scales is Justice, or that an athlete with a club and a lion skin is Hercules.

There is a variety of ways to push what you see into what you understand. One is to explore figurative meanings like those afforded by conventional signs and symbols:

allegories: stories in which people, things, and events represent abstract ideas, values and messages, as when a blindfolded woman chases a thug away from a mugging victim in an allegory of Justice Pursuing Crime

attributes: conventional devices identifying the person holding it, as the bow and arrow of a small child indicate he is Cupid

personifications: individuals representing abstract ideas or values, as in the Statue of Liberty

traditional signs: anything which is understood in a given context to mean something other than what it literally is, as in two upright fingers in a “v” meaning peace, a red octagon meaning stop, or a skull meaning a reminder of death (a memento mori)

These are all conventional, which means that everyone can understand the sign if they have access to the code. Less fixed in meaning are the basic tropes (specific ways of turning away from literal meaning to figurative meaning):

metaphor: a comparison, not using like or as, in which the thing actually described (the vehicle) implies an appropriate or evocative image for another thing (the tenor), as in “My love is a rose” — i.e., sweet and beautiful, but thorny and short-lived

metonymy: signifying a literally absent thing via some attribute or other item typically associated with it, as in the crowns of Europe (meaning the royalty who wear such crowns)

synecdoche: signifying a literally absent whole via one of its parts (and sometimes vice versa), as in “he roamed the range with forty head” (meaning forty animals), or “all hands on deck”

irony: a twist or complete reversal in meaning, as in Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of African-Americans standing in a food line directly below a billboard showing happy whites under the words “America: Highest Standard of Living in the World”

parody: mimicking the appearance and/or manner of something or someone, but with a twist for comic effect or critical comment, as in Saturday Night Live’s political satires

The tropes are less fixed than conventional signs and symbols, but they are more fixed than another aspect of secondary content, paralinguistic and/or performative effects. These are a matter of the way form affects meaning, but the former is more standardized than the latter. A paralinguistic shift involves changing the meaning of a single word by altering the way it is delivered: e.g., the word “fire” looks and sounds different from the word “FIIIRRRRE!!!,” and everyone spontaneously recognizes the difference between them. Performative effects are structurally similar but more evocative: e.g., a hyperrealistic nude is different in appearance and meaning from one painted with bodily distortions and lurid colours.

The tertiary content represents the convergence and mutual modification of form, content, and context (see below). For example, the primary content of a portrait of a king might simply be a richly dressed individual sitting on a throne, wearing a robe, lifting an arm, etc. Part of the secondary content could be the way he is given extra dignity by the stylistic treatment, perhaps by isolating him from any visual indications of the here and now and/or by giving him the attributes of power (sceptres, crowns, cringing minions). If the image were of a particular political figure, like Napoleon, it would be a megalographic portrait. Tertiary content involves combining these observations with context — i.e., information garnered through research. For example, the composition of Ingres’ Napoleon Enthroned (1806) is partly borrowed from a famous colossal statue of Zeus made by the famed Greek sculptor Phidias for an ancient temple at Olympia. The result, then, is Napoleon represented as Emperor-God beyond time and space, an effect which was certainly desirable, given what we can find out about Napoleon’s reign. If we leave our interpretation there, assuming we have said all that needs to be said, we have evoked closure. In post-modernist discourse, the finality suggested by such closure is usually considered socially unhealthy, philosophically unreal, and even politically unwise. It goes without saying that one should always keep an open mind.


Context means the varied circumstances in which a work of art is (or was) produced and/or interpreted. As in the case of content, there are three levels of complexity, arranged numerically here, but without an intrinsic hierarchy.

Conventional wisdom would have it that primary context is that pertaining to the artist, although there are equally good reasons to assert the primacy of historical and material conditions of production, as in Marxism. However, similar conditions are known to produce very different artists (e.g., Raphael and Michelangelo), so we will adopt the convention simply for convenience. Primary context is thus that which pertains to the artist: attitudes, beliefs, interests, and values; education and training; and biography (including psychology). Special mention must be made of the artist’s intentions and purposes, because it is very easy to fall into a trap called the intentional fallacy. This happens when a writer derives an artist’s intention only from the work he or she produced. This is not logically valid: in the absence of documentary evidence, a work which seems to mean “X” can either imply

a) that the artist’s intention was “X” and that he or she was successful, or b) that the work is not successful and that the artist’s intention was actually “Y.”

We have no way of knowing which of these is the correct answer, although the common practice has been to treat artists as if they were inspired beings, with no obligation to carry the burden of proof. If, on the other hand, we have a letter or a diary in which the artist wrote “my intentions are such and such,” the information thus gathered can often be validly employed.

Secondary context is that which addresses the milieu in which the work was produced: the apparent function of the work at hand (see above); religious and philosophical convictions; sociopolitical and economic structures; and even climate and geography, where relevant. The tertiary context is the field of the work’s reception and interpretation: the tradition(s) it is intended to serve; the mind-set it adheres to (ritualistic [conceptual, stylized, hieratic, primitive], perceptual [naturalistic], rational [classical, idealizing, and/or scientific]; and emotive [affective or expressive]); and, perhaps most importantly, the colour of the lenses through which the work is being scrutinised — i.e., the interpretive mode (artistic biography; psychological approaches [including psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypal theory, ethology and Gestalt]; political criticism [including Marxism and general correlational social histories]; feminism; cultural history and Geistesgeschichte; formalism [including connoisseurship and raw scientific studies]; structuralism; semiotics [including iconography, iconology, and typological studies; hermeneutics; post- structuralism and deconstruction]; reception theory [including contemporary judgements, later judgements, and revisionist approaches]; concepts of periodicity [stylistic pendulum swinging]; and other chronological and contextual considerations. It should be clear, then, that context is more than the matter of the artist’s circumstances alone.

More simply put, content is “what” the work is about, form is “how” the work is, and context is “in what circumstances” the work is (and was).

© Copyright 1996 Robert J. Belton